William Butler Yeats

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William Butler Yeats (1903)
Yeats Signature.jpg
Thoor Ballylee - 12 year old Yeats home

William Butler Yeats [ jeɪts ] (born June 13, 1865 in Sandymount , County Dublin , † January 28, 1939 in Menton , France ) was an Irish poet. He is considered one of the most important English-language writers of the 20th century. In 1923 he was the first Irishman to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature . He was the brother of the artist and writer Jack Butler Yeats and the father of the politician Michael Yeats .

William Butler Yeats was a patron of the Irish Renaissance and at times joined a revolutionary movement. In 1899 he founded the Irish Literary Theater with Lady Gregory and Edward Martyn . From this project, the Abbey Theater , the Irish national theater , emerged in 1904 . Yeats was a senator for two terms some time later .

As a writer, Yeats was influenced by old Irish models, Celtic mythology and traditional English poets such as Blake , Shakespeare and Shelley . He created a "national-Irish, mythical-mystical, often symbolic poetry". His early poems can be assigned to the English or Irish romanticism . In the age of modernity , Yeats increasingly wrote several modern poems that mark his outstanding late work . Sometimes it is said that he wrote his greatest literary works only after receiving the Nobel Prize.

Yeats' influence as an artist who throughout his life struggled to find the appropriate aesthetic expression for a “thoroughly disorganized world” extends far beyond Irish literature. In his works he shows an “astonishing ability to change and improve”, which makes him “an absolutely representative poet between 1890 and 1940”. Alongside the novelist James Joyce , Yeats is often considered the greatest Irish writer of this era.


William was the son of John Butler Yeats , a lawyer who had turned to portraiture. He spent his childhood with his grandmother in his birthplace, and he received schooling in London and Dublin. After studying art in Dublin, he turned to literature from 1880. During his home semester break, he became passionate about the heritage of Irish culture. Yeats was a Protestant and grew up in a country torn by religious conflicts between Catholics and Protestants; he leaned neither to one side nor the other. Yeats became friends with Oscar Wilde , who introduced him to French symbolism . Since then, Yeats has been particularly committed to English-language Irish literature.

When the family moved back to London in 1887, he became a writer and studied English Romanticism (especially Shelley and Blake ) as well as Hinduism and mysticism and joined the Theosophical Society . There he met its founder Helena Blavatsky . In 1890 he became a member of the "discreet magical society" Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn , from 1903 switched to Stella Matutina , a successor organization to the Golden Dawn and in 1911 was elected Emperor of the Amoun Temple in London. His religious name was Daemon est deus inversus ("The demon is an upside-down god"). In his essay Magic it says:

"I believe in the vision of truth in the depths of the mind when the eyes are closed."

One of the most famous of his poems is called The Wanderings of Oisin (1889), published in the poetry book of the same name. In this poem, the young Yeats praises the pagan bard Ossian, whose phases of life are assigned to allegorical spaces such as the Island of Youth.

Some of Yeats's poems became folk songs, for example Down by the Salley Gardens in the band Crossways (1889). The age of positivism repelled him - he wanted to be a visionary and reveled in symbolic images.

During one of his stays in Ireland in 1899, Yeats met the actress and Irish freedom fighter Maud Gonne and fell in love with her. She admired him, but did not return his affection. Also because of his passion for Maud Gonne, Yeats joined the Irish nationalists . In the premiere of his play Cathleen ni Houlihan in 1902, Gonne played the title role. Yeats uses his unsuccessful recruiting for Maud Gonne in his poems, especially in the Celtic magic and the allegories of The Wind among the Reeds .

William Butler Yeats (1908), pencil drawing by John Singer Sargent

In 1896 he went back to Ireland. He often met Irish intellectuals at Oliver St. John Gogarty's at Dunguaire Castle or at Coole Park, the country residence of the Irish writer Lady Gregory , whom he later accompanied on trips to the continent. In 1916 he bought the rest of a Norman castle near Coole Park and lived for twelve years in "Thoor Ballylee" on the Cloon River near Gort . There he wrote The Winding Stair and The Tower Poems .

