William Butler Yeats

How many loved your moments of glad grace
And loved your beauty with love false and true
But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you
And loved the sorrow of your changing face

by William Butler Yeats --"When You Are Old"


William Butler Yeats was born in Dublin, Ireland, on June 13, 1865, the eldest son of a well-known Irish painter, John Butler Yeats, and Susan Pollexfen, daughter of a wealthy (mills and shipping) Sligo family. 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. As a writer Yeats made his debut in 1885, when he published his first poems in The Dublin University Review.

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. Though Yeats never learned Gaelic himself, his writing at the turn of the century drew extensively from sources in Irish mythology and folklore. Yeats’s efforts to foster Irish nationalism were inspired for years by Maud Gonne, an Irish patriot for whom he had a hopeless passion and to whom he repeatedly and fruitlessly proposed marriage. they 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 she remained a powerful figure in his poetry. In 1898 with Lady Augusta Gregory, George Moore, and Edward Martyn he founded the Irish Literary Theatre in Dublin.

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 put off some readers, but he remained uninhibited in advancing his idiosyncratic philosophy

Yeats’s verse can be divided into two periods, the first lasting from 1886 to about 1900. The poetry of this period shows a debt to Spenser, Shelley, and the Pre-Raphaelites. It centers on Irish mythology and themes and is mystical, slow-paced, and lyrical. Among the best-known poems of the period are "Falling of Leaves," "When You Are Old," and "The Lake Isle of Innisfree."

In 1917 he married Bertha Georgiana Hyde-Lees (known as Georgie or George), and his occultism was encouraged by his wife's automatic writing. In a prose work called "A Vision", Yeats set forth his theories of history and of human personality. He caused much discussion with his edition of "The Oxford Book of Modern Verse", published in 1936.

Yeats’s poetry deepened as he grew older. It became more polished and profound. In the verse of his middle and late years he renounced his early transcendentalism; his poetry became stronger, more physical and realistic. A recurring theme is the polarity between extremes such as the physical and the spiritual, the real and the imagined. Memorable poems from this period include "The Second Coming," "The Tower," and "Sailing to Byzantium." "The Tower" and The Winding Stair" were considered his last great poetic works. Yeats initiated his second period in such volumes as In the Seven Woods and The Green Helmet and Other Poems .

Yeats was appointed a senator of the Irish Free State in 1922, and is remembered as an important cultural leader and a major playwright. He believed that poems and plays would create a national unity capable of transforming the country.

Yeats is thought of a one of the greatest English-language poets of the 20th century and was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1923. He died on January 28, 1939 at the age of 73 in Roquebrune, France. His body remained buried there throughout World War II, but was brought back to County Sligo (Ireland) for burial in 1948.

²Inscription on tombstone:

Cast a cold Eye
On Life and Death
Horseman pass by


June 13th 1865
January 28th 1939


Down By The Salley Gardens
The Song Of Wandering Aengus
He Wishes For the Cloths of Heaven
No Second Troy
An Irish Airman Foresees His Death
The Song of the Old Mother


To view more of Yeats poems:
Famous Poets and Poems


Some more of his poems includes:

A Prayer For My Daughter, Aedh Wishes For The Clothes Of Heaven Against Unworthy Praise, Baile And Aillinn, Broken Dreams, Easter, 1916, Her Praise In the Seven Woods, King And No King, Lapis Lazuli, Leda And The Swan O Do Not Love Too Long, Politics, Swift's Epitaph, The Arrow, The Black Tower, The Crucifixion Of The Outcast, The Dolls, The Everlasting Voices, The Fish, The Harp of Aengus, The Host Of The Air, The Hosting Of The Sidhe, The Lake Isle Of Innisfree, The Lover Tells Of The Rose In His Heart, The Mask, The Moods, The Old Age Of Queen Maeve The Rose Tree, The Second Coming, The Secret Rose, The Seven Sages, The Shadowy Waters, The Song of the Happy Shepherd, The Stolen Child, The Three Beggars, The Two Trees, The Wheel, The Wild Swans At Coole, The Wisdom Of The King, To A Young Beauty, To A Young Girl, To The Rose Upon The Rood Of Time, Towards Break Of Day, What Was Lost,


[Poet's Corner Index]


Reference, Research and Source Information

The History Channel

Compton's Interactive Encyclopedia

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