History of Literature


William Butler Yeats


"A Man Young And Old"


William Butler Yeats


William Butler Yeats

Irish author and poet

born June 13, 1865, Sandymount, Dublin, Ire.
died Jan. 28, 1939, Roquebrune-Cap-Martin, Fr.

Irish poet, dramatist, and prose writer, one of the greatest English-language poets of the 20th century. He received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1923.

Yeats’s father, John Butler Yeats, was a barrister who eventually became a portrait painter. His mother, formerly Susan Pollexfen, was the daughter of a prosperous merchant in Sligo, in western Ireland. Through both parents Yeats claimed kinship with various Anglo-Irish Protestant families who are mentioned in his work. Normally, Yeats would have been expected to identify with his Protestant tradition—which represented a powerful minority among Ireland’s predominantly Roman Catholic population—but he did not. Indeed, he was separated from both historical traditions available to him in Ireland—from the Roman Catholics, because he could not share their faith, and from the Protestants, because he felt repelled by their concern for material success. Yeats’s best hope, he felt, was to cultivate a tradition more profound than either the Catholic or the Protestant—the tradition of a hidden Ireland that existed largely in the anthropological evidence of its surviving customs, beliefs, and holy places, more pagan than Christian.

In 1867, when Yeats was only two, his family moved to London, but he spent much of his boyhood and school holidays in Sligo with his grandparents. This country—its scenery, folklore, and supernatural legend—would colour Yeats’s work and form the setting of many of his poems. In 1880 his family moved back to Dublin, where he attended the high school. In 1883 he attended the Metropolitan School of Art in Dublin, where the most important part of his education was in meeting other poets and artists.

Meanwhile, Yeats was beginning to write: his first publication, two brief lyrics, appeared in the Dublin University Review in 1885. When the family moved back to London in 1887, Yeats took up the life of a professional writer. He joined the Theosophical Society, whose mysticism appealed to him because it was a form of imaginative life far removed from the workaday world. The age of science was repellent to Yeats; he was a visionary, and he insisted upon surrounding himself with poetic images. He began a study of the prophetic books of William Blake, and this enterprise brought him into contact with other visionary traditions, such as the Platonic, the Neoplatonic, the Swedenborgian, and the alchemical.

Yeats was already a proud young man, and his pride required him to rely on his own taste and his sense of artistic style. He was not boastful, but spiritual arrogance came easily to him. His early poems, collected in The Wanderings of Oisin, and Other Poems (1889), are the work of an aesthete, often beautiful but always rarefied, a soul’s cry for release from circumstance.

Yeats quickly became involved in the literary life of London. He became friends with William Morris and W.E. Henley, and he was a cofounder of the Rhymers’ Club, whose members included his friends Lionel Johnson and Arthur Symons. In 1889 Yeats met Maud Gonne, an Irish beauty, ardent and brilliant. From that moment, as he wrote, “the troubling of my life began.” He fell in love with her, but his love was hopeless. Maud Gonne liked and admired him, but she was not in love with him. Her passion was lavished upon Ireland; she was an Irish patriot, a rebel, and a rhetorician, commanding in voice and in person. When Yeats joined in the Irish nationalist cause, he did so partly from conviction, but mostly for love of Maud. When Yeats’s play Cathleen ni Houlihan was first performed in Dublin in 1902, she played the title role. It was during this period that Yeats came under the influence of John O’Leary, a charismatic leader of the Fenians, a secret society of Irish nationalists.

After the rapid decline and death of the controversial Irish leader Charles Stewart Parnell in 1891, Yeats felt that Irish political life lost its significance. The vacuum left by politics might be filled, he felt, by literature, art, poetry, drama, and legend. The Celtic Twilight (1893), a volume of essays, was Yeats’s first effort toward this end, but progress was slow until 1898, when he met Augusta Lady Gregory, an aristocrat who was to become a playwright and his close friend. She was already collecting old stories, the lore of the west of Ireland. Yeats found that this lore chimed with his feeling for ancient ritual, for pagan beliefs never entirely destroyed by Christianity. He felt that if he could treat it in a strict and high style, he would create a genuine poetry while, in personal terms, moving toward his own identity. From 1898, Yeats spent his summers at Lady Gregory’s home, Coole Park, County Galway, and he eventually purchased a ruined Norman castle called Thoor Ballylee in the neighbourhood. Under the name of the Tower, this structure would become a dominant symbol in many of his latest and best poems.

