From the Norton Anthology of English Literature (7th ed.):
William Butler Yeats was born in Sandymount, Dublin. His father's family, of English stock, had been in Ireland for at least two hundred years: his mother's, the Pollexfens, hailing originally from Devon, had been for some generations in Sligo, in the west of Ireland. J. B. Yeats, his father, had abandoned law to take up painting, at which he made a somewhat precarious living. The Yeatses were in London from 1874 until 1883, when they returned to Ireland—to Howth, a few miles from Dublin. On leaving high school in Dublin in 1883 Yeats decided to be an artist, with poetry as his avocation, and attended art school.; but he soon left, to concentrate on poetry. His frist published poems appeared in the Dublin University Review in 1885.
Yeats's father was a religious skeptic, but he believed in the "religion of art." Yeats himself, religious by temperament but unable to believe in Christian orthodoxy, sought all his life for traditions of esoteric thought that would compensate for a lost religion. This search led him to various kinds of mysticism, to folklore, theosophy, spiritualism, and neoplatonism—not in any strict chronological order, for he kept returning to and reworking earlier aspects of his thought. In middle life he elaborated a symbolic system of his own, based on a variety of sources, that enabled him to strengthen the pattern and coherence of his poetic imagery. The student of Yeats is constantly coming up against this willful and sometimes baffling esotericism that he cultivated sometimes playfully nad sometimes as though it were a convenient language of symbols. Modern scholarship has traced most of Yeats's mystical and quasi-mystical ideas to sources that were common to William Blake and Percy Shelley and that sometimes go far back into pre-Platonic beliefs and traditions. But his greatness as a poet lies in his ability to communicate the power and significance of his symbols, by the way he expresses and organizes them, even to readers who know nothing of his system.
Yeats's childhood and early manhood were spent between Dublin, London, and Sligo; and each of these places contributed something to his poetic development. in London in the 1890s he met the important poets of the day; and in 1891 was one of the founders of the Rhymers' Club, whose members included Lionel Johnson, Ernest Dowson, and many other characteristic figures of the 1890s. Here he acquired ideas of poetry that were vaguely pre-Raphaelite: he believed, in this early stage of his career, that a poet's language should be dreamy, evocative, and ethereal. From the countryside around Sligo he got something much more vigorous and earthy—a knowledge of the life of the peasantry and of their folklore. In Dublin he was influenced by the currents of Irish nationalism and, although often in disagreement with those who wished to use literature for crude political ends, he nevertheless learned to see his poetry as a contribution to a rejuvenated Irish culture. The three influences of Dublin, London, and Sligo did not develop in chronological order—he was going to and fro among these places throughout his early life—and we sometimes find a poem based on Sligo folklore in the midst of a group of dreamy poems written dunder the influence of the Rhymers' Club or an echo of Irish nationalist feeling in a lyric otherwise wholly pre-Raphaelite in tone.
We can distinguish quite clearly, however, the main periods into which Yeats's poetic career falls. He began in the tradition of self-conscious Romanticism , which he learned from the London poets of the 1890s. Edmund Spenser and Shelley, and a little later Blake, were important influences. One of his early verse plays ends with a song:
The woods of Arcady are dead
And over is their antique joy;
Of old the world on dreaming fed;
Grey Truth is now her painted toy.
And over is their antique joy;
Of old the world on dreaming fed;
Grey Truth is now her painted toy.
