Biographical Notes: In his youth W. B. Yeats lived in Dublin, London, and rural County Sligo, Ireland. With father, John, and brother, Jack, both painters, William Butler Yeats decided in his teens that he too wanted to be an artist. After three years at the School of Art in Dublin, though, Yeats decided to become a full-time poet. He published a few minor volumes of poetry in his twenties and edited two important editions of William Blake's poems. An ardent Irish nationalist, Yeats helped found Irish Literary Societies in Dublin and London in the 1890s, he was instrumental in founding the Irish National Theater (for which he wrote more than thirty plays), and he was an eminent champion of the Irish Literary Renaissance, or Gaelic Revival, which aimed at restoring and renewing uniquely Irish culture. Yeats's poetic output was prolific, and over its span of half a century, his work ranged far and wide in subject, style, and theme: from lavish romanticism and the attempted creation of an elaborate Irish mythology, through the pointedly topical and political and a stark and powerful colloquial lyricism, to a complex system of prophetic and mystical symbolism and personal mythology. Yeats was in his own time recognized as a genius in poetry, and he received the Nobel Prize for literature in 1923. He also served from 1922-1928 as a senator of the Irish Free State. By many--and I mean many--Yeats is considered a poetic giant--the "greatest and most important poet in the English language of the twentieth century."
Three Key Women
Three women had significant upon Yeats's life and his poetry:
Maud Gonne: a strikingly beautiful woman Yeats loved obsessively and "unrequitedly" for decades. Gonne was an ardent Irish revolutionary. Much of Yeats's early poetry (and some of the later) deals explicitly with her.
Lady (Isabella Augusta) Gregory: successful and popular Irish writer who was Yeats's friend, patron, and partner in establishing and developing the Irish National Theater.
Georgie Hyde-Lees: Yeats's wife from 1917 forward. She was a gifted "medium," as in "mediator between this world and the world of spirits." Through "automatic writing," she helped Yeats interact with the same world of supernatural mysticism which Yeats had found so attractive in his study of William Blake. Her "communicators" ultimately provided him with a system of mythology/symbolism (very complex, difficult, obscure and personal).
Two Key Controversies:
Charles Stewart Parnell: greatest living Irish nationalist hero, seemed to offer the greatest promise for an independent Ireland until the scandal of his affair with a married woman, Kitty O'Shea, caused him to be drummed off the political stage in disgrace. Yeats was outraged that middle-class Victorian morality made the Irish blind to his importance as a true Irish patriot and hero.
Hugh Lane painting bequest: when the Irish balked at funding museum to house the art collection that Hugh Lane bequeathed to the city of Dublin, Yeats was profoundly disappointed, because he thought it was important to raise the level of "culture" of the Irish public by all means possible--i.e. culture and art not specifically tied to Ireland.
Yeats believed that history progresses through two-thousand-year cycles call "gyres": the irony of the passing of one order at the birth of a new order every new cycle forms the subject of much of his poetry: birth only comes about through death. (Cf. Eliot's "Magi")
Poet X.J. Kennedy on Yeats's "Second Coming":
"What kind of Second Coming does Yeats expect? Evidently it is not to be a Christian one. Yeats saw human history as governed by the turning of a Great Wheel, whose phases influence events and determine human personalitiesrather like the signs of the Zodiac in astrology. Every two thousand years comes a horrendous moment: the Wheel completes a turn; one civilization ends and another begins. Strangely, a new age is always announced by birds and by acts of violence. Thus the Greek-Roman world arrives with the descent of Zeus in swan's form and the burning of Troy, the Christian era with the descent of the Holy spirittraditionally depicted as a doveand the Crucifixion. In 1919, when Yeats wrote "The Second Coming," his Ireland was in the midst of turmoil and bloodshed; the Western Hemisphere had been severely shaken by World War I (and the Russian Revolution). A new millennium seemed imminent. What sphinxlike, savage deity would next appear on earth, with birds proclaiming it angrily?"
W. B. Yeats says, from a 1931 radio reading of "Sailing
"Now I am trying to write about the state of my soul, for it is right for an old man to make his soul, and some of my thoughts upon that subject I have put into a poem called 'Sailing to Byzantium.' When Irishmen were illuminating the Book of Kells [in the eighth century] and making the jewelled croziers in the National Museum, Byzantium was the centre of European civilization and the source of its spiritual philosophy, so I symbolise the search for the spiritual life by a journey to that city" (qtd. in Jeffares 253-54].