13 June 1865: William Butler Yeats was born in Dublin on this day. He was of an Anglo-Irish background and one of the foremost playwrights and poets of the English language in the 20th century. A pillar of both the Irish and British literary establishments, in his later years he served as an Irish Senator for two terms. Yeats was a driving force behind the Irish Literary Revival and, along with Lady Gregory and others, founded the Abbey Theatre where he served as its chief during its early years. His plays usually treat Irish legends; they also reflect his fascination with mysticism and spiritualism. The Countess Cathleen (1892), The Land of Heart's Desire (1894), Cathleen ni Houlihan (1902), The King's Threshold (1904), and Deirdre (1907) are among the best known. In 1923, he was awarded the Nobel Prix for Literature. He was the first Irishman so honoured for what was described as "inspired poetry, which in a highly artistic form gives expression to the spirit of a whole nation."
Yeats is generally considered one of the few writers who completed their greatest works after being awarded the Nobel Prize; such works include The Tower (1928) and The Winding Stairs and other Poems (1929). His father was a lawyer and a well-known portrait painter. Yeats was educated in London and in Dublin, but he spent his summers in the west of Ireland in the family's summer house at Connaught. The young Yeats was very much part of the fin de siècle in London; at the same time he was active in societies that attempted an Irish literary revival. His first volume of verse appeared in 1887, but in his earlier period his dramatic production outweighed his poetry both in bulk and in import. Together with Lady Gregory he founded the Irish Theatre, which was to become the Abbey Theatre, and served as its chief playwright until the movement was joined by John Synge.
After 1910, Yeats's dramatic art took a sharp turn toward a highly poetical, static, and esoteric style. His later plays were written for small audiences; they experiment with masks, dance, and music, and were profoundly influenced by the Japanese Noh plays. Although a convinced patriot, Yeats deplored the hatred and the bigotry of the Nationalist movement, and his poetry is full of moving protests against it. He was appointed to the Irish Senate in 1922. Yeats is one of the few writers whose greatest works were written after the award of the Nobel Prize. Whereas he received the Prize chiefly for his dramatic works, his significance today rests on his lyric achievement. His poetry, especially the volumes The Wild Swans at Coole (1919), Michael Robartes and the Dancer (1921), The Tower (1928), The Winding Stair and Other Poems (1933), and Last Poems and Plays (1940), made him one of the outstanding and most influential twentieth-century poets writing in English. His recurrent themes are the contrast of art and life, masks, cyclical theories of life (the symbol of the winding stairs), and the ideal of beauty and ceremony contrasting with the hubbub of modern life.
From Nobel Lectures, Literature 1901-1967, Editor Horst Frenz, Elsevier Publishing Company, Amsterdam, 1969
He died in the south of France in 1939 just prior to the outbreak of the Second World War. After the War the Irish Minister of Foreign Affairs Sean McBride, whose mother Maud Gonne McBride was a companion and soul mate of Yeats, arranged for his body to be returned home to Ireland by the Irish Navy. The vessel Macha was dispatched to Nice and Yeats remains were brought back to the west of Ireland for burial in Co Sligo.
His epitaph is taken from the last lines of Under Ben Bulben, one of his final poems:
Cast a cold Eye
On Life, on Death.
Horseman, pass by!