The Autobiography of William Butler Yeats

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W. B. Yeats' collected memoirs were published in 1935 as The Autobiography of William Butler Yeats and consisted of the following works: Reveries over Childhood and Youth (1914); The Trembling of the Veil (1922); Yeats' Nobel Prize lecture, "The Irish Dramatic Movement" (15 December 1923); The Bounty of Sweden (1925); Estrangement (1926); The Death of Synge (1928); and Dramatis Personae, 1896-1902 (1935).

The following quotations are taken from the edition published by Macmillan in 1986, ISBN 0-02-055580-6; it was a reprint of the edition issued in 1965.

Part I: Reveries over Childhood and Youth[edit]

  • The pride and reserve, the sense of decorum and order, the instinctive playing before themselves that belongs to those who strike the popular imagination.
    • Ch. 2 (p. 9)
  • I had as many ideas as I have now, only I did not know how to choose from among them those that belonged to my life.
    • Ch. 22 (p. 55)
  • When I think of all the books I have read, and of the wise words I have heard spoken, and of the anxiety I have given to parents and grandparents, and of the hopes that I have had, all life weighed in the scales of my own life seems to me a preparation for something that never happens.
    • Ch. 33 (p. 71)

Part II: The Trembling of the Veil[edit]

  • It is not true that youth looks before it with the mechanical gaze of a well-drilled soldier. Its quarrel is not with the past but with the present, where its elders are so obviously powerful and no cause seems lost if it seem to threaten that power.
    • Book I: Four Years: 1887-1891, ch. 2 (pp. 76-77)
  • I began to pray that my imagination might somehow be rescued from abstraction and become as preoccupied with life as had been the imagination of Chaucer. For ten or twelve years more I suffered continual remorse, and only became content when my abstractions had composed themselves into picture and dramatisation. My very remorse helped to spoil my early poetry, giving it an element of sentimentality through my refusal to permit it any share of an intellect which I considered impure. Even in practical life I only very gradually began to use generalisations, that have since become the foundation of all I have done, or shall do, in Ireland. For all I know all men may have been so timid, for I am persuaded that our intellects at twenty contain all the truths we shall ever find, but as yet we do not know truths that belong to us from opinions caught up in casual irritation or momentary fantasy. As life goes on we discover that certain thoughts sustain us in defeat, or give us victory, whether over ourselves or others, and it is these thoughts, tested by passion, that we call convictions.
    • Book I: Four Years: 1887-1891, ch. 21 (pp. 127-128)
  • We begin to live when we have conceived life as tragedy.
    • Book I: Four Years: 1887-1891, ch. 21
  • Only the greatest obstacle that can be contemplated without despair rouses the will to full intensity.
    • Book I: Four Years: 1887-1891, ch. 24 (p. 170)
  • We saw each other in the light of bitter comedy, and in the arts, where now one technical element reigned and then another, generation hated generation, and accomplished beauty was snatched away when it had most engaged our affections.
    • Book I: Four Years: 1887-1891, ch. 23 (p. 130)
  • A powerful class by terror, rhetoric, and organised sentimentality, may drive their people to war but the day draws near when they cannot keep them there.
    • Book I: Four Years: 1887-1891, ch. 24 (p. 132)
  • Politics, for a vision-seeking man, can be but half achievement, a choice of an almost easy kind of skill instead of that kind which is, of all those not impossible, the most difficult. Is it not certain that the Creator yawns in earthquake and thunder and other popular displays, but toils in rounding the delicate spiral of a shell?
    • Book II: Ireland after Parnell, ch. 14 (p. 167)
  • As I look backward upon my own writing, I take pleasure alone in those verses where it seems to me I have found something hard and cold, some articulation of the Image, which is the opposite of all that I am in my daily life, and all that my country is; yet man or nation can no more make this Mask or Image than the seed can be made by the soil into which it is cast.
    • Book III, Hodos Chameliontos, ch. 9 (p. 184)
  • Why should men, who spoke their opinions in low voices, as though they feared to disturb the readers in some ancient library, and timidly as though they knew that all subjects had long since been explored, all questions long since decided in books whereon the dust settled — live lives of such disorder and seek to rediscover in verse the syntax of impulsive common life? Was it that we lived in what is called "an age of transition" and so lacked coherence, or did we but pursue antithesis?
    • Book IV, The Tragic Generation, ch. 5 (p. 202)
  • I think that the movement of our thought has more and more so separated certain images and regions of the mind, and that these images grow in beauty as they grow in sterility.
    • Book IV, The Tragic Generation, ch. 9 (p. 209)
  • What can the Christian confessor say to those who more and more must make all out of the privacy of their thought, calling up perpetual images of their desire, for he cannot say "Cease to be artist, cease to be poet," where the whole life is art and poetry, nor can he bid men leave the world, who suffer from the terrors that pass before shut-eyes.
    • Book IV, The Tragic Generation, ch. 9 (p. 209)
  • How often had I heard men of my time talk of the meeting of spirit and sense, yet there is no meeting but only change upon the instant, and it is by the perception of a change, like the sudden "blacking out" of the lights of the stage, that passion creates its most violent sensation.
    • Book IV, The Tragic Generation, ch.13 (p. 218)
  • Does not all art come when a nature, that never ceases to judge itself, exhausts personal emotion so completely that something impersonal, something that has nothing to do with action or desire, suddenly starts into its place, something which is as unforeseen, as completely organised, even as unique, as the images that pass before the mind between sleeping and waking?
    • Book IV, The Tragic Generation, ch.16 (p. 222)

