William Butler Yeats (1865-1939) was one of the great poets of the twentieth century. He created works that are widely known and loved. Yeats was a man of many interests – Ireland, literature, folklore, theatre, politics, the occult – and a significant influence on modern Irish cultural identity.
The National Library of Ireland are indebted to members of the Yeats family who donated a large and invaluable collection of WB Yeats’s manuscripts and books to the National Library of Ireland. This exhibition, based in the main building of 7/8 Kildare street, celebrates that collection.
Yeats was born in Sandymount, Ireland and educated there and in London. He spent childhood holidays in County Sligo and studied poetry from an early age when he became fascinated by Irish legends and the occult. These topics feature in the first phase of his work, which lasted roughly until the turn of the 20th century. His earliest volume of verse was published in 1889, and its slow-paced and lyrical poems display debts to Edmund Spenser, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and the poets of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. From 1900, his poetry grew more physical and realistic. He largely renounced the transcendental beliefs of his youth, though he remained preoccupied with physical and spiritual masks, as well as with cyclical theories of life. In 1923, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature.
Yeats is considered one of the key twentieth century English language poets. He was a Symbolist poet, using allusive imagery and symbolic structures throughout his career. He chose words and assembled them so that, in addition to a particular meaning, they suggest abstract thoughts that may seem more significant and resonant. His use of symbols is usually something physical that is both itself and a suggestion of other, perhaps immaterial, timeless qualities.
Unlike other modernists who experimented with free verse, Yeats was a master of the traditional forms. The impact of modernism on his work can be seen in the increasing abandonment of the more conventionally poetic diction of his early work in favour of the more austere language and more direct approach to his themes that increasingly characterises the poetry and plays of his middle period, comprising the volumes In the Seven Woods, Responsibilities and The Green Helmet. His later poetry and plays are written in a more personal vein, and the works written in the last twenty years of his life include mention of his son and daughter, as well as meditations on the experience of growing old. In his poem, “The Circus Animals’ Desertion”, he describes the inspiration for these late works:
Now that my ladder’s gone
I must lie down where all the ladders start
In the foul rag and bone shop of the heart.
During 1929, he stayed at Thoor Ballylee near Gort in County Galway (where Yeats had his summer home since 1919) for the last time. Much of the remainder of his life was lived outside Ireland, although he did lease Riversdale house in the Dublin suburb of Rathfarnham in 1932. He wrote prolifically through his final years, and published poetry, plays, and prose. In 1938, he attended the Abbey for the final time to see the premiere of his play Purgatory. His Autobiographies of William Butler Yeats was published that same year. In 1913, Yeats wrote the preface for the English translation of Rabindranath Tagore’s Gitanjali (Song Offering) for which Tagore received Nobel Prize in literature.
While Yeats’s early poetry drew heavily on Irish myth and folklore, his later work was engaged with more contemporary issues, and his style underwent a dramatic transformation. His work can be divided into three general periods. The early poems are lushly pre-Raphaelite in tone, self-consciously ornate, and, at times, according to unsympathetic critics, stilted. Yeats began by writing epic poems such as The Isle of Statues and The Wanderings of Oisin. His other early poems are lyrics on the themes of love or mystical and esoteric subjects. Yeats’s middle period saw him abandon the pre-Raphaelite character of his early work and attempt to turn himself into a Landor-style social ironist.
Critics who admire his middle work might characterize it as supple and muscular in its rhythms and sometimes harshly modernist, while others find these poems barren and weak in imaginative power. Yeats’s later work found new imaginative inspiration in the mystical system he began to work out for himself under the influence of spiritualism. In many ways, this poetry is a return to the vision of his earlier work. The opposition between the worldly-minded man of the sword and the spiritually minded man of God, the theme of The Wanderings of Oisin, is reproduced in A Dialogue Between Self and Soul.
Some critics claim that Yeats spanned the transition from the nineteenth century into twentieth-century modernism in poetry much as Pablo Picasso did in painting while others question whether late Yeats has much in common with modernists of the Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot variety.
Modernists read the well-known poem “The Second Coming” as a dirge for the decline of European civilisation, but it also expresses Yeats’s apocalyptic mystical theories and is shaped by the 1890s. His most important collections of poetry started with The Green Helmet (1910) and Responsibilities (1914). In imagery, Yeats’s poetry became sparer and more powerful as he grew older. The Tower (1928), The Winding Stair (1933), and New Poems (1938) contained some of the most potent images in twentieth-century poetry.
