W.B.Yeats: A Life, Volume I: The Apprentice Mage 1864 -1914, R.F. Foster, (Oxford University Press, £25). ISBN: 0192117351

Published in 18th–19th - Century History, 20th-century / Contemporary History, Gaelic Revival, Issue 2 (Summer 1997), Reviews, Volume 5

If Yeats had many talents, then one was certainly his foresight, or as Roy Foster describes it, ‘that faculty, which always amazed his wife, of knowing how things would look to people afterwards’. But frequently this went further than prophecy: when it came to the question of how he himself might look in retrospect, Yeats was a master of self-invention and re-invention, negotiating the terms of his own posterity even before the dust had settled on his middle-age. His ability to think of himself in the third-person, and to locate himself objectively within a tradition, provided much of the groundwork for his early critics and biographers, from whom he emerges as, variously, Graham Hough’s last romantic, Joseph Hone’s tortured artist, or more influentially, Richard Ellmann’s masked, elusive genius. And so it is to avoid (with due respect) such legacies that Foster, in the first volume of this Life, circumnavigates the poet’s poet and targets instead the polemicist, the provocateur, the impresario, the lobbyist. This strategy is partly a tribute to F.S.L. Lyons who, before his death, completed ten years of research on the poet, but it is also a recognition of the need for a historical study reintegrating Yeats within his own fraught epoch; the biography of an individual doubling as the biography of a country which was gradually coming to national consciousness.
This is not straightforward because the individual and the country rarely coincided, and Yeats was regularly at odds with Ireland. His contexts, moreover, ranged well beyond the confines of an uptight Dublin literati: culturally he looked to London’s bohemia, to France or Scandanavia, and politically to America, Hungary, and briefly even the Transvaal in his short-lived and uncomfortable phase of Irish pro-Boer protest. The diversity spills over from the groupings (or cenaclés, the term Foster borrows from Yeats’s beloved Balzac) of literature and politics. In the shadow of the millennium Yeats’s occultism, for example, his long-term involvement with a sequence of mystics and clairvoyants summarised by one newspaper as ‘spookbusiness’, is patiently documented by Foster as a means of locating the poet within a distinct Irish Protestant mystic tradition. And finally, Yeats necessitates the peripheral study of so many connected lives; the melancholy Synge, the senatorial Augusta Gregory, the young, besotted Ezra Pound, and the shrill, increasingly unstable Maud Gonne, the poet’s ‘astral’ lover, glimpsed here in an early chapter from the perspective of the Yeats sisters who ‘hated her royal sort of smile’, and even more gratifyingly later on from the stoic vantage point of Lady Gregory who described her as ‘a death’s head’.
With the rich spread of such material, what are the centralising values of Foster’s study? One is undoubtedly his focus on the micro-politics of the poet’s social background. Wisely postponing any comment on Yeats’s autobiographical Reveries, Foster unravels the union of Trinity College cachet and ‘well-mannered evangelicalism’ on the poet’s paternal side with the provincial and mercantile ethos of the Pollexfen clan in his maternal line. There is no resolving synthesis here: the status of Sligo’s respectable Protestant bourgeoisie represents a ‘palimpsest of Irishness’ which the poet would interrogate relentlessly and which Foster explores in order to overturn the volatile concept of ‘Protestant Ascendancy’, exposing beneath it a network of competing ideologies, social aspirations and racial affinities. Yeats’s Irishness is not in question but the complex paradigms of that Irishness (which can be logically extended to entire communities within the macaronic social conglomerate of late Victorian Ireland) form a major theme of the entire book.
And this is why the detail of Foster’s work is important. It is not simply  romanticism which leads him to emphasise the precarious condition of ‘genteel poverty’ in which the Yeats family lived, nor is it merely anecdotal to include, for example, extensive information on Yeats’s personal income. Such details signify, for one thing, the profound and very real insecurity which existed behind the ‘stockade of Protestant respectability’, and this insecurity seems fundamental to the way in which Yeats would later generate sustaining myths of class and caste. An Ireland of hard-riding country gentlemen, committed to their feudal responsibilities, an Ireland in which aristocrat and peasant formed an intuitive cultural liaison, was part of the imaginative mechanism through which Yeats sought to resolve his own cultural and economic marginalisation, and to find reinforcements for his problematic status so aptly described by Violet Martin (one half of Somerville and Ross) as ‘a gentleman—hardly by birth I fancy—but by genius’.
More pertinently, Foster’s depiction of the poet’s extended family as a troubled site of social heterogeneity is indicative of the national flux of class and culture, the discernible shifts of economy and hegemony, which panicked Yeats into a series of pronouncements on the degeneracy of the Irish middle class. But was this acute sensitivity or blind snobbery? George Moore, a waspish but invaluable commentator on the sidelines, went straight for the jugular: who exactly did Mr Yeats, recently returned from America with a paunch and a fur coat, think he was?

It is impossible to imagine the hatred that came into his eyes when he spoke the words ‘the middle classes’; one would have thought that he was speaking against a personal foe; but there are millions in the middle classes! And we looked round asking each other with our eyes where on earth our Willie Yeats had picked up such extraordinary ideas. He could hardy have gathered in the United States the ridiculous idea that none but titled and carriage-folk can appreciate pictures. And we asked ourselves why Willie Yeats should feel himself called upon to denounce the class to which he himself belonged essentially: on one side excellent mercantile millers and shipowners, and on the other a portrait painter of rare talent.

