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 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,...

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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 than Yeats, was a novelist whom he met in 1894; the two became lovers the next year, soon after she married. Although they drifted apart, they resumed their relationship years later, when she introduced him to Ezra Pound, her son-in-law, who became Yeats’s secretary for a time.

Annie Horniman was an heiress whom Yeats met in 1890, when they joined an occult group, the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, whose members followed the theosophical teachings of Madame Helena Blavatsky and other spiritualists. Horniman became infatuated with Yeats, plied him with gifts, and courted a marriage proposal from him. Although he resisted the romantic advances, he tolerated her, and during bouts of his recurring eye problems, she was his amanuensis. She also became an important financial backer of the Irish theater movement, but her day-to-day involvement led to conflicts with others, and she eventually detached herself from the Abbey. In 1907, however, she provided the funds for the publication of Yeats’s Collected Works, and he borrowed money from her the next year.

Maud Gonne, an actress and nationalist eighteen months younger than Yeats, stands apart from the other women with whom Yeats had close relationships, for he was deeply in love with her for many years, although she persistently denied him marriage. They met for the first time in January, 1889, and—he recalled later—“the troubling of my life began.” A believer in reincarnation and the occult and a devotee of Madame Blavatsky, she participated with Yeats in Golden Dawn. One of the most openly political persons in his circle at the end of the century, she demonstrated against Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee in 1897 and campaigned against the British in the Boer War. During an affair in France with a journalist-politician, Gonne had two children, one of whom died. When she revealed this secret life to Yeats late in 1898, she also confessed to having loved him for years but rejected the possibility of marriage; they resolved upon an asexual commitment to each other, spurred by the belief that they had been brother and sister in an earlier incarnation.

Despite her emotional and spiritual attachment to Yeats and her declared aversion to sex and marriage, Gonne did marry John MacBride of the Irish Republican Brotherhood and a leader of the anti-British South African agitation. The match was a failure, the pair legally separated in a few years, and the British executed MacBride in 1916 for his role in the Easter Uprising. Gonne continued to serve Yeats as creative inspiration and symbol throughout his career, and he transformed her in his poetry into the ideal of Irish womanhood. The 1902 poem “Adam’s Curse,” more than any other of his works, reflects both the passion and the hopelessness of his love for her. The shifting fortunes of their relationship notwithstanding, they worked closely together in the Irish theater movement.

As early as 1897, Yeats had enlisted the support of Lady Gregory and others for the Celtic Theatre (soon renamed the Irish Literary Theatre) in Dublin, to present prose and verse plays about modern and legendary Ireland. After resolving difficulties over a performing license, they publicized their efforts, gained prominent endorsers, raised money, and secured a facility, the venture debuting at Dublin’s Antient Concert Rooms with Yeats’s verse drama The Countess Cathleen and Edward Martyn’s The Heather Field. The latter, a more traditional play, was the popular and critical success of this premier double bill. A second season’s plays were presented in Dublin’s Gaiety Theatre, which suggested a step forward; however, by 1901 the experiment had run its course, perhaps doomed by the elitism of its promoters.

A year later, under the aegis of Frank and William Fay’s Irish National Dramatic Society, Maud Gonne appeared at Dublin’s St. Teresa’s Hall in Yeats’s Cathleen ni Houlihan, and the prospect of a new theater group emerged. Yeats’s assessment of the Fays’ efforts was generous: “in very truth, a National company, a chief expression of Irish imagination.” He became its president, Gonne a vice president, and with the help of Horniman and others, the INDS found a permanent home. The Abbey Theatre opened December 27, 1904, and under a ruling triumvirate of Yeats, Lady Gregory, and John Millington Synge, the Abbey went on the road, to England and Scotland. Despite personal intrigues and cultural wars, Yeats’s dream had been realized and a major element in the Irish renaissance achieved.

