William Butler Yeats, a major poet of the twentieth century in the English language, and modern Ireland’s most significant figure, has been the subject of many biographies. Robert F. Foster’s study, W. B. YEATS: A LIFE: THE APPRENTICE MAGE, 1865-1939, stands apart from its predecessors because Foster is an historian, not a literary scholar, and because earlier biographers used Yeats’ own thematic arrangement, in his AUTOBIOGRAPHIES (1926), as their pattern, eschewing chronology, and tracing romanticism, occultism, and nationalism through his life. Foster’s is a chronological life, concerned with what Yeats did rather than with what he wrote.
Though he occasionally sought solitude to write (retreating in summers to the home of Lady Augusta Gregory, sometime collaborator and patron), Yeats’ creative impulses thrived upon social and intellectual interaction. He also read extensively, becoming interested in English poets; in Ireland’s literature, mythology, and language; and in sixteenth century occultism. Foster shows how these interests not only met Yeats’ spiritual needs, but also shaped his actions, influenced his work, and nurtured his involvement in Irish nationalism. Though he did not marry until 1917, women also were important to his intellectual development, especially Lady Gregory and Maud Gonne, the latter an actress, occultist, and nationalist.
As early as 1897, Yeats had enlisted the support of Lady Gregory and others...
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