An overview of William Butler Yeats’ poetry (1865-1939)

Research Paper (undergraduate), 2013

30 Pages, Grade: 10


Table of contents

1.1 W.B. Yeats’ biography
1.2 Summary of works

2.1 “He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven”
2.2 “An Irish Airman Foresees his Death”




Yeats, as sentimental as persistent in his aims, a dreamer and realistic in equal proportion, inspired by the progression of his own life, fallen in love with his land and its offspring, somehow surrounded with magic, is often considered the greatest author of his century and one of the best in the whole history of literature, corroborated by the Nobel Prize he won.

Rightly, this paper is going to be entirely devoted to study both his life and literary production, especially concerning poetry. This way, two of his poems are going to be analyzed concerning form and, above all, meaning, including conclusions about what could have motivated him to write that particular poem, possible interesting contextual data and extrapolations to which the poem might lead, etc. Without further delay, let us get to know W. B. Yeats’ life.

1.1 W.B. Yeats’ biography

W. B. Yeats was born on 13th June 1865 in Georgeville, near Sandymount Castle, in Dublin (Ireland). He had to move to London when he was only two years old, because his father, a lawyer, decided to dedicate his life to painting. Nonetheless, he was often sent back to his natal country with his grandparents, in Sligo (a very important place in his poetry, as we will see), where he acquired the popular culture of Ireland thanks to the simple inhabitants of the country: gnomes, fairy tales and so on, reflected in his poetry. Besides, this mixture provided him, over time, a strange mysticism that made him able to reject both traditional religion (he was a Protestant) and sterile science.

Especially curious is what Michael Frank[1] points out about Yeats’ family, both a blessing and a curse for the poet:

He was blessed because his family was artistic and accepting and encouraging of the pursuit of art and literature: his father, John Butler Yeats, was an intellectual and a painter, as was his brother, Jack; his sisters, Lily and Lolly, became printers who elegantly published many of Yeats's books at their Cuala Press. […] Yeats was cursed, though, because his father was dominating, opinionated and often devouring of his gifted son.

In any case, after many years in London, where he studied in the Erasmus Smith High School in an unfocused way (as the only thing that seemed to interest him was poetry), Yeats entered the Metropolitan School of Art in Dublin to study painting, though he was not very satisfied with it. There, he knew George Russell (AE), who introduced him to the world of the supernatural and the esoteric (in fact, they formed a lodge of the Hermetic Society in 1886, showing interest for topics such as Buddhism, occultism, astrology or spiritualism); and the nationalist leader J. O’ Leary, who had a strong influence in him with regard to Celtic myths.

It was precisely O’ Leary the one who introduced Yeats to a svelte nationalist woman: Maud Gonne. He fell in love with her from the very beginning and they would be together for some years in the nationalist group Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB). ''I had never thought to see in a living woman so great a beauty”, Yeats wrote of the first time he met her. In spite of proposing to her many times, she rejected Yeats continuously and even married John MacBride, another Irish nationalist.

Gonne represented a huge inspiration for the poet, both in the first stage of the falling in love and in the second bitterer one, when Yeats wrote his famous poem “No Second Troy” (1908), comparing his beloved with Helen of Troy in a colder more realistic way. “The reader can learn which phrases in which poems deal with Yeats's obsession with Maud Gonne”, explains the American literary critic Michiko Kakutani[2] referring to the quoted poem.

Anyway, we will comment more about this later on, when dealing with Yeats’ work in the section “Summary of works”.

Coming back to his stage in London, where his family moved again in 1888, it is also relevant his participation in The Rhymers’ Club, formed by a group of poets who met to talk about poetry. There, the poet also met A. Symons, to whom he introduced James Joyce and that permitted Yeats to learn French symbolism; and Lady Gregory, another important woman in his life that helped him economically and in whose house (in Galway) Yeats spent some summers with Irish poets such as G. Moore, J. M. Synge or G. Bernard Shaw.

Especially remarkable is the figure of Charles Stewart Parnell, not because Yeats had a direct relation with him, but because he was the one who smoothed the independence of Ireland, one of the facts that marked Yeats’ life and for what he fought intensely by means of literature, his best weapon (we will see it in one of his poems). As a matter of fact, Parnell is known as “the uncrowned king of Ireland”, since he died in 1891 and the independence of the Irish country was not achieved until 1920.

Furthermore, Yeats also had an important contribution as a playwright: he is well known for having collaborated in the start-up of the Irish Literary Theatre (1899) and the Irish National Theatre (1901). It was in 1904 when the Abbey Theatre was founded, which Yeats himself directed together with Synge and Lady Gregory and that still offers performances. Some of the drama works he wrote are The Countess Cathleen (1892), which marks the rebirth of Irish theatre; and The Unicorn from the Stars (1908), written together with Lady Gregory.

