W.B. Yeats

W.B. Yeats' greatest poetry was influenced by the events of his life, including the Irish Literary Renaissance, politics, love of Maud Gonne and winning the Nobel Prize for Literature.

William Butler Yeats is one of the world's greatest poets, not only of the twentieth century, but of all times.

Like all enduring poets, his writing has that capacity to seek out the truth; he is indeed, "a man speaking to man". He possessed a faculty for deep, yet constructive, self-criticism; an ability to learn from and interpret the events of his life in such a way that his poetry became immediate and compelling to everyman.

Recognition of human complexity underlies all his poetry, from the early years right up until his death in 1939.

His work, however, is best understood in the context of his own life and times. Yeats was deeply influenced by his friends and the political events of the day. He was a passionate doer, as well as a thinker.

Yeats was the eldest son of John Butler Yeats. The family, originally from Yorkshire, moved to Ireland towards the end of the seventeenth century. The young poet was brought up in a devoutly religious environment and it was expected that William would follow in his father and grandfather's footsteps, by entering the Church of Ireland. This, however, was not to be.

During the poet's childhood, the Yeats household moved, several times, between Dublin and London. Money was tight. Young William's education was constantly being disrupted, as the family never settled in one place long enough for him to put down roots.

Yeats, encouraged by his father, began writing poetry in his late teens. His early writing was directed at an Irish audience. Drawing on Irish folk tales and legends, his aim was to recreate a specifically Irish literature. His style echoed that of Shelley and Spenser.

As a student at the School of Art, in Dublin, he met and befriended fellow student, George Russell. This meeting of minds was to have a major impact on the direction of Yeats' future life and poetry. These two students shared a passionate interest in mystic religion and the supernatural.

By 1889, Yeats had clearly become the dedicated Irish poet. "The Wanderings of Oisin" reflects the exuberance of the totally dedicated, totally Irish young poet. The poem is, essentially, a eulogy about the heroic age of Ireland, the era of Finn, the king and his son Oisin. Yeats' poetic career gained momentum in 1891, when he was active in creating the movement known as the Irish Literary Renaissance.

During the 1880s and 1890s, Yeats became increasingly interested in heterodox religious movements. He was searching for a system in which he could believe. His father's rationalism, he later admitted, had precluded him from accepting orthodox Christianity. He turned, instead, to spiritualism and skepticism.

He was also, at the time, becoming actively involved in politics. First influenced by the thinking of John O'Leary, the Fenian leader, who had spent much of his time, exiled in Paris, he later fell under the spell of the revolutionary, Maud Gonne. She was the daughter of an English colonel and a strikingly beautiful woman. Yeats fell deeply in love with her. Realizing that his literary ambitions were not likely to impress young Maud, who preferred violent political action, the poet threw himself into the political movement of the day that intended to unite the different nationalist elements in Ireland. He even had a brief brush with the secret extremist revolutionary Irish Republican Brotherhood, in a vain attempt to impress. The poetry he wrote during these tempestuous years reflects his passion and unrequited love for Maud Gonne. "The White Birds", the first of many remarkable poems, is inspired by his frustrated love and inner turmoil. In the volume entitled "In the Seven Woods" (1903), his love poetry takes on a more personal and realistic tone. However, in this same year, Maud married John MacBride, another revolutionary, leaving Yeats in a state of utter despair. His poetry, of that period, is a reflection upon the love that might have been.

In "The Green Helmet and Other Poems" (1910), Yeats broadens his canvass and introduces more topical affairs, his own views and beliefs as well as reflecting upon the emptiness of his passion for Maud Gonne.

By this stage of his life, Yeats had become disillusioned with Irish politics, largely as a result of his involvement with the 1898 Association and the I.R.B.

He next turned his attention to the theatre. Helped by Lady Gregory, the widow of an Anglo-Irish landowner, he brought a national theatre into being. During these years, he developed a strong belief in the virtues of both peasant and aristocratic life. The play, "The Countess Cathleen", that Yeats had earlier written for Maud Gonne, was performed in 1899 and other plays followed. By 1907, disillusionment had set in. This was largely due to the fact that his work was becoming increasingly unpopular with nationalist opinion.

The tone and style of his next volume of poetry, "Responsibilities", published in 1914, is the antithesis of his earlier work. In this series of poems, he defends great art against the philistines, using savage satire and invective. Yeats began to praise the aristocratic lifestyle and this is reflected in his imagery.

The Easter Rising of 1916 had a major impact on Yeats, the thinker and poet. The revolutionaries that he had come to despise, of late, had suddenly attained heroic stature - "a terrible beauty was born". Maud Gonne's husband (from whom she was separated) was one of the sixteen leaders executed. Soon afterwards, he went to France to propose to Maud and once again, he was rejected. Yeats then asked Maud's permission to propose to her adopted daughter, Iseult, to whom he had dedicated several poems in the previous years. Iseult also refused him.

In October 1917, he married Georgie Hyde-Lees. He had known her for several years and now, at last, it appeared that his life was "serene and full of order". Yeats' poetry gradually took on a sense of balance. In his later poems, he successfully merges his appreciation of beauty with tragedy and gives significance to everyday life that was less apparent in his earlier writings.

In his later years, the once revolutionary turned cynic, became a Senator of the Irish Free State. He was also awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, in 1923. For Yeats, this was a period of poetic consolidation. He was able to reflect, with equanimity, upon the paradoxes of life. The poem, "A Dialogue of Self and Soul" is a triumphant pagan affirmation of a belief in human life.

However, during the winter of 1927-1928, Yeats suffered severe illness and his poem, "At Algeciras - a Meditation upon Death" is a graphic reflection of his experience. By the spring of 1929, the poet had rallied again and went on to write several of the "Crazy Jane" poems.

"Last Poems" (1936 - 1939) sees Yates returning to the subject so dear to his heart - friendship. He praises his friends generously and considers their overwhelming influence upon his poetry and the course of his life.

Yeats died in Roquebrune in January 1939. In September 1948, his body was brought back to Ireland and interred at Drumcliff.

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