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5 February 2008
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William Butler Yeats
Talking about playing the classics, including Hamlet
John Gielgud
Reflects on childhood and deciding to be an actress
  Judi Dench
  William Butler Yeats 1865 - 1939 
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William Butler Yeats was born in Dublin of Protestant parents. He was educated in Dublin and London, but spent much of his boyhood with his maternal grandparents in Sligo, where the local scenery, legends and folklore had a lasting influence on his life and work.

Separated by his background from the Roman Catholic majority and rejecting the materialist values of the dominant Protestant minority, Yeats turned from the beginning to pagan Ireland for his inspiration. He was also interested in esoteric mysticism, founding a society in Dublin to study Hinduism and Asian religions. Back in London in 1887, he studied the prophetic books of William Blake, drawing an early connection between poetry and the occult. A close interest in the magical and apocalyptic remained central to him throughout his life.

Yeats's earlier poems, such as The Wanderings of Oisin (1889) and The Rose (1893), celebrate the Irish landscape of his boyhood and explore pagan Irish themes.

The lyrical, nostalgic beauty of these poems is exemplified in The Lake Isle of Innisfree, which came into the poet's mind as he walked in a London street. Then, in 1889, he met the beautiful, passionate Irish nationalist Maude Gonne while visiting Ireland, and she not only inspired much of his early work but also drew him into the Irish independence movement.

However, Yeats's love was unrequited because he could not share Maude Gonne's fiercely activist views after the failure and death of the charismatic Irish leader Charles Parnell in 1891. Instead, he turned to evocations of ancient Celtic beauty, heroism and mystery, present in the almost vanished Gaelic language of old Ireland.

In 1898, he met the nationalist playwright and mythographer, Lady Augusta Gregory, and thereafter spent his summers at her home at Coole Park, Co. Galway. In 1899, the Irish Literary Theatre, which he had co-founded with Lady Gregory, performed his The Countess Cathleen as its first venture. Yeats remained for the rest of his life a director of the organisation, which became the famous Abbey Theatre in 1904, pioneering the so-called Irish Renaissance.

From 1909 onwards, Yeats began to discard the mistily evocative tone of his earlier work for a language that was harder and more physical. In Responsibilities (1914), a new directness emerges in his work, confronting reality and its imperfections. With The Wild Swans at Coole (1917), Yeats achieved a renewal of inspiration and a perfecting of technique that gave his work a new rigour, beauty and economy. Many critics regard this achievement as almost without parallel in the history of English language poetry.

In 1917, Yeats married Georgie Hyde-Lees, who claimed to have a medium's gift for automatic writing. Her spiritualism had an important influence on his work, notably in the cyclical patterns of cosmic forces he called Gyres. These ideas recur in many of his finest poems, such as The Second Coming (1922). In 1922, following Irish independence, Yeats became a member of the new Irish Senate and in 1923 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. He continued writing into old age, dying in Roquebrune, France, in 1939. In 1948, his body was brought back to Ireland and laid to rest in Sligo.

The Wanderings of Oisin (1889)
The Rose (1893)
The drama - The Countess Cathleen (1894)
The drama - The Land of Heart's Desire (1894)
Poems (1895)
The Wind Among the Reeds (1899)
The drama - Cathleen ni Houlihan (1902)
In the Seven Woods (1903)
The Green Helmet (1910)
The Wild Swans at Coole (1917)
The prose - A Vision (1925)
The Tower (1928)
The Winding Stair (1929)
Autobiographies (1955)
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