Estrangement: Extracts from a Diary Kept in 1909[edit]

  • Is not charm what it is because an escape from mechanism? So much of the world as is dominated by the contest of interests is a mechanism. The newspaper is the roar of the machine. Argument, the moment acknowledged victory is sought, becomes a clash of interests.
    • Extract 5 (p. 313)
  • I have noticed that when these men (certain disciples of A. E.) take to any kind of action it is to some kind of extreme politics. Partly, I think, because they have never learned the discipline which enables the most ardent nature to accept obtainable things, even if a little sadly; but still more because they cannot believe in any success that is not in the unconditioned future, and because, like an artist described by Balzac, they long for popularity that they may believe in themselves.
    • Extract 12 (p. 315)
  • The real life being despised is only prized when sentimentalised over, and so the soul is shut off alike from earth and heaven.
    • Extract 15 (p. 316)
  • Because the life man sees is not the final end of things, the moment we attain to greatness of any kind by personal labour and will we become fragmentary, and find no task in active life which can use our finest faculties.
    • Extract 26 (p. 321)
  • I thought of the perpetual desire of all lovers to talk of their love and how many lovers' quarrels have come from it.
    • Extract 30 (p. 324)
  • Evil comes to us men of imagination wearing as its mask all the virtues. I have certainly known more men destroyed by the desire to have wife and child and to keep them in comfort than I have seen destroyed by drink and harlots.
    • Extract 38 (p. 328)
  • Classical morality in its decay became an instrument in the hands of commonplace energy to overthrow distinguished men. A true system of morals is from the first a weapon in the hands of the most distinguished. The Catholic Church created a system only possible for saints, hence its prolonged power. Its definition of good was narrow, but it did not set out to make shopkeepers. A lofty morality should be tolerant, for none declare its laws but those worn out with its warfare, and they must pity sinners. Besides, it must needs take a personal form in their minds and give to those minds the timidity of discoverers, not less than the courtesy of soldiers.
    • Extract 51 (p. 334)

The Death of Synge: Extracts from a Diary Kept in 1909[edit]

  • So long as all is ordered for attack, and that alone, leaders will instinctively increase the number of enemies that they may give their followers something to do.
    • Extract 2 (p. 337)
  • When a country produces a man of genius he is never what it wants or believes it wants; he is always unlike its idea of itself. In the eighteenth century Scotland believed itself religious, moral and gloomy, and its national poet Burns came not to speak of these things but to speak of lust and drink and drunken gaiety.
    • Extract 30 (p. 352)
  • The old playwrights took old subjects, did not even arrange the subject in a new way. They were absorbed in expression, that is to say in what is most near and delicate. The new playwrights invent their subjects and dislike anything customary in the arrangement of the fable, but their expression is as common as the newspapers where they first learned to write.
    • Extract 33 (p. 353)

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