William Butler Yeats, the eldest son of the artist John Butler Yeats, was born in Sandymount, Dublin in 1865.
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He spent much of his childhood in the Sligo area which inspired many of his poems. Yeats studied to be an artist but in 1886 decided to abandon art and concentrate on writing. The influence of the old Fenian John O'Leary and the writings of Standish O'Grady determined him to take Ireland and its heroic past as the subject of his poetry.
Yeats moved to London in 1887 and produced his first major poetic work, "The Wanderings of Oisin", two years later. At this time he first met the beautiful Maud Gonne and fell deeply in love with her. An ardent Irish nationalist (although an English woman), she inspired his play "The Countess Cathleen" (1892), in which Christian and pagan tradition were fused, and many despairing love poems. He proposed to her on many occasions but was always refused. His volume of folkstories "The Celtic Twilight" (1893), "The Secret Rose" (1897) and other books of prose and poetry mark his continuous exploration for a personal belief which would incorporate not only elements of Christianity but also Buddhism, Hinduism, mysticism and magic.
Yeat's meeting with Lady Gregory in 1896 sparked off a lifelong friendship and a collaboration which was to result in the foundation of The Abbey Theatre. Still dividing his time between Dublin, London and Coole Park, Yeats became the leading figure in the Irish Literary Renaissance in which his early friends George Russell and Katherine Tynan were also prominent. His many activities provided some consolation for the blow of Maud Gonne's marriage in 1903 to Major John MacBride. Besides working on his own verse plays and poems he was also acting as manager of the theatre and encouraging new writers such as John Millington Synge. Yeats took a firm stand against attempts to restrain freedom of expression in the theatre and personnally defended Synge's contentious "Playboy" in 1907. He also experimented briefly with the Japanese Noh drama, to which he had been introduced by Ezra Pound and whose masks and ritual dances appealed to him; his play "At the Hawk's Well" was privately performed in London in 1916 and later published in "Four Plays for Dancers"(1921).
In the years that followed, Yeats wrote his greatest poems on love and friendship, age and death, and his unending search for a philosophy. "A Vision" (1926) introduces his view of history as a system of intertwining gyres. "The Tower"(1928), containing some of his best-known poems, centres on the problem of old age. "The Winding Stair" (1933) reviews the passing glory of his life.
In his final years, Yeats moved to Rathfarnham at the foot of the Dublin mountains. He toured America in 1932, edited "The Oxford Book of Modern Verse" in 1936 and wrote many plays. Ill-health brought him to the South of France, where he died in 1939 in Roquebrune. His remains were brought back to Ireland in 1948 to be buried, as he wished, in Drumcliff, Co. Sligo, under "bare Ben Bulben's head".
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