Yeats’s mystical inclinations, informed by Hinduism, theosophical beliefs and the occult, provided much of the basis of his late poetry, which some critics have judged as lacking in intellectual credibility. The metaphysics of Yeats’s late works must be read in relation to his system of esoteric fundamentals in A Vision (1925).
This is a list of all works by Irish poet and dramatist W. B. (William Butler) Yeats (1865–1939), winner of the 1923 Nobel Prize in Literature and a foremost figure in 20th-century literature. Works sometimes appear twice if parts of new editions or significantly revised. Posthumous editions are also included if they are the first publication of a new or significantly revised work.
1885 – “Song of the Fairies” & “Voices,” poems in the Dublin University Review (March)
1886 – Mosada, verse play
1888 – Fairy and Folk Tales of the Irish Peasantry
1889 – Crossways
1889 – The Wanderings of Oisin and Other Poems, includes “The Wanderings of Oisin”, “The Song of the Happy Shepherd”, “The Stolen Child” and “Down By The Salley Gardens”
1890 – “The Lake Isle of Innisfree”, poem first published in the National Observer, 13 December; poem included in The Countess Kathleen and Various Legends and Lyrics, 1892
1891 – Representative Irish Tales
1891 – John Sherman and Dhoya, two stories
1892 – Irish Fairy Tales
1892 – The Countess Kathleen and Various Legends and Lyrics, includes “The Lake Isle of Innisfree” (see 1890, above) (Lyrics from this book appear in Yeats’ collected editions in a section titled “The Rose”  but Yeats never published a book titled “The Rose”)
1893 – The Celtic Twilight, poetry and nonfiction
1893 – The Rose, poems
1893 – The Works of William Blake: Poetic, Symbolic and Critical, co-written with Edwin Ellis
1894 – The Land of Heart’s Desire, published in April, his first acted play, performed 29 March
1895 – Poems, verse and drama; the first edition of his collected poems. Containing: The Countess Cathleen, The Land of Heart’s Desire, The Wanderings of Usheen and the poetry collections The Rose, Crossways
1895 – Editor, A Book of Irish Verse, an anthology
1897 – The Tables of the Law. The Adoration of the Magi, privately printed; The Tables of the Law first published in The Savoy, November 1896; a regular edition of this book appeared in 1904
1897 – The Secret Rose, fiction
1899 – The Wind Among the Reeds, including “Song of the Old Mother”
1900 – The Shadowy Waters, poems
1902 – Cathleen Ní Houlihan, play
1903 – Ideas of Good and Evil, nonfiction
1903 – In the Seven Woods, poems, includes “Adam’s Curse” (Dun Emer Press)
1903 – Where There is Nothing, play
1903 – The Hour Glass, play, copyright edition (see also 1904 edition)
1904 – The Hour-Glass; Cathleen ni Houlihan; The Pot of Broth, plays
1904 – The King’s Threshold; and On Baile’s Strand
1904 – The Tables of the Law; The Adoration of the Magi, a privately printed edition appeared in 1897
1905 – Stories of Red Hanrahan, published in 1905 by the Dun Emer Press, although the book states the year of publication was 1904; contains stories from The Secret Rose (1897) rewritten with Lady Gregory; another edition was published in 1927
1906 – Poems, 1899 –1905, verse and plays
1907 – Deirdre
1907 – Discoveries, nonfiction
1910 – The Green Helmet and Other Poems, verse and plays
1910 – Poems: Second Series
1911 – Synge and the Ireland of his Time, nonfiction
1912 – The Cutting of an Agate
1912 – Selections from the Writings of Lord Dunsany
1912 – A Coat
1913 – Poems Written in Discouragement
1916 – Responsibilities, and Other Poems
1916 – Reveries Over Childhood and Youth, nonfiction
1916 – Easter 1916
1917 – The Wild Swans at Coole, Other Verses and a Play in Verse, a significantly revised edition appeared in 1919
1918 – Per Amica Silentia Lunae
1918 – In Memory of Major Robert Gregory
1918 – The Leaders of the Crowd
1919 – Two Plays for Dancers, plays; became part of Four Plays for Dancers, published in 1921
1919 – The Wild Swans at Coole, significant revision of the 1917 edition: has the poems from the 1917 edition and others, including “An Irish Airman Foresees His Death” and “The Phases of the Moon”; contains: “The Wild Swans at Coole”, “Ego Dominus Tuus”, “The Scholars” and “On being asked for a War Poem”
1920 – The Second Coming
1921 – Michael Robartes and the Dancer, poems; published in February, although book itself states “1920”
1921 – Four Plays for Dancers, plays; includes contents of Two Plays for Dancers, published in 1919, together with At the Hawk’s Well and Calvary
1921 – Four Years