He also scratched the following line on a table:

I, the poet William Yeats,
With old mill boards and sea-green slates,
And smithy work from the Gort forge,
Restored this tower for my wife George;
And may these characters remain
When all is ruin once again.

In 1902, with the support of Lady Gregory, William and Frank Fay, and later Annie Horniman and the actress Florence Farr, he founded the Irish National Theater Society , from which the Dublin Abbey Theater , later the Irish National Theater, emerged in December 1904 , and directed it until 1936. He wrote himself for the repertoire of the theater, but also won among others as an author. a. John Millington Synge .

From 1913, Yeats lived in Sussex for some time . Ezra Pound was his secretary and introduced him to Far Eastern literature (poetry and dramas). In 1917 he married Georgie Hyde-Lees , who also had occult interests. This marriage had two children: Anne (1919-2001) and Michael Yeats (1922-2007).

William Butler Yeats 1933

Yeats commented on the Dublin Easter Rising of 1916 in the poem Easter 1916 , which appeared in the Michael Robartes and the Dancer collection in 1921 . In the solemn poem he recalls the Irish freedom fighters with the words:

Everything changed completely.
Terrible beauty arose.

After the establishment of the Irish Free State , he was a member of the Irish Senate from 1922 to 1928 .

Yeats wrote prose , poetry , dramas and essays . In 1923 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature "for his poems, which were always inspired by great inspiration and which, in perfect form, express the essence of his people."

In 1923 he withdrew from the religious activities of the Stella Matutina and resigned from the order.

William Butler Yeats died on January 28, 1939 in the Hôtel Idéal Séjour in Menton and was buried in Roquebrune-Cap-Martin .

In 1948 he was reburied at Drumcliff ; there his grandfather had been superintendent of the Church of Ireland . The place is about 6 km north of Sligo in a picturesque landscape that is now called Yeats Country and, according to his own statements, has significantly shaped his work.

Work and philosophy

Yeats was - especially as director of the Abbey Theater - one of the initiators of the renaissance of Irish poetry . His verse dramas are initially indebted to the Shakespeare style , and his early poetry was influenced by Charles Baudelaire and Paul Verlaine . In romantic mood pictures he described the ancient Celts and their myths as he saw them. His works from this period are characterized by a dreamy atmosphere and Irish folklore from the collection of his friend and confidante Lady Gregory. Yeats published two collections of Irish fairy tales and sagas: 1888, Fairy and Folk Tales of the Irish Peasantry ; 1892, Irish Fairy Tales .

Yeats was the first to publish a complete edition of the works of the English poet and painter William Blake , together with Edwin Ellis, a friend of his father's. The two began working on the 1889 edition and were able to publish the work in London in 1893.

Yeats had mistakenly assumed that Blake had Irish roots himself. What made Blake so attractive to Yeats were: a. Blake's aversion to materialism and the way in which Blake opened up a large space, especially in his prophetic works, in which he communicated with the spirits of ancient Celtic Britain and created mythological figures from the depths of his mind . Yeats saw this as a possible model for future Irish literature.

After 1891 he became convinced that Irish culture - especially literature - had to support, if not replace, the political struggle. To do this, however, it has to be less romantic and mystical, but rather clear and direct. From around 1909 on, he changed his style: even if it remained complex, it became harder, and theoretical and philosophical elements were added. The four one-act plays from 1921 about the Celtic hero Cú Chulainn , summarized as Four Plays for Dancers , are strongly influenced by Japanese no-theater . They are highly stylized pieces for small stage performances; the author uses singing, masks, dance and choir. He created poetic dramas in whose radically new style realism and political myths unite to create symbolic dream worlds.

The older Yeats got, the more productive he became. His poems deserve special mention: The Wild Swans at Coole from 1917, The Tower from 1928 (so named after "Thoor Ballylee") and finally The Winding Stair from 1929. In these later poems, Yeats's language becomes increasingly powerful; the images become more concrete and the symbolism more comprehensive. While the strong attraction that the “ghostly light of the Celtic twilight” exerted on him can be felt in his early lyrical work and initially gave his poems an unreal atmosphere of romantic sadness and heroic grandeur, in his further work he overcomes this “late romantic rhetoric of longing “His first creative phase. Nevertheless, the newly gained closeness to life in no way restricts his poetic and pictorial imagination. Increasingly, the myth opens up to him as a symbolic expression of the events of his time. Linked to this is the transition from Irish to Greek myths, in which Yeats sees his increasingly pronounced conception of the cyclical recurrence of all that happened more clearly.

