William Butler Yeats was born in Dublin in 1865 to a chaotic, artistic family. His father, a portrait painter, moved the family to London when Yeats was two, and William spent much of his childhood moving between the cold urban landscape of the metropolis and the congenial countryside of County Sligo, Ireland, where his mother’s parents lived. An aesthete even as a boy, Yeats began writing verse early, and published his first work in 1885. In 1889, Yeats met the Irish patriot, revolutionary, and beauty Maud Gonne. He fell immediately in love with her, and remained so for the rest of his life; virtually every reference to a beloved in Yeats’s poetry can be understood as a reference to Maud Gonne. Tragically, Gonne did not return his love, and though they remained closely associated (she portrayed the lead role in several of his plays), they were never romantically involved. Many years later, Yeats proposed to her daughter—and was rejected again.
Yeats lived during a tumultuous time in Ireland, during the political rise and fall of Charles Stuart Parnell, the Irish Revival, and the civil war. Partly because of his love for the politically active Maud Gonne, Yeats devoted himself during the early part of his career to the Literary Revival and to Irish patriotism, seeking to develop a new religious iconography based on Irish mythology. (Though he was of Protestant parentage, Yeats played little part in the conflict between Catholics and Protestants that tore Ireland apart during his lifetime.) He quickly rose to literary prominence, and helped to found what became the Abbey Theatre, one of the most important cultural institutions in Ireland, at which he worked with such luminaries as Augusta Gregory and the playwright John Synge. In 1923, Yeats was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.
One of the most remarkable facts about Yeats’s career as a poet is that he only reached his full powers late in life, between the ages of 50 and 75. Indeed, after reaching his height, he sustained it up until the very end, writing magnificent poems up until two weeks before his death. The normal expectation is that a poet’s powers will fade after forty or fifty; Yeats defied that expectation and trumped it entirely, writing most of his greatest poems—from the crushing power of The Tower to the eerie mysticism of the Last Poems—in the years after he won the Nobel Prize, a testament to the force and commitment with which he devoted himself to transforming his inner life into poetry. Because his work straddles the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Yeats is stylistically quite a unique poet; his early work seems curiously modern for the nineteenth century, and his late work often seems curiously un-modern for the 1930s. But Yeats wrote great poems in every decade of his life, and his influence has towered over the past six decades; today, he is generally regarded as the greatest poet of the twentieth century.