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W. B. Yeats

1865–1939

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Born in Dublin, Ireland, on June 13, 1865, William Butler Yeats was the son of a well-known Irish painter, John Butler Yeats. He spent his childhood in County Sligo, where his parents were raised, and in London. He returned to Dublin at the age of fifteen to continue his education and study painting, but quickly discovered he preferred poetry. Born into the Anglo-Irish landowning class, Yeats became involved with the Celtic Revival, a movement against the cultural influences of English rule in Ireland during the Victorian period, which sought to promote the spirit of Ireland's native heritage. Though Yeats never learned Gaelic himself, his writing at the turn of the century drew extensively from sources in Irish mythology and folklore. Also a potent influence on his poetry was the Irish revolutionary Maud Gonne, whom he met in 1889, a woman equally famous for her passionate nationalist politics and her beauty. Though she married another man in 1903 and grew apart from Yeats (and Yeats himself was eventually married to another woman, Georgie Hyde Lees), she remained a powerful figure in his poetry.

Yeats was deeply involved in politics in Ireland, and in the twenties, despite Irish independence from England, his verse reflected a pessimism about the political situation in his country and the rest of Europe, paralleling the increasing conservativism of his American counterparts in London, T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound. His work after 1910 was strongly influenced by Pound, becoming more modern in its concision and imagery, but Yeats never abandoned his strict adherence to traditional verse forms. He had a life-long interest in mysticism and the occult, which was off-putting to some readers, but he remained uninhibited in advancing his idiosyncratic philosophy, and his poetry continued to grow stronger as he grew older. Appointed a senator of the Irish Free State in 1922, he is remembered as an important cultural leader, as a major playwright (he was one of the founders of the famous Abbey Theatre in Dublin), and as one of the very greatest poets—in any language—of the century. W. B. Yeats was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1923 and died in 1939 at the age of seventy-three.


Selected Bibliography

The Collected Poems of W. B. Yeats (Macmillan, 1933)
The Poetical Works of William B. Yeats (Macmillan, 1906)

 
W. B. Yeats

By This Poet

34

The Young Man's Song

I whispered, "I am too young,"  
And then, "I am old enough";   
Wherefore I threw a penny   
To find out if I might love.   
"Go and love, go and love, young man,
If the lady be young and fair,"   
Ah, penny, brown penny, brown penny,   
I am looped in the loops of her hair.   
   
Oh, love is the crooked thing,   
There is nobody wise enough
To find out all that is in it,   
For he would be thinking of love   
Till the stars had run away,   
And the shadows eaten the moon.   
Ah, penny, brown penny, brown penny,
One cannot begin it too soon. 

The Sorrow of Love

The quarrel of the sparrows in the eaves, 
The full round moon and the star-laden sky, 
And the loud song of the ever-singing leaves, 
Had hid away earth's old and weary cry. 
  
And then you came with those red mournful lips, 
And with you came the whole of the world's tears, 
And all the sorrows of her labouring ships, 
And all the burden of her myriad years. 
  
And now the sparrows warring in the eaves, 
The curd-pale moon, the white stars in the sky, 
And the loud chaunting of the unquiet leaves 
Are shaken with earth's old and weary cry. 

The Player Queen

(Song from an Unfinished Play)


My mother dandled me and sang,   
'How young it is, how young!'   
And made a golden cradle   
That on a willow swung.   
   
'He went away,' my mother sang,
'When I was brought to bed,'   
And all the while her needle pulled   
The gold and silver thread.   
   
She pulled the thread and bit the thread   
And made a golden gown,
And wept because she had dreamt that I   
Was born to wear a crown.   
   
'When she was got,' my mother sang,   
'I heard a sea-mew cry,   
And saw a flake of the yellow foam 
That dropped upon my thigh.'   
   
How therefore could she help but braid   
The gold into my hair,   
And dream that I should carry   
The golden top of care?

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