In 1899 Yeats asked Maud Gonne to marry him, but she declined. Four years later she married Major John MacBride, an Irish soldier who shared her feeling for Ireland and her hatred of English oppression: he was one of the rebels later executed by the British government for their part in the Easter Rising of 1916. Meanwhile, Yeats devoted himself to literature and drama, believing that poems and plays would engender a national unity capable of transfiguring the Irish nation. He (along with Lady Gregory and others) was one of the originators of the Irish Literary Theatre, which gave its first performance in Dublin in 1899 with Yeats’s play The Countess Cathleen. To the end of his life Yeats remained a director of this theatre, which became the Abbey Theatre in 1904. In the crucial period from 1899 to 1907, he managed the theatre’s affairs, encouraged its playwrights (notably John Millington Synge), and contributed many of his own plays. Among the latter that became part of the Abbey Theatre’s repertoire are The Land of Heart’s Desire (1894), Cathleen ni Houlihan (1902), The Hour Glass (1903), The King’s Threshold (1904), On Baile’s Strand (1905), and Deirdre (1907).

Yeats published several volumes of poetry during this period, notably Poems (1895) and The Wind Among the Reeds (1899), which are typical of his early verse in their dreamlike atmosphere and their use of Irish folklore and legend. But in the collections In the Seven Woods (1903) and The Green Helmet (1910), Yeats slowly discarded the Pre-Raphaelite colours and rhythms of his early verse and purged it of certain Celtic and esoteric influences. The years from 1909 to 1914 mark a decisive change in his poetry. The otherworldly, ecstatic atmosphere of the early lyrics has cleared, and the poems in Responsibilities: Poems and a Play (1914) show a tightening and hardening of his verse line, a more sparse and resonant imagery, and a new directness with which Yeats confronts reality and its imperfections.

In 1917 Yeats published The Wild Swans at Coole. From then onward he reached and maintained the height of his achievement—a renewal of inspiration and a perfecting of technique that are almost without parallel in the history of English poetry. The Tower (1928), named after the castle he owned and had restored, is the work of a fully accomplished artist; in it, the experience of a lifetime is brought to perfection of form. Still, some of Yeats’s greatest verse was written subsequently, appearing in The Winding Stair (1929). The poems in both of these works use, as their dominant subjects and symbols, the Easter Rising and the Irish civil war; Yeats’s own tower; the Byzantine Empire and its mosaics; Plato, Plotinus, and Porphyry; and the author’s interest in contemporary psychical research. Yeats explained his own philosophy in the prose work A Vision (1925, revised version 1937); this meditation upon the relation between imagination, history, and the occult remains indispensable to serious students of Yeats despite its obscurities.

In 1913 Yeats spent some months at Stone Cottage, Sussex, with the American poet Ezra Pound acting as his secretary. Pound was then editing translations of the nō plays of Japan, and Yeats was greatly excited by them. The nō drama provided a framework of drama designed for a small audience of initiates, a stylized, intimate drama capable of fully using the resources offered by masks, mime, dance, and song and conveying—in contrast to the public theatre—Yeats’s own recondite symbolism. Yeats devised what he considered an equivalent of the nō drama in such plays as Four Plays for Dancers (1921), At the Hawk’s Well (first performed 1916), and several others.

In 1917 Yeats asked Iseult Gonne, Maud Gonne’s daughter, to marry him. She refused. Some weeks later he proposed to Miss George Hyde-Lees and was accepted; they were married in 1917. A daughter, Anne Butler Yeats, was born in 1919, and a son, William Michael Yeats, in 1921.

