William Butler Yeats's poetry and Yeats's biography are closely interwoven. We cannot understand his poetry without an intimate knowledge of his life. A large number of his poems are based directly upon actual events in his life, including his friendships and relationships. The most important factor in Yeats's personal poetry is his love for Maud Gonne and the sense of loss resulting from failure to marry her. In his poems, he celebrates her as being,
The loveliest woman born out of the mouth of Plenty's Horn.
At the same time, Yeats could never fully approve of what he called Maud Gonne's intellectual hatred which in her case consisted of her intense hysterical nationalistic fervour. A Prayer for My Daughter is a deeply personal poem expressing the poet's hopes and fears about the future of his daughter, Anne. This poem shows Yeats's disapproval of the kind of beauty which is self-centred, or which drives a lover crazy.
The poem also shows Yeats's paternal solicitude and his desire for stability and equilibrium in life. O may she live like some green laurel Rooted in one dear perpetual place? Furthermore, the poem shows Yeats's faith in “custom and ceremony” which were to be found in Irish aristocratic households. The poem also reveals Yeats's opinion regarding Maud Gonne whom he condemns for her “opinionated mind” and whom he regards as an “old bellows full of angry wind” because of her propagandist activities.
Yeats was a patriot. He showed his love for his country Ireland in his poems. His sense of nationalism and patriotic fervour is found in Easter 1916. The poet here shows his veneration to the Irish nationalists who laid down their lives for the sake of their country.
Yeats mentions some of his familiar persons among these nationalists. It may be that those persons had led a comic and ordinary life earlier. But their sacrifice has given a meaning to their lives and as a result, a terrible beauty is born. These people embody the eternal human quality. Their permanent stone-like quality can trouble the lives of other people. This is why the poet says:
Hearts with one purpose alone Through summer and winter seem Enchanted to a stone To trouble the living stream.
Like William Blake, Yeats puts forward his personal notion about history and civilisation expressing them in a symbolic term. This is evident in The Second Coming. In the poem, Yeats says:
Turning and turning in the widening gyre The falcon cannot hear the falconer: Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold; Mere anarchy is loosened upon the world.
Here the poet expresses his sense of decay and destruction of the civilisation. Yeats believed in the cyclical order of history, which he symbolises by the image of 'gyre'. The idea of disintegration is symbolised by the symbol of the falcon. Yeats's symbols are very often of personal nature, like that of Blake.
Sailing to Byzantium is also a personal poem in so far as it deals with the problem of old age which always haunted Yeats, which is presented very effectively in this Byzantium poem. An aged man feels miserable in this world of reality, being unfit for its sensual life. Yeats, therefore, finds comfort by escaping to the city of Byzantium which represents a world of art which is timeless and eternal.
However, this problem of old age is of relevance not to Yeats but to all men and in all ages. Thus Yeats's success in turning his personal emotions and likes and dislikes into great poetry was really remarkable. Very few modern poets have succeeded in turning the powers of poetry to such an effective personal use impersonality of poetry in which Yeats believed as much as T. S. Eliot did. and yet preserve the necessary.