W. B. Yeats: A Life: Volume I, The Apprentice Mage, 1865-1914

by R. F. Foster

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W. B. Yeats

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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 for a national theater in Dublin to present plays about modern and legendary Ireland. When the Abbey Theatre opened in 1904, his dream was realized and a major element in the Irish renaissance achieved. Another milestone was the publication in 1908 of his COLLECTED WORKS in eight volumes, which received a respectful critical reception.

Foster skillfully reveals the emergence of greatness in this account of Yeats’ apprenticeship. Although his book is not a study of the works, the biographical detail and his delineation of the social, intellectual, political, and spiritual milieu provide the basis for others to engage in exegesis. This first volume of W. B. YEATS: A LIFE will be an invaluable resource for literary scholars.

Sources for Further Study

America. CLXXVII, August 30, 1997, p. 27.

Choice. XXXV, October, 1997, p. 296.

Commentary 117, no. 2 (February, 2004): 64.

Harper's Magazine 307, no. 1843 (December, 2003): 95.

Kirkus Reviews 71, no. 16 (August 15, 2003): 1077.

Los Angeles Times. May 9, 1997, p. E3.

The Nation. CCLXIV, May 12, 1997, p. 51.

New Criterion 22, no. 9 (May, 2004): 70.

The New Leader 86, no. 5 (September/October, 2003): 36.

The New York Review of Books 51, no. 3 (February 26, 2004): 12.

The New York Times, December 4, 2003, p. E8.

The New York Times Book Review. CII, April 6, 1997, p. 10.

Publishers Weekly 250, no. 37 (September 15, 2003): 52.

Publishers Weekly. CCXLIV, March 3, 1997, p. 55.

The Sewanee Review. CV, Spring, 1997, p. 251.

The Times Literary Supplement. April 11, 1997, p. 21.

The Wall Street Journal. April 23, 1997, p. A16.

The Washington Post Book World. XXVII, April 20, 1997, p. 6.

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