Further problems, tragedies, and triumphs lay ahead for Yeats. For example, when the opening of Synge’s The Playboy of the Western World at the Abbey in January, 1907, caused riots because of its unconventional portrayal of Irish women, Yeats called the police, provoking a confrontation with his associates. Two years later, Synge’s death at the age of thirty-eight significantly affected Yeats, for he believed that the young playwright had represented artistic freedom against Catholic middle-class parochialism. According to Foster, the death “would haunt WBY for the rest of his life, inspiring a continual elegy in prose and verse.” It came soon after a milestone event for Yeats, the publication in 1908 of his Collected Works in eight volumes. A daring, even audacious, project for a writer in his early forties—implying, as Lytton Strachey put it, “a claim to a recognised and permanent place in the literature of a nation”—the enterprise enjoyed a respectful critical reception.

The establishment of an Irish theater, the publication of the Works, and Synge’s death, all occurring within a few years, marked the end of Yeats’s apprenticeship and the start of his life as Ireland’s preeminent man of letters. Official recognition of this position came when the king granted him a Civil List pension—a guaranteed annual income of 150 pounds. Although it was ironic that an incipient Irish nationalist would receive royal largess, Yeats had become increasingly estranged from Irish life; while continuing to be involved with the Abbey, he was spending more time in London. He also made a second and then a third trip to the United States. His first lecture tour, in 1903, under the aegis of the Irish American lawyer John Quinn, had been a huge success, establishing him as a writer of great promise; when he returned in 1910 and 1913, he was greeted as an eminent literary figure.

As he neared his fiftieth birthday, Yeats increasingly used the lecture platform and his poetry for political purposes, as in “September 1913,” which Foster says “stands with the great polemics of literature.” Indeed, Yeats was moving in tandem with his countrymen, who were on the threshold of an epic confrontation with the British. The title of his 1913 collection is apt: Poems Written in Discouragement. Foster concludes his book with Yeats writing Reveries, an autobiographical account of his first half-century. His achievements thus far had been remarkable, but ahead lay greater poetry and acclaim, more forays into spiritualism, and eventually marriage and children.

Foster skillfully reveals the emergence of greatness as he presents his detailed, almost day by day, account of Yeats’s apprenticeship. He is an admiring biographer but has not written a hagiography. Nor is his book a study of Yeats’s works; he deals more with the process of composition than with interpretation. The plethora of biographical detail and careful delineation of the social, intellectual, political, and spiritual milieu provide the basis for others to engage in exegesis. With this first volume of W. B. Yeats: A Life, Foster has provided Yeats scholarship with an invaluable resource.

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.

W. B. Yeats

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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 authoritarian, so the appointment to the upper chamber was fortunate, for “he now occupied the kind of platform that suited him best, political but detached from parties.”

After winning the 1923 Nobel Prize in Literature, Yeats had another platform, which he unhesitatingly used: as an inveterate lobbyist for government recognition of the Abbey as a national theater and against government censorship and attempts to make Gaelic Ireland's official language. He also challenged the establishment position in parliamentary debates of the divorce issue, which Foster calls “one of WBY's supreme public moments,” Yeats's liberalism in the censorship, language, and divorce conflicts “aggressively set himself against his colleagues in the Senate, as well as the presumed opinion of the wider Irish world,” so he became politically and intellectually isolated. Indeed, the only official role he had was as head of a commission on Irish coinage.

During this decade of political and social transition for Ireland, Yeats's health necessitated sabbaticals abroad from public life. By the mid-1920's he had completed A Vision, his spiritual autobiography, and also a number of poems, including “Leda and the Swan,” whose political theme is cloaked in a narrative of overt sexuality, and “Among School Children,” ostensibly about the education of youth but actually about his “thoughts on education, art, and life, strangely but potently mixed with memories of his youth …through the prism of Neoplatonic philosophy.”

The 1927 assassination of Kevin O’Higgins, a friend who had mediated quietly with the British, inspired “Blood and the Moon”; “In Memory of Eva Gore-Booth and Con Markiewicz,” another poem of the period, also evokes the tensions spurred by the killing. These deaths and Yeats's uncertain health made him “impatient with any impediments, obstructions, evasions which might come between his work and what he wanted it to say; and he would pursue that lost vigour with a single-minded commitment, determined to demonstrate that he could recapture the force of youth in his life as well as in his work.” Notably, he began The Tower (1928), a new collection, whose centerpiece was “Sailing to Byzantium,” about “the onset of old age and the overwhelming impulse to create an art that would defy mortality.” He also wrote poems featuring an alter ego called “Crazy Jane,” a deranged woman who safely could make irreverent and scurrilous comments about all subjects and people.

