What he did

Frank Kermode

  • W.B. Yeats: A Life. Vol. I: The Apprentice Mage by R.F. Foster
    Oxford, 640 pp, £25.00, March 1997, ISBN 0 19 211735 1

F.S.L. Lyons, who first undertook this large-scale biography of Yeats, died in 1983, and after some vicissitudes the task devolved on Roy Foster, the professor of Irish history at Oxford. He has had access to Lyons’s notes and transcripts, invaluable to a successor confronted, as he says, with ‘a vast and unfamiliar subject’. Vast it remains, but the unfamiliarity has clearly evaporated. Foster insists that his business is history, not literary criticism: Yeats, he remarks, was a poet, but he was ‘both serially and simultaneously, a playwright, journalist, occultist, apprentice politician, revolutionary, stage-manager, diner-out, dedicated friend, confidant and lover of some of the most interesting people of his day’. He therefore offers not a study of the poetry from a biographical angle but a chronological account of the life during which the poetry was written: the packed and laborious life of an extraordinary man, a genius, if the word is still allowed to mean anything; a great though sometimes rather absurd figure whose career is inextricably involved in the history of his country (and with much else) from the 1880s to the 1930s. ‘Most biographical studies of WBY are principally about what he wrote; this one is principally about what he did.’

Foster has had the benefit of John Kelly’s magnificent, though all too slowly emerging, edition of the correspondence, and has himself done herculean work in the archives. Among his chief sources is of course Yeats’s own ‘disingenuous’ prose masterpiece, the Autobiographies. For this work, as for his subject generally, Foster feels a mixture of deep respect and exasperation, understandable in a historian who has undertaken to sort out the facts from these carefully crafted, much revised, beautifully unreliable texts, and set them out in the right order. Here, as everywhere, Foster’s skill and unforced pertinacity are beyond praise; he really does give a coherent account of the serial and simultaneous lives of his huge subject. It is not easy to see how this book could have been improved, or how lovers of Yeats’s poetry (despite the historian’s modest disclaimers) could have been better served.

The greatness of Yeats, and his position among 20th-century poets, is of a kind not natural in an age like this. Searching the history of English poetry for a writer of comparable national stature one is driven back to Milton, another apocalyptic revolutionary – at times the justifying voice of revolution, the apologist of a new republic, the commentator, sometimes eloquently bitter, on the great affairs of the day. Both writers had their potent fallible heroes, such as Cromwell and Parnell; each flaunted heretical opinions (for example, both publicised unpopular convictions about divorce law). Yeats’s A Vision, a private theology, is in a way comparable to Milton’s De Doctrina Christiana. And in the course of their lives both men strenuously remade themselves as poets.

Sooner or later, of course, such comparisons cease to be illuminating; though Milton could boast of a work that made his name famous throughout Europe, and earned a reputation even more controversial than that of Yeats, he was not what Yeats became, an emblem, for some, of nationhood, the victor in all the necessary struggles to establish a modern Irish literature, and at the same time, to use a word he came to fancy in old age, ‘world-famous’.

Milton had been educated for greatness; Yeats was virtually an autodidact. His father, a wit, a good writer and a gifted painter who rarely finished a picture, was perpetually broke and shamelessly improvident. He wanted his son to be a poet, but seemed not to care much about the boy’s schooling; and however grim the financial prospect, he disliked the notion that his son, being an Irish gentleman, should ever have to take a job, especially in England. He regarded the English as very inferior company; this disdain for the lower orders was one of many traits his son inherited.

Yeats’s school record would have dismayed most middle-class parents – in a class of 13 boys he was 12th in classics, 12th in modern languages, and 13th in maths and English. So for academic as well as financial reasons there was no hope of his following the family tradition and going to Trinity. He was an atrocious speller throughout his life (Foster leaves all the mistakes uncorrected). He never learned a language other than English, even though to have no Irish was an embarrassment, and to fail to acquire French a great disappointment. His friendships with such as Lady Gregory and Arthur Symons offered him only limited access to either language.

Despite his wretched start and these persistent incapacities, he became a remarkably well-read intellectual, with a passion for Nietzsche, for Plato and Neoplatonism, for learned Italian things, obscure histories and occult treatises. Like some other poets, including Shakespeare, he gives one the impression that what he read was more or less exactly what he needed for purposes of his own. He acquired much knowledge of Irish myth and folklore, which he contrived to amalgamate with his theories about that universal store of images, the Great Memory, and with other occult notions. ‘If I had gone to a university, and learned all the classical foundations of English literature and English culture, all that great erudition which once accepted frees the mind from restlessness, I should have had to give up my Irish subject-matter.’ But he had a practitioner’s acquaintance with the English poetic tradition, and not only with Blake, whom he edited, and Spenser and Shakespeare, whom he greatly admired. (For example, seeking a stanza form suitable for his elegy on Robert Gregory, he silently adopted that used by Cowley three hundred years earlier in his verses on the death of William Harvey.)

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