In 1922, on the foundation of the Irish Free State, Yeats accepted an invitation to become a member of the new Irish Senate: he served for six years. In 1923 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. Now a celebrated figure, he was indisputably one of the most significant modern poets. In 1936 his Oxford Book of Modern Verse, 1892–1935, a gathering of the poems he loved, was published. Still working on his last plays, he completed The Herne’s Egg, his most raucous work, in 1938. Yeats’s last two verse collections, New Poems and Last Poems and Two Plays, appeared in 1938 and 1939 respectively. In these books many of his previous themes are gathered up and rehandled, with an immense technical range; the aged poet was using ballad rhythms and dialogue structure with undiminished energy as he approached his 75th year.

Yeats died in January 1939 while abroad. Final arrangements for his burial in Ireland could not be made, so he was buried at Roquebrune, France. The intention of having his body buried in Sligo was thwarted when World War II began in the autumn of 1939. In 1948 his body was finally taken back to Sligo and buried in a little Protestant churchyard at Drumcliffe, as he specified in “Under Ben Bulben,” in his Last Poems, under his own epitaph: “Cast a cold eye/On life, on death./Horseman, pass by!”

Had Yeats ceased to write at age 40, he would probably now be valued as a minor poet writing in a dying Pre-Raphaelite tradition that had drawn renewed beauty and poignancy for a time from the Celtic revival. There is no precedent in literary history for a poet who produces his greatest work between the ages of 50 and 75. Yeats’s work of this period takes its strength from his long and dedicated apprenticeship to poetry; from his experiments in a wide range of forms of poetry, drama, and prose; and from his spiritual growth and his gradual acquisition of personal wisdom, which he incorporated into the framework of his own mythology.

Yeats’s mythology, from which arises the distilled symbolism of his great period, is not always easy to understand, nor did Yeats intend its full meaning to be immediately apparent to those unfamiliar with his thought and the tradition in which he worked. His own cyclic view of history suggested to him a recurrence and convergence of images, so that they become multiplied and enriched; and this progressive enrichment may be traced throughout his work. Among Yeats’s dominant images are Leda and the Swan; Helen and the burning of Troy; the Tower in its many forms; the sun and moon; the burning house; cave, thorn tree, and well; eagle, heron, sea gull, and hawk; blind man, lame man, and beggar; unicorn and phoenix; and horse, hound, and boar. Yet these traditional images are continually validated by their alignment with Yeats’s own personal experience, and it is this that gives them their peculiarly vital quality. In Yeats’s verse they are often shaped into a strong and proud rhetoric and into the many poetic tones of which he was the master. All are informed by the two qualities which Yeats valued and which he retained into old age—passion and joy.


Type of work: Poetry
Author: William Butler Yeats (1865-1939)
Principal published works: Mosada: A Dramatic Poem, 1886; The Wanderings ofOisin, 1889; Poems, 1895; The Wind Among the Reeds, 1899; In the Seven Woods, 1903; The Green Helmet and Other Poems, 1910; Responsibilities, 1914; The Wild Swans at Coole, 1917; Michael Robartes and the Dancer, 1920; Later Poems, 1922; The Cat and the Moon and Certain Poems, 1924; The Tower, 1928; The Winding Stair, 1933; Collected Poems, 1933; The King of the Great Clock Tower, 1934; A Full Moon in March, 1935; New Poems, 1938; Last Poems and Plays, 1940; Collected Poems, 1949

