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Yeats' Development: The Man And The Poet

William Butler Yeats is often referred to as a defining poet of his time. Born in 1865, his poetry is generally known for its strong Irish heritage and regular references to the occult. These themes developed throughout his poetry, driven by interests and experiences he had as a child. While he was born in Dublin, his spent much of his childhood in his parents summer house in Sligo, in the west of Ireland which is credited for stimulating his interest his focus on Irish traditions. It was during this time that Yeats began studying poetry, including the likes of John Donne and William Blake whose works were introduced by his father. However, it was Standish James O’Grady and other fellow Irish poets who are said to have the most direct influence on his work. Yeats grew up in a traditional Irish family with two sisters, Elizabeth and Susan, and a brother Jack, who, like William, would also go on to become an accomplished artist in later life. The family’s involvement in the arts was primarily the result of William’s father, John Yeats, who gave up a career as a lawyer to pursue his interest in painting. Yeats mother though, was the first to introduce Yeats and his siblings to the Irish folktales which echoed throughout his later poetry. Yeats was educated primarily in Dublin, firstly at the Erasmus Smith High School, then, to further explore his interest in poetry, studied at the Metropolitan School of Art. In later life Yeats reflected on his youth, “I was full of thought. Often very abstract thought, longing all the while to be full of images.” This longing was possibly the cause of his separation from his protestant past, which experienced conflict for much of his life, in favour of mysticism and spiritualism.  

When Yeats was just 24, he met Maude Gonne, an Irish woman, with whom he immediately fell in love. This love, which continued for the rest of Yeats’ life was never reciprocated by Gonne, despite their close association. Almost all of Yeats’ romantic poems are directed towards her in a vein attempt to win her over. Interestingly, in his later life, Yeats proposed to Gonne’s daughter, yet again, he was rejected.  

Yeats was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1923. Unlike most recipients though, Yeats continued to develop his poetry well after receiving the award, right up until two weeks before his death, as was his intention to explore all aspects of his life through poetry. This later poetry is generally regarded as some of his best works – a feat that is also achieved by few other recipients of the award. 

In 1939, Yeats died soon after publishing his final works, Last Poems. His final piece though, rests on his tombstone in Sligo, “Cast a cold Eye/ On Life, On Death/ Horseman, pass by.”