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WB Yeats 1865-1939

Biography

A towering figure in Irish literature, William Butler Yeats' long and influential career spanned a time of enormous political change. A visionary poet of huge imagination and technical virtuosity, he wrote of love, lore and land.

Yeats was born in Sandymount, Dublin in 1865. He lived in London until he was 16, but childhood holidays with his mother's family in Sligo in the West of Ireland fuelled a life-long passion for myth, geography and history of Ireland. Much of his poetry recalls local beauty spots such as the Isle of Innisfree. Yeats began writing poetry at Dublin's Metropolitan School of Art and later pursued his fascination with the mystical by joining the Theosophical Society of London. His interest in Irish nationalism intensified in 1889 when he met Maud Gonne, an unrequited passion and the inspiration for his love poetry, who he described as "the troubling of my life". As a cultural nationalist Yeats believed his writing could help to maintain a sense of the national spirit. In his poem Easter, 1916 he commemorates the passing of the men he knew who died during the Easter Rising. In 1896 Yeats met Lady Gregory and together they helped found Dublin's Abbey Theatre.

In the wake of Irish independence, Yeats served as a Senator, but became increasingly disillusioned with politics. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1923. His death, in 1939, provoked one of WH Auden's finest poems, In Memory of WB Yeats. Cormac McCarthy's novel No Country for Old Men, filmed by the Cohen Brothers in 2007, takes its title from the opening line of Yeats' poem Sailing to Byzantium.

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Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.

WB Yeats

He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven

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