William Butler Yeats ; 13 June 1865 – 28 January 1939) was an Irish poet and one of the foremost figures of 20th century literature. A pillar of both the Irish and British literary establishments, in his later years he served as an Irish Senator for two terms. Yeats was a driving force behind theIrish Literary Revival and, along with Lady Gregory, Edward Martyn, and others, founded the Abbey Theatre, where he served as its chief during its early years. In 1923 he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature as the first Irishman so honoured for what the Nobel Committee described as “inspired poetry, which in a highly artistic form gives expression to the spirit of a whole nation.” Yeats is generally considered one of the few writers who completed their greatest works after being awarded the Nobel Prize; such works include The Tower (1928) and The Winding Stair and Other Poems(1929). Yeats was a very good friend of American expatriate poet and Bollingen Prize laureate Ezra Pound. Yeats wrote the introduction forRabindranath Tagore‘s Gitanjali, which was published by the India Society.
He was born in Dublin and educated there and in London; he spent his childhood holidays in County Sligo. He studied poetry in his youth and from an early age was fascinated by both Irish legends and the occult. Those topics feature in the first phase of his work, which lasted roughly until the turn of the 20th century. His earliest volume of verse was published in 1889, and its slow-paced and lyrical poems display Yeats’s debts to Edmund Spenser,Percy Bysshe Shelley, and the poets of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. From 1900, Yeats’s poetry grew more physical and realistic. He largely renounced the transcendental beliefs of his youth, though he remained preoccupied with physical and spiritual masks, as well as with cyclical theories (Wikipedia)
- As a student in school, he did remarkably poorly in mathematics and languages.
- He was a poor speller and received report cards (displayed in the exhibit) that testified to his ’only fair’ scholarly capabilities.
- He spent a lot of his childhood years in Sligo and considered it his spiritual home.
- From an early age he was fascinated by both Irish legends and the occult. These areas had a strong influence on his early poetry.
- As a young poet, Yeats composed his poems by repeatedly reading them out loud rather than editing them on paper
- His brother, Jack B. Yeats, became one of the most important Irish artists of the 20th century.
- Yeats met the Irish nationalist Maud Gonne in 1889, developed an unrequited obsession with her, and proposed two years later.
- He went on to propose to her three more times: in 1899, 1900 and 1901
- Not only did she refuse but she went on to marry fellow Irish nationalist, Major John McBride, who would later be executed for his role as a leader of the 1916 Easter rising.
- Many years later, when he was in his fifties, Yeats proposed to Maud Gonne’s daughter, Iseult, who was only a teenager at the time.
- He was one of the key people in the Irish Literary Revival movement
- In 1923. Yeats became the first Irishman to win the Nobel prize for literature
- He died and was buried in France in 1939 but his body was moved to a plot in Drumcliff, Co. Sligo in 1948.
Some quotes from Yeats himself
v “Think like a wise man but communicate in the language of the people.
v “The world is full of magic things, patiently waiting for our senses to grow sharper.”
v “Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.”
v “What can be explained is not poetry.”
v “Being Irish, he had an abiding sense of tragedy, which sustained him through temporary periods of joy.”
v “Everything exists, everything is true, and the earth is only a little dust under our feet.”
v “All empty souls tend toward extreme opinions.”
v “We can only begin to live when we conceive life as tragedy.”
v “The mystical life is at the centre of all that I do and all that I think and all that I write.”
v “What do we know but that we face one another in this place?”
v “It takes more courage to examine the dark corners of your own soul than it does for a soldier to fight on a battlefield”
v “Happiness Is Neither Virtue Nor Pleasure Nor This Thing Nor That But Simply Growth, We Are Happy When We Are Growing.”
v “Where there is nothing, there is God.”
v “I consider that this honour has come to me less as an individual than as a representative of Irish literature.” (on winning the Nobel prize)
v “Cast a cold eye on life, on death. Horseman pass by” (epitaph on gravestone)
Some views of Yeats and his poetry
“inspired poetry, which in a highly artistic form gives expression to the spirit of a whole nation.” (Nobel committee)
‘Yeats is so assuredly an immortal’ (Ezra pound)
“Mr Yeats devoted to the Irish cause rare qualities of character and intelligence.” (F.R. Leavis)
“a determination to confront, without minimizing, the pain and uncertainty generated by turbulent and traumatic historical events.”
“Some of the most beautiful poetry.” W.H. Auden
The Lake Isle of Innisfree
An Irish Airman Forsees his death
(Shane McGowan version)
The Wild Swans at Coole
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