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William Butler Yeats


William Butler Yeats

The Irish poet, dramatist and prose writer, William Yeats, is acknowledged as one of the great poets of the twentieth century. Born on June 13, 1865 in Sandymount, a suburb of Dublin, Yeats spent much of his youth in Sligo, a county whose landscape and folklore would later color much of his work, despite his family's moving to London early on. In 1880, the family returned to live near Dublin, and 1885 saw Yeats' first publication - two short lyrics in the Dublin University Review. An interest in mysticism and the occult was already important to Yeats, leading him to found the Dublin Hermetic Society with George Russell, and he continued to explore Irish mythology, the bedrock of much of his work. This mystical bent continued on the family's return to London in 1887, where he joined the Theosophical Society and studied various branches of occult theory and the prophetic writings of the poet William Blake.

Yeats eventually became a member of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, an English Rosicrucian society founded in 1888. He was initiated into its Isis-Urania temple on March 7, 1890, taking the magical name Daemon est Deus Inverus ('The Devil is God Reversed'). By the turn of the century, when the Golden Dawn was buckling under the pressures of factionalism, Yeats had a run-in with Aleister Crowley, and he refused to allow Crowley's initiation into the Inner Order on the grounds that "we did not think a mystical society was intended to be a reformatory". When the Order finally splintered, after Arthur Edward Waite tried to move it in a more mystical than magical direction in 1903, Yeats was instrumental in the founding of its main successor, the Stella Matutina ('Morning Star').

Yeats' early poems were published in 1889 under the title The Wanderings of Oisin, and Other Poems, to charitable reviews. He returned to Ireland in 1891, and published a collection of essays called The Celtic Twilight in 1893. Important poetic works followed: Poems (1895), The Wind Among the Reeds (1899), In the Seven Woods (1903), The Green Helmet and Other Poems (1910), Responsibilities: Poems and a Play (1914), and The Wild Swans at Coole (1917). Among his influences were the writings of the Swedish mystic, Emanuel Swedenborg.

In 1923, Yeats was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, and published The Tower in 1928, the year he moved to Rapallo, Italy. The Winding Stair followed in 1929, and his two final collections were New Poems in 1938, and Last Poems and Two Plays in 1939. Yeats continued to write with fervor until his death on January 28, 1939, in Roquebrune-Cap-Martin, France. His body was finally returned to Sligo in 1948, to the Protestant churchyard at Drumcliffe, where his own epitaph reads: 'Cast a cold eye on life, on death. Horseman, pass by!'

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