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IN BRIEF

Nonfiction

August 04, 1996|Nick Owchar

YEATS'S WORLDS: Ireland, England and the Poetic Imagination by David Pierce (Yale University Press: $40, 346 pp.). That figure of agility and poise from William Butler Yeats' later work, "the long-legged fly" that moves silently on a stream's surface, is also a good figure for describing the poet's own dance around the critics who have approached his world with their dissecting tools.

David Pierce, a British critic and lecturer, makes a simple point: Yeats was like any person, a product of the social and historical forces around him. "Yeats had the uncanny knack of making it look as if his life fell out according to a consciously conceived pattern. In puncturing holes in such a theory of continuity, my intention has been . . . to establish a more faithful record."

"Puncturing" may be a little too self-congratulatory--what Pierce offers won't capsize earlier studies by Harold Bloom or James Joyce biographer Richard Ellman. He does, however, weave some interesting portraits of the people and issues that crisscrossed Yeats' life and influenced his work. Maud Gonne is certainly mentioned, but so are other women important in his life: Lady Augusta Gregory, Olivia Shakespear, Edith Shackleton Heald and the wife often overlooked, Georgina.

Drawing from unpublished letters and diaries, Pierce shows us Yeats' private failings and flaws. Not pillow-talk or gossip, mind you, these details only serve to deepen admiration for a man who sustained an ancient bard's persona in the modern world. Some are amusing, such as a secretary's scolding of Yeats for having living quarters with "moths in your curtains" and grimy books on the shelves. Others are touching, such as a 1909 diary entry in which Yeats despaired that his poetic voice was being smothered by the chores of managing the Abbey Theatre--he wondered if "my talent will ever recover from the heterogeneous labour of these last few years."

Supporting these glimpses into Yeats' humanity, wonderful photos show him in roles other than visionary and poet, as family man, world traveler and Irish senator. It is great fun to see this man, who carefully calculated his image, pleasantly surprised by an Italian barber's work during a visit to Ezra Pound in Rapallo in 1930. With hair slicked back and sporting a fuzzy white goatee, Yeats looks like a gelati vendor or an extra in a Vittorio De Sica film (see above).

Pierce's book makes an excellent complement to other Yeats studies. Students of Yeats will enjoy seeing photos of places immortalized in his verse. Seeing the surface of the lake around Innisfree's isle, flat like glass and purple-hued, one wants to abandon the computer and fax machine to search for the isle's "bee-loud glade" and build another cabin "of clay and wattles made" in honor of the bard.

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