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Introduction to W.B. Yeats: Life and Poetry

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  • 0:05 Background & Life
  • 2:53 Mysticisim
  • 4:34 Early Days
  • 6:34 Middle Period
  • 7:36 Later Days
  • 10:05 The End
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Ellie Green

Ellie holds a B.A. with Honors in English from Stanford University. She is pursuing a Ph.D. in English Literature at Princeton University.

'Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold.' Watch this video to learn more about the man behind that quote - W.B. Yeats. Study the events, stages and works of his writing career. Also take a look at his personal history, including his ties to Ireland.

Introduction

So, Yeats - cool dude. He's a Nobel Prize winner. He is a senator, a magician, a businessman, a critic and, oh yeah, a really good writer, which is why we're talking about him now. He's also super interesting. William Butler Yeats is his full name; it's W.B. for short. He joins an elite club of Modernist writers who go by their initials. We've got T.S. Eliot, D.H. Lawrence and the poet H.D. - she doesn't even use her last name.

Before we go into Yeats' writing output, which was a lot and was very significant, we'll look at a few, kind of interesting, things and get to know him as a man first. It's important to note that he's kind of a slightly earlier generation than most Modernists. He evolves over time. He spans from mid-turn-of-the-century time into early Modernism time and evolves as he goes. He's had a long and fruitful career.

Background & Life

Born into an artistic family, Yeats moved between Dublin and London as a child
Yeats early life

Yeats is an Irish guy. He was born in Dublin, in 1865. He was part of a really artistic family. They were actually super encouraging of his writing and his painting. They took him to London so he could better pursue it. They had to go back to Dublin for a little bit because they kind of ran out of money, but then they went back to London. He does a lot of moving around, which helps him hone a bit of a sense of his Irishness, which is important because he's growing up at a time of religious and national turmoil in Ireland.

Politics

During his lifetime, his home nation was trying to throw off the yoke of Great Britain. They were trying to establish self-rule. They tried a bunch of times unsuccessfully. Then they violently break free in 1922. All of this conflict bears significant impact on Yeats' life and work. He's not a violent, revolutionary-type guy, but he is a really strong nationalist. He is considered a real major part of the heritage-reclaiming 'Irish Literary Revival' that was going on while he was alive. He was a huge part of that.

His political leanings would become obvious later in life when he became one of the first senators appointed to the Irish Free State. He gets into it more as he gets older, which is usually the opposite of what happens in politics. He served two terms in the Senate before having to retire for health reasons. He actually rallied against the Catholics for their intractability on the matters of divorce; that was one of his big stands. He identified pretty strongly with the Northern Ireland Protestants and did not care much at all for Catholicism. That's kind of his religious stance.

Mysticism

He's sympathetic to Protestants, but his own religious beliefs are a little weirder. He seems skewed a bit more towards the occult and the mystic. He wasn't totally a fringe religious, fanatic dude. He had a critical eye to it all and was an independent thinker in such matters. He was really fascinated with the paranormal. He was into Irish folklore. He embraced metaphysical philosophy. He wrote at one point (this is an indication of how seriously he took it): The mystical life is the centre of all that I do and all that I think and all that I write. All of this, the mysticism and whatnot, wasn't all that unusual at the time. This was a time in which séances and Ouija boards were getting going. You can invite Yeats to your next sleepover and figure out whether Michael likes you.

Writing

We've gone through a lot of his life and stuff. Now we can actually talk about his work, which is really what he's most remembered for. We haven't even mentioned his messed-up love life. Okay, we'll mention it for a second. He proposed to a mother and then to her daughter - what?! Anyway, that's not important.

His work can be divided into three main stages of output. He's got his early days, which were dominated by more of a fantasy kind of writing, his middle days, which were more full of social writing, and his later days, which were more spiritualist writing.

Early

Yeats was first published in 1885 in the Dublin University Review. He wrote some poetry. He wrote an essay, like a critical work, essentially. At this point, the key examples of his poems are The Isle of Statues, which is an epic fantasy in the style of Edmund Spenser's The Faerie Queene that was written way back in the Renaissance. He also publishes The Wanderings of Oisin, a work heavily steeped in Irish mythology. This is kind of his experimental phase with epic, long poems that he was working on. He doesn't really do much with the long form after that, although the Wanderings poem really cements his fascination with his Irish heritage.

In 1890 and in a collected edition in 1892 he publishes 'The Lake Isle of Innisfree,' which is kind of a rustic poem that idealizes Ireland. He was living in London at this time, so it was like harkening to the homeland a bit. It marks another attempt to really bring a clear, Irish voice to English poetry. This time it's a short form. It's only 12 lines long, so that's a nice, easy one to read. He'd continue to write shorter things for most of his career.

'Lake Isle,' like I mentioned before, was collected in 1892's The Countess Kathleen and Various Legends and Lyrics, which is sounding really Irish. It brings up another important point about Yeats, which is that in addition to being a poet, he was a playwright. The Countess Cathleen, which is in this collection, is actually a play. A few years later he has his first performed play, which is called The Land of Heart's Desire. It runs for six weeks in London. It's about a fairy - remember, he was kind of into fantasy before - who successfully attempts to draw a mortal woman into the blissful immortality of the fairy-world. Yeats was actually so into drama that he opened the Abbey Theatre in Dublin in 1904, which was kind of a famous theater. It remained open for 42 years after he established it. So, that's his early period.

Middle Period

His first work in the middle period was In the Seven Woods, which is a poetry collection published in 1903. A lot of the Romantic notions of his earlier works are gone now, and we get a more sparse style and more realistic concerns. This continues throughout works like 1910's The Green Helmet, which I can't hear without thinking of The Green Hornet. It reaches its apex in 1916's aptly-titled 'Easter, 1916,' which is a poem about a real, failed Irish uprising against English rule. Here Yeats is in full-on nationalist mode. He has put aside the faeries and the idealistic portraits of Ireland and he's talking about serious business - war and violence, things like that. Another important work that has a title that does not sound nearly as warlike and violent is called 'The Wild Swans at Coole,' which was released in 1917.

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