Read his poem "An Irish Airman Foresees His Death"
Career: Poet, playwright, essayist, critic, short story writer, and autobiographer
Yeats was born in Dublin on June 13, 1865, the eldest of four children. His father, John Butler Yeats, was the son of a once-affluent family whom Oscar Wilde's father, Sir William Wilde, described as "the cleverest, most spirited people I ever met." Yeats' parents had an important influence on the young artist's life. His father had trained as a lawyer, but instead decided to fulfill his lifelong ambition of becoming a painter. Unfortunately, while good at painting, he was not very successful at exploiting his talent, and the family often suffered from financial hardship. Yeats' mother Susan Pollexfen Yeats, the daughter of a successful merchant from Sligo in western Ireland, was descended from a line of intense, eccentric people interested in faeries and astrology. From his mother Yeats inherited a love of Ireland, particularly the region surrounding Sligo, and an interest in the folklore of the local peasantry.
Not until he was eleven years old, when he began attending the Godolphin Grammar School in Hammersmith, England, did Yeats receive any type of formal schooling. From there he went on to the Erasmus Smith High School in Dublin, where he a generally disappointing student — erratic in his studies, prone to daydreaming, shy, and poor at sports. In 1884 Yeats enrolled in the Metropolitan School of Art in Dublin, where he met the poet George Russell. With Russell, Yeats founded the Dublin Hermetic Society for the purposes of conducting magical experiments and promoting their belief that "whatever the great poets had affirmed in their finest moments was the nearest we could come to an authoritative religion and that their mythology and their spirits of water and wind were but literal truth." This organization marked Yeats' first serious activity in occult studies, a fascination which he would continue for the rest of his life, and the extent of which was revealed only when his unpublished notebooks were examined after his death. Yeats joined the Rosicrucians, the Theosophical Society, and MacGregor Mathers' Order of the Golden Dawn. Frequently consulting spiritualists and engaging in the ritual conjuring of Irish gods, Yeats used his knowledge of the occult as a source of images for his poetry, and traces of his esoteric interests appear everywhere in his poems.
In 1885 Yeats met Irish nationalist John O'Leary, who helped turn his attention to Celtic nationalism and who was instrumental in arranging for the publication of Yeats' first poems in The Dublin University Review. Under the influence of O'Leary, Yeats took up the cause of Gaelic writers at a time when much native Irish literature was in danger of being lost as the result of England's attempts to anglicize Ireland through a ban on the Gaelic language. On January 30, 1889 Yeats met Maud Gonne, an actress whose great beauty would haunt him for the rest of his life. Gonne, a passionate agitator for the nationalist cause in Ireland, intrigued and dismayed Yeats with her reckless destructiveness in pursuit of her political goals. They were united in their common desire to see Ireland freed from English domination. During this period Yeats focused his attention on drama, hoping to spark a renewed interest in Irish literature and culture. Despite her many rejections of his offers of marriage, Yeats and Gonne remained close personal friends and their relationship endured through many estrangements, including her brief marriage to Major John MacBride. In his love poetry, Yeats compared her to Helen of Troy, whose capriciousness led to the destruction of a civilization. To Yeats, Gonne represented an ideal, and throughout his life he found the tension between them, as well as their friendship, a source of poetic inspiration.
In 1917, when he was fifty-two years old, Yeats finally married. While on their honeymoon, his young wife, Georgiana Hyde-Lees, discovered that she had abilities as a medium and could communicate with the supernatural world through the technique of automatic writing. Late in his life, when decades of struggle by the Irish nationalists had finally culminated in the passage of the Home Rule Bill, Yeats was chosen as one of the sixty members of the new Irish Senate. Leaving the senate in 1928 because of failing health, Yeats devoted his remaining years to poetry. He died on January 28, 1939.
Source: Exploring Poetry Gale.