About the same time he was writing poems (e.g. The Stolen Child) deriving from his Sligo experience, with a quiet precision of natural imagery, country place names, and themes from folklore. A little later—i.e., in the latter part of his first period—Dublin literary circles sent him to Standish O'Grady's History of Ireland: Heroic Period, where he found the great stories of the heroic age of Irish history, and to George Sigerson's and Douglas Hyde's translations of Gaelic poetry into "that dialect which gets from Gaelic its syntax and keeps its still partly Tudor vocabulary." Even when he plays with Neoplatonic ideas, as in The Rose of the World (also the product of the latter part of his early period), he can link them with Irish heroic themes and so give a dignity and a style to his imagery not normally associated with this sort of poetic dreaminess. Thus the heroic legends of old Ireland and the folk traditions of the modern Irish countryside provided Yeats with a stiffening for his early dreamlike imagery, which is why even his first, "nineties" phase is productive of interesting poems. The Lake Isle of Innisfree, spoiled for some by overanthologizing, is nevertheless a fine poem of its kind: it is the clarity and control shown in the handling of the imagery that keeps all romantic fuzziness out of it and gives it its haunting quality. In The Man who Dreamed of Faeryland he makes something peculiarly effective out of the contrast between human activities and the strangeness of nature. In The Madness of King Goll the disturbing sense of the otherness of the natural world drives the king mad. (Such contrasts are common in the early Yeats; in his later poetry he tries to resolver what he calls these "antinomies" in inclusive symbols; e.g., Crazy Jane Talks with the Bishop.)
It is important to realize that Yeats had a habit of revising his earlier poems in later printings, tightening up the language and gettin rid of the more self-indulgent romantic imagery. The revised versions are found in his Collected Poems, which, therefore, present a somewhat muted picture of his poetic development. For the complete picture one should consult The Variorum Edition edited by Peter Allt and Russell K. Alspach (1957).
It was Irish nationalism that first sent Yeats in search of a consistently simpler and more popular style. He tells in one of his autobiographical essays how he sought for a style in which to express the elemental facts about Irish life and aspirations. This led him to the concrete image as did Hyde's translations from Gaelic folk songs, in which "nothing was abstract, nothing worn-out." But other forces were also working on him. In 1902 a friend gave him the works of the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, to which he responded with great excitement, and it would seem that, in persuading Yeats, the passive love-poet, to get off his knees, Nietzsche's books prompted his search for a more active stance, a more masculine style. Looking back in 1906, he found that he had mistaken the poetic ideal. "Without knowing it, I had come to care for nothing but impersonal beauty . . . We should ascend out of common interests, the thoughts of the newspapers, of the market place, but only so fast as we can carry the normal, passionate, reasoning self, the personality as a whole." The result of the abandonment of "impersonal beauty," and of the desire to "carry the normal, passionate, reasoning self" into his poetry, is seen in the volumes of collected poems, In the Seven Woods (1903) and The Green Helmet and Other Poems (1910). The Folly of Being Comforted and Adam's Curse are from the former of them, and one can see immediately how Yeats here combines the colloquial with the formal. This is characteristic of his "second period."
By this time Yeats had met the beautiful actress and violent Irish nationalist Maud Gonne, with whom he was desperately in love for many years, but who persistently refused to marry him. The affair is reflected in many of the poems of his second period, notably No Second Troy, published in The Green Helmet. He had also met Lady Gregory, Irish writer and promoter of Irish literature, in 1896, and she invited him to spend the following summer at her country house, Coole Park, in Galway. Yeats spent many holidays with Lady Gregory and discovered the attractiveness of the "country house ideal," seeing in an aristocratic life of elegance and leisure in a great house a method of imposing order on chaos and a symbol of the Neoplatonic dance of life. He expresses this view many times in his poetry—e.g., at the end of A Prayer for My Daughter—and it became an important part of his complex of attitudes. The middle classes, with their Philistine money grubbing, he detested, and for his ideal characters he looked either below them, to peasants and beggars, or above them, to the aristocracy, for each of these had their own traditions and lived according to them.
It was under Lady Gregory's influence that Yeats became involved in the founding of the Irish National Theatre in 1899. This led to his active participation in problems of play production, which included political problems of censorship, economic problems of paying carpenters and actors, and other aspects of "theater business, management of men." All this had an effect on his style. The reactions of Dublin audiences did not encourage Yeats's trust in popular judgment, and his bitterness with the "Paudeens," middle-class shopkeepers—who seemed to him to be without any dignity, or understanding or nobility of spirit—produced some of the most effective poems of his third or middle period. He was now becoming more and more of a national figure. Three public controversies had moved him to anger and poetry; the first over the hounding of Parnell (To a Shade), the second over Synge's play The Playboy of the Western World in 1907, and the third over the Lane pictures (September 1913). In each, the cause for which he fought was defeated by the representatives of the Roman Catholic middle class, and at last, bitterly turning his back on Ireland, Yeats moved to England. Then came the Easter Rising (Easter 1916), mounted by members of the class and religion that had so long opposed him. Persuaded by Gonne (whose estranged husband was one of the executed leaders of the rising) that "tragic dignity had returned to Ireland," Yeats himself returned. To mark his new commitment, he refurbished, occupied, and renamed "Thoor Bayllylee" the Norman tower on Lady Gregory's land that was to become one of the central symbols of his later poetry. In 1922 he was appointed a senator of the recently established Irish Free State and served until 1928, playing an active part not only in promoting the arts but also in general political affairs, in which he supported the views of the Protestant landed class.
