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Irish Literature 101: Drama, Myths & Nationalism - A William Butler Yeats Biography


Irish Literature 101 is a fascinating and complete guide through the significant historical events that shaped Irish culture and literature. This series also introduces major figures in every literary movement from romanticism to modernism. In addition, it is packed with numerous interesting quotes and concepts, along with easy-to-understand accounts of famous authors' works and the rationales behind the transition from one literary era to another. So, whether you are looking to refresh the memory on elemental Irish literature proceedings or enjoy learning about it for the first time, Irish Literature 101 proves beneficial. This series offers an engaging read, written in plain English with meticulous attention to historical and cultural affairs during each era.

Irish Literature 101 is divided into the following chapters:

That is no country for old men. The young In one another’s arms, birds in the trees, —Those dying generations—at their song, The salmon-falls, the mackerel-crowded seas, Fish, flesh, or fowl, commend all summer long Whatever is begotten, born, and dies. Caught in that sensual music all neglect Monuments of unageing intellect...

Sailing to Byzantium, W. B. Yeats

A portrait of W.B. Yeats (1865–1939)

The American author Gregory Castle observes: “One of the most challenging tasks confronting those who wish to read Yeats is to decide which Yeats to read.” When writing about the life of a multidimensional eccentric, one can not decide which dimension of Yeats to approach. Castle continues in his book, Modernism and the Celtic Revival, to quote the editors of the Norton Anthology of English Literature about the key figure of the Irish revivalism, described as: “a hard - nosed skeptic and an esoteric idealist, a nativist and a cosmopolitan, an Irish nationalist and an ironic antinationalist, a Romantic brooding on loss and unrequited desire and a modernist mocking idealism, nostalgia, and contemporary society.”

But as an admirer of a remarkable literary movement that encouraged the entire nation to shun away all that is unauthentic and look deep into its own identity for a refuge, I’d like to look at Yeats though a rather elementary set of eyes; a poet with a love for the intense beauty of literature and even a man driven by his idealistic beliefs and enthusiasm for his nation.

Through the Formative Years

William Butler Yeats was born on June 13th, 1865, was born in Dublin. Perhaps, He inherited his artistic blood from his father John Butler Yeats. He was the eldest of four children and named after his grandfather, William Butler Yeats.

Along with artistic influences at home, William grew up between numerous sojourn between Dublin, as his native city, and London, where his father advanced his artistic pursuits. His stay with his relatives in County Sligo, on the cliff-walled coasts of the Atlantic Ocean, marks the strong-rooted connection of Yeats with the subdued yet reverberating Celtic background of the country. The northwest region, along with few other countries, was a trove of myths, stories and the almost extinct Irish culture. These influences gave place to the wish of the young poet in the following years, forming a nucleus to the literary, and national, revivalism in Ireland.

He studied at Godolphin Day School in England and continued his education at Erasmus High School in Dublin, where he was acquainted with his long life friend George William Russell. A bond that created a long-lasting impact on Yeats and a core introduction to mysticism throughout his literary and personal life.

The Start of W. B. Yeats Career as Poet and a Writer

The first publications of Yeats's poetry was during his university years in the Dublin University Review. The most notable piece is the Wanderings of Oisin, along with a large volume of his initial poems. By the time he had concluded his education in Dublin’s Metropolitan School of Art, several volumes of his poems, and a few dramatic plays.

S. Patrick. You who are bent, and bald, and blind, With a heavy heart and a wandering mind, Have known three centuries, poets sing, Of dalliance with a demon thing. The opening phrase of the Wanderings of Oisin

W.B.Yeats, the opening phrase of the Wanderings of Oisin

Maud Gonne, an Irish actress, and the muse and inspiration of E.B. Yeats

His early writing was beaming with his draw towards mysticism, spiritualism, and his fascination towards folklore. Interestingly, the young writer earned his living through writing columns in magazines and newspapers; published poetry and took other writing jobs that he came across to earn a meager living wage.