The conflict that the antimonies between dream and action caused in the mind of William Butler Yeats could not be resolved in the verse tradition of the Pre-Raphael-ites. This was the poetry, together with that of Shelley and Keats and the plays of Shakespeare, with which he was most familiar. It was also the tradition to which he was closest in time. Because he did not have a background of a coherent culture on which to base his poetry— nor a personally satisfying faith at least—Yeats throughout his life had to create his own systems of thought and create, in fact, the convention in which he was to write.
In the introduction to A Vision, he said: "I wished for a system of thought that would leave my imagination free to create as it chose and yet make all it created, or could create, part of the one history, and that the soul's." His search for reality in belief and feeling was aided by his knowledge that the Romantic poets expressed faith in the power of the imagination. This knowledge also strengthened his conviction that the problems of human existence would never be solved by science and that answers would have to come from quite different disciplines. Therefore, both his philosophy and his actions were of paramount importance to him in the writing of poetry.
Yeats spent many years in the study of the occult: spiritualism, magic, mysticism, and theosophy. His feelings for Ireland and for the Pre-Raphaelites led him, early in his life, to the study and use of ancient Irish myths. His hopes of independence for Ireland and his periodic identification with Irish nationalism, also a part of the fabric of his verse, were influenced by his passion for Maud Gonne and his friendship with his patron, Lady Gregory. He believed the system expounded in A Vision was revealed to him by his wife's power as a medium. Thus for Yeats, as for all poets, the pattern of his relationships, interests, beliefs, and loyalties was the material of his poetry. However, great poetry is always the expression of one man's personality in such a way that it is generally or universally meaningful. Magic, nationalism, and myth partly formed Yeats's complex personality, and his prose writings in these areas are undoubtedly esoteric. Although it was through these studies that Yeats was able to write as he did, it is not through them that the reader appreciates his poetry. All Yeats's poetry can be enjoyed and understood when carefully read, without reference to any of his prose. Yeats, in fact, took care to make his work understandable, and one of the most interesting aspects in the study of his poetry is his lifelong preoccupation with clarity, simplicity, and exactness.
Clarity in particular was the goal toward which he worked throughout his career. For Yeats, symbol was the means by which the natural and the supernatural could be fused and the antimonies be resolved. Writing in many personae, or voices, he worked toward this unified expression of reality, with the result that the continuous development of his powers and his ultimate success are both rare and exciting achievements. Yeats's dedication to his art was such that to the end of his life his conscious goals were always in advance of the poems he had completed.
Yeats was a lyric poet, but his belief in and practice of "active virtue"—that is, following a discipline that one has forged oneself—makes his verse essentially dramatic. His first volumes of poetry express the sensibility of the Pre-Raphaelites; the lyrics are slight and the emotion, incompletely realized, often expresses his indecision between the life of dream and that of action. Twilight and longing predominate in these poems.
In his fourth volume, In the Seven Woods, published in 1903, Yeats began to find his true voice. Emotion is particularized, and he has started to speak with authority. His technique is more sure and his tone more varied. In "Adam's Curse," in which the poet discusses the labor of writing poetry with a women whom he loves, he uses common words and speech idioms which firmly link the poem to reality:

Better go down upon your marrow-bones
And scrub a kitchen pavement or break
Like an old pauper, in all kinds of
For to articulate sweet sounds together
Is to work harder than all these.

In his verse plays of this period Yeats was beginning deliberately to eschew abstraction and to introduce more direct and bold speech into his work. His 1910 volume, The Green Helmet and Other Poems, shows this technique in his lyric verse, which is becoming more dramatic and assertive. In "No Second Troy" the use of Greek myth approximates a reconciliation between dream and reality.
The 1914 volume, Responsibilities, shows an increase in force. Here Yeats uses other voices, of beggars, fools, and hermits, to present his ideas. At that time he was encouraged further in his progress toward exactness of expression and the use of only the most meaningful images by his contact with Ezra Pound, who insisted that Yeats remove all abstractions from his verse. He appears to have learned quickly and well from the younger poet, and in subsequent poems he was able to integrate completely his theories of history and personality, and his feelings of despair for Ireland. He also learned to pare his images so that they are totally relevant to his emotion:

Things fall apart, the centre cannot
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and
The ceremony of innocence is drowned.

