William Butler Yeats (1865-1939) stands at the turning point between the Victorian period and Modernism, the conflicting currents of which affected his poetry. Born in Dublin, Yeats’ family moved to London when he was two and he lived there until he was sixteen. His mother’s traditional Irish songs and stories and holiday visits to Co. Sligo kept the connection to Ireland strong. Yeats studied at the Dublin Metropolitan School of Art, his first collection of poetry being published in 1889. The Wanderings of Oisin and other poems already showed concerns that were to remain central to his writing – Ireland, spiritualism and love. His earliest books draw on the romantics and pre-Raphaelite ideals and mythologise a ‘Celtic Twilight’. However, increased involvement with nationalist politics was to have a significant impact on his poetic style: his diction grew plainer, the syntax tighter and the verse structures, whilst retaining their traditional form, more muscular. To this middle period belongs his failed courtship of the beautiful nationalist, Maud Gonne and his founding in 1899 of the Abbey Theatre in Dublin which became a focus for many of the writers of the Irish Revival of which Yeats was a key figure. Yeats wrote prolifically for the stage but also continued with his poetry. Another important influence at this time was Modernism, Ezra Pound in particular, who introduced Yeats to the principles of Japanese Noh theatre. As events in Ireland began to take a bloody turn, Yeats’ poems increasingly addressed public themes as in ‘Easter 1916′, his troubled commemoration of the Easter uprising. He entered official political life when he was elected to the Senate, the upper house of the new Free State, in 1922. His personal life was also changing: after a final rejection from Maud Gonne and then from her daughter, Yeats married Georgie Hyde Lees with whom he was very happy. Her interest in spiritualism echoed Yeats’ and his explorations in this area informed some of his powerful visionary poems. Yeats’ was now entering his poetic maturity in which he developed a symbolism to mediate between the demands of art and life. Later collections The Tower and The Winding Stair are often considered his best. His reputation by this time was secure – he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1923. He died in France in 1939 and was buried in Drumcliffe Church, Co. Sligo as he’d requested. For more detailed information on Yeats’ life and work, click on the website link below which will take you to the National Library of Ireland’s online Yeats exhibition.

‘The Lake Isle of Innisfree’, first published in his second collection The Rose, is an example of his early lyric style. Written in a yearning voice, the poem draws on one of Yeats’ talismanic landscapes, that of Co. Sligo. He was prompted to write the poem in London where he felt exiled from the rural beauty he captures so brilliantly in the poem. In his autobiography Yeats identifies the poem as a significant one, “my first lyric with anything in its rhythm of my own music”. It’s a music that’s proved popular ever since as Yeats concedes in the introduction to his reading, though he criticises his use of the archaism “arise and go” and the inversion of the final stanza, the kind of poetic flourishes he learned to banish from later work. The poem, written largely in hexameters, has a tranquil rhythm, something Yeats emphasises in his reading. This is somewhat at odds with more contemporary vocal styles which favour a more conversational tone, but Yeats’ quavering incantation has a unique power of its own.

This recording, one of a handful he made for the BBC, dates from 1932 and we are grateful to the BBC for their support of the Poetry Archive.

Poems by William Butler Yeats

The Song of Wandering Aengus - William Butler Yeats - Read by Maurice Riordan

The Second Coming

Read by Maurice Riordan
The Second Coming - William Butler Yeats - Read by Maurice Riordan

Sailing to Byzantium

Read by Maurice Riordan
Sailing to Byzantium - William Butler Yeats - Read by Maurice Riordan

Leda and the Swan

Read by Maurice Riordan
Leda and the Swan - William Butler Yeats - Read by Maurice Riordan

Long-legged Fly

Read by Maurice Riordan
Long-legged Fly - William Butler Yeats - Read by Maurice Riordan
The Fiddler of Dooney - William Butler Yeats
Song of the Old Mother - William Butler Yeats
The Lake Isle of Innisfree - William Butler Yeats
William Butler Yeats in the Poetry Store

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Books by William Butler Yeats

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