It can be noticed that he had many relations with other authors and was a person quite influential in society. Actually, after getting married to Georgie Hyde-Lees (26 years younger than Yeats), with whom the poet had two children and a happy cohabitation. He was named Senator for the Republic of Ireland in 1922 and one year later he received the Nobel Prize of literature, in 1923.

During this time, the North American poet Ezra Pound worked for him as a secretary, which helped Yeats discover the Japanese literature. Additionally, he and his wife experimented with automatic writing, a kind of writing in which the person is supposed to write from the subconscious.

In the following paragraph, Richard Eder[3] reflects on how wide was, indeed, the social manifestation of Yeats:

William Butler Yeats made such charged and explicit use of his life, his passions, his philosophical searchings, his country and causes, and even his failings -- no major poet of our time has done it so passionately and few have ever done it -- that a biography could just about be constructed out of quotations.

We will have the opportunity of better observing this social facet in the poems analyzed. Let us end the review of his life.

Due to his health problems, Yeats travelled around the south of France, Italy and Spain, visiting Algeciras (about which he wrote a beautiful poem we will see later) in 1928 and Mallorca, in 1936. Moreover, he founded the Irish Academy of Letters in 1932. Until the moment of his death in Menton, France (1939), he continued writing poetry of great quality. His remains were shipped to Sligo, in his natal land.

1.2 Summary of works

Before analyzing the selected poems, let us now focus on studying his main works and the literary genres he dealt with. W. B. Yeats was, in fact, a quite prolific author:

Apart from the two drama works pointed out above, he also wrote collections of literary criticism (in reality, he was quite polemic because of the topics he dealt with), letters and essays; autobiographies and short stories about various themes: occultism, Irish folklore… For instance, we can highlight The Celtic Twilight (1893), an essay published by Yeats himself and in which he defended Irish traditional poetry; the anthology of Irish folklore Fairy and Folk Tales of the Irish Peasantry (1888) and some short stories such as The Crucifixion of the Outcast, The Heart of Spring, Out of the Rose and The Wisdom of the King.

Anyway, it was poetry what catapulted Yeats to eternal fame, being this his favorite literary genre as well. The themes of his poetry are completely parallel to the events that took place in his life, being possible to establish the following classification:

1) Poetry of eminently romantic tone about Irish tradition, pastoral topics, Celtic myths and legends, occultism… Also passionate love poems dedicated to Maud Gonne, once he met her.

2) Maturity period: poetry as a vehicle to promote Irish culture and literature in the context of the Irish nationalist movement; symbolism as a mediator between life and art.

3) Final poems of great quality, finding the suitable balance between the individual and the external world and showing a more realistic perspective than in the past.

It was during his period as a student when Yeats published his first poems in The Dublin University Review, appearing in 1889 his first poetry collection: The Wanderings of Oisin and Other Poems. In this way, poems like “The Stolen Children” tell about the poet’s childhood in Sligo, including many references to the supernatural beliefs of the village. Besides, in the collection The Countess Kathleen and Various Legends and Lyrics Yeats introduces characters from Celtic legends, as it happens in “Fergus and the Druid”, “The Lake Isle of Innisfree”, written in 1890 during his stay in London as a sign of utopian remembrance of that place in Sligo; or “The Man who Dreamed of Faeryland”.

Taking into consideration the huge quantity of references present in those poems, the next volume that Yeats published, The Wind among the Reeds (1899), has the peculiarity of including many notes to explain the characters and places alluded in the different works. Among these poems, “The Secret Rose” outstands; it was dedicated to Maud Gonne and showed one of the key symbols in Yeats’ poetry: the rose, both representing his beloved and Ireland, as well as it contains similarities with the four-petals rose of the emblem of one of the organizations the poet belonged to, The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn.

Appropriately, some of the poems of his next volume (In the Seven Woods, 1904) were still dedicated to Maud Gonne, though the tone is quite sadder in this occasion for she had just married another man. In this sense, some interesting poems referring to her are “Adam’s Curse”, “O Do not Love too long” and “Never Give All the Heart”. Additionally, in the following volume published in 1910 (The Green Helmet and Other Poems) there also appear references to Maud, but now the language loses verbal ornaments in order to present a more straightforward style, using colloquial English frequently. That is why it has been considered a transition work by the critics.

It is in Responsabilities, the next volume published in 1914, where this evolution seems to be clearly established, since the poems have now a dramatic strength that they had not before. As the title points out, Yeats renounces to his previous style and accepts now the responsibility for his love failure (shown, for example, by means of a horrific vision of Heaven in “The Cold Heaven”) and begins to engage with social affairs treated through poetry, (“To a Wealthy Man who Promised a Second Suscription to the Dublin Municipal Gallery if it Were Proved the People Wanted Pictures”), playing an important role in the independence of Ireland as well.

