Dates: b. 1865, d. 1939
Literary Movement: Late Victorian, Early Modernism
Famous Works: The Tower, The Green Helmet, The Winding Stair
Profile: William Butler Yeats was born at Sandymount in County Dublin, Ireland to John Butler Yeats and Susan Mary Pollexfen. Yeats was raised as a member of the Protestant Ascendancy in a time when Ireland was experiencing a nationalist revival; this informed Yeats’ outlook on his heritage for most of his life. Shortly after his birth, the Yeats family moved to England, yet Pollexfen read and told Irish folktales to Yeats and his siblings for the duration of their childhood. In 1877, Yeats enrolled in the Godolphin school but did not distinguish himself academically. He was, apparently, a very poor speller. Yeats later returned to Ireland, enrolling in Dublin’s Erasmus Smith High School. Yeats began writing poetry, and, in 1885, the Dublin University Review published his first poems. William then attended the Metropolitan School of Art.
Yeats’ early work drew heavily on English Romanticism—particularly the work of Percy Bysshe Shelley—and the 16th century poet and writer Edmund Spenser. Yeats then turned to Irish mythology and folklore, then to the bombastic writing of William Blake. This was likely an outgrowth of Yeats’s lifelong interest in mysticism, spiritualism, occultism, and astrology. He was a member of a paranormal research organization and was intensely influenced, like Blake, by the writing of Emanuel Swedenborg.
In 1899, Yeats began the Irish Literary Theatre in order to hold Irish and Celtic plays. This theater became an important establishment in the Irish Literary Revival. The collective survived for several years, but eventually disbanded. Yeats met the American poet Ezra Pound in 1909; Pound had traveled to London to meet who he considered “the only poet worthy of serious study.” Pound acted as Yeats’s secretary.
An Irish Nationalist, Yeats sought a traditional lifestyle until he was appointed Senator for the Irish Free State. In December 1923, Yeats was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature for his poetry. The poet was acutely aware of the symbolic value of his winning the prize as an Irish writer and sought to highlight that fact at every available opportunity. Yeats died more than fifteen years later in 1939.