W.B. Yeats: A Life, Volume 2: The Arch-Poet 1915-1939

by Roy Foster
ISBN: 0198184654

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A Review of: W.B. Yeats: A Life II: The Arch-Poet 1915-1939
by Keith Garebian

Thinking that biography was inevitable and important, William Butler Yeats assiduously revised or rearranged his autobiographies, memoirs, and subsequent commentaries, settling scores with antagonists in the later part of his life, and ensuring that the importance of his own life would not be lost on future generations. As his latest biographer, R.F. Foster, reveals: "He constantly instructed his collaborator Augusta Gregory about the importance of the way their lives would be interpreted for the history of their times, and of their country." But a problem for a modern biographer is how to deal with Yeats's public poses, enduring need for audiences, assorted idiosyncrasies and foibles, and his legendary omnivorous intellect. In other words, the primary question for a biographer is just what sort of biography to write for WBY. Foster (Carroll Professor of Irish History at the University of Oxford) notes that Sean O'Faolain had tried to do a life-study but gave up because WBY (in O'Faolain's words) "had, in his time, dived down so many caverns of knowledge and as quickly returned, bringing many pearls with him." Virginia Woolf (also cited by Foster) concurred, remarking that WBY's mental world was like an immense thicket of undergrowth where "every twig was real." Moreover, WBY lived during a hectic period of Irish history, so a biography would have to deal with the thick turmoil of Irish politics and with Yeats's public life, not simply with his poetry or circle of family, friends, acquaintances, and rivals.
Yeats has never lacked for biographies, though, unlike the present one, these have expectedly been literary in nature-the best probably Richard Ellmann's The Man and the Masks. Following the perspective of the late F.S.Lyons, Foster elects to write a biography correlated to WBY's poetic development by way of public events. He does not neglect the philosophy or personality, but his prime emphasis is on Yeats as a public figure and the "accidents" of his life that elucidate the poetry. Foster's biography is the culmination of almost seventeen years of research. The result is a double mansion of biography: the first, The Apprentice Mage (winner of the James Tait Black Memorial Prize), restricts itself to the years 1865-1914, encompassing such topics as the Celtic Twilight, Yeats as lyric poet, dramatist, and political force. This volume makes a solid case for Yeats as a shaping or, at least, a dominant force in literary circles in Dublin and London, where he developed coteries for his early writing. Foster carefully notes character traits that define the poet from decade to decade, controversy to controversy, and he disentangles Yeats's complex relationships with Maud Gonne, Lady Gregory, George Russell (AE), Shaw, Synge, et cetera.
The second biographical mansion, The Arch-Poet (1915-1939), completes Foster's feat of engineering and architecture; it begins with WBY at fifty, and charts both the poet's and his country's vicissitudes. It is spacious, scrupulously supervised with authority, occasional wit and eloquence, well furnished with historical curios, official and unofficial portraits, and its gleaming floor is in-laid with intricate patterns of Anglo-Irish socio-political design. It is the sort of mansion that is more hospitable to serious scholars and academics than to cultural tourists, for it rewards slow, meticulous inspection rather than swift survey. Its doors open to many wide, well-lit rooms, in which even the corners and hidden recesses are subject to a thorough cleaning. The attic of family history is scoured (though corners are missed), as is the boudoir, and the basement never springs a leak from a weak foundation. However-and this is a significant caveat-this mansion has so many visitors from Yeats's life, so many divertissements and political issues, that even Yeats himself tends to get lost in the traffic, especially when the atmospheric lighting fades and the biographer-guide gets carried away by his own knowledge and preoccupations.
I have used the metaphor of a house deliberately, for as Foster indicates, Yeats felt the need to root himself, and one way of doing this was by buying a house. He extended his holding at Woburn Buildings (where the floor and woodwork in his study were painted black and the room hung with orange), next bought Ballylee, a mediaeval tower-house or castle-keep in a river-valley near Coole which released his lyric spirit (in contrast to Dublin which engulfed him in conflict and controversy), and kept "shabby but atmospheric rooms" in London, situated between the British Museum (for intellectual stimulation) and Euston Station (for the boat-train back to Ireland). Foster painstakingly records how WBY's sojourns in various houses and dwellings inspired some of his poetry and prose, though the biographer's details result in a rather plodding pace.
The Arch-Poet describes Yeats's uncertainty, vanity, marriage, finances, health, hunger for self-knowledge, social life, literary involvements and feuds (especially with Pound, George Moore, and Austin Clarke), love-life, and spiritual interests. But there is so much name-dropping and so many cursory appearances by hordes of minor characters that the reader is swallowed by the text-as in this excerpt:

"On WBY's crowded visit in early April, he also met Shaw and carried the plan for an Irish Academy of Letters forward a stage; he saw old friends, and extended his London circle into the world of Edith Sitwell and her ramshackle Bayswater galere. One of the attractions was high-class gossip about his old friend Lady Cunard's daughter Nancy and her black lover; but WBY's genuine admiration for much of Sitwell's poetry was a sign that his infatuation with the work of Wyndham Lewis, her enemy and traducer, was over. More exciting still, he at last met the Swami (first through Stuart Moore, and then at tea with Olivia Shakespear) and was entranced by him.A group of [the Swami's] influential supporters, including the explorer Sir Francis Younghusband and the mystically inclined Lady Elizabeth Pelham, would shortly form the Institute of Mysticism"

