Autobiography of William Butler Yeats

IStock_000005761016XSmall Jack reads selected passages
from his favorite books

Unscripted. Unrehearsed. Unedited.


Autobiography of William Butler Yeats, 1914. 


I began reading W. B. Yeats after coming across a favorable recommendation from another author I admire, C. S. Lewis. Of his fellow Irishman, in a letter to a friend, Lewis wrote: “I have here discovered an author exactly after my own heart, whom I am sure you would delight in, W. B. Yeats. He writes plays and poems of rare spirit and beauty about our old Irish mythology.”


Someone at the Young Ireland Society gave me a newspaper that I might read some article or letter. I began idly reading verses describing the shore of Ireland as seen by a returning, dying emigrant. My eyes filled with tears and yet I knew the verses were badly written — vague, abstract words such as one finds in a newspaper. I looked at the end and saw the name of some political exile who had died but a few days after his return to Ireland. They had moved me because they contained the actual thoughts of a man at a passionate moment of life, and when I met my father I was full of the discovery. We should write out our own thoughts in as nearly as possible the language we thought them in, as though in a letter to an intimate friend. We should not disguise them in any way; for our lives give them force as the lives of people in plays give force to their words. Personal utterance, which had almost ceased in English literature, could be as fine an escape from rhetoric and abstraction as drama itself. But my father would hear nothing but drama; personal utterance was only egotism. I knew it was not, but as yet did not know how to explain the difference. I tried from that on to write out of my emotions exactly as they came to me in life, not changing them to make them more beautiful. “If I can be sincere and make my language natural, and without becoming discursive, like a novelist, and so indiscreet and prosaic,” I said to myself, “I shall, if good luck or bad luck make my life interesting, be a great poet; for it will be no longer a matter of literature at all.” Yet when I re-read those early poems which gave me so much trouble, I find little but romantic convention, unconscious drama. It is so many years before one can believe enough in what one feels even to know what the feeling is. (p. 62)


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