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William Butler Yeats

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English Literature

Have you ever wondered what it would be like to be a part of a secret society? How about a paranormal research organization? Have you ever wondered what marks the difference between a spirit and a soul? Poet and author William Butler Yeats (also known as W. B. Yeats) engaged in all of this and more as a young aspiring author, before becoming so popular as to win the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1923. Yeats is an English-language poet who had a deep interest in the spiritual and profound existence of the human experience and influenced the work of many poets we study today.

William Butler Yeats Autobiography

William Butler Yeats (1865-1939) was an Irish poet, playwright, and author born Sandymount, Ireland in 1865. At the time of Yeats' birth, Ireland was a part of the sovereign state known as the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. Yeats is an English-language author, best known for his interest in symbolist poetry and the occult. As Yeats aged, his poetry moved away from symbolist poetry and began to explore the more mundane aspects of life in Ireland, taking a more politically-informed view of the world. Yeats is a poet who had major influences on pushing English poetry towards modernism.

Yeats was a politician and an avid supporter of Irish nationalism, which greatly influenced his poetry. In the 1840s, Ireland was just emerging from a famine that had massive implications for population decline. By the time of Yeats' birth, there was an intense political climate in Ireland, with some groups (of which Yeats was a participant) opposing the imperialist and democratic desires of Great Britain. Yeats went on to describe his desire for a more traditional way of Irish living in his poem 'The Fisherman' and eventually became senator of the Irish Free State in 1922. He maintained support of nationalist and authoritarian leadership in Ireland until his death in 1939, claiming Fascism was necessary to maintain a healthy mode of living in Ireland.

William Butler Yeats' biography

W. B. Yeats was born in Sandymount, Ireland in 1865 to parents John Butler Yeats and Susan Mary Pollexfen. Yeats' father was studying law at the time of his birth, but later switched to art studies at the Heatherly School of Fine Art. Yeats' mother was the daughter of a wealthy merchant family and grew up in the coastal town of County Sligo, Ireland, where Yeats' family (including his brother and two sisters) soon relocated after his birth. W. B. Yeats came to know County Sligo as his childhood home and often refers back to it in his poetry, painting images of coastal cliffs and other natural features near the area he grew up.

Yeats' family moved around several more times, homeschooling him and his siblings at times, and attending various schools in cities such as London and Dublin. The Yeats family lived in England for several years where W. B. Yeats did not distinguish himself academically. He had a fascination with several niche subjects such as zoology and biology but did not do well in the traditional classroom setting, perhaps as a result of his mother's homeschooling. He was interested at a young age in Irish folklore, and this came to influence his writing and his later fascination with the occult.

The occult or occultism is a catch-all term, literally meaning "the knowledge of the hidden," describing spiritual beliefs that fall outside of the traditional realms of science and religion. This term can describe supernatural beliefs, practices, and modes of living that fall outside of prescriptive norms.

Yeats' early years as a poet

In his early years of as a poet, William Butler Yeats joined and co-founded several writer and supernatural societies. Two of the more famous societies he was a part of include The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn (of which he was a lifelong member) and the paranormal society, The Ghost Club. Yeats went on to co-found The Rhymers' Club with his friend Ernest Rhys, a group of London writers who would meet regularly in taverns to discuss their work. Yeats later tried to immortalize The Rhymers' Club in his book Autobiographies of William Butler Yeats, published in 1938.

William Butler Yeats published several of his well-known poems during this stage of his life, many of which he later disowned as his interests shifted away from spirituality, occultism, and astrology, and more towards a political nature. Yeats began writing poetry at age 17 and had his first three works published in the Dublin University Review. A few of his major influencers at this time were Percy Bysshe Shelley and Edmund Spenser.

As he aged, he quickly became a fan of William Blake, attributing much of his influence to him. Yeats' style changed quite a bit over the course of his lifetime, and he went on to concentrate less on his interest in the paranormal and occult (though this interest remained present throughout his life) and quickly transitioned to an interest in symbolist poetry.

Symbolist poetry is a type of poetry that seeks to express absolute truths through symbols, metaphors, and physical language. Symbolist poetics came into being in the late 19th-century in response to poetic realism and naturalism.