He laid out his philosophy in the prose book A Vision (1925, revised edition from 1937), which he wrote together with his wife. At the age of over 70 he still amazed and delighted his audience with the poetry collections New Poems and Last Poems and Two Plays .

Valuable information about Yeats' thinking is provided by his autobiographical works Autobiographies from 1927 and Dramatis Personae from 1936. His symbolism is not easy to understand; His love for Northern European and Greek, his admiration for Plato and Neoplatonism , his strong interest in magic - his wife Georgie is said to have been medial -, myth and alchemy determined his worlds of ideas. He was convinced of the cyclical return of historical phenomena. His archetypal images in the various older works also recur, merge and multiply. These symbols do not stand alone; they would be nothing without his growing wisdom, his passion and his joy in life, but are difficult to access for rationalists.

Especially in his later years, Yeats backed his poetry with a system of world and history interpretation in which occult and mystical doctrines merge into a personal worldview. In A Vision, an Explanation of Life Founded upon the Writings of Giraldus and upon certain Doctrines Attributed to Kusta Ben Luka (1925, re-edited 1937), Yeats explains his belief that the two thousand year cycle that began with Christ and is in the culture of Byzantium reached its climax around 1000 AD, at the present time it comes to an apocalyptic end. In Yeats's drama, the resistance to modern chaos ( "the chaos of the world" ) is expressed in the return of the poetic, heroic, solemn or simple. From his point of view, naturalism and bourgeois realism reduce man and his possibilities. In his poetic tragedies, which take place in the legendary Irish prehistory, Yeats contrasts the view of man as a product of complex social or historical circumstances, with model-like clarity or simplification, as it were, with basic human conditions such as love, courage, hatred, loyalty or jealousy or betrayal and honor ; his heroes and heroines make their decisions against the constraints of adverse circumstances and then enforce them regardless of any resistance.

This worldview, which shaped Yeats's dramatic work, did not, however, meet with the goodwill of the Catholic nationalists in Ireland and also alienated numerous literary critics, who saw Yeats literary qualities in his works more as a poet than as a playwright.

Works (selection)

Commemorative plaque in Saint Patrick's Park, Dublin. The main works mentioned are: Cathleen ni Houlihan , The Wild Swans at Coole and The Tower .
  • The Wanderings of Oisin and Other Poems (1889), German: Oisin's hike
  • The Celtic Twilight (1893)
  • The Lake Isle of Innisfree (1893)
  • The land of heart's desire (1894)
  • The secret rose (1897)
  • The Wind Among the Reeds (1899)
  • Cathleen ni Houlihan (1902)
  • Ideas of Good and Evil (1903)
  • In the Seven Woods (1904)
  • Discoveries (1907)
  • Deirdre (1907)
  • The green helmet (1910)
  • Responsibilities and Other Poems (1914), German: Responsibilities and other poems
  • The Wild Swans at Coole (1917), German: The Wild Swans at Coole
  • Four Plays for Dancers (1921)
  • Four Years (1921)
  • The Cat and the Moon (1924)
  • A vision (1925, 1937)
    • A vision . Translated from English and annotated by Axel Monte. Kröner, Stuttgart 2014, ISBN 978-3-520-13801-9 .
  • Autobiographies (1926)
  • The Tower (1928), German: The Tower
  • The Winding Stair and Other Poems (1929), German: The spiral staircase and other poems
  • Collected Plays (1934)

Musical reception

On the album HMS Donovan has Donovan 's poem The Song of Wandering Aengus set to music. Even Judy Collins sings a version of this poem to a melody based on a folk tune entitled The Golden Apples of the Sun appeared on their eponymous 1963 LP. Her 1971 album Livin ' features a version of the poem The Lake Isle of Innisfree set to music by Hamilton Camp . The song Yeats' Grave on the album No Need to Argue by Irish rock group The Cranberries is also based on The Lake Isle of Innisfree and No Second Troy .

