William Butler Yeats is the major poet of the twentieth century in English. He also, arguably, is modern Ireland’s most significant figure, looming large not only for his contributions to the country’s literature (as critic, playwright, and fiction writer as well as poet) but also for his work in establishing an Irish theater, reviving Irish mythology, and promoting nationalism and other political causes. By the age of twenty-one, in 1886, he was publishing prolifically, and because of his literary, theatrical, and political activities, he remained an influential public presence in Ireland for more than five decades, until his death in 1939.
Yeats has been the subject of many biographical and critical studies, including W. B. Yeats, 1865-1939 (1943), written by Joseph Hone; Richard Ellmann’s The Man and the Masks (1948); and A. Norman Jeffares’s W. B. Yeats: A New Biography (1989). Yeats himself wrote a number of autobiographical accounts and memoirs, beginning with Reveries in 1916, which he included (somewhat revised) in Autobiographies a decade later. R. F. Foster’s study, the first volume of which ends in Yeats’s fiftieth year, stands apart from its predecessors for three reasons: Foster is a historian, not a literary scholar, and thus brings a different perspective to his subject; Hone, Yeats’s first biographer, was a journalist who was close personally and professionally to Yeats (whose widow sanctioned the book, and to whom the copyright reverted after Hone’s death) and lacked scholarly background and detachment; and finally, most earlier biographers use Yeats’s own thematic arrangement (in Autobiographies) as their pattern, eschewing chronology and tracing such elements as romanticism, occultism, and nationalism through his life. Foster the historian has written a day-by-day, chronological life, concerned more with what Yeats did than with what he wrote, stressing the man’s influence on those around him rather than the relationship between Yeats and his writings. In sum, Foster primarily focuses on Yeats as a force in twentieth century Irish history, the intellectual as public activist, and in this first of his two projected volumes, presents a portrait of the artist as a young man.
William Butler Yeats was born on June 13, 1865, in a Dublin suburb. His father, John Butler Yeats, was a barrister who preferred the artist’s life, so WB, as everyone called him, and his three siblings (two others died very young) passed some of their childhood in near poverty. They spent long periods, however, with their mother and her family in Sligo, western Ireland, where the Pollexfens had servants and a governess to care for the children. This was only one aspect of a bifurcated life, for John Butler Yeats, his wife Susan, and their children also lived for a time in London.
Years later, William spent long periods in that city, joining its literary circles and becoming acquainted with fellow writers, initially through the Rhymers Club but also by other social means. Through the years, then, he developed links of varying kinds with Padraic Colum, Edward Dowden, Ernest Dowson, Lord Dunsany, Edmund Gosse, James Joyce, John Masefield, George Moore, A. E. (George Russell), George Bernard Shaw, and Arthur Symons. Although he occasionally sought solitude to write (often retreating in summers to the Coole Park home of Lady Augusta Gregory, his sometime collaborator and patron), Yeats’s creative impulses seemed to thrive on social and intellectual interaction.
Although many of these activities involved him in conflict and controversy, they also filled gaps left by his sporadic formal education. An indifferent student in high school, he was bored by art school, years later describing the experience as “destructive of enthusiasm.” His father was a better teacher, of geography and chemistry as well as literature, reading aloud to his son Honoré de Balzac, Charles Dickens, Sir Walter Scott, and Thomas Babington Macaulay. Later, in his twenties, the younger Yeats read extensively at the British Museum and Dublin’s National Library and also borrowed friends’ books. His eclectic reading led him to an interest in English poets, particularly William Blake, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and Edmund Spenser; in Ireland’s literature, folklore, mythology, and the Irish language; and also in sixteenth century occult and mystic writings.
Descended from a long line of Protestants through both parents, Yeats never embraced orthodox Christianity but was attracted to the quasi-mysticism of Blake and Shelley and to theosophy, Neoplatonism, and spiritualism. Foster shows how these interests not only met Yeats’s spiritual needs but also shaped his actions (he participated in séances, for example), influenced his work (leading him to write poems and plays about Ireland’s heroic past and Irish myths), and nurtured his involvement in the Irish nationalist movement.
Although he did not marry until 1917, women also played an important part in his intellectual development, beginning with a cousin, Laura Armstrong, whom he met briefly in 1882 and then corresponded with for a time. More significant presences, in addition to Lady Gregory, were Olivia Shakespear, Annie Horniman, and Maud Gonne. Shakespear, two years older...
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