A Brief Guide to Irish Poet W.B. Yeats


Irish Poet WB Yeats

All articles and blurbs on William Butler Yeats begin the same way, by stating that he is “widely considered to be one of the greatest poets of the twentieth century.” 

There are better ways to start the story I would think. Like:

A magic-practicing, secret society member rises to international prominence through his use of rhyme schemes and poetic structure to become a member of the Irish senate. 

WB Yeats is a fascinating character and worth knowing more about. 

This guide briefly covers the life of Irish poet W.B. Yeats, his famous works, best poems, beliefs, quotes, influences, and pretensions.

W. B. Yeats List of Best Poems

W.B. Yeats Overview

  • As a poet, dramatist, and writer. Yeats is considered to be at the forefront of the Irish Literary Revival.
  • Over his 50-year career, he published more than 100 works of poetry, drama, and prose and in 1923 became the first Irish writer to receive a Nobel Prize for Literature. 
  • As a young man, he joined the Irish nationalist cause which had a profound effect on his work. Many of his poems were based on Irish legends, Irish folklore, and Irish ballads and songs believing that poems and plays would engender a national unity capable of transfiguring the Irish nation.
  • In 1890 he joined the Golden Dawn, a secret society that practiced ritual magic. Yeats remained an active member of the Golden Dawn for 32 years.
  • He was one of the originators of the Irish Literary Theatre, which became the Abbey Theatre in 1904.
  • From 1922-1928, he served two terms as a Senator of the Irish Free State.
  • Had Yeats ceased to write at age 40, he would probably now be valued as a minor poet writing in a dying tradition. Yeats created his greatest work between the ages of 50 and 75. 

WB Yeats Famous Quotes

If suffering brings wisdom, I would wish to be less wise.

Happiness is neither virtue nor pleasure nor this thing nor that but simply growth, We are happy when we are growing.

There are no strangers here; Only friends you haven’t yet met.

I know that I shall meet my fate somewhere among the clouds above; those that I fight I do not hate, those that I guard I do not love.

I have believed the best of every man. And find that to believe is enough to make a bad man show him at his best, or even a good man swings his lantern higher.

All empty souls tend toward extreme opinions.

Do not wait to strike till the iron is hot; but make it hot by striking.

In dreams begins responsibility.

Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.

Automatic Writing (A Vision)

In 1917, Yeats and his wife began experimenting with automatic writing. They believed the practice allowed them to act as instruments for the spirit world to send them information. In about 400 hundred sessions of automatic writing, they produced nearly 4,000 pages. Yeats studied these pages and formed theories about life and history which he later compiled into the book A Vision (1925).


In the book Daily Rituals, Author Mason Currey lays out Yeats’ daily routine in 1912 he wrote to a friend:

“I read from 10 to 11. I write from 11 till 2, then after lunch I read till 3:30. Then I go into the woods or fish in the lake till 5. Then I write letters or work a little till 7 when I go out for an hour before dinner.”

In terms of working that’s only a few hours a day. The important thing was that it was every day. Yeats made sure to write at least 2 hours a day, whether he felt like it or not. He did what he could to maintain a steady schedule so that finding the 2 hours to write was habitual. 

Maud Gonne – his first love

As a young man, Yeats fell in love with Maud Gonne, an heiress who was passionately devoted to Irish nationalism. Yeats was obsessed with her and courted her for nearly three decades. Yeats proposed to Gonne five times: in 1891, 1899, 1900, 1901, and 1916. She refused each proposal and married someone else. Her influence on him was significant and can be felt in his work.

With Gonne’s encouragement, Yeats redoubled his dedication to Irish nationalism and produced such nationalistic plays as The Countess Kathleen (1892), which he dedicated to her, and Cathleen ni Houlihan (1902), which featured her as the personification of Ireland in the title role.

Many of Yeats’s poems are inspired by her such as “This, This Rude Knocking” and “Aedh wishes for the Cloths of Heaven” which ends with a reference to her.


In the 1908 volume Collected Works in Verse and Prose of William Butler Yeats, Yeats wrote of his dedication to Irish themes and settings:

“When I first wrote I went here and there for my subjects as my reading led me, and preferred to all other countries Arcadia and the India of romance, but presently I convinced myself … that I should never go for the scenery of a poem to any country but my own, and I think that I shall hold to that conviction to the end.”

After winning the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1923 Yeats wrote:
“I consider that this honor has come to me less as an individual than as a representative of Irish literature, it is part of Europe’s welcome to the Free State.”

It was later said of him in connection to Ireland:
“Perhaps no other poet stood to represent a people and country as poignantly as Yeats, both during and after his life, and his poetry is widely read today across the English-speaking world.”

Occultism (magic)

In 1890 he joined the Golden Dawn, a secret society that practiced ritual magic. Yeats remained an active member of the Golden Dawn for 32 years, achieving the coveted sixth grade of membership in 1914.

As early as 1892, he wrote: “If I had not made magic my constant study I could not have written a single word of my Blake book, nor would The Countess Kathleen ever have come to exist. The mystical life is the centre of all that I do and all that I think and all that I write.”

His life-long interest in mysticism and the occult was off-putting to some readers.

Was Yeats Pretentious?

The short answer: Yes.

He was an elitist in both his personal and political views.

He was not boastful, but spiritual arrogance came easily to him and his view of himself as a prolific artist turned off many people.

Politically, he was an opponent of individualism and liberalism and saw the fascist movements as a triumph of public order. He saw democracy as a threat to governance and order and preferred authoritarian and nationalist leadership.

Basically, he thought most people were stupid and needed to be led and told what to do by a small minority.


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