Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997)
Yeats, William Butler

(1865-1939) Irish poet, dramatist and mystic, recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1923. WBY was a close associate of George Russell (see A.E.), William Morris, George Moore (1852-1933), Douglas Hyde (1860-1949), J M Synge (1871-1909), Katharine Tynan (1861-1931), Lord Dunsany and Lady Augusta Gregory (1852-1932). He is of most interest for two strands of his work: his studies of Folklore and of Occultism. The two are intertwined to a large extent, particularly in his poetry, stories and sketches. His folklore researches were part of an exploration of his national heritage and identity, engendering a firm understanding of his roots which he believed was fundamental to the Celtic revival. His study of Irish legends and tales, which he did with Russell and Hyde, emerged in Fairy and Folk Tales of the Irish Peasantry (anth 1888; vt Irish Fairy and Folk Tales 1893; exp 1895 US; vt Irish Folk Stories and Fairy Tales 1957 US). This is a series of studies, anecdotes, poems and tales drawn from a variety of sources, encompassing the essential feyness of the Irish heritage. He also assembled a less detailed volume for children, Irish Fairy Tales (anth 1892; assembled with above as Fairy and Folk Tales of Ireland omni 1977). WBY continued this revival of the Celtic heritage in Stories from Carleton (coll 1889), a selection of material from the folklorist William Carleton (1794-1869) and Representative Irish Tales (anth 1891; cut vt Irish Tales ?1892 US), selecting from other Irish writers. However, he soon rebelled against the clinical collation of folktales and yearned for his own expression of Sehnsucht.

This had already emerged in his poetry, starting with The Wanderings of Oisin and Other Poems (coll 1889), the title poem dealing with Ireland's legendary bard Oisin, who travels on a fairy steed and spends Time in Faerie. His sensitive retelling of legends continued in Poems (coll 1895; rev 1899), The Wind Among the Reeds (coll 1899) and In the Seven Woods (coll 1903), which very effectively combine WBY's mystical leanings with his interpretation of the legends, and his verse-play The Shadowy Waters (1900; rev 1906), which utilizes Irish mythology for the setting of a visionary Quest.

Folktales also inspired his dramas. The first, "The Countess Kathleen", was published as part of The Countess Kathleen and Various Legends and Lyrics (1892; rev vt The Countess Cathleen 1912). It tells of a noble lady who, during a famine, makes a Pact with the Devil so that her people may have food. Because of her sacrifice God forgives her. When this was first performed in 1899 many found it blasphemous.

WBY joined a local Hermetic Society in 1886, studied Theosophy, and met Madame Blavatsky (he was expelled from the Theosophical Society because of the ardour of his studies); he also joined the Golden Dawn in March 1890 – he would become an adept and later the Imperator of the London Temple. These studies resulted in a strange early volume of two short novels, John Sherman and Dhoya (coll 1891), which juxtaposed occult and mythological perspectives in order to contrast the moods of the poet and the sorcerer.

These two strands came together in a series of books that were later combined as Mythologies (omni 1959; cut vt The Secret Rose and Other Stories 1982). The bibliography of these books is complicated and the following does not pretend completeness. The first of the volumes was The Celtic Twilight (coll 1893; exp 1902), a miscellany of tales, Fables and sketches showing the relationship between humankind and the Fairies. The stories in The Secret Rose (coll 1897) are more mystical, using WBY's knowledge of Rosicrucianism to interpret some of the legends of Ireland. Several of the stories involve the thoughts and adventures of Red Hanrahan. WBY was unsatisfied with these: Lady Gregory helped him revise them as Stories of Red Hanrahan (coll 1905).

Of particular interest in The Secret Rose is the story "Rosa Alchemica" (1896 The Savoy), an enlightening study of Alchemy, which introduced the character of Michael Robartes, an adept modelled on Macgregor Mathers (real name Samuel Liddell Mathers; 1854-1918), one of the founders of the Golden Dawn, whom WBY would use in his later occult stories, plays and essays collected as Michael Robartes and the Dancer (coll 1921) and Stories of Michael Robartes and His Friends (coll 1932). Other occult writings include The Tables of the Law; The Adoration of the Magi (coll 1897) and Per Amica Silentia Lunae (coll 1918).

In addition to these, WBY produced an outspoken volume of miscellaneous writings about mysticism and magic, Ideas of Good and Evil (coll 1903), plus A Vision (coll 1925; exp 1937), partly based on apparent automatic writing by his wife Georgie Hyde-Lees (1892-1968).

These volumes contain the bulk of WBY's fictional and semifictional occult and folkloristic writings, although all his work (certainly prior to 1905, when he left the Golden Dawn) was influenced by these passions. Unlike Arthur Machen and Algernon Blackwood, who were able to merge their occult beliefs into a narrative, WBY's feelings were too strong to contain in simple stories. As a consequence his work is not as familiar to devotees of fantastic fiction as it should be. [MA]

other works: Mosada (1886 chap), offprint of poem from Dublin University Review; Selections from the Writings of Lord Dunsany (coll 1912), ed; The Poems of W.B. Yeats (omni 1949); The Poems (1990; rev 1994) ed Daniel Albright, the most complete collection. WBY also ed the occasional publications Beltaine (3 issues May 1899-April 1900), Samhain (7 issues October 1901-November 1908) and The Arrow (5 issues October 1906-August 1909).

further reading: WBY's own autobiographical writings, collected as Autobiographies (omni 1955). Of the many books about WBY the most relevant are Yeats: The Man and the Masks (1948) by Richard Ellmann, The Unicorn: William Butler Yeats' Search for Reality (1954) by Virginia Moore, William Butler Yeats (1971) by Denis Donoghue, Yeats's Golden Dawn (1974) by George Mills Harper, W.B. Yeats and Irish Folklore (1980) by Mary Helen Thuente and A Bibliography of the Writings of W.B. Yeats (1951; 3rd rev Russell K Alspach 1968) by Allan Wade.

William Butler Yeats


This entry is taken from the Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997) edited by John Clute and John Grant. It is provided as a reference and resource for users of the SF Encyclopedia, but apart from possible small corrections has not been updated.