Adult life

In 1889, as Yeats aged and became more politically and socially active in Ireland, he met an Irish nationalist by the name of Maud Gonne who quickly became the subject of his romantic and literary interest. While Gonne and Yeats never married, he had an obsessive and unrequited love for her for the better part of his life. Gonne was hesitant to marry him, partially due to his lack of engagement with the Irish nationalist cause and went on to reject his proposals of marriage several times. She was then married to a more renowned Irish nationalist, Major John MacBride. Their marriage fell apart rapidly, with Gonne petitioning for divorce and receiving a separation as well as custody of their child. Soon after her marriage to MacBride became rocky, she began visiting Yeats in London and after several years of dancing around the concept of being together, they consummated their relationship in 1908.

Even after their love affair in London, Yeats and Gonne did not marry, though almost 20 years after their union, Yeats wrote of the experience in his poem "A Man Young and Old":

My arms are like the twisted thornAnd yet there beauty lay;The first of all the tribe lay thereAnd did such pleasure take;She who had brought great Hector downAnd put all Troy to wreck.

Yeats and Gonne agreed that a relationship should not be pursued between the two of them and are both known for writing letters to the other praising their agreed upon abstinence after their one night together. Gonne, however, continued to heavily influence Yeats' life and work. As his poetry became more and more influenced by French Symbolism, he became more and more involved in the Irish Literary Revival movement (also known as the Celtic Revival).

The Irish Literary Revival is a movement from the 19th and 20th century in Ireland. The movement concentrated on strengthening Irish literary and artistic culture in response to Britain's influence over Ireland. Yeats' poem 'The Lake Isle of Innisfree' (1890) is one of the most well-known poems of the Celtic Revival.

In 1916, at the age of 51, William Butler Yeats married 25-year-old Georgie Hyde-Lees. He desired to have heirs and, though he'd had many love affairs throughout his life, he had not yet had children. Despite their age difference, Hyde-Lees and Yeats loved one another and had two children, Anne and Michael. Hyde-Lees reawakened Yeats' love of the supernatural and they experimented with automatic writing together.

Automatic writing is a type of writing where the author enters a trance, and a spirit or "guide" uses their body as a conduit to write various works. Yeats had several guides that he claimed influenced his work over his lifetime.

The Abbey Theatre

Yeats was also deeply involved in the creation of the Abbey Theatre, located in Dublin, Ireland. Yeats, one of his lovers Lady Gregory, George Moore, and Edward Martyn founded the Irish Literary Theatre. The Irish Literary Theatre was created to inspire hope among those located in Ireland, and contributed greatly to the Celtic Revival movement. The Abbey Theatre was borne of the Irish Literary Theatre and was founded in 1904. On the opening night of the Theatre, Yeats' work Cathleen ni Houlihan premiered, along with Lady Gregory's Spreading the News. The Abbey Theatre was one of Yeats' crowning achievements and he remained on the board and as a playwright until his death in 1939.

William Butler Yeats death

W. B. Yeats died in 1939 after a lifetime of literary and political accomplishment. His health had been in decline for some time, and his wife, Georgie, and their son, Michael, were with him. He was prescribed morphine for his ailments and died peacefully and quietly on a sunny afternoon at the age of 73. He requested that his body be brought back to Sligo, Ireland. On his tombstone is an epitaph from one of his final poems, "Under Ben Bulben":

Cast a cold Eye

on Life, on Death.

Horseman, pass by!

William Butler Yeats poems

William Butler Yeats published many poems during his lifetime, including more than 30 poetry collections. Some of his more famous works are included in the table below, though this is not an exhaustive list. Note the heavy reliance on symbolism and natural imagery in these poems. Yeats became known for referencing the supernatural in his poetry, but he also used his political voice to speak out in favor of Irish nationalism. Yeats won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1923, "for his always inspired poetry, which in a highly artistic form gives expression to the spirit of a whole nation."1

