W. B. Yeats, "Cuchulain's Fight with the Sea" and Others

[Click on image to enlarge] William Butler Yeats (1865–1939) was born in Sligo, the elder son of J. B. and brother of Jack Yeats. He was educated at Godolphin School Hammersmith, London, The High School, Dublin, and the Dublin School of Art. He had intended to become a painter like his father and brother, and was influenced by the Pre-Raphaelite School, but in his twenties gave up painting to become a full-time writer.

Living initially in London, Yeats returned to Dublin and, with Lady Augusta Gregory and the dramatist Edward Martyn, founded the Irish Literary Theatre in 1899. This became the Irish National Theatre Society, of which Yeats was made president in 1903, and moved into the Abbey Theatre in Dublin in 1904. His plays include The Countess Cathleen (1892), Cathleen ní Houlihan (1902), On Baile's Strand (1904), and Deidre (1907).

Yeats's early poetry, included in collections such as The Wanderings of Oisin and Other Poems (1889), The Land of Heart's Desire (1894), and The Wind Among the Reeds (1894), was formed from his knowledge of Irish folklore and folktales, and his interest in mysticism and the occult. Lady Gregory, herself a collector and translator of Irish legends and stories, encouraged Yeats, allowed him to stay at her home, Coole Park, and was an important patron to him.

Yeats's earlier Cuchulain poems and plays both appropriate and reinforce the symbol of indomitable Irish manhood evoked by the warrior of the Ulster Cycle, Cuchulain, whose stories he found in Standish O'Grady's History of Ireland (1878–80). If Ireland is figured as a woman, whether Cathleen ní Houlihan, or an archetypal beautiful maiden, mother, or hag, then Cuchulain >> note 1 is the hero who rescues her, or dies for her. He was to repudiate the naiveté of his nationalistic "dreaming" in later works.

Irish history and the recent history of Irish nationalism, together with his adoration of the nationalist Maud Gonne >> note 2 formed the major strands of his second phase of writing, and his style became less lilting and incantatory in In the Seven Woods (1903), The Green Helmet and Other Poems (1910), Poems: Written in Disappointment (1913), and Responsibilities: Poems and a Play (1914). Having realized that Maud Gonne would never accept him, Yeats married Georgie Hyde-Lees in 1917. An experiment with automatic writing on their honeymoon eventually produced the system of mystical symbols elaborated in A Vision (1925), which articulate many of the poems in collections such as Michael Robartes and the Dancer (1921), Seven Poems and a Fragment (1922), The Cat and the Moon and Certain Poems (1924), The Tower (1928), and The Winding Stair (1929). From 1922 to 1928, Yeats was a Senator of the Irish Free State, and a number of poems from this period depict him as having both poetic and public responsibilities. In 1923 he received the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Many poems of the 1920s and 1930s are economical and even austere in diction, and sharply imagistic; the dreamy cadences of the earlier work had given way to colloquial and unexpected rhythms, though Yeats could still produce beauty of unsurpassed lyricism. His later collections include Words for Music Perhaps and Other Poems (1932), A Full Moon in March (1935), New Poems (1938), and Last Poems and Two Plays (1939). He died in France in 1939 and in 1948 his body was returned to Sligo, in the northwest of Ireland, and buried in Drumcliffe churchyard under a stone that bears the epitaph >> note 3 Yeats wrote for himself, which is part of his poem, "Under Ben Bulben."

As well as the most significant poet of the century, dramatist, and writer on the occult, Yeats was also known as a major critic and essayist.


"Cuchulain's Fight with the Sea," from The Rose (1893).

"Easter 1916," from Michael Robartes and the Dancer (1921).

"The Valley of the Black Pig" (1896).

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