W.B. Yeats: a life. Volume II: The arch-poet 1915-1939

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Book Reviews, Issue 2 (Summer 2004), Reviews, Volume 12

R.F. Foster
(Oxford University Press, 344.40)
ISBN 0198184654


W.B. Yeats: vain, glorious, lout: a maker of modern Ireland
Anthony J. Jordan
(Westport Books, 313)
ISBN 0952444720

‘The work is done,’ grown old he thought,
‘According to my boyish plan;
Let the fools rage, I swerved in naught,
Something to perfection brought’;
But louder sang that ghost, ‘What then?’
(W.B. Yeats, ‘What then?’) 

There can be no question that Roy Foster’s two-volume biography of W.B. Yeats is a magnificent achievement. As Foster himself is at pains to point out, Yeats is a man obsessed with his own sense of himself in history. In other words, even as he lives and breathes, his position in the narrative of, particularly, Irish history and his place in literary history are being imagined and reconfigured for posterity. The difficulty, then, for any biographer of Yeats is that, in a very real way, the poet’s own version of himself actively haunts any such enterprise: Yeats, in short, has been there already and imaginatively covered the territory. That Foster is able to offer an image of the poet behind his own version of himself while also being aware of that constant act of creation is testament to the author’s efforts and abilities.The other difficulty is the sheer number of areas to Yeats’s life — both public and private, as well as poetic. Here, though, this problem is transformed into an asset as Foster weaves his biographical narrative through the various events and interests of Yeats’s life: wrangles with the day-to-day fate of the Abbey Theatre, his fully engaged tenure as a senator from 1923 to 1927 in the new Irish Free State, various lecture tours to America, his increasing bouts of bad health from the late 1920s onward which affect his life in more and more ways, are all wonderfully detailed here. And it is the attention to detail that draws both the informed and the casual reader into this ‘life’.

Foster manages not only to offer enough material to illuminate Yeats’s existence and motivations; he also offers some brilliant pen-pictures of many of the characters that surrounded Yeats. Characters such as Ezra Pound and Iseult Gonne, as well as some of his later ‘loves’ like Margot Ruddock and Dorothy Wellesley, have their seemingly peripheral histories brought into focus through the central figure of Yeats. It is this type of historical ‘bric-a-brac’ that adds real and palpable substance to Foster’s life of Yeats. It is the stuff of life itself that brings life to this work.

The close of Volume 1, The apprentice mage, saw the poet in 1914 at a personal and national crossroads. The hoped-for national beginning that Home Rule would herald signalled an end of sorts for the poet. Yeats’s first instalment of his autobiographies, Reveries over childhood and youth, had been published, the form of the genre allowing him, in a way, to package and order his past so that, as he wrote in the epigraph, ‘he might begin to forget it all’. He was, at 50 years of age, unmarried and childless. A certain aimlessness, then, is what opens this present volume, as Yeats — both as man and as artist — casts about for a new role that might give him definition.
Two events offered him fresh opportunities: the Rebellion of Easter 1916 and his marriage to George Hyde-Lees in 1917. Foster does not dwell overly much on Easter 1916 and, in a way, downplays its significance to Yeats. Much is made of the fact that Yeats’s famous poetic response was not published till later, in 1919, as if to underline the provisional and conditional nature of Yeats’s nationalism. Yet it must be remembered that Yeats was not a journalist — he was an artist — and his poetic response needs to be considered in that light. Yeats recognised the Easter rebellion for what it was: a paradigm shift in English–Irish relations that fundamentally moved the balance of power and innovation away from England to Ireland. It was the fresh start, the new beginning, that Yeats had been looking for. His brilliant poem ‘Easter 1916’ ponders not just the facts of the rebellion and those involved in it but also the nature of transformation itself. The transformative power of 1916 would increasingly become central to Yeats’s art in his later years.