The American songwriter Joni Mitchell recorded the song Slouching Towards Bethlehem on her LP Night Ride Home in 1991 , which is based on Yeats' poem The Second Coming .

Angelo Branduardi later set a special monument to William Butler Yeats with a musical adaptation of some of his ballads and poems. These include a. To a Child Dancing in the Wind , The Fiddler of Dooney and The Lake Isle of Innisfree . The translation into Italian was done by Luisa Zappa Branduardi .

Loreena McKennitt set the poem The Two Trees on her album The Mask and Mirror , the poem Stolen Child on the album Elemental and The Ballad of the Foxhunter on the album Lost Souls . Carla Bruni sang Those Dancing Days Are Gone on No Promises . Irish musician Van Morrison set 2 Yeats' poem Crazy Jane on God on his album The Philosopher's Stone . The lyrics of the song Dream of Death by the Finnish black metal band Circle of Ouroborus were written by Yeats. The American black / doom metal band Agalloch also released the title A Poem By Yeats on their album Of Stone, Wind and Pillor . The German literary folk duo Jo & Ben set seventeen poems by Yeats to music for the album Jo & Ben play William Butler Yeats. The 2011 album An Appointment With Mr. Yeats by the Waterboys only features songs based on the poet's poems. The album Like a Flame by composer and organist Frederik Magle takes its title from Yeats' piece The Land of Heart's Desire .

The German folk band Faey and the German pagan folk group Faun also set The Song of Wandering Aengus to music under the title Menuett (appeared on the album Luna (2014) and Golden Apples (appeared on the album of the same name, 2015))

Reception in literature and film

Gravestone in Drumcliff. The inscription comes from the poem Under Ben Bulben , which Yeats wrote on September 4, 1938.
Drumcliff Cemetery with
Ben Bulben in the background

A few weeks after Yeats's death, W. H. Auden published the poem In Memory of WB Yeats in the magazine The New Republican on March 8, 1939, as a lyrical homage to the deceased and lament for the dead . In this elegy , Auden expresses his conviction in symbolic and metaphorical form that the moment of Yeats's death, which he admired and valued greatly as a poet, only means his continued existence in his admirers, with whom he merges into an identity beyond death :

The squares of his mind were empty,
Silence invaded the suburbs,
The current of his feeling failed: he became his admirers.
Now he is scattered among a hundred cities
And wholly given over to unfamiliar affections

In the last part of Auden's elegy there is the actual grave poem with his farewell to the dead poet, who is given to Gaia , the earth personified in Greek mythology. At the same time directed Auden then as a form of dead prayer or or dead stock please exhortation to the living poets and draws attention to the world of hatred and darkness shortly before the outbreak of World War II , in the words of the dead poet must however continue to live .

Ezra Pound's poem The Lake Isle is a parody of Yeats' Lake Isle of Innisfree ( The Sea Isle of Innisfree ). Even Heinrich Böll referred to Yeats and quoted in the Irish diary a German translation of the inscription on the grave stone of Yeats in Drumcliff (from the last verse of Under Benbulben ). An Irish Airman Foresees his Death is quoted in the Otherland book series . The title of Cormac McCarthy's novel No Country for Old Men and its film version No Country for Old Men is part of the first verse of Sailing to Byzantium .

In the film Equilibrium there is a reference to Yeats through a quote from his poem He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven :

But because I'm poor,
I only have my dreams.
I spread the dreams at your feet.
Step on it lightly,
you step on my dreams.

In The Second Awakening of Christa Klages by Margarethe von Trotta ( 1978 ), Yeats' poem When You Are Old is recited at a point in the film where Klages has lost her hope and energy.

The title of the novel Dancer From the Dance (1978) by Andrew Holleran is taken from the last line of Yeats' poem Among School Children ("How can we know the dancer from the dance?").

Episode 3.1 of the television series Heroes is originally titled The Second Coming (German: Die Wiederkehr ). Over the last few scenes, one of the characters recites the poem of the same name by Yeats in full (in the original Sendhil Ramamurthy , in the dubbed version Viktor Neumann ).