The Tower, published in 1928, contains several of Yeats's finest poems. The most brilliant and complex of these is "Sailing to Byzantium." The dazzling civilization of Byzantium, which had successfully withstood the power of Rome as Yeats would have liked Ireland to withstand that of England, became for him the symbol of eternal art and of the fusion of the creator with the work of art. The reconciliation of youth and age, passion and intellect, is effected by the symbolic representation of the wisdom of the inspired soul in a supernatural form. In this poem, natural birds sing of the cycle of human life and the created birds of Byzantium, of the cycle of history. The glory of the old and of the young is here presented with a single steady vision, and the conflict between them has been resolved:

This is no country for old men. The young
In one another's arms, birds in the trees
—Those dying generations—at their
The salmon-falls, the mackerel-crowded
Fish, flesh, or fowl, commend all sum-
mer long
Whatever is begotten, born, and dies.

He continues:

An aged man is but a paltry thing,
A tattered coat upon a stick, unless
Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder
sing. . . .

The poet has sailed to Byzantium that he may thus sing. His soul after death will not take "bodily form from any natural thing" but will be one of the singing birds of metal and enamel that the goldsmiths make to amuse the emperor,

Or set upon a golden bough to sing
To lords and ladies of Byzantium
Of what is past, or passing, or to come.

Another unified vision of life which is not dependent upon the supernatural is communicated in the poem "Among School Children." The mastery of technique, which gives "Sailing to Byzantium" its tour de force brilliance, enables Yeats in this poem to communicate the feeling of the quiet after a storm. The poet visits a convent school where the children see him as an old man, and as the children stare in mild curiosity, he is reminded of the "Ledaean body" of a woman he had loved, and this vision causes him to feel so joined in sympathy with her that he can visualize her as she must have been as a child:

For even daughters of the swan share
Something of every paddler's heritage.

The vision of the childhood of the woman who caused him much pain leads him to the thought that women would not think motherhood worth while if they could see their progeny at sixty. His suggestion that mothers as well as nuns worship images returns the poem to the convent school setting. In the last stanza of the poem Yeats, by a unifying image of continuity and completeness, reconciles the opposing forces of age and youth at the level of reality.
The poems written in the three years before Yeats's death at seventy-four show no diminution of power. He was still intent on his search for unity and reality of expression. In "The Circus Animals' Desertion," he reviews his poetic output and says that until he was an old man the machinery of his poetry was still in evidence:

My circus animals were still on show,
Those stilted boys, that gilded chariot.

He lists his old themes: the Irish myths, his lost love, and his preoccupation with the theater, and he tells how he dramatized his love in his plays. He faces his own delight in dreams which he feared would inhibit him from reality: "This dream itself had all my thought and love." He speaks of the personae in which he wrote and of the characters of Irish history:

Players and painted stage took all ray
And not those things they were the
emblems of.

The reversal and resolution of these ideas comes in the last verse where he evaluates the use of images in his poetry, by questioning their origin and finding that they indeed had their foundation in reality.
Thus his adolescent faith in the imagination had been justified and he could join the ranks of those whom he admired and who had fused the subjective and objective self into a meaningful whole: "The antithetical self comes to those who are no longer deceived, whose passion is reality."
The philosophy that Yeats so carefully constructed was the basis for a personal vision of life, which by unswerving dedication to craftsmanship and constantly renewed emotional and intellectual vitality he presented in his poetry in all its varied facets and with always increasing significance.


Type of work: Memoirs and journals
Author: William Butler Yeats (1865-1939)
First published: Reveries over Childhood and Youth, 1915; Four Years, 1921; The Trembling of the Veil, 1922; Autobiographies, 1926; Estrangement, 1926; Reflections from a Diary Kept in 1909, 1926; The Death ofSynge and Other Passages from an Old Diary, 1928; Dramatis Personae, 1936