The 1930's began with the possibility of Yeats being named British Poet Laureate, which he considered accepting despite certain negative reaction, because “he owed his creative soul to the great tradition of English literature.” In the event, John Masefield got the nod. Soon after, Yeats began a long-standing relationship with the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) and then took up residence at Coole Park with Lady Gregory, who was dying of cancer. Not even a frantic letter from his wife about the Abbey's precarious state (as a result of a new government taking power) brought him home. Instead, he went again to London to see Shri Purohit Swami, an Indian monk with whom he was infatuated and whose spiritual autobiography Yeats pronounced a masterpiece; to participate in a celebration of the founding of the Irish Literary Society, to broadcast for the BBC; to find a publisher for Lady Gregory's works; and to negotiate secretly with the British on political matters.

Only then did Yeats come home, but he went again to Coole when Lady Gregory died on May 23, 1932. “I have lost the friend who was my sole adviser for the greater part of my life …the one person who knew all that I thought and did,” he wrote. Her death, says Foster, “marked a caesura across WBY's life, the cleft driven so deep that he feared the bereavement might even mean the failure of creativity.” Problems with her estate and a long American lecture tour drained him, and he was disappointed with the accession of Eamon de Valera, more conservative and anti-British than William T. Cosgrave.

So Yeats largely removed himself from the Irish political scene, except for a flirtation with a nascent Irish fascist movement, which Foster says “should be seen in the light of his own creative stasis,” his propensity “to search out themes in unlikely places, and work up his own poetic energies through a willing suspension of incredulity.” Concludes Foster, “To an extent unrecognized, WBY's affinity with Fascism (not National Socialism) was a matter of rhetorical style, and the achievement of style, as he himself had decreed long before, was closely connected to shock tactics.”

In 1934, Yeats began writing Dramatis Personae, a memoir of Lady Gregory, intending that it “would fix both their images in Irish history” and “establish WBY himself at the centre of Irish experience.” Concern with legacy also is signaled by the 1933 appearance of his Collected Poems; the publication in 1934 of his youthful journalism, Letters to a New Island; the preparation of his Collected Plays (1934) and an American edition of his works; and the editing of the Oxford Book of Modern Verse.

Having undergone a sexual rejuvenation procedure that he believed increased not only his potency but also his creativity, Yeats was actively writing. The most immediate result was The King of the Great Clock Tower (1934), an insignificant salmagundi typical of his later work. He also traveled, visiting Italy and pausing for extended stays in England, which continued to be the locus of his artistic activities and where at different times he pursued three women, chief of whom was Dorothy Wellesley, an erstwhile poet whose home became his new Coole Park.

Yeats's seventieth birthday in 1935 occasioned celebrations and commemorations, and though his heart was weakening, he continued to work: writing new poems, including ballads; doing BBC broadcasts; and preparing a new edition of A Vision. By 1938, when most Irish and other Europeans were increasingly apprehensive about the prospect of war, “nothing in WBY's correspondence suggests any preoccupation with Hitler.” Rather, he seemed detached from international events, focusing instead on an Abbey production of a pair of his plays; dealing with the financial problems of a family publishing operation; and reading widely in eugenics, a new interest. He died January 28, 1939, in France; but largely because of the war, his remains were not returned to Ireland until 1948, by which time, says Foster, “WBY's reputation belonged neither to government nor family, but to the country whose consciousness he had done so much to shape.”

Yeats towers above all the heroes of the Irish revolution and struggle for independence, which culminated in the 1948 declaration of a republic, although he avoided most of the conflicts, eschewed militancy, and had close social and professional relationships in England. Long before his death he was internationally regarded as the preeminent Irishman, a reputation that still stands. So a magisterial study such as Foster's is warranted, and because of Yeats's belief that knowledge and biography are inseparable, attention to the minutiae of his life and milieu is appropriate. The result is both a biography of Yeats and an intellectual and social history of his milieu. In addition, Foster offers lucid readings of many poems. That Yeats emerges from Foster's two volumes with his position as poet and icon enhanced is testimony to the excellence of Foster's definitive life.

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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