GenreYearWork(s)Description
Volumes of Poetry1889-1933
  • The Wanderings of Oisin and Other Poems (1889)
  • The Countess Kathleen and Various Legends and Lyrics (1892)
  • In the Seven Woods (1903)
  • Responsibilities and Other Poems (1916)
  • The Wild Swans at Coole (1919)
  • Michael Robartes and the Dancer (1921)
  • The Tower (1928)
  • The Winding Stair and Other Poems (1933)
Individual Poems1890"The Lake Isle of Innisfree""The Lake Isle of Innisfree" is about an uninhabited island located in County Sligo, Ireland. It is one of Yeats' most famous poems and was used in the Irish Literary Revival Movement, which sought to create a distinct culture for Irish citizens.
1916"Easter, 1916""Easter, 1916" is a poem about an insurrection in Ireland against the control of Great Britain on Easter Monday, April 24, 1916. The insurrection was unsuccessful and many of those leading were executed. Yeats wrote this poem to commemorate the sacrifice of those who died for Irish freedom.
1920"The Second Coming""The Second Coming" was written after WWI and is commonly claimed to be Yeats' most famous work. It was written at the beginning of the Irish War of Independence. It uses Christian symbolism and history and is regarded as one of the most influential works of modernist literature.
1928"Sailing to Byzantium""Sailing to Byzantium" is a good example of a poem that uses symbolism to represent an absolute truth. Yeats used this poem to express the search within oneself for a spiritual life. It is one of his most well-known poems.
Plays and Dramatic Works1902-19338
  • Cathleen ni Houlihan (1902)
  • Four Plays for Dancers: At the Hawk's Well, The Only Jealousy of Emer, The Dreaming of the Bones, Calvary (1916-1921)
  • Purgatory (1938)
Yeats was best known for his poetry, but he was also a playwright and several of his plays became popular across Europe during his lifetime. Listed, are a few examples of some of his more popular plays that received attention during his life.

William Butler Yeats: literary criticism

W. B. Yeats was also a well-known literary critic. He had specific life and writing values that he expressed through his literary criticism, and we have knowledge of a lot of his criticism, today. Yeats was very outspoken

against opinions he thought were incorrect and sought to explore the aesthetic and philosophical principles of writing. He was an avid critic of Irish propaganda and believed that literary works should be rooted in a historical and societal context. His criticism is an important contribution to his body of work because it illustrates the interconnectedness between art forms such as poetry and propaganda. He believed that art forms were in constant conversation with one another, and it is clear that his criticism aided in his writing as a result of his intense devotion to conversation between works.

William Butler Yeats: quotes

Yeats' work has been popular amongst English speakers for over a century, and he has many famous quotations regarding everything from the occult to poetry to Irish politics. As a popular writer during his lifetime, there are many quotes that stand out as influential in history. One of his most famous quotes is from his poem 'Easter, 1916' and states:

A terrible beauty is born"

Yeats is best known for his quotes describing the intersection between reality and spirituality, concentrating on the symbolic nature of life. The spiritual considerations found in 'Easter, 1916' lend themselves to dramatic statements such as the quotation above, and these hard hitters are quotations that Yeats became known for throughout his life.

Yeats is also known for his interest in natural imagery and connection. In his poem, 'The Lake Isle of Innisfree', Yeats recounts a place of natural beauty from his hometown of County Sligo. Several famous lines from "The Lake Isle of Innisfree" state:

"I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree...

and I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,

dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings."

These lines are good examples of natural imagery influenced by the Irish countryside and demonstrate the symbolic nature of Yeats' writing.

Another example of a famous quotation that we still recite today is from Yeats' poem 'Aedh Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven' (1899). Yeats was known to write lines that influenced the perception of the public, particularly in Ireland. "Aedh Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven" is reminiscent of Yeats' protestant/Anglican roots and expresses political implications for the silencing of voices. The lines are thus:

“But I, being poor, have only my dreams;I have spread my dreams under your feet;Tread softly because you tread on my dreams."

Yeats was an avid user of the long metaphor and maintained a deep relationship with symbolism throughout his career.

William Butler Yeats: symbolism

W. B. Yeats is very well-known for his use of symbolism. Throughout Yeats' life and all of the influences he had on his work, he maintained a constant connection to the supernatural and such philosophies. Some of the influences that Yeats incorporated into his symbolism include the occult, folklore, Biblical voices, and connection to nature. His work leans heavily on the literary devices of symbolism and focuses on connecting specific images with broader philosophical themes. To use his poem 'The Lake Isle of Innisfree,' Yeats illustrates this peaceful island where the speaker of the poem goes to pursue their inner peace. Through the language of the poem, we read only the description of nature as seen through the lens of the speaker, but it holds a deeper meaning. The poem ends with this quatrain:

A quatrain is a four-line stanza in poetry.

