Scholars know more about William Butler Yeats than any other twentieth century poet. He consciously created his own self in his memorable autobiographical works. Nevertheless, A. Norman Jeffares’ new biography of William Butler Yeats is very welcome; it is the first full-length biography of the poet since Joseph Hone’s William Butler Yeats in 1943. Jeffares’ 1952 book on Yeats, William Butler Yeats: Man and Poet, is more an analysis of the poems than a pure biography. The present biography is able, moreover, to include much information about Yeats that has come to light in the nearly forty years since Jeffares’ earlier work, as well as up-to-date scholarship on the thought and background of the poet. Much has come to light about Yeats’s life, friendships, love affairs, and membership in various Irish and occult groups and societies such as the Abbey Theatre and the Order of the Golden Dawn, and Jeffares uses this knowledge skillfully to produce a thorough and engaging portrait of a great poet and a fascinating man.
Jeffares traces in great detail the social and economic background of the Yeats family. The family was Anglo-Irish and originally in the linen trade. It was also related by marriage to the powerful Butler clan; one of the Butlers was Duke of Ormonde. William’s father, John Butler Yeats, married Susan Pollexfen in 1863; the Pollexfens were involved in shipbuilding and prospered in the western part of Ireland in Sligo—an area the poet was to celebrate as the essential Ireland, a land where old traditions had not died and the fairies were part of everyday existence.
John Butler Yeats had a private income of four hundred pounds and decided not to enter a profession such as law but to be an artist. Jeffares’ portrait of the poet’s father is beguiling. He was a gifted artist, but he never seemed able to finish a picture: He valued art so highly that he could not accept anything less than a masterpiece. Commissions had to be forfeited because of this inability. As a result, the fortunes of the family gradually declined. John Butler Yeats believed in the gospel of art and passed this commitment on to his son William; he educated him by reading William Shakespeare and the Romantic poets. Thus William’s education was rather incomplete, and in 1884 he finally decided to enroll in the Metropolitan School of Art, where he remained until 1886; he was not to be a painter, although his brother Jack was to become a distinguished one.
During this period, Yeats became interested in what were to be lifelong obsessions—Ireland and the occult. Ireland was at this time a hotbed of political ferment. Charles Stewart Parnell had taken control of the Irish Party in the British Parliament and skillfully led the agitation for Home Rule. His fall in the late nineteenth century divided the country into two factions. Yeats was a nationalist, but he was also a poet. He wished to create an “Ireland beautiful in the memory” through his art more than he sought political liberation. His earliest poems were on Irish subjects and used Irish myths. Yet these were not the only influences on the poet; a late Romantic, he was strongly attracted by Pre-Raphaelism and the Decadent movement of the 1890’s. The subject may have been Irish, but the style was Romantic. As the first poem in the Collected Poems (1933) declared: “Words alone are certain good.”
Yeats passionately needed a religion but had not had a conventional religious upbringing; thus he turned to occult systems such as Theosophy. He longed to receive evidence of the spirit world but maintained a healthy skepticism. Many of the groups he joined, especially the Order of the Golden Dawn, were filled with backbiting and rivalries involving such fantastical people as McGregor Mathers and Florence Farr, yet he persisted in the search for religious reality. The spiritualist movements in which he was involved gave him metaphors, subjects, and symbols for his poetry, as his second book, The Rose (1893) makes clear. Yeats never abandoned the occult, but he did become more subtle about its use in his poetry.
In 1889, at the age of twenty-three, Yeats met the person who was to be the great love of his life and the subject of many of his greatest poems, Maud Gonne. Maud Gonne was a revolutionary and an ardent believer in Irish nationalism; in contrast to Yeats, she believed in direct and if need be violent action to accomplish political goals. Her involvement in politics was to be one of the many elements that separated the couple and kept them from the marriage he so passionately desired. Yet Jeffares makes clear there were other reasons for Gonne to reject Yeats; she was involved in a lengthy affair with a Frenchman which resulted in the birth of a son who died very young. She...
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