Yeats is the oldest child of John Butler Yeats and Susan Mary Pollexfen. Although John trained as a lawyer, he abandons the law for art soon after his first son is born. Yeats spends much of his early years in London, where his father is studying art, but frequently returns to Ireland.
In the mid-1880s, Yeats pursues his own interest in art as a student at the Metropolitan School of Art in Dublin. Following the publication of his poems in the Dublin University Review in 1885, he soon abandons art school for other pursuits.
After returning to London in the late 1880s, Yeats meets writers Oscar Wilde, Lionel Johnson and George Bernard Shaw. He also becomes acquainted with Maud Gonne, a supporter of Irish independence. This revolutionary woman serves as a muse for Yeats for years. He even proposes marriage to her several times, but she turns him down. He dedicates his 1892 drama The Countess Cathleen to her.
Around this time, Yeats founds the Rhymers’ Club poetry group with Ernest Rhys. He also joins the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, an organization that explores topics related to the occult and mysticism. While he is fascinated with otherworldly elements, Yeats’s interest in Ireland, especially its folktales, fuels much of his output. The title work of The Wanderings of Oisin and Other Poems (1889) draws from the story of a mythic Irish hero.
In addition to his poetry, Yeats devotes significant energy to writing plays. He teams with Lady Gregory to develop works for the Irish stage, the two collaborating for the 1902 production of Cathleen ni Houlihan. Around that time, he helps found the Irish National Theatre Society, serving as its president and co-director, with Lady Gregory and John Millington Synge. More works soon follow, including On Baile’s Strand, Deirdre and At the Hawk’s Well.
Following his marriage to Georgie Hyde-Lees in 1917, Yeats begins a new creative period through experiments with automatic writing. The newlyweds sit together for writing sessions they believe to be guided by forces from the spirit world, through which Yeats formulates intricate theories of human nature and history. They soon have two children, daughter Anne and son Michael.
Yeats then becomes a political figure in the new Irish Free State, serving as a senator for six years beginning in 1922. The following year, he receives an important accolade for his writing as the recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature. According to the official Nobel Prize website, he is selected “for his always inspired poetry, which in a highly artistic form gives expression to the spirit of a whole nation.”
Yeats continues to write until his death. Some of his important later works include The Wild Swans at Coole (1917), A Vision (1925), The Tower (1928) and Words for Music Perhaps and Other Poems (1932). He dies on January 28, 1939 at the Hôtel Idéal Séjour, in Menton, France. He is buried after a discreet and private funeral at Roquebrune-Cap-Martin. In September 1948, his body is moved to the churchyard of St. Columba’s Church, Drumcliff, County Sligo, on the Irish Naval Service corvette LÉ Macha.
The publication of Last Poems and Two Plays shortly after his death further cements his legacy as a leading poet and playwright.