William Butler Yeats, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature and co-founder of the Abbey Theatre, is one of Ireland’s greatest writers. Born in Dublin in 1865, he spent his childhood between Sligo and London.
Born into the Anglo-Irish landowning class to a father who was himself a celebrated painter, Yeats was obsessed with the Irish Cultural revival. He was obsessed with the idea of establishing and giving voice to an Irish identity, both cultural and political, which was distinctly different from the rest of Britain.
Yeats’ poetry helps us to examine what it means to be Irish; it offers us an insight into our history; offers a beautiful insight into the beauty of the Irish landscape and a desire to retreat from the modern world; it explores the difficult process of aging and physical decay and seeks – and ultimately achieves – immortality, through art.
Art and Politics
Yeats believed that art and politics were intrinsically linked and used his writing to express his attitudes toward Irish politics, as well as to educate his readers about Irish cultural history. From an early age, Yeats felt a deep connection to Ireland and his national identity, and he thought that British rule negatively impacted Irish politics and social life.
His early compilation of folklore sought to teach a literary history that had been suppressed by British rule, and his early poems were odes to the beauty and mystery of the Irish countryside. This work frequently integrated references to myths and mythic figures, including Oisin and Cuchulain. As Yeats became more involved in Irish politics—through his relationships with the Irish National Theatre, the Irish Literary Society, the Irish Republican Brotherhood, and Maud Gonne—his poems increasingly resembled political manifestos. Yeats wrote numerous poems about Ireland’s involvement in World War I (“An Irish Airman Foresees His Death” , and the Easter Rebellion (“Easter 1916” ).
Yeats believed that art could serve a political function: poems could both criticise and comment on political events, as well as educate and inform a population. ('September 1913")