Work editions

Secondary literature

  • Richard Ellman: The Identity of Yeats . Faber & Faber, London 1964.
  • Richard Ellman: Yeats, the Man and the Masks . Faber & Faber, London 1949.
  • Joseph N. Hone: WB Yeats . Macmillan, Basingstoke 1989, ISBN 0-333-49747-3 .
  • Johannes Klerinstück: WB Yeats or the poet in the modern world . Leibniz-Verlag, Hamburg 1963.
  • RF Foster : WB Yeats. A life . 2 volumes. Oxford University Press, Oxford.
    1. The Apprentice Mage 1865-1914 . 1998, ISBN 0-19-288085-3 .
    2. The Arch-Poet 1914-1939 . 2003, ISBN 0-19-280609-2 .
  • Hans Ulrich Seeber: Celtic Renaissance and Irish Literature . In: Hans Ulrich Seeber (Ed.): English literary history . 5th edition. Verlag JB Metzler, Stuttgart 2012, ISBN 3-476-02421-0
  • Yvor Winters : The Poetry of WB Yeats . In: Twentieth Century Literature 6, 1, 1960, ISSN  0041-462X , pp. 3-24
  • Andreas Kilcher: Occultist World Design. In: Neue Zürcher Zeitung, April 4, 2015, p. 53.

Web links

Commons : William Butler Yeats  - Collection of Pictures, Videos and Audio Files


Individual evidence

  1. ^ Terence Brown: The Life of WB Yeats. A Critical Biography , Oxford 1999, 2001, Blackwell Publishers, pp. 120 ff., 153 ff.
  2. Der Brockhaus, Universal Lexikon in 20 volumes, Volume 20, p. 8678, Leipzig 2007
  3. Hans Ulrich Seeber 2012, p. 331.
  4. a b Hans Ulrich Seeber, 2012, p. 330.
  5. ^ Terence Brown: The Life of WB Yeats. A Critical Biography , Oxford 1999, 2001, Blackwell Publishers, pp. 154 f.
  6. ^ "All changed, changed utterly: / A terrible beauty is born." Translation by Mirko Bonné .
  7. ^ William Butler Yeats - The Nobel Prize in Literature 1923 From Nobel Lectures, Literature 1901-1967, Editor Horst Frenz, Elsevier Publishing Company, Amsterdam, 1969
  8. ^ Edwin John Ellis, William Butler Yeats (eds.): The works of William Blake; poetic, symbolic, and critical . Edited with lithographs of the illustrated Prophetic books, and a memoir and interpretation by Edwin John Ellis and William Butler Yeats, 3 vols., London 1893, Bernard Quaritch. See also Friedrich Eckstein , Introduction to William Butler Yeats: Erzählungen und Essays , Insel Verlag, Leipzig 1916, p. 11 ff.
  9. ^ Terence Brown: The Life of WB Yeats. A Critical Biography . Blackwell Publishers, Oxford 1999, 2001, p. 67. See also Friedrich Eckstein, Introduction to William Butler Yeats: Stories and Essays . Insel Verlag, Leipzig 1916, p. 11 ff.
  10. See Wilhelm Hortmann: English Literature in the 20th Century . Francke Verlag, Bern and Munich 1965, without ISBN, p. 72 f. See Hans Ulrich Seeber 2012, p. 331 f.
  11. See Hans Ulrich Seeber 2012, p. 332 f.
  12. See Hans Ulrich Seeber 2012, p. 333.
  13. Faun - Menuett Lyrics. Retrieved October 12, 2018 .
  14. Golden Apple's Lyrics - Faey. Retrieved October 12, 2018 .
  15. See Kurt Otten: WH Auden: In Memory of WB Yeats . In: Horst Oppel (Hrsg.): The modern English poetry. Interpretations. Schmidt Verlag, Berlin 1967, without ISBN, pp. 207–219, here especially pp. 209 ff. And 215 ff. The poem passage is cited from this source.
  16. The Lake Isle by Ezra Pound
  17. See Lake Isle of Innisfree by WB Yeats in the English Wikipedia