Meanwhile Yeats was responding in his own way to the change in poetic taste represented in the poetry and criticism of Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot immediately before World War I. A gift for epigram had already begun to emerge in his poetry; in the volume titled The Wild Swans at Coole (1919) he has a poem citing Walter Savage Landor (the nineteenth-century poet who wrote some fine lapidary verse) and John Donne as masters. To the precision, and the combination of colloquial and formal, that he had achieved early in the century, he now added a metaphysical as well as an epigrammatic element, and this is seen in the later poems of his third period. He also continued his experiments with different kinds of rhythm. At the same time he was continuing his search for a language of symbols and pursuing and pursuing his esoteric studies. Yeats married in 1917, and his wife proved so sympathetic to his imaginative needs that the automatic writing which for several years she produced (believed by Yeats to have been dictated by spirits) gave him the elements of a symbolic system that he later worked out in his book A Vision (1925, 1937) and that he used in all sorts of ways in much of his later poetry. The system was both a theory of the movements of history and a theory of the different types of personality, each movement and type being related in various complicated ways to a different phase of the moon. Some of Yeats's poetry is unintelligible without a knowledge of A Vision, but the better poems, such as the two on Byzantium, can be appreciated without such knowledge by the experienced reader who responds sensitively to the patterning of the imagery reinforced by the incantatory effect of the rhythms. Some criticism decries attempts by those who are not experts in the background of Yeats's esoteric thought to discuss his poetry and insists that only a detailed knowledge of Yeats's sources can yield his poetic meaning: but while it's true thatsome particular images do not yeiald all their significance to those who are ignorant of the background, it is also true that too literal a paraphrase of the symbolism in the light of the sources robs the poems of their power by reducing them to mere exercises in the use of a code.
The Tower (1928) and The Winding Stair (1933), from which the poems from Sailing to Byzantium through After Long Silence have been here selected, represent the mature Yeats at his very best—a realist-symbolist-Metaphysical poet with an uncanny power over words. These volumes represent his fourth and greatest period. Here, in his poems of the 1920s and 1930s, winding stairs, spinning tops, "gyres," spirals of all kinds, are important symbols; not only are they connected with Yeats's philosophy of history and of personality, but they also serve as a means of resolving some of those contrariesthat had arrested him from the beginning. Life is a journey up a spiral staircase; as we grow older we cover the ground we have covered before, only higher up; as we look down the winding stair below us we measure our progress by the number of places where we were but no longer are. The journey is both repetitious and progressive; we go both round and upward. Though symbolic images of this kind Yeats explores the paradoxes of time and change, of growth and identity, of love and age, of life and art, of madness and wisdom.
The Byzantium poems show him trying to escape from the turbulence of life to the calm eternity of art. But in his fifth and final period he returned to the turbulence after (if only partly as a result of ) undergoing the Steinach operation to increase his sexual potency in 1934, and his last poems have a controlled yet startling wildness. Yeats's return to life, to "the foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart," is one of the most impressive final phases of any poet's career. "I shall be a sinful man to the end, and think upon my deathbed of all the nights I wasted in my youth," he wrote in old age to a correspondent, and in one of his last letters he wrote: "When I try to put all into a phrase I say, 'Man can embody truth but he cannot know it' . . . The abstract is not life and everywhere draws out its contradictions. You can refute Hegel but not the Saint or the Son of Sixpence." When he died in January 1939, he left a body of verse that, in variety and power, makes him beyond question the greatest twentieth-century poet of the English language.