William Butler Yeats How did his past affect his future in order, writing poetry and his pride for Ireland?

Posted: October 17th, 2013

William Butler Yeats






William Butler Yeats

            William Butler Yeats has written many poems that have inspired and made a difference in many people’s lives. Yeats was born in Ireland in 1865. He read poems from different authors from an early age. He loved his country, and he often spoke against the harsh policies used by the government for the people. Yeats was introduced to books and art by his parents. His mother often read to him Irish tales and fables, and his father introduced him to art. His family moved to London where he attended an art school. He was surrounded with talks of politics, religion, art and literature. Yeats went back to Dublin where he continued his education. He had started studying art while he painted, but did not do this for long as he realized that his passion was in poetry. Yeats wrote many poems and plays, and he is considered one of the greatest poets of the twentieth century. His work was appreciated and recognized in different parts of the world, and he received the Nobel Peace Prize for his outstanding work in 1923. His works are a reflection of his life, as they tell of the inspiring stories he read as a child, and the love and patriotism he felt for Ireland.

Yeats loved Ireland, and he was compelled to know more about it. Although his family had moved to London when he was young, he often spent the holidays in Ireland with his grandparents. It was during these visits that he learnt about Ireland’s history, culture, traditions and beliefs. He learnt about the Irish heroes through folktales. This influenced his first collection of poems, and fairy tales. In his first collections, Yeats portrayed his interest of Irish mythology by writing of heroes such as Oisin and St. Patrick. Perhaps these beliefs led him to believe in the idea of the existence of supernatural beings. Yeats was not strict concerning religion. Ireland was a predominantly a religious nation, with the majority of the people professing the Catholic faith. Yeats was a protestant, but he was not a strong Christian. He instead chose to lean more towards a secular side, one that did not emphasize a stronghold in any religion. His parents had a protestant background, but they did not pass this to their children. This did not stop Yeats from believing in the idea of supernatural. When he was older, he would sometimes consult astrologers to know the direction of his life (Foster, 1998).

He founded the National Literary Society, which he used as a channel to highlight the culture and history of Ireland, by publicizing different works of literature and folklore. The time he spent on the countryside in Ireland, influenced his work in different ways. His family moved back to Dublin in 1880 where Yeats continued his education. They then moved back to London, and it was while they were there that Yeats profession as a writer began to blossom. While in London, Yeats was introduced to mysticism. He embraced it, and took it as a form of writing in his poetry. This enabled him to use his imagination boldly, since he did not have to write of real situations. It also gave him an avenue for writing all the fairytales and folk tales he had heard as a child. He was able to write of heroes and fairies, and he helped to preserve part of Ireland’s culture in this way. This was seen more clearly in his first collection of poetry, “The Wanderings of Oisin and Other Poems.” His work, “The Countess Cathleen” is another illustration of his supernatural and mystical beliefs.

Yeats showed how his soul was tormented in this work. He showed his belief that both Satan and God had powers. He was however not convinced in the infinity power of God, as the story shows that the saint who was sent to rescue and protect the people ended up giving her own life as a sacrifice for the salvation of the people. This work illustrated how some people readily combined their Christian beliefs with mythologies and pagan ideas. Yeats did not practice Christianity as a religion. This did not however stop him from being caught in the conflict that existed in Ireland between the Catholics and Protestants. He expressed his displeasure, when Gonne got married to a catholic. Gonne had previously rejected his marriage proposal. Yeats wrote to Gonne telling her that Catholicism was unworthy, since the priests encouraged the people not to shed blood in times of war (Foster, 1998). According to Yeats, the Catholic Church has acted cowardly, and it had betrayed the people. Yeats wrote poems such as the collection, “The Wind among the Reeds,” where he spoke of his love for Gonne (Brown, 2001). In some cases, she was seen as the sun or the moon. She reflected the feminine beauty, yet she was often the destroyer of men.

Yeats love for his country was evident, as he frequently wrote about it when he was away. When he was in London, Yeats wrote about his longing to go back to Dublin. In his poems, he often recounted of the adventures he had as a young boy living in Dublin. In Dublin, his home was near a port, and he often saw ships when he went to the sea. He wrote of some of the experiences he had in his poem. He became interested in the political affairs of his country. Yeats had grown up hearing about politics, especially from his father who was a lawyer. He experienced many political events in his life, as most of them happened when he was growing up. He was exposed to politics at an early age, his father being the greatest influence in his life. He was involved in organizing different political campaigns and other political events. He used the literary society to make people aware of their national identity. He founded the Abbey Theatre, and he used to write the plays for the theatre and ensured that he advanced the Irish culture. He knew that he would not get many Irish writers, and he therefore wrote many of the plays that were acted in the theatre (Yeats et al., 2004)

He became a senator in the Irish parliament, where he served from 1923-1928. Yeats used theatre to show his Irish pride with plays such as Maeve and The Bending of the Bough (Foster, 1998). His patriotic nature and his love for literature and poetry were sometimes beneficial. In 1889, Yeats met, and fell in love with Maud Gonne. Like Yeats, Gonne was a patriot, and she loved theatre. She had a strong opinion concerning national issues, and she used her voice in the theatre to push the people towards awareness and reform. Although the feelings were not mutual, the two of them remained friends for a long time. They both used theatre for their acting and political passions. During the war, Gonne wrote to Yeats describing the horrors of the war. She quoted from one of the plays they had written and acted in, stating that the deaths of the leaders were full of beauty and romance (Brown, 2001). This shows that the theater was more than an acting place for Yeats and Gonne, and perhaps others who had visited it. It represented their social and political lives. Yeats wrote and directed plays that were relevant to the society, and he was not merely interested in entertaining the people.

