Born June 13, 1865, in Sandymount, Ireland, to John Butler Yeats, a lawyer turned portrait painter, and Susan Mary Pollexfen, daughter of a well-to-do shipping family, William Butler Yeats was raised in London and Dublin, attending schools in both cities. Though passionate about art, Yeats turned to writing after reading Irish poets Samuel Ferguson and James Clarence Mangan. His own interest in all things Irish can be seen in poems such as his popular and early poem, "The Lake Isle of Innisfree," in which he expresses his longing to return to County Sligo in western Ireland, where he spent much of his youth. Yeats's chief influences included his father; John O'Leary (1830–1907), an Irish nationalist and activist; and Maud Gonne, a fiery Irish revolutionary with whom the poet fell in love and maintained a long correspondence. Yeats celebrated Gonne's beauty in verse and plays throughout his life, though the two never married. A writer who was inspired by mysticism and occult philosophy as much as Irish literature and folklore, Yeats was deeply involved in organizations such as the Hermetic Students of the Golden Dawn and the Theosophical Society, the latter founded by Madam Blavatsky, a controversial mystic. A lifelong student of philosophy and literature, Yeats was well read in writers such as Plato, Dante, Shakespeare, Ben Johnson, John Donne, Jonathan Swift, William Blake, Immanuel Kant, and Friedrich Nietzsche.
A shy youth, Yeats grew into a charismatic figure, championing Irish heritage and resisting the cultural influence of English rule. A playwright as well as a poet, Yeats, along with a patron, Lady Gregory of Coole Park, founded the Irish Theatre, which became the Abbey Theatre. He served as the Abbey's lead playwright and later was joined by John Synge, author of The Playboy of the Western World. Many of Yeats's plays drew on Irish legends and include The Countess Cathleen (1892); The Land of Heart's Desire (1894); Cathleen ni Houlihan (1902); The King's Threshold (1904); and Deirdre (1907). His poetry collections include The Wanderings of Oisin (1889); The Celtic Twilight (1893); The Wind Among the Reeds (1899); The Wild Swans at Coole (1917); and The Tower (1928). Yeats was elected to a seat in the Irish Free Senate in 1922 and awarded the Nobel Prize in 1923. He died January 29, 1939, in Roquebrune, France. In 1948, his remains were reinterred in Drumcliff, Sligo. He is widely considered one of the greatest poets of the twentieth century.