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.)

On the whole it was probably just as well that Trinity, the Ascendancy college, was barred to him. He often complained of the Trinity culture, and had mixed feelings about Edward Dowden, TCD’s celebrated professor of English, a friend of his father’s whom he had known well in his youth; Dowden was too lukewarm, too English, as he himself might have become had he gone to the College. Later there was a time when Yeats implausibly, dubiously, fancied he might succeed to the chair of this learned man, his fame as a poet compensating for his lack of orthodox scholarship; but fortunately it came to nothing. He already had enough to explain to his Anglophobe Dublin critics.

Foster minutely records underachievements and achievements, with ample documentation of Yeats’s unstable social and political attitudes. Given the complexity of such matters, the potential tediousness of some of the detail, it is just as well that he is an excellent writer, with an Irish edge to his prose, a teasing, sardonic manner that is at certain moments reminiscent of the Yeatses’, father and son. There is in Autobiographies a description of a visit to Verlaine, who had invited Yeats to ‘coffee and cigarettes plentifully’. Verlaine’s leg was heavily bandaged, and looking in a dictionary for the correct description of his disease, ‘selected ... with, as I understood, only comparative accuracy, “Erisypelas” ’. Such adverbial qualifications are also a feature of Foster’s style, and are used to mock ‘the mage of Woburn Buildings’ in a rather similar way. Yet Yeats respected Verlaine, and Foster by no means underestimates the importance of the mage business to Yeats. His tone blends respect and amusement. When Yeats writes a poem (‘The New Faces’) to Lady Gregory speculating as to whether she will die before him, Foster notes that although she was, at 60, 14 years older than the poet, she received the poem just as she was setting off to New York to join her lover John Quinn – one of Yeats’s many ‘moments of superb tactlessness’.

His ambition to be a mage as well as a poet was proclaimed very early, and it never faded. Magic is one of those serial and simultaneous careers that challenge the biographers’ organising skills in the writing as much as they did the poet’s in the living of them. In youth beguiled by Mme Blavatsky, he soon developed an intense, even domineering interest in the hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. For a man who frequently expressed a need for solitude he was an inveterate joiner of occultist, political and poetical clubs and societies, and so were many of his friends. Most of them emerge from this biography as slightly absurd; the hysterically misogynistic Edward Martyn (‘moonfaced, obese, epicene, frantically Catholic’), the impostor poet ‘Fiona Macleod’, the manic McGregor Mathers, Scots Jacobite romantic (‘the comte de Glenstrae’), and Florence Farr, the actress for whose favours he competed for a while with Shaw and others, and for whom he had Dolmetsch make psalteries to accompany the chanting of verse. Foster has much quiet fun with the psalteries, and for good measure reproduces Jack Yeats’s satirical drawing of his brother explaining ‘speaking to the psaltery’ to an audience in the American Wild West. Nobody seemed to like what Shaw called the ‘nerve-destroying crooning’ this practice entailed, except of course the poet, who was tone-deaf, and Miss Farr, who liked performing and had a sense of humour.

Considering the amount of time Yeats devoted to hermetic philosophies, Indian sages, séances, psalteries and so forth, it is astonishing how much else he managed to do. In his twenties he was already a force in the London literary world. Later, long years were devoted to Dublin theatre business – directing plays, sorting out or causing squabbles with patrons, including the difficult but rich Annie Horniman, and with the actors, led by the Fay brothers, who had good reason to resent his frequent high-handedness.

Throughout these years he also suffered continually from the many wounding disappointments inflicted on him by Maud Gonne, whose intransigence he rewarded with the best love poetry of the century. Eventually he found complicated reasons to be grateful for her unrelenting refusal to understand or accept him: ‘What matter? How much of the best I have done and still do is but the attempt to explain myself to her? If she understood I should lack a reason for writing, and one can never have too many reasons for doing what is so laborious.’ But that was a later mood. Earlier she caused him much anguish. He survived, drawing energy from séances and from dreams and astral encounters with his inaccessible mistress, or seeking further consolation from hashish pills.

Even more essential was the support he had in almost everything he did from Augusta Gregory, who also provided him with solitude and the freedom of her ‘great’ house at Coole. He many times gracefully expressed his gratitude, though he did manage, not irreparably, to offend even her. She had her reward in some good poems but also in the enrichment of her life; under Yeats’s influence she became a considerable writer herself and a force in the nascent Irish theatre.

Yeats, too, wrote a great many plays, sometimes with collaborators, including Lady Gregory. Not all were successful, but Cathleen ni Houlihan was effective political propaganda (though Yeats denied it was so intended) and there are some strange and brilliant experiments, such as his Noh play At the Hawk’s Well. For a while all was theatre. He recognised, celebrated and dedicated himself to the genius of Synge. The brawl at the Abbey over Synge’s Playboy of the Western World affected him so deeply that he bracketed it in importance with the death of Parnell. This was the occasion when his father, J.B. Yeats, outraged an angry audience by calling Ireland ‘this land of saints – of plaster saints’. The objection of the troublemakers was the usual one, that Synge had traduced pure Irish womanhood, not least by the speaking out loud of the word ‘shift’. Yeats himself, as a famous epigram shows, saw the demonstration as evidence of the intellectual and emotional sterility induced in the urban Irish by sexual abstinence – something he himself knew a lot about, though apparently not suffering the same effects.

