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

R. F. Foster

W. B. Yeats

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

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...

(The entire section is 2176 words.)

W. B. Yeats

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

The first volume of R. F. Foster's authorized life of William Butler Yeats, published in 1997 and subtitled The Apprentice Mage, 1865-1914, is an exemplary biography by an eminent historian. The present volume, devoted to Yeats's life from age fifty to his death in 1939 at seventy-four, and a worthy continuation of the first, is enriched by Foster's frequent forays into literary analysis, at which he excels. He also skillfully copes with other challenges that the latter part of Yeats's life presents, such as the mysticism that becomes a frequent presence, the so-called automatic writing that flowed from spiritual sessions in which Yeats and his wife engaged, and the poet's increasing “intellectual omnivorousness” as he aged.

Further, when Yeats became a public figure (as senator in the Irish Free State parliament and Nobel laureate), his work “repeatedly struck public poses and was put to public purposes.” As Yeats himself sought to determine a pattern to his life (by the start of his fiftieth year, he already has completed a memoir of his childhood), so must Foster strive for thematic unity amid a life with major personal, professional, and political conflicts. His subject, after all, was an anomaly. A Protestant in a Catholic country, he rejected Christianity for mysticism. Devoted to Ireland and a celebrant of its past, he nevertheless spent much time abroad. Although a nationalist, he was skeptical about the fervency of his fellow Irish and never embraced their anti-British crusades.

This volume begins as Yeats, on the threshold of his sixth decade, starts writing more introspective poetry, whose elegiac and disillusioned mood reflects his state of mind, for though he continued his summer retreats at Lady Augusta Gregory's Coole Park estate, he still worried about Abbey Theatre problems, other Dublin cultural matters, and the precarious Irish political situation. In addition, financial problems continued, even after he married George (Georgie Hyde Lees), who had a substantial annual income, partly because he supported his improvident father in New York. To cope, Yeats arranged with John Quinn, a lawyer in that city, to assist John Butler Yeats in exchange for manuscripts.

Turning his papers into hard currency and giving public lectures also enabled Yeats to fulfill a dream: to purchase a medieval tower or castle keep, Ballylee, near Coole, which he restored, made into a second home, and used as a symbol for much of his later work. Also becoming increasingly important were psychic investigations, an interest, according to Foster, that stemmed partly from Yeats's “need for verification of life beyond the grave.” The plethora of occult activities, abetted by his wife, George, and the discovery of Japanese Noh drama, through his friendship with Ezra Pound, enriched Yeats's work and attracted new patrons and audiences.

When the Easter 1916 Rising occurred in Dublin, Yeats was in London. Surprised by it, he was unsympathetic, having previously disassociated himself from the Gaelic League, Sinn Féin, and revolutionary ideologues. Indicative of his position in the Anglo-Irish conflict is the fact that he was approached about a knighthood, which he rejected, partly because of concern about the reaction of Irish nationalists. Notwithstanding his ambivalence to the rebellion, it inspired some of his most popular poetry, including “Easter 1916” and the play The Dreaming of the Bones.

In the midst of European war and Irish rebellion, Yeats in 1917 married George, who had worked with him for several years in occult researches. According to Foster, “joint supernatural investigations marked their relationship from its origin, and would decisively influence their marriage.” Half Yeats's age, “she was an autodidact, and read omnivorously in obscure texts, particularly the Neoplatonists. Unlike him, she was both musical and a gifted linguist.” The London marriage formalized a close intellectual and spiritual collaboration, and “she would henceforward order, preserve, and arrange drafts of her husband's writing.” Marriage also brought tranquillity to his life, heralded in “A Prayer for My Daughter” (Anne, born in 1919), which also “reflects his apprehension at a world descending into formless anarchy.” The 1921 publication of Michael Robartes and the Dancer, his second collection in two years, suggests the positive effect that marriage had on his output.

With ratification of the Anglo-Irish treaty and establishment of the Free State in 1922, which he supported, Yeats decided to return permanently to Ireland. As Foster says, he came “to a country about to descend into the abyss of civil war, and the outcome would make him question how far the traditions he most valued were really safeguarded by the new state.” During this period of personal transition and national turmoil, he wrote the poetic sequence “Meditations in Time of Civil War,” as well as lengthy letters of advice to young poets, and was named to the Irish senate. His support of the Free State government wavered as it became more...

(The entire section is 2088 words.)