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BOOK REVIEW / NONFICTION

W.B. Yeats, Inventing Himself in His Verses W.B. YEATS: A LIFE 1: The Apprentice Mage 1865-1914 by R. F. Foster; Oxford University Press$35, 640 pages

May 09, 1997|ANTHONY DAY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

"I think a man should invent his own myth," said the Irish wit and playwright Oscar Wilde.

This aphorism "sounded ringingly" in the ears of his fellow-countryman, the poet William Butler Yeats, in the view of Yeats' Irish biographer, R.F. Foster. Foster's thesis is that Yeats spent his whole life creating his myth--his very self--with the same careful attention he spent crafting a single line of verse.

And "that was racking effort," Foster writes. In the 1890s, Yeats produced about half a dozen lines a day, treating their creation "as hard labor, redrafting them until he could bear no more."

Yet by the end of his life in 1939, Yeats had through his labor constructed in his poetry one of modern English poetry's dominant monuments and of himself made a singular figure of the poet as voice of his nation and as a seer. "Mage" in the subtitle of this book (the first of two planned volumes) is an archaic word for "magician" or "wizard."

Foster, born in Ireland 10 years after Yeats died, is a professor of Irish history at Oxford. For this book, he drew upon family papers and a wealth of contemporaneous material so copious it seems as if no scrap of paper pertaining to Yeats was ever thrown away.

At times, the profusion of detail wearied me.

But in the end, the biographer won this reader's respect, for by carefully assembling the world in which Yeats lived, he illuminates his work. Any reader who knows Yeats' verse senses that much of it is topical and personal. Just how much, I didn't know until Foster.

Yeats' long and frustrating relationship with the beautiful and fiery Maud Gonne is set forth, step by step, in Yeats' love lyrics. His poetry tells the tale, too, of his wish to re-create a Celtic culture for Ireland and of his increasingly nationalistic opposition to English rule.

Foster presents in great detail the creation of the Abbey Theatre and its predecessors and Yeats' relations with Lady Augusta Gregory, John Millington Synge, the stage designer Gordon Craig and other fellow founders of the modern Irish theater.

Toward the end of the book, Ezra Pound makes his entrance and soon is reinforcing Yeats' developing preference for the sound in poetry of plain, concise speech. It is this tendency that entitles Yeats to his position as one of the foremost creators of modern English poetry. His poetic development, when you think about it, was remarkable. His first widely noticed poem, "The Lake Isle of Innisfree," which made him famous throughout the English-speaking world, was published in 1890 when he was 25. Its style is unabashedly romantic, without a hint of modernist irony: "I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree/And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made . . . "

By 1913, Foster writes, Yeats was declaring in his poetry his determination "to rid himself of the late-Victorian 'embroidery,' now debased by imitators": "Song, let them take it / For there's more enterprise / In walking naked."

Yeats' life was closer in time to Percy Shelley's than to the present. Part of the tale Foster tells, for instance, of literary life in London and Ireland 100 years ago seems charmingly remote.

Another part is spookily familiar. All his life, Yeats assiduously pursued investigations into the spirit world, magic and the occult. He sampled hashish, joined the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn and took part in seances, through which he met his imaginary alter ego, Leo Africanus, a Spanish-Arabic explorer from the 16th century.

In the next volume, Foster says he will discuss the "spectacular supernatural revelations" Yeats experienced later in life. Perhaps he will address this question: Did Yeats' spectacular silliness in these matters help or harm his poetry?

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