While there is a succinct quality to the summary of the visit and Yeats' social world, there is a blurring of identities. Some of the characters receive no distinct annotation till much later in the text.
The Arch-Poet has many admirable elements, not the least of which is the case (contra O'Faolain) it makes for WBY's being more than a great lyric poet. Foster uses non-poetic works to prove this, especially unpublished tracts (such as "Leo Africanus"), essays, lectures, and talks (particularly "If I Were Four-and-Twenty", "The Irish Dramatic Movement", and "Modern Ireland"), and philosophical reflections such as Per Amica Silentia Lunae, On the Boiler, and A Vision. Foster shows how Yeats, despite his avowal to have no part in politics, was interested in a new political order. His poems sometimes had the force and texture of manifestoes, and they frequently recorded a complex and passionate relationship between the poet and his country's history. Indeed, Volume II begins after Yeats had published his first version of Responsibilities on a note of introspective disillusionment and with a desire to write poetry (as in Shelley) that would be a criticism of life. By 1919, established with a wife (George Hyde Lees), home, and children (Anne and Michael), Yeats was writing poetry with a vigour that he had once believed was lost to him. But though he recognized Ireland as a country of oppression and censorship and wanted some form of self-government, he rejected the idea of violent sacrifice and fanaticism ("a terrible beauty is born"), thereby earning the displeasure of Maud Gonne and other Irish revolutionaries who thought him radically affected and un-Irish in (what Foster calls) his "idiosyncratic style of slightly bohemian grandeur." It was one thing for him to condemn World War I as the worst outbreak of ignorance and stupidity the world had yet seen; it was quite another for him to sneer at the Sinn Fein. Hardline republicans branded him pro-imperial; Catholic zealots condemned him as a heretic with a stagnant mind. Such attacks simply pushed him farther to the right, from where he challenged the pieties of the new Irish dispensation. He turned to his art for a sanctuary where he could work on poems about hatred and history, charged by his admiration for Swift, Goldsmith, Burke, and Berkeley. Time would eventually pass a positive verdict on his political resilience, recognizing that political controversy (including his brief association with the "Blueshirt" fascists, his defence of Parnell, and his disenchantment with the new Irish Free State founded in 1922) was simply one nuance in a life of multiple surfaces, edges, and textures.
In looking at the full life of Yeats, Foster challenges Ellmann and Jeffares who viewed WBY's life as "a drama of painful self-creation." Foster tends to see an ambitious man on the make-one who turned professionally vicious in old age, even to the extent of eliminating the competition in his selections and Introduction for The Oxford Book of Modern Verse. However, his biography does not indulge in demolition. It is too stately and self-respecting for that. What it offers are genesis and evolution of thought, polemic, and art, following Yeats's own belief that art is "not the chief end of life but an accident in one's search for reality"-a search, that Foster claims, took WBY repeatedly back to his governing preoccupations with death and sex.
The Arch-Poet yields a rich archive of Yeats's erotic life-especially in his later years when liaisons with various women (including a German swim champion, an American tennis star, Lady Gwyneth Foden who adored Indian temple dancing, mediocre poet Dorothy Wellesley, actress Margot Ruddock, the Marxist sex-reformer Ethel Mannin, outrageously eccentric Elizabeth Pelham, and Edith Shackleton Heald who eventually turned to lesbianism) prompted his wife George to play the role of Emer, the understanding wife, to the end. Foster associates Yeats's creative surges with erotic excitement, though he could just as easily have accounted for these surges by pointing out the poet's interest in Hinduism, the occult, and eugenics. The fact is that despite his prowling about for erotic gratification, Yeats had (as Sean O'Faolain maintained) "one of the most complex and solitary minds among lyric poets since the death of Keats." Contrary to Foster's apparent presumption, Yeats's greatest poetry cannot be explained by some neurotic episode in politics or sex. The impulses of great poetry have far more mysterious sources.
Indeed, it is Yeats's poetry that becomes a problem in the biography because Foster's readings of it are overwhelmingly thematic. Foster seeks to summarize and explain ideas rather than explore the poet's techniques, and though readers could be grateful for the generous quotations from Yeats's writing, they may be disappointed by the poverty of analysis. Foster tells us nothing about Yeats's style, apart from his deployment of certain images (houses, swans, old men, legendary figures) and his skill with compression and concreteness. This is a serious defect for a biography of a great poet. There is far more insight and incisive commentary to be had in a single paragraph of Babette Deutsch or Helen Vendler on "Leda and the Swan" than in an entire chapter in the biography.
So what, then, is the distinction of this book? It is in the uncovering of Yeats's ambivalences and anomalies, his philosophy that conceived of life as tragedy, his tenacious belief in the soul's journey back to life. As a life-study, The Arch-Poet is what Seamus Heaney said of The Apprentice Mage: "a mighty argosy of scholarship." It is in its marshalling of fact that this book finds its greatest triumph. As such, it is truly an old-fashioned book of reference rather than a fashionable biographical romance of a poet who, in any case, thought of himself as a classicist rather than a romantic.

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