William Butler Yeats is regarded by many to be the greatest Anglophone poet of the 20th century. Towards the end of his life, he remained a productive author and, while most poets write their best in their early years, Yeats created his greatest poetry past age 50. The Irish poet, dramatist and prose writer, William Butler Yeats (June 13, 1865, Sandymount, Dublin, Ireland — Jan. 28, 1939, Roquebrune-Cap-Martin, France) was the son of a painter and former lawyer. In 1867, his family moved to London, but the boy spent much of his school holidays on the northwest coast, in Sligo with his grandparents. This beautiful countryside awoke his interest in folklore and mystical legend, and would later feed into his poems. The Yeats lived in London from 1874 until 1883, and then went back to Ireland and settled a few miles from Dublin. In 1883, he went to the Metropolitan School of Art in Dublin, where he met other poets and artists.
Yeats briefly studied painting but soon gave it up for a literary occupation and in 1885 had his first poems published in the Dublin University Review. In London, in 1891, he was among the founders of the Rhymers' Club. Here he acquired ideas that a poet's language should be dreamy, moving, and delicate. The Dublin years deeply influenced his Irish nationalism and, though he was against political poetry, his writing sparked a lively interest in Irish culture. After his editing of Poems and Ballads of Young Ireland (1888), Yeats published his first book, entirely Celtic in tone, The Wanderings of Oisin and Other Poems (1889), it was rightfully regarded as the one that started a new literary revival in Ireland. Soon he became a leading figure in the Irish Renaissance, a movement for revival of the Irish language and Celtic traditions. Together with his friend Lady Augusta Gregory, he founded the Irish National Theatre Society. From 1899 to 1907, he managed the theatre, encouraged other playwrights to contribute to Irish drama, and himself wrote a series of poetic plays, based on Irish legends, such as The Countess Cathleen (1892), The Land of Heart's Desire (1894), The Hour Glass (1903), On Baile's Strand (1904) and Deirdre (1907). This was a valuable contribution to bringing poetry back on the stage.
Yeats' poetic career could be traced in its evolution from the Romanticism to 20th century Modernism. His early poems were influenced by Blake, Shelley, the Pre-Raphaelites, the aesthetic movement of the 1890s, and Irish mythology. His early poetry was breathing with Irish melancholy, sweet music and dreamy landscapes. Under the inspiration of the beautiful Maud Gonne, one of the leaders of the Irish National Movement, Yeats's cultural interests in his home country soon enlarged to a political dimension. For Yeats, Maud Gonne herself was a Joan of Arc, and he was in love with her for 13 years, though they never married.
In the 1920s, Yeats further advanced both in politics and literature. He was invited to become a member of the new senate of the Irish Free State in 1922. He received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1923. His major philosophical prose writing, A Vision, came out in 1925.
Yeats died abroad and only in 1948 was his body finally taken to Sligo and buried, according to his request, in a little Protestant churchyard at Drumcliffe. His own epitaph reads
Cast a cold eye
On life, on death.
Horseman, pass by!
In his long poetic development Yeats created his own philosophy, and wrote rough, laconic verse, employed irregular rhyme, all suitable for his obscure ideas about life, religion, and ;ove. His tough syntax and rhetorical power remain among the most incredible achievements of the English language.