William Butler Yeats

Yeats, William Butler (1865-1939), Irish poet and dramatist, and Nobel laureate, who was a leader of the Irish Renaissance and one of the foremost writers of the 20th century.

Yeats was born in Dublin on June 13, 1865, the son of the noted Irish painter John Butler Yeats. He was schooled in London and in Dublin, where he studied painting, and vacationed in county Sligo, which inspired his enthusiasm for Irish tradition. In 1887 he moved with the family to London and became interested in Hinduism, theosophy, and occultism. He wrote lyrical, symbolic poems on a pagan Irish themes, such as The Wanderings of Oisin (1897) and The Lake Isle of Innisfree (1893), in the romantic melancholy tone he believed characteristic of the ancient Celts. He also wrote The Celtic Twilight (1893) and The Secret Rose (1897), which deal with Irish legends. On a visit to Ireland he met the beautiful Irish patriot  Maud Gonne, whom he loved unrequitedly the rest of his life. She inspired much of his early work and drew him into the Irish nationalist movement for independence. 

Yeats returned to Ireland in 1896. He became a close friend of the nationalist playwright Lady Gregory, whom he visited often at her estate at Coole Parke and with whom he traveled in Italy. With Lady Isabella Augusta Gregory he helped found what became in 1904 the famous Abbey Theatre. As its director and dramatist, he helped develop the theater into one of the leading theatrical companies of the world, and a center of the Irish literary revival called the Irish Renaissance. Among the plays he created for it were Cathleen ni Houlihan (1902), a nationalist prose drama with Maud Gonne as the lead, and Deirdre (1907), a tragedy in verse. 

In his poetry of this period, such as The Wing Among the Reeds (1899), The Shadowy Waters (1900), and The Green Helmet (1910), Yeats strove to abandon his earlier self-conscious softness and facility. His work, now less mystical and symbolic, became clear and leaner. 

Later Years:
As Yeats grew older, he turned to practical politics, serving in the Senate of the new Irish Free State from 1922 to 1928. He also accomplish the feat, rare among poets, of deepening and perfecting his complex styles as the years advanced. His later writings are generally acknowledged to be his best. They were influenced by George Hyde-Lees, his wife since 1917, who had a medium's gift for automated writing. A Vision (1925) in an elaborate attempt in prose to explain the mythology, symbolism, and philosophy that Yeats used in much of his work. It discusses the eternal opposites of objectivity and subjectivity, art and life, soul and body that are the basis of his philosophy. Other poetic works in this vein are The Wild Swans at Coole (1917), The Tower (1928), and The Winding Stair (1933). 

Yeats also wrote short plays on the Celtic legendary hero Cuchulain, combined as Four Plays for Dancers (1921). They were strongly influenced by the no drama of the Japanese court, which was being translated in 1913 by the American poet Ezra Pound. Yeats's plays were designed more for small, appreciative audiences in aristocratic drawing rooms than for the middle-class public in commercial Dublin theaters. He derived much of his innovative technique, such as the use of ritual, masks, chorus, and dance, from which it had long been absent, and fused strict realism with mythic vision to create poetic dramas as spare and pregnant with mysterious meaning as the images of a dream.

Continually revising his work, Yeats recounted episodes from his life Autobiographies (1927) and Dramatis Personae (1936). Two later collections are A Full Moon in March (1935) and Last Poems and Two Plays (1939). He received the Nobel Prize in 1923. Yeats died in Roquebrune, France, on January 18, 1939, and was buried in Sligo, Ireland.