Yeats had many role models and people who inspired him in life. His poetry often depicted the person who was close to him at the time. When he was with Gonne, she often inspired him towards writing plays that depicted his patriotism. She was passionate about Ireland, and she passed this passion to Yeats. Yeats met Augusta Gregory who used to collect folklores of Ireland. She influenced him, and he continued writing Irish folklores and legends. One of the people who inspired him was Ezra Pound. Pound introduced him to a form of Japanese form of writing, which used masks, dance and song. Yeats liked this concept, and he used it in writing some of his works. Pound encouraged him to be more real when writing, instead of using legends and mythologies. Yeats used this format when he was writing the poem, “The Tower.” The poem shows the growth of the speaker from a child to a man. He was also influenced by other poets such as Lionel Johnson, who introduced him to “marmorean”, and Arthur Symons.

Yeats keenly observed the events that were happening in his country, and some of the poems he wrote during this time were “The Winding Stair” and “The Irish civil war.” Yeats need for role models was probably because of his father’s failure. His father was once a lawyer and he had encouraged Yeats to read various books, and take an interest in different forms of art. However, as Yeats grew up, he became distant from his father. He did not get along well with his father, and so he moved away from him. He was therefore attracted to older male figures, who he saw as role models. He was influenced by people such as O’Leary and Morris who he saw as father figures and role models (Brown, 2001). Although Yeats was recognized as a great poet and playwright, his work was sometimes rejected. This happened during one of the tours in America, where he, together with his theatre group, presented the play, “The Playboy of the Western World.” Some of the theatre members were even arrested for acting an obscene and sacrilegious play. Some of the actors refused to play some roles in the play because they reflected a negative image of Ireland. Yeats fought many battles to ensure that his work was received by the public. He used public speeches, and he wrote letters and articles in the newspapers. Some of the people, who wanted to see the expansion of the Irish culture, supported him. In some cases, the public rioted and caused public disturbance. Despite all the negative response from different sectors, Yeats did not give up on his quest. He held his ground, and did not change the play (Ross, 2009).

Yeats did not particularly enjoy his life in London. This was worsened by the fact that he did not get along well with his father. He confessed that he did not like his father’s paintings because he thought that only beautiful things should be painted. His father, on the other hand, was a Victorian positivist. Like many Victorian artists, he drew portraits of different people, most of whom were leaders. Yeats did not like the idea of Victorian science, and this perception did not change even when he became older. He started looking for ideas and beliefs that were not common and largely embraced in his time. He became interested in Buddhism and theosophical societies. Yeats developed this idea of not believing in something, just because many people practiced it. He was willing to expand his thoughts and ideas in exploring different religious ideas, beliefs and practices. This explains why he did not have a hard time when writing about legends and myths. He developed these ideas in his adult life, and he used them throughout his professional life. He was not overly concerned with what other people thought about him. In one instance, someone confronted him about not having many friends and fans. To this, he replied that he desired the love of very few people who included his superiors and equals. He saw other people’s friendship as an intrusion and bondage in his life (Ross, 2009).

William Butler Yeats was a man who was passionate about his poetry and his country. He led his people to believe that their culture was just as important as that of English in Britain. He did this by opening a theatre where he wrote and directed plays that were filled with the Irish mythologies and legends. He wrote poems of the legendary Irish heroes, which were passed on to him through fairy tales and folklore. His Irish pride was indeed evident, as he was actively engaged in politics. He served his country in parliament for sis years. Yeats was able to combine his love for the arts with politics, and it was a perfect blend for him. His works were a reflection of the society. They represented the situation in Ireland at a particular time. He spoke of the beautiful countryside, the sea and the ships, the devastating effects of the war, and the heroes who had died in the war. He also wrote concerning his love life. Throughout his life, he was not able to separate Christianity with pagan ideas and mythologies. He was however not ignorant of the conflict and tension that existed between the Catholics and the protestants, and he sometimes used this in his writings. Yeats life and experiences as a child developed him, and determined the way he led his life as an adult.



Brown, T. (2001). The life of W.B. Yeats: A critical biography. Oxford, United Kingdom: Wiley-Blackwell

Foster, F. R. (1998). W. B. Yeats: A life. The apprentice mage, 1865-1914. Oxford University Press

Jeffares, N. A. (2001). W.B. Yeats: A new biography. New York, NY: Continuum International Publishing Group

Ross, A. D. (2009). Critical companion to William Butler Yeats: A literary reference to his life and work. New York, NY: Infobase Publishing

Yeats, B. W., Frayne, P. J., & Marchaterre, M. (2004). Early articles and reviews: Uncollected articles and reviews written between 1886 and 1900. New York, NY: Simon and Schuster

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