As time went by he talked more and more about his distaste for the Dublin populace, which broke up Synge’s play, kept shops or worked for a living, and read gutter newspapers which attacked him and his friends. He had some difficulty in reconciling his role as a nationalist poet with his angry contempt for so significant a part of the nation. By 1914, the date of Responsibilities, he was sick of quarrelling with Dubliners about their indifference to Hugh Lane’s proposed national gallery and their moralistic objections to The Playboy; he had long before spoken of his ‘endless war with Irish stupidity’.

These matters, and his anger over them, are part of the rich mixture of poems in Responsibilities, which is generally taken to be the first of his major collections, a remarkable advance even on its notable predecessor, The Green Helmet. Strong topical epigrams, anathemata on ‘Paudeen’, celebrations of the lost aristocratic Parnell, blend with a series of great love poems, including ‘Fallen Majesty’ and his finest lyric to date, ‘The Cold Heaven’, all inspired by Maud Gonne. Here his multiple interests are strongly expressed in the new, more colloquial, more direct manner he had been cultivating. ‘A Coat’ is his defiant defence of this developing manner: ‘there’s more enterprise/In walking naked.’ The late Romantic style is transfigured by modernity; the time is now, and the poet an ineradicable presence in its midst.

Meanwhile his increasingly undemocratic postures were more and more warmly resented, especially when, on Lady Gregory’s advice, he accepted a British Civil List pension. He had always needed more money than the little he made, and what he made he made mostly in London, where he was published and accepted far more readily than in Dublin. The pension, arranged by powerful London friends, was a deserved godsend, as the Nobel Prize would be later on; nevertheless, he was mocked as ‘the pensioner’ for taking it. He grew accustomed to satire and calumny, and felt he had become ‘Notorious, till all my priceless things/Are but a post the passing dogs defile’.

With his usual alternations of boldness and caution, he had opposed the party that wanted the new Irish literature to be in Irish; and when one thinks of Yeats himself, and Joyce and Beckett, not to speak of Wilde and Shaw – one can only think he was right. What he wanted was an Irish cultural renaissance with English as its language. He once entertained the fine thought that a reborn Dublin could be more like 16th-century Urbino than like London; or that it might match the cultural unity achieved ‘by theologian, poet, sculptor, architect, from the 11th to the 13th century’. But he also believed that the world fell apart about the time of the birth of Shakespeare, and that civilisation, not least in Dublin, had continued and accelerated that collapse into disunity.

This state of affairs seemed to be reflected in the angry disarray of contemporary Irish political opinion. Yeats may have wished to avoid conflict with the out-and-out separatists, and to preserve literature from politics, but it turned out that this could not be done, at least by him. He wanted self-government for Ireland, but was sure that more than that was needed if the new Ireland were not to be demoralised. This conviction had political implications. ‘It may well be that Ireland will have to become irreligious or unpolitical even, before she can change her habits.’

The nation’s only defence against middle-class vulgarity was mounted by ‘a few educated men and the remnants of an old traditional culture among the poor’. Unlike the fierce Maud Gonne, an incendiary mob orator, he abandoned the idea of appealing directly to the mass of the people. He prided himself on his very remote aristocratic connections, and his notion of a good Ireland was really founded on the image of the great (Ascendancy) house with its contented peasant community around it – a vision already endangered by the redistribution of land to the peasantry. Thus inspired, he could not long keep the peace with all the other brands of nationalism, especially with the intolerant Catholic variety: ‘by the end of 1912 he would no longer find it possible to give automatic assent to public statements avowing Protestant trust in the liberality of Catholic opinions.’ Nor did he believe that intolerance would be ended by Home Rule. As Foster slyly remarks, he remained committed to Home Rule, ‘but its apparent advent’ – the promise of the British Government that it would be made operative after the war – ‘coincided with WBY’s own discovery of family tradition, his burying the hatchet with Trinity College culture, his friendships in great houses ... and his assumption into a kind of artistic establishment in England.’

The young Yeats had known John O’Leary, who despite his long political exile remained a representative of ‘a free-thinking Catholic intelligentsia’ capable of dialogue with those ‘few educated men’ of the Protestant Ascendancy. But the decline of Ascendancy power coincided more or less exactly, as Foster remarks, with Yeats’s youth; and in any case faith in such an alliance was soon to die. Yeats fell out with O’Leary and did not attend his funeral; but he is one of the heroes celebrated in later poems.