Moore’s disingenuousness here tracks a nerve running through Yeatsian self-development. Certainly, the poet was anxious to discard that mammonite part of his own ancestry which represented the distinctly un-poetic ‘gospel of getting on’, but just as often the ‘middle-class’ was clumsy shorthand for compounded social evils, notably the ascendancy of an urban bourgeoisie which he readily equated with all that was wrong with Ireland, and which he personified in his writing as the money-grubbing,  philistine ‘Paudeen’. There were, he was later to claim, three defining moments in his struggle with Ireland: the fall of Parnell, the Playboy riots, and the Hugh Lane controversy (the latter, in short, the failure of Dublin Corporation and connected public bodies to fund and accommodate a new municipal art gallery with Lane as its chief curator). Each case made manifest for Yeats the triumph of a dispiriting, vulgar ethos over the imaginative liberty of the individual, and ideologically, his triumvirate of Parnell, Synge and Lane fused into one; the lonely visionary dragged down by the pressure of a narrow-minded populace fumbling in the greasy till.
Through such concerns, Foster records the social temperature of Ireland at the turn of the century, embedding Yeats’s attitude in specific stand-offs rather than in some abstract modernist elitism. The biography spins with the intensity of the cultural politics of the era, particularly as they evolved in relation to the troubled project to establish a national theatre. The founding of the Abbey reads as a microcosm of the founding of the nation itself, an impossible struggle to reconcile national politics, the avante garde and patronage, and a struggle which the poet was by no means guaranteed to win. As one wit summed it up later: ‘Mr Yeats had done more than anybody else to create an Irish Theatre, and he had also done more than anybody else to prevent anybody going there’. But friction was inevitable, given the cultural and political logistics. How did one mix Ireland and Ibsen? Should the theatre close as a mark of respect for the death of Edward VII? Did it matter if an ignorant audience tittered at the ‘vaporous’ experimentalism of The Shadowy Waters?
On another level, the Abbey situation embodied the deeper question which dogged Yeats: how did one protect the purity of art from the stain of party politics? Repeatedly, he expressed his determination to immunise a cultural revival from political manipulation and specifically, from what he identified as the crippling effects of a hidebound (and indeed Hyde-bound) national self-image. Foster’s account of this particular incentive identifies Yeats as yet another player on the much fragmented field of Irish cultural nationalism, where Samuel Ferguson’s inclusivist legacy clashed with the de-Anglicisation policy of Douglas Hyde, the canonising instincts of Charles Gavan Duffy, or, at the other extreme, the Anglophobic rabble-rousing of Arthur Griffith and his Sinn Féin foot soldiers who, allegedly, heckled from the midst of the disconsolate audience on the second performance of the Playboy. Far from combating the cultural repressions of British imperialism therefore, Yeats was fighting the enemies within, the promulgators—as he saw it—of an Irish culture fossilised by political necessity and nationalist piety; insular, constricting, unable to absorb either formal experiment or external influence.
The success or failure of Yeats’s venture to create a free literature, ‘a Muse escaped from the pots and pans’, is a matter for the second volume of the biography. Meanwhile, what has Foster already achieved? How useful is his extensive scholarship not only to the Yeats aficionado but to the general reader? This is definitely not, first of all, a commentary on the poetry, a welcome bypass given the perennial congestion of Yeats studies. Occasionally poems are cited but as sporadic illustrations, and Foster makes very little attempt to tease out the alchemical process through which Yeats turned his life into verse. But if the life of the poet is kept from his poems here, it is put back into his prose; the letters, lectures, manifestos and, most usefully in this framework, major essays, from which Foster appropriately selects ‘J.M. Synge and the Ireland of his Time’ (1910) as the maturing poet’s consummate apologia on the unhealthy intersection of art and politics in Ireland:

Even if what one defends be true, an attitude of defence, a continual apology, whatever the cause, makes the mind barren because it kills intellectual innocence; that delight in what is unforeseen, and in the mere spectacle of the world, the mere drifting hither and thither that must come before all true thought and emotion. A zealous Irishman, especially if he lives much out of Ireland, spends his time in a never-ending argument about Oliver Cromwell, the Danes, the penal laws, the rebellion of 1798, the famine, the Irish peasant, and ends by substituting a traditional casuistry for a country; and if he be a Catholic yet another casuistry that has professors, schoolmasters, letter-writing priests and the authors of manuals to make the meshes fine, comes between him and English literature, substituting arguments and hesitations for the excitement at the first reading of the great poets which should be a sort of violent imaginative puberty.

Foster has not interpreted Yeats, nor for the most part, does he speculate, and so ultimately this is—not surprisingly—a biography rooted in history. Where Ellmann’s Yeats was determinedly poetic Foster’s is decidedly prosaic, a man struggling with hack work, review commissions, publication subscriptions, tax demands, and always, the pressures of English orthography. It is a painstakingly realistic picture of the literary marketplace and indeed, the scrum of enterprise and ego which the founding of a national theatre engendered: so extreme are the Abbey squabbles in particular that at times, even Foster’s reverence for his subject fails to quell a note of incipient farce. The value of such a version is chiefly in adjusting our perception of the Revival from what we want it to be—a cohesive narrative of idealistic cultural revolution—to what it in fact was, a rather turgid sequence of compromises, negotiations, frustrations, claims and counter-claims, personality clashes and literary vendettas. And all of this throws into relief, of course, the reflex achievement of the poet, who became increasingly skilful at patching things up in his verse. By 1914 and the close of Foster’s first volume, Yeats had published his watershed collection Responsibilities, avowing in his poetic life to put away childish things, and in his public life, to recognise his country as ‘a house to be set in order’, but to be set in order through aesthetic rather than political resolution.

Eve Patten


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