So much modern literature depends on two complementary Irish geniuses, W. B. Yeats and James Joyce. In 1902 Yeats told Joyce, in a letter that praised his work: "The chief use I can be . . . will be by introducing you to some other writers who are starting like yourself, one always learns one's business from one's fellow workers." This was generous, since Yeats had been shaken by what R. F. Foster calls Joyce's "ruthlessness". But it also asserts Yeats's seniority in creating the matrix - the Irish literary revival - that, in turn, shaped Joyce's revolt against some of its principles. In the wonderfully rich first volume of his (two-part) authorised biography Foster documents the astonishing energy with which Yeats discovered, inspired and promoted "fellow workers". Yeats's literary evangelism, which still opens doors for Irish writers, took various forms throughout the period covered here: his industry as reviewer and editor in late 19th-century London, "theatre business, management of men" in Dublin, American lecture tours, and - where it operated most profoundly - his relations with talented proteges who could also teach him a thing or two (Joyce, Synge, Pound).
In promoting others, Yeats was, of course, promoting himself. And the poetic selfish gene connected with other anxieties. It is fundamental to Foster's approach that he stresses Yeats's birth into a southern Irish Protestant "sense of cultural and social marginalisation", already apparent in the 1860s, which drove his need to prove the Irishness of Protestants, their literary and cultural credentials. (The North, with its "half-Scotch people", figures uneasily on the horizon of this agenda, as it does with other brands of Irish nationalism.)
Conversely, critics of the Yeatsian mission, then and now, see him as trying to continue Protestant hegemony by other means. In 1900 the journalist D. P. Moran, who advocated the cultural separateness of "Irish Ireland", attacked Yeats for West Britonism. In the 1980s, Seamus Deane diagnosed "the pathology of literary unionism". Yet, whatever the conditions that disempowered or powered Yeats, they conspired to produce a remarkable late extraversion of the Romantic imagination. The collectivity suggested by "fellow workers" does more than call troops to his (cross-sectarian) standard. It dramatises the necessity, impersonality and social character of literary tradition.
This is why Yeats's life and Foster's biography have a cast of thousands. At one time (spring 1900), Yeats might be juggling his Fenian mentor John O'Leary, his problematic new literary friend George Moore, the Anglophobic Frank Hugh O'Donnell who was trying to brand Maud Gonne a government spy, Gonne herself inadequately promising "I will be always to you as a sister", theatrical and mystical business with the mutually antagonistic Florence Farr and Annie Horniman, and satanic Aleister Crowley storming the Isis-Urania temple of the Order of the Golden Dawn "wearing full Highland dress plus 'the mask of Osiris"'. Similarly, Foster must control the multiple threads of his colourful story. He has taken the brave decision to move Yeats's life forward as it was lived - no watertight compartments, a tangle of advances, setbacks and campaigns on many fronts. The result is a remarkable synthesis which continually elicits the links and fractures that gave Yeats's imagination its unifying dynamic, its antithetical sense of chaos.
In this instance, occultism, sexuality and the Irish Literary Theatre were entangled with tensions caused by Irish nationalist support for the Boers. As so often, Foster represents Yeats as a site of conflict. He writes that Yeats's "own pro-Boer alignment in March 1900 exposed the implicit contradictions between the neo-Fenian rhetoric of his political life and the polite pluralism of 'respectable' cultural revivalism represented by the backers of the Irish literary theatre". Three years later, when Gonne shocked Yeats by marrying Major John MacBride, whose South African exploits had made him a nationalist hero, conflict became agonisingly extreme. Sexual jealousy, cultural fright and politics converged in a way that was to throw long shadows. He saw Gonne as losing caste by marrying "one of the people" and as "thrusting down (her) soul to a lower order of faith". Then Foster reveals that MacBride's abuse of Iseult, Gonne's daughter, was the main cause of the marriage breaking down so quickly. The revelation opens up a reading of "Easter 1916" which makes the personal utterly political. The poem's ambiguities may pivot on what was indeed "most bitter wrong/To some who are near my heart".
The complications plotted from page to page prove the virtue of the historian, of this historian, as literary biographer. And Yeats is a supremely suitable case for historical treatment. Foster has organised a great quantity and variety of archival sources into a crisply compelling narrative. He states: "Most biographical studies of Yeats are principally about what he wrote; this one is principally about what he did." As a so-called "revisionist" historian of Ireland, Foster is used to reading forward events that nationalism and unionism prefer, in selfvalidating spirit, to read back from the founding moments of their jurisdictions. Similarly, he has to fight with the invulnerable tide of Yeats's own autobiographies. These stylise his life and times into retrospective freeze-frames, rhetorical masks and seductive symbols.
Thus Foster's brand of revision runs precisely counter to Yeats's revision of his own work, often refreshing the poetry en route. For example, Foster cites the first version of "The Lake Isle of Innisfree" in a manner that makes the poem not an anthology chestnut but a foundational epiphany. Nor does all of Yeats's life get into the poems. Foster discloses a love affair with Mabel Dickinson, a "medical gymnast and masseuse" (physiotherapist). "The Circus Animals' Desertion" is a retrospect that might be read as contrasting the historian - drawn to "A mound of refuse or the sweepings of a street" - with the poet dramatist who conceives "Character isolated by a deed/To engross the present and dominate memory".