"I will arise and go now, for always night and day

I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;

While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey,

I hear it in the deep heart’s core."

This quatrain is a good example of how the symbol of Innisfree can indicate the eternal motion of night and day. The speaker feels deeply connected to the symbol of the isle as representative of inner peace but references its cyclical nature. The speaker also says they can "hear it in the deep heart's core" a symbol of inner peace being constantly carried within and referenced throughout the poem.

Yeats also spent a good part of his poetic career circling the notions of spirituality as explored through Protestantism and the Anglican church. In his poem 'The Second Coming', we can see frequent uses of Christian imagery to describe the speaker's horror at an apocalyptic future:

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,"

'The Second Coming' provides a great example of the ways in which Yeats builds upon well-known symbols to create a feeling of horror for the speaker.

William Butler Yeats - Key takeaways

  • William Butler Yeats was an Irish, English-language poet, playwright, and author, and was one of the most famous Irish poets.
  • W. B. Yeats was deeply influenced by the supernatural and Irish politics.
  • Yeats' symbolist poetry dramatically influenced modernist writing and helped push poetry from its 19th-century norms to 20th-century modernism.
  • Yeats wrote many famous works, including poems such as 'The Lake Isle of Innisfree,' 'Easter, 1916,' 'The Second Coming', and 'Sailing to Byzantium'.

1 William Butler Yeats – Facts. NobelPrize.org. February 22, 2022.

William Butler Yeats

William Butler Yeats was born in Sandymount, Ireland.

WIlliam Butler Yeats wrote over 30 poetry collections.

William Butler Yeats' poetry was influenced by the occult, supernatural, Irish politics, and symbolism.

William Butler Yeats died in 1939.

William Butler Yeats was born in 1865.

Final William Butler Yeats Quiz

Question

Where was William Butler Yeats born?


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William Butler Yeats was born in Sandymount, Ireland.

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When was William Butler Yeats born?

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1865

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When did William Butler Yeats die? 

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1939

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What influenced William Butler Yeats' poetry? 

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Occultism, symbolism, Irish politics, supernatural.

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William Butler Yeats helped move English poetry into what era? 

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The modernist era. 

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How many collections of poetry did William Butler Yeats write? 

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30. 

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What political affiliation did William Butler Yeats have?

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Irish Nationalist.

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What prize did William Butler Yeats win in 1923? 

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The Nobel Prize for Literature. 

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What organization did William Butler Yeats co-found with Ernest Rhys?

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The Rhymers' Club.

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What is symbolist poetry?

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Symbolist poetry is a type of poetry that seeks to express absolute truths through symbols, metaphors, and physical language. Symbolist poetics came to be in the late 19th-century in response to poetic realism and naturalism.  

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What are some of William Butler Yeats' most famous poems? 

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  • 'The Lake Isle of Innisfree' (1890)
  • 'Easter, 1916' (1916)
  • 'The Second Coming' (1920)
  • 'Sailing to Byzantium' (1928)

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What was William Butler Yeats' cherished childhood hometown?

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County Sligo, Ireland. 

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When was 'The Lake Isle of Innisfree' written?

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It was written in 1888 and published in 1890.

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What are the main themes of 'The Lake Isle of Innisfree'? 

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Some of the main themes include spirituality, connection to nature, and the Celtic Revival movement.

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What is the Celtic Revival movement?

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The Celtic Revival movement was a movement to strengthen Irish culture in response to Great Britian influencing Ireland so intensely. 

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Who wrote 'The Lake Isle of Innisfree'?

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William Butler Yeats 

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What line is repeated twice in 'The Lake Isle of Innisfree'? 

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"I will arise and go now"

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Where is the Lake Isle of Innisfree located? 

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County Sligo, Ireland

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Is 'The Lake Isle of Innisfree' a real place?

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Yes. The Lake Isle of Innisfree is located in Yeats' hometown in Ireland.

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What is 'The Lake Isle of Innisfree's rhyme scheme?

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abab, cdcd, efef 

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What is a quatrain?

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A four-line stanza

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How many lines does 'The Lake Isle of Innisfree' have? 

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12

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What does the symbol of the stone represent in Yeats' 'Easter, 1916'?

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Yeats uses the symbol of the stone in 'Easter, 1916' to represent the consistency and determination of the rebels in the Easter Uprising of 1916.

