Old, Old, Old, Old, Old

John Kerrigan

  • W.B. Yeats: A Life. Vol. II: The Arch-Poet 1915-39 by Roy Foster
    Oxford, 822 pp, £16.99, March 2005, ISBN 0 19 280609 2

The Abbey Theatre, Dublin, 1938. An old pedlar and his young son stand on a moonlit stage bare but for the ruins of a great house and a leafless tree. The Old Man declares that the house is still inhabited, by the ghost of his mother, heir to the estate, who brought destruction on it when she married his low-born, wastrel father. A light comes on in a shattered window. It is the spirit of the mother, condemned to relive in remorse, over and over again, her passionate wedding night. Ghostly hoofbeats announce her husband’s return from the pub. The Old Man becomes the witness of his own conception. In a wild attempt to stop the cycle of suffering, he stabs his son with the same jack-knife he had used to murder his father. As the tragedy ends, the drumming hoofbeats resume.

Purgatory is one of the boldest works of Yeats’s turbulent old age. Its reassertion, in the Old Man’s speeches, of the glories of the Protestant Ascendancy, and its unorthodox view of the afterlife, were an affront to newly independent Catholic Ireland, and its brutal subject-matter still has the power to shock. Yet the huge body of scholarship that had begun to grow up around Yeats even before he wrote the play has tended to muffle its strangeness. It is the great achievement of the second volume of Roy Foster’s superb biography that it delivers us late Yeats in all his troublesome immediacy. Foster does this not just by cutting across the record with new facts from the archive – itself a considerable feat, given that half a dozen biographers have already been over the ground – but by constantly reconfiguring what seems familiar. He agrees, for instance, that Purgatory is based on gossip in Yeats’s part of Galway about the St Georges of Tyrone House, a once grand family whose daughters married working men from the yard. But as one of the leading historians of modern Ireland, Foster is able to place the St Georges in the long, anxious story of Ascendancy decline. He explains that Protestants in the Free State feared cross-bred dissolution and that this drew Yeats to right-wing racial politics; he also provides a magisterial reassessment of the poet’s late advocacy of eugenics.

Foster is equally well informed about literary tradition. In his first major foray into Yeats studies, an essay called ‘Protestant Magic’ (1989), he placed Purgatory in a line of Irish Protestant Gothic that went back through Bram Stoker’s Dracula to the novels of Maturin. This instantly made sense of the melodramatic elements of the play, its requiring tragedy to speak – as so often in late Yeats – through defiantly insistent clichés (the haunted house, polluted blood) as well as wayward lore. ‘Protestant Magic’ created a stir by arguing that Yeats’s attraction to the occult and supernatural was neither eccentric nor especially gullible but typical of the Anglo-Irish, who envied the consoling rituals and superstitions of the Catholic peasantry and sought their own equivalents. In the first volume of his biography, The Apprentice Mage (1997), Foster developed this thesis by exploring Yeats’s early enthusiasm for Blake, folk superstition, and that quintessence of suburban occultism, the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. Purgatory is able to figure as something of a climax in Volume II because the same interests continued into the 1930s.

Though references to Freud and Jung trickle through this biography, Foster underestimates the connection between Yeats’s studies in magic and folklore and his receptive affinity with psychoanalysis. His conclusion that ‘the eugenic, historical and social preoccupations’ of Purgatory provide ‘its motive power and dramatic resonance’ claim rather too much for the play’s socio-political setting. Compared with other plays about the decline of the Big House elite, such as The Cherry Orchard or Miss Julie, Purgatory is more darkly driven by dream-work, death-directedness and compulsive repetition – all preoccupations of Freud during the interwar years. What Yeats once scribbled in a copy of Nietzsche, ‘the night – knowledge – inaction … from dreams the days work’, could almost be a gloss on the play’s composition. He told a friend that it grew out of a deep and fearful nightmare. And the Old Man cries ‘O God,/Release my mother’s soul from its dream!’ because, according to Yeats’s belief system, the dead woman is trapped in a cycle of traumatic repetition called ‘the dreaming back’.