The other life-altering occurrence was his marriage to George Hyde-Lees in 1917. Having asked Maud Gonne to marry him yet again, and being spurned yet again, and then asking her daughter Iseult for her hand in marriage and being also declined, he turned his attention to George. Despite Foster’s gifts as a historian — as a disseminator of facts — mystery remains in his narrative of this marriage so central to Yeats’s life. As readers we are as much at a loss to understand why Yeats married George as Yeats is himself. Their union could have been a disaster but for her genius in stoking the much older Yeats’s intellectual and sexual interests with her exploitation of automatic writing. Their extraordinary relationship, from these early tentative couplings to her later role as literary confidante and day-to-day organiser of his life, is well rendered in these pages.

Crammed full of detail as Foster’s narrative is, there are a few central threads to Yeats’s life that bind the numerous facets of his existence together and are returned to again and again. The matter of Ireland looms large for Yeats after Easter 1916 and his marriage. The first home he buys is in Ireland, Ballylee Castle, a sixteenth-century keep that was once part of the Gregory Coole Park Estate. This material connection to Ireland is important for Yeats in poetic terms, with the image of the tower becoming an increasingly vital symbol in his work. In public terms, too, this connection actualised his imagined and hoped-for role as national poet. When the Free State came into existence and Yeats was made a senator, he further immersed himself in the project of practical nation-building. Not only was he concerned, naturally, with the Abbey Theatre but he was also deeply involved with the establishment of an Irish Academy of Letters — a kind of forerunner for today’s Aosdana — and the short-lived Tailteann Games. What comes across clearly is his utter commitment to the New Ireland and how energetic were his efforts to create both a spiritual sense of culture and, more tangibly, the national institutions that would be bearers and guardians of this culture.

Foster seems loath to present Yeats as fully acceptable to Irish society and culture at large and makes far too much use of various editorials from the Catholic Bulletin to bolster a thesis that views Yeats as something of a Protestant liberal set against narrow-minded Catholic bigots. Certainly, Yeats was very conscious of his minority position as an Anglo-Irish Protestant in the Irish Free State. His famous defence of divorce in the Senate and his strong stand against censorship do represent a deliberate attempt to take up attitudes contrary to the majority thinking on these topics. Yet Foster overplays the importance of the Catholic Bulletin and its nasty rhetoric for it can hardly be representative of the vast majority of Irish people at this time, most of whom were only too happy to have a Nobel Laureate in their midst, as a number of scenes of spontaneous appreciation by the public detailed here demonstrate.

It is difficult, too, to have Yeats painted as a representative example of Anglo-Irish Protestantism, what with his esoteric and far from conventional ideas on religion and spirituality. The poet’s peculiar brand of Anglo-Irishness is very much bound up with aristocratic notions centred on the Big House and, especially, the Big House of Coole Park. In the section dealing with the death of his great friend and colleague Lady Gregory in 1932, Foster is able to bring brilliantly together the many strands of Yeats’s public and private life. Here the narrative is moving and the tone pitched just right, catching perfectly the delicate nature of that relationship for Yeats and his own sense of himself as a man and a poet. There is real insight and understanding to be discovered here that can only add to any reader’s inevitable return to Yeats’s own poetry and drama of this period.

Lady Gregory’s death and a number of years of ill-health for the poet signalled yet another phase of transition in the 1930s. He did not take up the offer of continuing as a senator and the loss of Coole Park produced a nomadic urge in the poet that continued until his death. Foster’s narrative itself reflects this rootless shifting from place to place, as he deals with Yeats’s desire to reinvent himself again as a ‘wise old wicked man’. As was the case with everything else that the poet did, this too is a many-faceted enterprise. Politically, he momentarily aligned himself with the Irish Blueshirts. In the end, with a meeting between Yeats, the arch-poet, and Eoin O’Duffy generating incomprehension on both sides, this flirtation is seen as something of a comic interlude. Foster rightly dismisses the fascist charge against Yeats: there is not one anti-Semitic sentiment expressed by the poet in his letters or in reported conversations, something that cannot be said for some of his friends and acquaintances like Iseult Gonne and Oliver St John Gogarty.