Yeats's Autobiography is important for several reasons, not the least of which is that it serves as an illuminating background to the greatest body of twentieth century poetry in English, The Collected Poems ofW. B. Yeats. Yeats's poetry is about people: imaginary people (Michael Robartes, Crazy Jane), people of Irish legend (Cuchulain, Fergus), people of Irish history (Parnell, Robert Emmet), people to whom Yeats was related (the Middletons, the Pollexfens), people Yeats knew (Maud Gonne, Lady Gregory). All these, and many more, are celebrated in his poems. The main figure in the poems is, of course, "I, the poet William Yeats."
The poems themselves are not important as autobiography, for the people in them exist in art, not in life. There is a "Yeats country" just as there is a "Faulkner country," but whereas Faulkner changed the names (Oxford, Mississippi becoming "Jefferson"), Yeats did not. In the "Yeats country" Michael Robartes is as real as Maud Gonne; Cuchulain is as alive as Lady Gregory. Yet we are always aware that many of Yeats's people are taken from real life, and in the Autobiography we are afforded an extraordinary view into that life. We read about the places Yeats made famous: Sligo, Coole, Bal-lylee. We meet the Yeats family and Irish peasants, poets of the 1890s, patriots and revolutionaries, spiritualists, and Swedish royalty. We are presented with the real-life equivalent of the "Yeats country" of the Collected Poems, and we see it through the eyes and through the memory of the poet himself.
The first section of the Autobiography, "Reveries over Childhood and Youth," begins with Yeats's earliest memories and concludes with the publication of his first book of poems, The Wanderings of Oisin and Other Poems (1889). The chief locales are Sligo, London, and Dublin.
As a very young child Yeats stood in awe of his sea-captain grandfather, William Pollexfen, but it was his father, John Butler Yeats, whose influence was dominant throughout his childhood and adolescence. The elder Yeats, a none-too-successful painter and an opinionated skeptic, influenced his son in several ways. He fostered his interest in literature by reading to him from the works of James Fenimore Cooper, Walter Scott, Chaucer, Shelley, Thoreau, and many other writers, and in the theater by taking him to see Henry Irving in Hamlet. Until he was nearly twenty Yeats seems to have shared most of his father's opinions (and they were generally outspoken ones) about art, education, and politics. It was only after he had begun to study psychical research and mystical philosophy that he finally was able to break away from his father's influence. But in some respects his father's influence was never broken; John Butler Yeats's hatred for abstractions, for example, was one opinion his son held to all his life, and it greatly influenced the younger Yeats's attitudes toward politics, art, and life itself. Moreover. Yeats was always conscious of being an artist's son and aware, therefore, that he must follow a career that would embrace the whole of life rather than provide a means to becoming well off and living pleasantly. The work that Yeats considered as embracing life was, of course, his poetry.
In this section we read of many things: Yeats's early interest in natural science (which he later grew to hate); his lack of scholarship and his resultant lack of anything like a systematic formal education; the influence on him of the Fenian leader, John O'Leary; and his continuing interest in legends of the Irish heroes, in stories of ghosts and omens, and in peasant tales of all kinds. It was only natural that Yeats was later to collect these stones (as in The Celtic Twilight, 1893), for he was never to forget his mother and a fisherman's wife telling each other --tones such as Homer himself might have told.
This section of the Autobiography is a portrait oi the artist as a young man. At first Yeats merely played the roles of sage, magician, poet. Sometimes he was Hamlet. or Byron's Manfred, or Shelley's Alastor; at other times he was Byron himself. Then he began to write poems in admiring imitation of Shelley and Spenser. All of his early work was derivative; it was not until years afterward that he began, deliberately, to reshape his style b\ discarding traditional metaphors, employing looser rhythms. communicating emotion that he described as "cold." But for now there was nothing "cold" about his emotion. Very much under the influence of his father's belief that only passionate poetry is important, he filled his early lyrics with imagery and color, a heritage from the Romantic poets.
