Literature, Poets

William Butler Yeats (Nobel Literature 1923)

William Butler Yeats 13 June 1865 – 28 January 1939) was an Irish poet and dramatist, and one of the foremost figures of 20th-century literature. A pillar of both the Irish and English literary establishments, in his later years Yeats served as an Irish Senator for two terms. Yeats was the first Irish man who won the Nobel Literature Prize in 1923.

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Ireland (1976-82) 20 Pounds (front) – Portrait of William Butler Yeats

He was a driving force behind the Irish Literary Revival, and together with Lady Gregory and Edward Martyn founded the Abbey Theatre, and served as its chief during its early years. In 1923, he was awarded a Nobel Prize in Literature for what the Nobel Committee described as “inspired poetry, which in a highly artistic form gives expression to the spirit of a whole nation;” and he was the first Irishman so honored. Yeats is generally considered one of the few writers whose greatest works were completed after being awarded the Nobel Prize; such works include The Tower (1928) and The Winding Stair and Other Poems (1929).

Yeats was born and educated in Dublin, but spent his childhood in Sligo. He studied poetry in his youth, and from an early age was fascinated by both Irish legends and the occult. Those topics feature in the first phase of his work, which lasted roughly until the turn of the century. His earliest volume of verse was published in 1889, and those slowly paced and lyrical poems display debts to Edmund Spenser and Percy Bysshe Shelley, as well as to the lyricism of the Pre-Raphaelite poets.

From 1900, Yeats’ poetry grew more physical and realistic. He largely renounced the transcendental beliefs of his youth, though he remained preoccupied with physical and spiritual masks, as well as with cyclical theories of life. Over the years Yeats adopted many different ideological positions, including, in the words of the critic Michael Valdez Moses, “those of radical nationalist, classical liberal, reactionary conservative and millenarian nihilist”.

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In December 1923, Yeats was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature, and was determined to make the most of the occasion. He was aware of the symbolic value of an Irish winner so soon after Ireland had gained independence, and sought to highlight the fact at each available opportunity. His reply to the many of the letters of congratulations sent to him contained the words: “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.” Yeats used the occasion of his acceptance lecture at the Royal Academy of Sweden to present himself as a standard-bearer of Irish nationalism and Irish cultural independence. As he remarked, “The theatres of Dublin were empty buildings hired by the English traveling companies, and we wanted Irish plays and Irish players. When we thought of these plays we thought of everything that was romantic and poetical, because the nationalism we had called up—the nationalism every generation had called up in moments of discouragement—was romantic and poetical.” The prize led to a significant increase in the sales of his books, as his publishers Macmillan sought to capitalise on the publicity. For the first time he had money, and he was able to repay not only his own debts, but those of his father.

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