Sexually, too, Yeats becomes reawakened and re-energised. The Steinach operation of 1934, while not, as the anecdote would have it, concerned with the implantation of monkey glands  (in reality it was a vasectomy), certainly proved miraculous in terms of the power of positive thinking for the aging poet. He embarked on a series of relationships with numerous younger women with the tacit consent of his wife. The renewed physical urges translated themselves into a renewed passion for his poetry, which is some of his best.

While this picture of a set-adrift and wandering Yeats is somewhat sad in its implication of his being unfulfilled and restless, Foster is nonetheless capable of conjuring up some humorous scenes and incidents. For instance, a trip to Majorca in 1936 with Shri Purohit Swami to translate the ‘Upanishads’ becomes farcical as the poet and the flatulent Swami try to work while a travelling companion — a Mrs Foden — becomes increasingly paranoid and demanding. It is left to Georgie Yeats to come and save the poet from himself.

Overall what emerges from these pages is an image of Yeats caught up in the material fact of life and living. He is a man concerned with the practicalities of making money for himself and his family: a struggle that occupies many pages here. He is a man aware of his image in the public world, but very aware too of his role and position in the smaller world of his extended family. He is a man who is a poet — the arch-poet — who in his life and in his death fully realised and completed that projection of himself. Readers will come to know that life in all its extraordinary glory, and indeed absurdity, from Foster’s two volumes. It is, though, to Yeats’s own art — to his own refashioning of himself — that most readers will return, for it is the art itself that stubbornly exceeds the restraints of biography and mere fact and detail.

While R. F. Foster’s book is the official, and certainly the authoritative, biography of W.B. Yeats, there will always be room for more work on the poet. Recent years have seen numerous such additions to Yeatsian scholarship, most notably Terence Brown’s The life of W.B. Yeats, which brought a sensibility to the poetry of Yeats that is somewhat lacking in Foster’s work. Another such work is Anthony J. Jordan’s W.B. Yeats: vain, glorious, lout: a maker of modern Ireland. The title is a play on the qualities ascribed by Yeats to John MacBride in his poem ‘Easter 1916’ and tell the reader a great deal about Jordan’s approach to his subject.

This is no straightforward biography but rather a collection of essays that deal with certain aspects and episodes in Yeats’s life. What amounts to a layering technique builds up a less than flattering picture of the poet. We are presented with Yeats and Lady Gregory, Yeats and the Abbey, Yeats and his relationship with his sisters and his father: in each the poet is presented as the villain of the piece. He is by turns Machiavellian, egotistical and selfish in all his dealings with, it seems, friend and foe alike.

Yeats’s real crime, though, and indeed a crime perpetuated, as Jordan sees it, by all subsequent Yeatsian scholars, is his treatment of John MacBride as an abuser of Maud Gonne and her children. Here Jordan is absolutely correct: so many readers of Yeats accept without question much of what he has written or said; they become overwhelmed by the force of his rhetoric and his authoritative tone, forgetting that Yeats is not only the ‘arch-poet’ but the arch-self-publicist as well.

While he might be right about Yeats’s selfish motivations for his treatment of MacBride, Jordan is surely wrong to present all of Yeats’s dealings in such a negative light. In doing so, Jordan loses the perspective of objectivity needed in dealing with such a complex character. For instance, the constant use of the diminutive ‘Willie’ throughout is an example of subjective attribution. Perhaps he is enthralled by the romantic notion of a poet being as beautiful as his poetry and is aghast to discover that Yeats can be just as pettily human as the rest of us. Certainly, what is absent here is any understanding of Yeats as an artist and as a poet, obviously so central to all aspects of his day-to-day existence.

Despite these faults and the presence of some typographical errors — Maud becomes Maude for an entire chapter—Jordan’s work proves that the story of W.B. Yeats is an enduring one that can be imagined and rethought again and again.
Derek Hand


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