The longest section of the Autobiography, "The Trembling of the Veil," deals with the period between 1887 and the turn of the century. On the one hand this section is a record of his friendships during these years. Nearly all of the famous literary figures of the 1890s are here: W. E. Henley, Oscar Wilde, William Morris, Lionel Johnson, Ernest Dowson, George Bernard Shaw, George Russell ("A. E."), John Synge, Arthur Symons, Aubrey Beardsley, Max Beerbohm, William Sharp ("Fiona Mcleod"), Paul Verlaine—Yeats knew them all. On the other hand the section is a record of the coming to maturity of Yeats's own work and its chief importance is perhaps that it gives us insights into the development of his theories of poetry.
He did not forsake his interest in emotion, but he began to write poems combining personal feeling with larger patterns of myth and symbol. His interest in myth and symbol, an understanding of which is essential to an understanding of his mature poetry, led him into a series of esoteric studies. He was associated with the Theo-sophist, Madame Blavatsky; he experimented with the evocative power of symbols under the direction of Mac-gregor Mathers and later in conjunction with his uncle, George Pollexfen. He eventually realized that he had found only a variety of images. He had been searching for a tradition—for the centrality of a tradition—but he had hit upon its opposite: fragmentation.
Yeats envied Dante for having had a unified culture out of which to write. "Unity of Culture," a unity stemming from a universally accepted mythology, is precisely what, in Yeats's view, the modern world lacks. Symbolism he saw as the language of mythology. For years Yeats was occupied with the attempt to regain, in Ireland, that "Unity of Culture" which would make the language of symbolism intelligible. He hoped to find his mythology in peasant legendry. He hoped to encourage a national literature, one above politics and all temporal disputes, which would draw upon such a mythology. Finally he came to realize that his dream of a modern nation returned to Unity of Culture, was false. When this dream failed, he inevitably turned inward. Lacking a traditional mythology, he created one of his own, compounded from a complex variety of sources. He adopted myths and symbols from Christianity, from paganism, from the Orient, from Theosophy, and from Irish folklore.
In the third section of the Autobiography, "Dramatis Personae, 1896-1902," the main "Personae" are Edward Martyn, Arthur Symons, George Moore, and, above all, Lady Gregory. This section recounts the struggles of a small group of people to found in Ireland a native and national theater. But most of all it serves as Yeats's graceful and grateful tribute to Lady Gregory, his patron, collaborator, and friend. She encouraged him in his work and lent him money. Of even greater influence in the development of his art, as Yeats recalled years later, were the times he stayed at Coole, Lady Gregory's home, where Yeats spent the summers of twenty years. Among the trees and by the lake at Coole, Yeats was to do much of his greatest work, and the place itself, which he said he knew better than any spot on earth, became, like the people he knew, a familiar and important part of the world of his Collected Poems.
The Autobiography is far from being a complete account of Yeats's life. The first three sections cover the years 1865 to 1902, but Yeats was to live until 1939, and to do nearly all of his important work during the remaining years. Of the last three sections of the book, two ("Estrangement" and "The Death of Synge") are but fragmentary extracts from a diary Yeats kept in 1909. "Estrangement" is a collection of scattered and, at times, half-formed ideas about art, and is not, in the true sense of the word, autobiography. "The Death of Synge" is also largely a series of reveries about art; those reveries, in particular, which were induced by his friend's death. The final section of the book, "The Bounty of Sweden" (written in 1925), is a relaxed account of his trip to Stockholm in 1923 to receive the Nobel Prize.