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What is Yeats' poem 'Easter, 1916' about? 

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'Easter, 1916' is about the Easter Uprising of 1916 in Ireland and explores the concept of heroism and sacrifice.

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When did Yeats write 'Easter, 1916'?

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Yeats wrote 'Easter, 1916' in 1916, though he didn't publish it in his personal collection until 1921

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What is the meaning of 'Easter, 1916'? 

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'Easter, 1916' is an exploration of the concepts of heroism and sacrifice in day-to-day Irish culture. It explores the ways in which sacrifice is justified and the potential of what happens to one's legacy after death.

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What does the year 1916 in the poem 'Easter, 1916' refer to? 

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The year 1916 refers to the Easter Uprising of 1916. 

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What are some symbols found in 'Easter, 1916'?

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The stone and various Irish clothes, including motely clothes and green clothing.

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Did Yeats support the Easter Uprising? 

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No. Yeats did not initially support the Easter Uprising, though he came to understand its significance after the fact.

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What was Yeats' personal connection to the people in the poem?

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Of the four names mentioned in the poem, three were his friends and one of them was the late husband of his lifelong love interest.

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What are a few literary devices Yeats relies heavily on in 'Easter, 1916'?

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Irony, juxtaposition, metaphor, metonymy, oxymoron, pastoral metaphor, refrain  

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What is the refrain in 'Easter, 1916'?

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"A terrible beauty is born". 

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What is 'The Second Coming' about?

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'The Second Coming' is about an apocalyptic world in Europe post World War One. The speaker of 'The Second Coming' believes that a 2,000-year cycle of peaceful rule has ended, and a future of violence is at hand.  

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When did Yeats write 'The Second Coming'? 

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Yeats wrote 'The Second Coming' in the aftermath of WWI and it was published in 1920.  

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Why did Yeats write 'The Second Coming'? 


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Yeats wrote 'The Second Coming' as he was grappling with a post-war Europe. He believed that the violence seen in WWI would continue, and, ultimately, was correct, as WWII began not even two decades later. 

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What are some key themes in 'The Second Coming'? 

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A few key themes in 'The Second Coming' include: Anarchy, apocalypse, Christianity, prophesy, violence

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What are some key symbols in 'The Second Coming'? 

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Some key symbols in 'The Second Coming' include the gyre, the tide, and the sphinx. 

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What does the gyre represent in 'The Second Coming'? 

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The gyre represents the cyclical nature of things in 'The Second Coming', namely the end of a 2,000-year cycle, the next beginning with WWI. 

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What are some poetic devices used in 'The Second Coming'? 

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Allegory, alliteration, allusion, assonance, hyperbole, metaphor, symbolism

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Who wrote 'The Second Coming'?

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William Butler Yeats

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What are some biblical allusions made in 'The Second Coming'?

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Noah's flood, the Second Coming of Christ, Christ's birthplace (Bethlehem) and birth story (being born in a cradle) 

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What meter is 'The Second Coming' written in?

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An iambic pentameter that is so loose, it is closer to free verse.

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Who wrote 'Sailing to Byzantium'? 

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William Butler Yeats

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When was 'Sailing to Byzantium' written? 

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1928

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What is 'Saling to Byzantium' about? 

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'Sailing to Byzantium' is an exploration into mortality and what it means to be a human who ages and experiences death.  

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How does the speaker of 'Sailing to Byzantium' represent himself?


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The speaker of 'Sailing to Byzantium' presents himself as an elderly man who is coming to terms with death and aging. 


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How does Yeats describe the elderly in 'Sailing to Byzantium'?


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The elderly are described as "a paltry thing / a tattered coat upon a stick" meaning, an old person is like a scarecrow unless they keep their souls spry and young through music and joy. 


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What did the speaker want to be in the poem 'Sailing to Byzantium'? 


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The speaker wanted to be an immortal piece of art with knowledge of the past, present, and future in 'Sailing to Byzantium' as opposed to a human who ages and dies. 


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What are some themes present in the poem 'Sailing to Byzantium'? 

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Immortality, spirituality, adventure and liveliness, art


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What are some literary devices used in the poem 'Sailing to Byzantium'? 

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Alliteration, allusion, apostrophe, irony, metaphor, symbolism


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