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W. B. Yeats

(1865—1939) poet

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Irish poet, critic, and playwright. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1923.

Yeats was born near Dublin into a Protestant family, the son of a painter and brother of the painter Jack Yeats (1871–1957). He was brought up partly in London and partly in his mother's home county of Sligo, where he absorbed the beauty of the countryside and discovered the Irish legends that played a large part in his early writing. In 1881 Yeats was sent to Dublin High School but when his family moved back again to London he moved with them (1887). The reception of his first book of poems, The Wanderings of Oisin (1889), encouraged him to leave art school for literature. His first poetic play, The Countess Cathleen (1892), the stories in The Celtic Twilight (1893), as well as the poetry in Poems (1895; revised edition 1899) and The Wind Among the Reeds (1899) demonstrate both his love for traditional Irish themes and his growing accomplishment as a writer. In this period he also became interested in the Irish republican movement, largely influenced by the Fenian, John O'Leary, and Maud Gonne, who was also the inspiration of his love poetry. His own account of his early years is given in Autobiographies (1926), comprising Reveries over Childhood and Youth (1915) and The Trembling of the Veil (1922).

By 1897 Yeats, encouraged by Lady Gregory, was anxious to establish an Irish national theatre. The performance of The Countess Cathleen in Dublin in 1899 marked the inauguration of this enterprise, which developed into the Abbey Theatre. Yeats's prose play Cathleen ni Houlihan (1902), with Maud Gonne in the title role, was one of the Abbey's earliest successes. Yeats remained a director of the theatre until his death and wrote many plays for it, among them Deirdre (1907), The Green Helmet (1910), The Cat and the Moon (1924), which shows the influence of Japanese Nōh drama, and The Words Upon the Window Pane (1934), about Swift. Besides his plays and poems, he also wrote critical and literary essays collected in, among other volumes, The Cutting of an Agate (1912), Per Amica Silentia Lunae (1918), and Plays and Controversies (1923). A Vision (1925) showed his growing absorption with the occult.

The nostalgia of Yeats's early poetry was replaced by more robust themes as the theatre and his friends involved him in the realities of Irish political life. Responsibilities (1914) and The Wild Swans at Coole (1917) show this change, consolidated in Michael Robartes and the Dancer (1921). From 1922 to 1928 Yeats was a senator in the Irish Free State, but philosophy and mysticism became more important than Irish politics and he devoted his last years to writing. The Tower (1928) and The Winding Stair (1933) contain some of his greatest, as well as his most difficult, verse. In 1933 his Collected Poems were published; his Collected Plays 1892–1934 followed in 1934.

Subjects: Literature

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