1922 – Later Poems
1922 – The Player Queen, play
1922 – Plays in Prose and Verse, plays
1922 – The Trembling of the Veil
1922 – Seven Poems and a Fragment
1923 – Plays and Controversies
1924 – The Cat and the Moon, and Certain Poems, poems and drama
1924 – Essays
1925 – A Vision A, nonfiction, a much revised edition appeared in 1937, and a final revised edition was published in 1956
1926 – Estrangement
1926 – Autobiographies of William Butler Yeats, nonfiction; see also, Autobiography 1938
1927 – October Blast
1927 – Stories of Red Hanrahan and the Secret Rose, poetry and fiction
1927 – The Resurrection, a short play first performed in 1934
1928 – The Tower, includes Sailing to Byzantium
1928 – The Death of Synge, and Other Passages from an Old Diary, poems
1928 – Sophocles’ King Oedipus: a version for the modern stage
1929 – A Packet for Ezra Pound, poems
1929 – The Winding Stair published by Fountain Press in a signed limited edition, now exceedingly rare
1932 – Words for Music Perhaps, and Other Poems
1933 – Collected Poems
1933 – The Winding Stair and Other Poems
1934 – Collected Plays
1934 – The King of the Great Clock Tower, poems
1934 – Wheels and Butterflies, drama
1934 – The Words Upon the Window Pane, drama
1935 – Dramatis Personae
1935 – A Full Moon in March, poems
1937 – A Vision B, nonfiction, a much revised edition of the original, which appeared in 1925; reissued with minor changes in 1956, and with further changes in 1962
1937 – Essays 1931 to 1936
1937 – Broadsides: New Irish & English Songs, edited by Yeats and Dorothy Wellesley
1938 – Autobiography, includes Reveries over Childhood and Youth (published in 1914), The Trembling of the Veil (1922), Dramatis Personae (1935), The Death of Synge (1928), and other pieces; see also Autobiographies (1926)
1938 – The Herne’s Egg, drama
1938 – New Poems
1939 – Last Poems and Two Plays poems and drama (posthumous)
1939 – On the Boiler, essays, poems and a play (posthumous)
In December 1923, Yeats was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, “for his always inspired poetry, which in a highly artistic form gives expression to the spirit of a whole nation”. He was aware of the symbolic value of an Irish winner so soon after Ireland had gained independence, and sought to highlight the fact at each available opportunity. His reply to many of the letters of congratulations sent to him contained the words: “I consider that this honour has come to me less as an individual than as a representative of Irish literature, it is part of Europe’s welcome to the Free State.”
Yeats used the occasion of his acceptance lecture at the Royal Academy of Sweden to present himself as a standard-bearer of Irish nationalism and Irish cultural independence. As he remarked, “The theatres of Dublin were empty buildings hired by the English travelling companies, and we wanted Irish plays and Irish players. When we thought of these plays we thought of everything that was romantic and poetical because the nationalism we had called up—the nationalism every generation had called up in moments of discouragement—was romantic and poetical.” The prize led to a significant increase in the sales of his books, as his publishers Macmillan sought to capitalise on the publicity. For the first time he had money, and he was able to repay not only his own debts but those of his father.
Yeats is commemorated in Sligo town by a statue, created in 1989 by sculptor Rowan Gillespie. It was erected outside the Ulster Bank, at the corner of Stephen Street and Markievicz Road, on the 50th anniversary of the poet’s death. Yeats had remarked, on receiving his Nobel Prize that the Royal Palace in Stockholm “resembled the Ulster Bank in Sligo”. Across the river is the Yeats Memorial Building, home to the Sligo Yeats Society. Standing Figure: Knife Edge by Henry Moore is displayed in the W. B. Yeats Memorial Garden at St Stephen’s Green in Dublin.
National Library of Ireland
The National Library of Ireland on Kildare Street was founded in 1877. It helps to collect and make available the collective memory of the Irish nation at home and abroad, caring for more than ten million printed, visual and manuscript treasures. From fourteenth century Gaelic manuscripts to the papers of Yeats and Joyce and the works of contemporary Irish writers, the NLI is a key repository of Ireland’s national literary heritage. It is also the guardian of personal histories in the form of vast archives of letters, photographs and diaries.
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