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A sublime poet, an avowed defender of Ireland

W.B. Yeats: A Life, Volume II:The Arch-Poet, 1915-1939; R.F. Foster; Oxford University Press: 798 pp., $45

November 23, 2003|Frank Kermode | Frank Kermode is the author of many books, including "Shakespeare's Language," "The Genesis of Secrecy," "The Sense of an Ending" and the forthcoming "The Age of Shakespeare." He is former King Edward VII professor of English at Cambridge and Charles Eliot Norton professor of poetry at Harvard.

In the first volume of this biography, published in 1997, R.F. Foster explained that he wanted to "restore the sense of a man involved in life and in history: notably in the history of his country," rather than to offer "an exegesis of the poetry from a biographical angle." Yeats lived through a tormented period of Irish history, and he knew its sometimes tragic intricacies. Its heroes and politicians as well as its poets and playwrights were acquaintances of his. He saw firsthand the wounds of civil war. He defended what he took to be the true Anglophone culture of Ireland. He fought for its theaters and its paintings, he wrote its poems; he even devised its coinage.

His life, public and private, is documented in the enormous deposits of manuscripts that supplement his voluminous publications. To show how radically this man was involved in the history of his country was a formidable undertaking for a biographer.

Foster has achieved it, and although Yeats scholarship goes on apace, it is reasonably safe to say that much of his work is definitive. Foster is Irish, a professor of Irish history at Oxford. He handles with great skill and authority aspects of the poet's life and times that might simply bewilder the uninstructed reader.

In this second volume, he has to deal with the last quarter-century of Yeats' life, a period crammed with interests of many kinds -- political, biographical, erotic. But it was above all the period when Yeats wrote most of the poetry that won him the accolade of the greatest poet of his age. In his first volume, Foster was avowedly more at ease with the life and the politics than with the poems, which he expressly undertook to treat "in their immediate historical context." And for all that one greatly admired in that volume, it seemed possible that the extraordinary masterpieces of Yeats' later years might be a problem for him.

The worry was unnecessary. Foster nearly always has something enhancing to say about the poems, as he does about every aspect of the poet's amazingly full life. This second volume is equal to its great subject. It represents, among other things, a triumph of tone, which may be illustrated by his treatment of the automatic writings of Yeats' wife, George.

The one thing everybody knows about Yeats is that he was, for much of his life, enchanted by the implacable republican activist Maud Gonne (now best remembered as the recipient of some marvelous love poems). He was later in love with Maud's gifted, difficult daughter, Iseult, and came quite close to marrying her ("Ah, if only you were a young boy!" she said). He had memorably written the lines: "Although I have come close to forty-nine, / I have no child, I have nothing but a book ... " And so, in his early 50s, he married somebody else. His wife, supported him with great patience and intelligence throughout the last crowded, prolific, eccentric period of his life.

The marriage got off to a bad start. It was saved when George discovered that by means of automatic writing she could convey to the poet the admonitions of certain supernatural instructors. In the pages Foster devotes to George's scribbled messages from these beings, one can gauge Foster's skill, his control of tone.

The situation is faintly but irremediably ridiculous. George used the writings not only to give Yeats "metaphors for poetry," as he claimed, but also to change his habits. One cause of the early unhappiness of the marriage was the poet's lack of sexual interest in his new wife; he had had lovers but had not acquired the habit of regular sexual performance. Moreover, his imagination was still dwelling regretfully on Maud and Iseult, and, as always, he was enjoying a privileged intimacy with his indispensable old friend and colleague, Lady Gregory. So George was crowded out. She responded by sending him messages, some very explicit, from beyond, instructing him to do something urgently about his shortcomings as a bridegroom.

Here, and in many other manifestations of Yeats' credulity concerning the occult, Foster is amused but will not allow himself free expression of his amusement (he sticks to the facts); we are given no reason to think Foster would have joined any of the poet's various magical and mystical circles. He deals with these matters as he deals with matters of business, that "theatre business, management of men" that Yeats complained of but was so surprisingly good at. Foster is helped by his appreciation of the poet's own sense of the ridiculous, shared by his idle golden-tongued father and by his sisters, who ran an unprofitable printing press, largely financed by Yeats.

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