Upon reading the Wanderings of Oisin, Maud Gonne, the writer, actress and Irish nationalist, contacted Yeats to applaud his talent. The meeting of the two boiled down to a love story that continued to inspire Yeats throughout most of his life. Although she did not accept Yeats’s hand in marriage, she tied him with an even stronger bond to the Irish Nationalist movement and their relationship strengthened.

Gatherings and Inspirations: W.B Yeats in the Midst of His Literary Career

After his academic education, Yeats dedicated his writing to the purpose of enlivening the Irish identity. He wrote several plays including, The Countess Cathleen (1892), Cathleen ni Houlihan (1902), The Land of Heart’s Desire (1894), all carrying stamps of nationalism through the language of drama.


"Impetuous heart be still, be still, / Your sorrowful love can never be told, / Cover it up with a lonely tune, / He who could bend all things to His will / Has covered the door of the infinite fold / With the pale star and the wandering moon."

The Countess Cathleen, dialogue of the poet, Aleel, who represents love and beauty

In the 1890s, Yeats instituted the Irish Literary Society in London and the National Literary Society in Dublin, gathering artists with Irish and Anglo-Irish backgrounds.

W.B. Yeats and Georgie Hyde-Lee in New York, January 1920

W. B. Yeats also traveled to America in 1902 and visited several universities, academic art centers and clubs, following an invitation from John Quinn; an Irish-American lawyer and a nationalist with strong liberal motives, Quinn was enticed by the character and professional endeavours of Yeats.

During these years, the young writer met with Lady Gregory who discovered a literary visionary in him, much in need of moral and financial support. Not only did she lift his economic worries to make ends meet but also helped materializing the Irish National Theatre. A theatre not for entertainment nor for fame, but merely used as an instrument to reach out to the public, and encourage the intellectual transformation in all classes of society- in a try to uplift the Irish nation.

The evolution of Abbey Theatre from a drama and literary point of view is phenomenal. Several great writers were involved in producing the plays, and contributed the political and literary stance of the Abbey Theatre to the Celtic Revival. Theoretical inclinations of Yeats also transformed through the years, from English stage drama, magical realism, to Japanese Noh drama brought to his attention by Ezra Pound.

The Fruits of Yeats’s Life

Yeats met his wife, the young Georgie Hyde-Lee in 1917, and at the age of 52. She later became a part of Cuala Press and followed through the movement years after William’s death. The offspring of this union were Anne Butler (1919) and William Michael (1921).

Throughout the years, Yeats empowered Irish nationalism to great heights, leading to the formation of national movements; the rise of artists and political activists; and changing the destiny of Ireland from the abysses of colonial dependency to the glorified heights of independence.

In 1922, the country, after years of disputes and suppression, climaxed in the Irish Civil War where he earnestly supported the pro-treaty governments with the core value of the freedom to achieve freedom. A year after the breakout of the war, he received the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Besides literature, Yeats had become a prominent figure in Ireland’s politics, and synonymous with a well-wisher of the nation. During the last ten years of his life, he actively took part in new political as well as social and literary foundations on the new Irish horizons.

He suffered from heart disease for almost a decade, which led to the events of January 1939. He was in France when he drew his last breath, leaving behind a legacy of culture and literature palpable in Irish Society and influential on the intellectual mind frame of many until present day.


William Butler Yeats: An Inventory of His Collection at the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, Chelsea Dinsmore, Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, University of Texas at

Austin, 2002

A Companion to Irish Literature, Volume 1 & 2, Edited by Julia M. Wright, Blackwell Publishing Ltd, 2010

The Collected Poems of W. B. Yeats, Edited by Richard J. FinneranImage, Macmillan Publishing Company, 1989

The Collected Plays Of W.b. Yeats, Macmillan Publishing Company, 1963

Image Sources:

Luis Fernando Fontoura de Oliveira, Portrait of W. B. Yeats, 2020

RTE, The Real Maud Gonne - an extract from The Adulterous Muse, 2017

Mark Holan's Irish-American Blog, W.B. Yeats arrives in New York, January 1920


Author Photo

Pourandokht Mazaheri

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