In The Wild Swans at Coole (1919), the poet remembers his stays in the house of Coole Park (residence of Lady Gregory) and in another one he himself bought, also in Galway. Besides, he introduces issues related to esotericism (with which Yeats will deal deeper in the volume written in prose A Vision, 1926) in poems like “Ego Dominus Tuus” or “The Phases of the Moon”. On the other hand, “In Memory of Major Robert Gregory”, also included in this volume and considered one of his best poems with a simple style, recalls the deceased son of Lady Gregory, to whom Yeats knew well and that describes full of energy and vitality before he was killed in the I World War. Later on, we will analyze one of these poems, “An Irish Airman Foresees His Death”.

In addition, Michael Robartes and the Dancer, published two years after the latest, includes three of the most famous poems from his poetry collection: “Easter”, written in order to commemorate the sixteen Irish leaders executed during the nationalist mutiny occurred in Dublin; “A Prayer for my Daughter”, showing how the author starts to prioritize his marriage with Hyde-Lees and the care of his recent first son, Anne; and “The Second Coming”, a very famous poem about the war conflicts of the past and the future, full of religious symbols that have been interpreted in different ways. Accordingly, the aforementioned A Vision states this new condition in his life by means of a richer poetry based on reflections about history, culture, civilization and human behavior, etcetera.

Consequently, his following volume The Tower (1928) is a compilation of all these ideas and meditations. Thus, the homonym poem “The Tower” shows considerations about philosophy, aging and poetry in general. In the same way, “Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen” and “Meditations in Time Civil War” reflect on the Irish conflict for independence; whereas “Sailing to Byzantium” uses the myth of Byzantium to think about civilization and its conflict. To this volume belongs one of the most famous poems of the author: “Leda and the Swan”, a sonnet in which Yeats, having reached his zenith as a poet, uses this classical myth to show how civilizations have killed each other since time immemorial.

Nevertheless, Yeats had fallen ill in 1924, having to fight against disease until the moment of his death in 1939. In this sense, the poem “At Algeciras – A Meditation upon Death” (included in The Winding Stair and Other Poems, 1933) shows his thought about this topic in the south of Spain, where he was to alleviate his illness. All the same, he never stopped doing what he loved, writing poetry. What is more, the quality of his last poems was so awesome that it surprised even the critics, opening new ways for poetry and having contributed the social and politic development of his country.


We are now able to analyze some of Yeats’ poetical works in order to show the deep of his poetry and how passion and life itself illuminated his writing. It is so much so that all the information given above must be used but for noticing these general features present throughout all his poems and, especially, for trying to interpret the enormous quantity of symbols, references and possible hidden meanings between lines, no matter the theme the poem has.

Certainly, selecting just a few poems from Yeats is not an easy task, as the richness and variety of his poetry is overwhelming. This is why it is recommendable to read more Yeats’ poems to reach the true essence of his work and, obviously, to enjoy one of the greatest poets in the whole history of literature. In this case, we have tried to select works belonging to each of the poetic stages of the author, previously explained. This is the summary of the two poems chosen:

1) “He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven”, from The Wind Among the Reeds (1899).

2) “An Irish Airman Foresees his Death”, from The Wild Swans at Coole (1919).

I would have liked to analyze a third poem in particular, “Leda and the Swan” (from The Tower, 1928), due to the vast quantity of mythological references it contains and to its thematic richness; as well as because it could be taken as an example of the last period of the author (the maturity stage, in which Yeats reaches the peak of his poetic production), considering that the two works we do are analyzing belong to the first and the second period, respectively.

However, it carries more weight the fact that this paper is believed to have substance enough per se, without the necessity of including a third poem that would not but enlarge its extension unnecessarily. In fact, the two poems selected are more than enough to provide an accurate notion of how Yeats’ poetry is and what it symbolizes, which, after all, is the main purpose of this paper.


[1] Frank, M. (1999). Yeats, a Poet Who Kept Trying On Different Identities. The New York Times. <> (last visited on 7th October 2013).

[2] Kakutani, M. (1990). “Poet, Businessman, Mystic, Senator, Irishman”, Books of The Times. The New York Times. <> (last visited on 7th October 2013).

[3] Eder, R. (2003). “Near-Perfect Poems, Imperfect Poet”, Books of The Times. The New York Times. <> (last visited on 7th October 2013).

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An overview of William Butler Yeats’ poetry (1865-1939)
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Álvaro Pina Arrabal (Author), 2013, An overview of William Butler Yeats’ poetry (1865-1939), Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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