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W.B. Yeats | Biography

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Early Life

Born in Dublin on June 13, 1835, William Butler Yeats was the eldest of four children born to Susan Mary Pollexfen and John Butler Yeats, who was training as a lawyer when William was born. Soon after, John Yeats left his studies to become a portrait artist, teaching his children, including young William, to love the fine arts. After finishing high school, William Yeats enrolled at the Metropolitan School of Art in Dublin with the hopes of becoming a painter. To support himself at school, Yeats became a journalism correspondent. When his first poems were published in The Dublin University Review in 1885, Yeats left his studies altogether.

Early Career and Romance

After leaving school in the late 1880s Yeats moved to London where he began spending more time with his father's friends, English novelist William Morris, Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw, and Irish writer Oscar Wilde. Yeats also co-founded a dining and poetry club, the Rhymers' Club, in London with Welsh–English writer Ernest Rhys. Through Yeats's literary circle, he met and fell in love with Maud Gonne, an actress and ardent Irish nationalist. Yeats pursued Gonne relentlessly, proposing marriage many times, which she always refused. Instead, Gonne married a fellow revolutionary, Major John MacBride. Yeats continued to write plays in which Gonne would star, and even dedicated his 1892 play The Countess Kathleen to her. Gonne's marriage was stormy and violent, which broke Yeats's heart. He immortalizes Major MacBride as a "drunken, vainglorious lout" who has "done most bitter wrong / To some who are near my heart" in his poem "Easter, 1916."

Inspiration

Many sources inspired Yeats's writings, most notably the supernatural, mythology, and Irish history. Yeats became a member of the Order of the Golden Dawn in 1890, an organization focused on the study and practice of mysticism and the occult. In 1917, when Yeats married Georgie Hyde-Lees, who was also a member of the Golden Dawn, they practiced "automatic writing" together, in which Hyde-Lees wrote down words and messages "received" from spirits from a supernatural realm. Yeats later gathered these automatic writings in his book A Vision (1925). The ideas and symbols generated by these episodes of automatic writing had a profound effect on Yeats's work after 1917, in particular on the poet's sense of history as a recurring cycle of events, especially in poems such as "Sailing to Byzantium" and "The Second Coming."

Yeats was deeply enmeshed in the Irish nationalist movement, partly as a consequence of his complex relationship with Maud Gonne. He was a primary founder of the Irish National Theatre Society, which soon opened the Abbey Theatre in Dublin, to promote native Irish drama. Yeats quickly became closely identified with Ireland, as the majority of his works featured Irish characters and landscapes, or were based on traditional Irish songs or tales. He wrote many nationalistic plays during his tenure at the Irish National Theatre Society, including Cathleen ni Houlihan (1902), which featured Gonne as a human personification of Ireland itself. Despite his nationalism, he was not overtly political, though this changed after the Easter Uprising of 1916. When "Easter, 1916" was published, the public, as well as most critics, saw it as nothing short of a glowing tribute to the executed rebels. Maud Gonne, however, recognized Yeats's ambiguity about the necessity of the uprising, chastising the poem in a letter to Yeats: "No I don't like your poem," she wrote. "It isn't worthy of you and above all it isn't worthy of the subject."

Death and Legacy

After Ireland gained independence from England, Yeats was appointed senator of the Irish Free State in 1922, which further cemented his position as a cultural leader. He won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1923, which Yeats characterized as a recognition of Irish culture. Yeats continued to write politically influenced poetry until his death on January 28, 1939, at age 73. He was heralded as the national poet of Ireland and has also been called one of the greatest, if not the greatest, English-speaking poet of the 20th century. Citing Yeats for inventing the modern lyric poem, which incorporates robust rhythms with rich historical and mythological symbols, critic James Longenbach told the BBC, "Yeats matters today in the way that [English playwright William] Shakespeare or [English playwright Ben] Jonson or [American poet Emily] Dickinson matter."
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