A Man Young And Old

First Love

THOUGH nurtured like the sailing moon
In beauty's murderous brood,
She walked awhile and blushed awhile
And on my pathway stood
Until I thought her body bore
A heart of flesh and blood.
But since I laid a hand thereon
And found a heart of stone
I have attempted many things
And not a thing is done,
For every hand is lunatic
That travels on the moon.
She smiled and that transfigured me
And left me but a lout,
Maundering here, and maundering there,
Emptier of thought
Than the heavenly circuit of its stars
When the moon sails out.

Human Dignity
Like the moon her kindness is,
If kindness I may call
What has no comprehension in't,
But is the same for all
As though my sorrow were a scene
Upon a painted wall.
So like a bit of stone I lie
Under a broken tree.
I could recover if I shrieked
My heart's agony
To passing bird, but I am dumb
From human dignity.

The Mermaid
A mermaid found a swimming lad,
Picked him for her own,
Pressed her body to his body,
Laughed; and plunging down
Forgot in cruel happiness
That even lovers drown.

The Death of the Hare
I have pointed out the yelling pack,
The hare leap to the wood,
And when I pass a compliment
Rejoice as lover should
At the drooping of an eye,
At the mantling of the blood.
Then' suddenly my heart is wrung
By her distracted air
And I remember wildness lost
And after, swept from there,
Am set down standing in the wood
At the death of the hare.

The Empty Cup
A crazy man that found a cup,
When all but dead of thirst,
Hardly dared to wet his mouth
Imagining, moon-accursed,
That another mouthful
And his beating heart would burst.
October last I found it too
But found it dry as bone,
And for that reason am I crazed
And my sleep is gone.

His Memories
We should be hidden from their eyes,
Being but holy shows
And bodies broken like a thorn
Whereon the bleak north blows,
To think of buried Hector
And that none living knows.
The women take so little stock
In what I do or say
They'd sooner leave their cosseting
To hear a jackass bray;
My arms are like the twisted thorn
And yet there beauty lay;
The first of all the tribe lay there
And did such pleasure take --
She who had brought great Hector down
And put all Troy to wreck --
That she cried into this ear,
'Strike me if I shriek.'

The Friends of his Youth
Laughter not time destroyed my voice
And put that crack in it,
And when the moon's pot-bellied
I get a laughing fit,
For that old Madge comes down the lane,
A stone upon her breast,
And a cloak wrapped about the stone,
And she can get no rest
With singing hush and hush-a-bye;
She that has been wild
And barren as a breaking wave
Thinks that the stone's a child.
And Peter that had great affairs
And was a pushing man
Shrieks, 'I am King of the Peacocks,'
And perches on a stone;
And then I laugh till tears run down
And the heart thumps at my side,
Remembering that her shriek was love
And that he shrieks from pride.

Summer and Spring
We sat under an old thorn-tree
And talked away the night,
Told all that had been said or done
Since first we saw the light,
And when we talked of growing up
Knew that we'd halved a soul
And fell the one in t'other's arms
That we might make it whole;
Then peter had a murdering look,
For it seemed that he and she
Had spoken of their childish days
Under that very tree.
O what a bursting out there was,
And what a blossoming,
When we had all the summer-time
And she had all the spring!

The Secrets of the Old
I have old women's sectets now
That had those of the young;
Madge tells me what I dared not think
When my blood was strong,
And what had drowned a lover once
Sounds like an old song.
Though Margery is stricken dumb
If thrown in Madge's way,
We three make up a solitude;
For none alive to-day
Can know the stories that we know
Or say the things we say:
How such a man pleased women most
Of all that are gone,
How such a pair loved many years
And such a pair but one,
Stories of the bed of straw
Or the bed of down.

His Wildness
O bid me mount and sail up there
Amid the cloudy wrack,
For peg and Meg and Paris' love
That had so straight a back,
Are gone away, and some that stay
Have changed their silk for sack.
Were I but there and none to hear
I'd have a peacock cry,
For that is natural to a man
That lives in memory,
Being all alone I'd nurse a stone
And sing it lullaby.

From 'Oedipus at Colonus'
Endure what life God gives and ask no longer span;
Cease to remember the delights of youth, travel-wearied aged man;
Delight becomes death-longing if all longing else be vain.
Even from that delight memory treasures so,
Death, despair, division of families, all entanglements of mankind grow,
As that old wandering beggar and these God-hated children know.
In the long echoing street the laughing dancers throng,
The bride is catried to the bridegroom's chamber
through torchlight and tumultuous song;
I celebrate the silent kiss that ends short life or long.
Never to have lived is best, ancient writers say;
Never to have drawn the breath of life, never to have
looked into the eye of day;
The second best's a gay goodnight and quickly turn away.


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