One way in which Yeats sought to dominate memory was through urging the "analogies" between art and aristocracy. This obsession was influenced by his relationship with Lady Gregory, by his recoil from the Ireland that had maltreated Synge's plays, by his recognition that mass popularity was unattainable, and later by the house burnings of the 1920s. Yeats's elegiac images of "ancestral houses" lead readers to over-estimate his own class-position, together with the grandeur of those houses themselves. Foster is sensitive to the situation at Coole Park, where Lady Gregory's son Robert became impatient with Yeats's constant presence, so that she "had to ask him, rather awkwardly, if he would mind providing his own wine & perhaps a special decanter". Here Yeats, for all the status conferred by his achievements, briefly resembles his free-loading bohemian father, the painter John B. Yeats. Indeed, his dependence on Lady Gregory suggests that a nomadic, unreliable father and depressive mother, as well as ungrateful Ireland, condition his feelings for the refuge she offered. Coole replaced Sligo - the one fixed point in his boyhood. When Gregory became ill, the idea of her death seemed "a conflagration in the rafters". Yeats's ancestral houses should not be taken too literally. They symbolise layers of psychic, cultural and aesthetic defence.
Yeats had been cast adrift, as well as liberated, by his father's intellectual scorn for pious, conservative Protestants/unionists. It is not only the (growing) Catholic middle class that Yeats's poems refuse to admit. He was never fully initiated into the world that should, however threatened, have been his birthright. Nor did he receive its regular salaries. Foster's account of the Protestant class-intricacies involved in the marriage between John B. Yeats and Susan Pollexfen anatomises a lost or residual sociology: "The Yeats's had their past aristocratic associations, Trinity College culture, remnants of landed property . . . the Pollexfens seem more reminiscent of the 'New English' settlers of an earlier period, tough-minded townsmen impatient with the pretensions of the Yeats connection." It was Yeats's poetry that made houses like Coole and Lissadell accessible, as it did the emergent elite of independent Ireland. His sister Lily spoke not only for Yeats's family but for a diminished bourgeoisie, caught in between, when she said in later years: "We are far more Irish than all the Saints and Martyrs - Parnell - Pearse - Madam Markiewicz - Maud Gonne - De Valera - and no one ever (speaks) of them as Anglo-Irish."
Foster is superbly equipped to situate Yeats's cultural nationalism in the context of preparation, not for the Easter Rising but for Irish Home Rule. He shows that Yeats in the 1890s was more aligned publicly with "advanced nationalism" than one might think, especially during the run-up to the centenary of 1798. However, "the politics of extremist nationalism filled him with at least as much alarm as excitement". There is another political surprise in 1912. Foster quotes material which indicates that, despite his commitment to Home Rule, Yeats had a sneaking sympathy with Ulster Protestant fears. Stephen Gwynn asked him to attend a Protestant home rule meeting in London and "to propose a motion affirming faith in the tolerance of the Catholic Church". Yeats replied: "There is intolerance in Ireland, it is the shadow of belief everywhere, and no priesthood of any church has lacked it. I would have gladly (declared) that the danger to religious freedom is not in the granting of Home Rule but in its continued refusal; but how can I, who have been denounced by Cardinal Logue for a romance, and seen lying leaflets . . . distributed at chapel doors in America during the tour of the Abbey players . . . say that there is not both shadow and substance?" Some might read this as the outing of a West Briton or loyalist; others as the outcome of bruising political battles which had clarified Yeats's own priorities in the fierce competition to impress the "soft wax" of Ireland.
Asked (in an Irish Times interview) whether his own southern Irish Protestant background had influenced the biography, Foster confessed that so it had proved. At times he may over-identify: with a marginalisation that was certainly greater in Foster's own childhood, with Yeats's special form of expatriation, with the rebuffs suffered by the literary revival (and bequeathed to revisionist history). Yet inside knowledge mediated through scholarly precision continually exposes how literal and external many Irish readings of Yeats have been. Just as Yeats is reproved for misrepresenting Catholic Ireland, so writers from Catholic backgrounds often miss the vulnerabilities behind his masks. Foster's book is in the tradition of Louis MacNeice's The Poetry of W. B. Yeats (1941). There MacNeice announces: "Like Yeats, I was brought up in an Irish middle-class Protestant family", and proceeds not to justify but to demystify, to say "Come off it, Yeats". Foster has fun with what an earlier essay of his dubs "Protestant magic". He refers to George Russell's "increasingly frenetic campaign for the return of the gods to Ireland", and does not tread softly on Gonne's dream that she and Yeats had been sister and brother sold into slavery in Arabia. Occasionally I understand nationalist critiques of Foster's "detachment". He writes of Yeats "writing excitedly", and his subtitle, The Apprentice Mage, is a demystification too far since it appears to debunk the poetic mysteries for which magic supplied a correlative.
Foster knows very well that his style and synthesis create perspectives on what Yeats "did". He ends by reading Reveries over Childhood and Youth as being "about Yeats in 1914, not between the ages of one and twenty". By some of the same token, he gives us Yeats for the 1990s: not in the sense of special pleading, but because recent history functions as interpreter. If Foster highlights the sectarian dimension of certain conflicts, the evidence is amply there. During the 1912 crisis Yeats appealed: "I often see the life of Ireland today . . . under the image of a stagnant stream . . . Now among the old boots drifting along there are a very objectional pair, Catholic and Protestant bigotry. Some Irishmen object so much to one or other of these boots that they can think of nothing else, and yet we have merely to make the stream move again to sweep them out of sight." This magnificent biography may help the process along.
Edna Longley is professor of English literature, Queen's University, Belfast.
W. B. Yeats: A Life, Volume One: The Apprentice Mage 1865-1914
Author - R. F. Foster
ISBN - 0 19 211735 1
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Price - £25.00
Pages - 640