It would be wrong to suggest, however, that Foster overlooks the eclecticism of Yeats’s formation. From Sophocles to Madame Blavatsky, Bishop Berkeley to Cumann na nGaedheal, the whole array of influences is set out. Foster understands both Yeats’s autodidactic urge to know everything and become a sage, and his creative need as a poet to read for stimulation rather than truth. Not all of his reading was elevated: detective fiction became a favourite. One of the advantages of getting older, Yeats remarked – and The Arch-Poet is very much the story of how he came to terms with ageing – is that one becomes tolerant of ‘mere entertainment’. Above all, Foster recognises that the energy of Yeats’s engagement with ideas could be more important to him as a poet than the quality of those ideas (many of which were frankly as daft as a ouija board). After reading The Arch-Poet one understands why the contemporaries who called Yeats ‘Silly Willie’ were nevertheless in awe of his intellectual force and subtlety.

Yet the poet remains a challenge even to the prodigiously knowledgable Foster. This is partly because the most important influence on Yeats was his own work, both the writing of it and what each poem or play made possible beyond it. He developed as an artist through the arduous, deliberated labour of composition. It is astonishing to see the feeble beginnings of such great poems as ‘Byzantium’. Even a piece like Purgatory, which took shape with driven celerity, by Yeats’s standards, went through complicating drafts. Each published poem and play changed Yeats’s view of himself, as well as how others saw him: a process that fed back into the self and shadow presented in the verse. So an account of the growth of his mind has to be steeped in literary analysis to a degree unusual in biography. The problem is the more pressing because Yeats freed himself to write by striking attitudes, assuming personas or, as he put it doctrinally, by forging the mask of his opposite. A biographer can demystify Yeats’s theorising about this, but it remains hard to track an identity that so often proclaimed the converse of what it felt like to be living the life.

Reviewers of The Apprentice Mage regretted Foster’s reluctance to indulge in literary criticism. In The Arch-Poet he is less cautious, but his detailed discussion can be wooden, as when he says of the grandiose, delicate and lurid ‘Meditations in Time of Civil War’ that ‘it balances vision and concreteness with an equal audacity, and similarly manipulates a sequence to confer variety of form and freedom for exploration.’ This external way with texts works better when Foster is outlining entire poems and plays. His judgments then seem tactful rather than mechanical. Yet there remains a larger problem. Whether it is the historian in him, or the difficulty that anyone would have in characterising biographically so dialectically subjective a writer, Foster sometimes fleshes out his analyses of literary works by importing material from the life that does not belong there.

In Purgatory, for instance, the Old Man praises the burnt-out Big House in terms that resemble Yeats’s poems about Coole Park, the home of his patron and collaborator Lady Gregory:

Great people lived and died in this house;
Magistrates, colonels, members of Parliament,
Captains and Governors, and long ago
Men that had fought at Aughrim and the Boyne.
Some that had gone on Government work
To London or to India came home to die,
Or came from London every spring
To look at the may-blossom in the park.

‘While there has been some ingenious critical discussion about the extent to which the Old Man is an unreliable narrator,’ Foster declares, ‘his evocation of Coole expresses the playwright’s own emotions.’ Yet even if Coole was on Yeats’s mind, that tells us nothing about what the Old Man evokes in and for a play which makes no mention of the place. This objection may be purist, but by neglecting it Foster is led to insinuate that the thinness of the passage stems from artistic failure. That the Big House is ‘unconvincingly idealised’ may rather tell us something about the character of the Old Man, and, beyond that, what he taught Yeats about his own attitudes. This, for Yeats, was how drama worked. As he told Sean O’Casey, when rejecting The Silver Tassie for performance at the Abbey, Shakespeare did not fill Hamlet and Lear with his own beliefs, but gave those characters a life that allowed them to educate him.

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