This volume ends at 1914, when Yeats, already famous, might well have imagined that his life had reached some kind of plateau. The terrors of 1919 and the civil war that would follow the achievement of Home Rule were in the future; and he could hardly have predicted his own even greater achievements. Responsibilities by itself had already confirmed his status as a major poet, but its ‘Introductory Rhymes’ (highly praised by T.S. Eliot, who was not usually an admirer) ask the poet’s ancestors their pardon

          that for a barren passion’s sake,
Although I have come close on forty-nine,
I have no child, I have nothing but a book,
Nothing but that to prove your blood and mine.

And it seemed more proof of his value was needed. Before the decade was out he was married and a father. Although the early days of the marriage produced some eerily disconsolate poems, he had at last, having once again asked Gonne to marry him (and, on her refusal, asked her daughter Iseult), found some relief from that obsessive and barren passion.

There is necessarily a lot about Maud Gonne in Foster’s book; she was always at the centre of Yeats’s emotional life and was also deeply involved in his occult interests. She often came between the poet and other women with whom he sought distraction or relief. Foster is, as ever, down-to-earth about his subject’s erotic life: the long years of abstinence (he didn’t share his friend Symons’s taste for dancing girls); his first affair in his late twenties, with Olivia Shakespear, brief, Gonne-clouded, but the foundation of a long friendship; his more casual relationships with Florence Farr and Mabel Dickinson, who gave him a terrible scare when she claimed she was pregnant. The marriage to George Hyde-Lees, and the Wild Old Man’s sexual goings-on in his last years, have to wait for the next volume.

It is notable that the women who attracted Yeats, and were attracted by him, were nearly all occultists of one sort or another, and many were actively political; yet we know from all he later said about the Gore-Booth sisters and Maud Gonne that he was sure politics ruined women:

That woman’s days were spent
In ignorant good-will,
Her nights in argument
Until her voice grew shrill.
What voice more sweet than hers
When, young and beautiful,
She rode to harriers?

The principal responsibility of women, as he said in many poems, was simply to be beautiful, to think with their bodies. So much for Constance Markievicz, who fought in the Rising, was sentenced to death but only sent to prison. In her imprisonment she received a compensating tribute in the exquisite lines ‘On a Political Prisoner’. Maud Gonne had many similar rebukes and tributes. Foster believes that Yeats’s union with her was not, in the end, merely astral, that they were, though briefly, lovers a reasonable inference made long ago by Virginia Moore, and by Richard Ellmann, though his publisher seems to think Foster the first to make it securely. In the long run it matters less than the occult union, and less than Yeats’s sympathy in her marital misfortunes. There is nobility in his commemoration of John MacBride in ‘Easter, 1916’; though MacBride had not only married Gonne but abused her, he is named, along with only three others, as a martyr of the Rising – a violent man in a violent manifestation Yeats probably deplored, though he had come to recognise its symbolic power.

Despite all the distractions, and his commitment to a new Ireland, Yeats somehow managed to get on with his more literary life. In that life, as everywhere, he showed considerable talent for manipulating people, fixing reviews, placing his own work to advantage. Back in the Nineties he was, as of right, the star performer in the Rhymer’s Club, those ‘companions of the Cheshire Cheese’ (‘the one thing certain,’ he observed, ‘is that we are too many’). A favourite rhymer was Lionel Johnson, whose obscure learning he venerated and exaggerated. He owed a good deal to Arthur Symons, and was a main attraction of Symons’s journal the Savoy. He came, in his quest for a hard-edged style, to reject the ‘decadence’, but the ‘tragic generation’ of Johnson, Dowson, Beardsley and Wilde became part of his mythical world. He had the ability to make all his interests coalesce, and Foster has shadowed him carefully. He wrote incessantly, and ‘that extravagant style/He had learnt from Pater’ lingered on in the firm prose of the Autobiographies and even in A Vision, where the famous passage about Byzantium could almost be by the master himself.

Yet he was also capable of harshness; he gave George Moore, once a collaborator but in the main a detractor, at least as good as he got. Even on fellow mystics, like W.T. Horton, he could be editorially severe; and in the end he ran out of tact in dealing with another occultist, rich Miss Horniman, who thought her gifts of money entitled her to interfere with his dramatic programme. And he wrote eloquently against his enemies in Dublin.

He was certainly a proud man, though also a little timid; hence the need for anti-selves, and for imaginary representatives like Michael Robartes and Owen Aherne. Pride did not prevent his acknowledging such youthful talents as the disrespectful Ezra Pound, whose critical comments the older man sometimes accepted. When Pound tampered with some poems by Yeats before sending them on to the Chicago journal Poetry, the poet was cross but only briefly: ‘he has, I think, some genius and great good will.’ And Pound’s brashness did not prevent him seeing Yeats’s genius; he got to know him very well, and as Foster puts it, thought him ‘magnificent, unworldly, very slightly ridiculous, but ... unquestionably the real thing’. That is close to Foster’s view of his subject, and one expects his second volume to be magnificent, worldly, perceptive of the ridiculous and unquestionably the real thing.