Taste for old flames and fire

W. B. Yeats: A Life
October 17, 2003

Edna Longley enjoys a brilliant synthesis of an 'impartially irritating' man.

The Arch-Poet proves Roy Foster an arch-biographer. Carrying massive data lightly, engaging with it deeply, he has completed an extraordinary synthesis of W. B. Yeats' extraordinary life. He has not been overwhelmed by the most protean poet since Shakespeare: a poet who ceaselessly remade himself and his art amid the waves of the world. The very fact that Yeats so pre-empts biography adds tonal tension to this two-volume epic ( The Apprentice Mage appeared in 1997). As Foster depicts Yeats "struggling with his fate and his destiny until every energy of his being has been roused" - the quotation is from A Vision - he inscribes a struggle between biographer and a compulsive autobiographer, between historiography and a poet allergic to scientific positivism. "Superb inaccuracy" is one of Foster's phrases for Yeats' memoirs.

Yet "superb" also pays tribute. Foster does not discount but skilfully decodes Yeats' constructions, as he does the many angles from which others construe him. His biography is more than a joust between empiricist and Romantic, demythologiser and myth-maker, fact-checker and the potent symbolic structure that Yeats invokes in The Circus Animals' Desertion : "Character isolated by a deed/ To engross the present and dominate memory." Foster's achievement is to take us behind all the scenes of the Yeatsian circus without destroying its glamour.

The fading of Yeats' milieu in southern Ireland underlies many misconceptions about his character. Foster's Irish Protestant background usually tells him when to take Yeats seriously and when to call something "stately hokum". He also understands Yeats the Dublin talker, wit, gossip.

But if The Apprentice Mage seemed more at home with Irish contexts than with poetry, here - perhaps responding to criticism - Foster consistently suggests how life and poetry interpenetrate. He prints certain poems in full, attending to the "chronology of composition and the form of first printing". Such historicisation refreshes poems, as when he connects a stanzaic reordering in The Wild Swans at Coole with Yeats acquiring the Ballylee tower, which opened up prospects of roots, marriage and more settled symbolism.

Yeats' artistic biorhythms might inform a general theory of creativity.

Foster traces the diverse stimuli that energise the "surges" from which poems crystallise. Byzantium dramatises this dynamic. At one level the "golden smithies of the Emperor" represent the poetic imagination receiving the phenomenal "flood". So I query whether, as Foster says: "Following (Yeats') intellectual track, and reading his prose as closely as his poetry one is driven to the conclusion that while his greatness as a lyric poet is unassailable, he was very much more than simply that."

It is not just that Yeats was never "simply" that. Foster unconsciously implies how low lyric poetry has sunk. For Yeats, schooled in the 1890s creed that life imitates art, poetry covers "much more". It is where "intellectual fire" ( Blood and the Moon ) burns most intensely. "Arch-poet" should mean a poet for whom nothing is outside poetry rather than a notional head honcho. Yeats' prose and tortuous metaphysics, even his drama, are secondary support systems. As Foster notes, the revised version of A Vision (1937) exposes a more fundamental concern with the psychology of aesthetics than with the philosophy of history: "The annunciation is... associated with creative expression."

Yeats' quest for "life at its intense moments", as for an all-encompassing pattern or a utopian Ireland, extraverts the drives of the lyric poet. The excitements ("excitedly" is an adverb Foster repeats) of occultism and sexuality merge because his art desires the spirit world made tangible, the muse made flesh. Various affairs were blighted by Maud Gonne's transcendental allure. When muse and spirit-world collided with the 50-year-old Yeats' wish to marry, a tragi-comic psychodrama ensued. In 1916 he proposed to Gonne while also quasi-incestuously pursuing her daughter Iseult. Both refused him. Meanwhile, Yeats hedged his bets by forming a liaison with Georgie Hyde Lees. After the couple rather hastily married in 1917, George discovered that muses still possessed him.

During a haunted honeymoon, with Yeats agonising that he had "betrayed three people", George overcame sexual crisis by initiating the automatic writing that would generate A Vision . Her "unknown Instructors" included marriage guidance in their communiques. Thus, practising a kind of homeopathic psychotherapy, George plunged into the sexual-occult vortex and foiled her rivals' older magic. Like Ann Saddlemyer (whose biography Becoming George should be read alongside his), Foster considers George more "control" than "medium".

Yeats depended on women: on muses and on shrewd, energetic collaborators - above all, Augusta Gregory whose death (in 1932) would cast his poetry into a terminally elegiac mood. Yeats saw George as a young Gregory, and Iseult patronisingly disqualified her as muse: "He is tired of Romance & the normal & ordinary is now to him the Romantic." If Iseult and Maud seem self-important pains in the neck, this is acute. George brought order (poeticised as "custom and ceremony") to Yeats' life. She looked after houses, children, health, travels, manuscripts, copy-editing, money - always tight, except after Yeats won the Nobel prize (1923).

Yet for some years their unique form of literary collaboration also linked George with the paranormal. Whatever its hokum-factor, the automatic writing constituted a genuinely mysterious intercourse whose real (psycho-aesthetic) ground may be Yeats' own anima or creative unconscious.

George was his deepest reader, and she denies intrinsic fakery when she calls the collaboration "our best thought". Certainly, marriage sparked Yeats' most comprehensive self-renewal. It prepared his inner world for the great poetic phase whose outer context was "not only the achievement of Ireland's independence but war, dislocation, and the rise of totalitarianism in Europe" (Foster).

The Easter Rising had further problematised the story of Ireland and Yeats' place in it. He feared "the work of years (had) been overturned... all the freeing of Irish literature and criticism from politics". He was right in so far as the Rising's fallout, including the Northern Irish civil war, still affects narratives of Irish literary history. Hence his need to "dominate memory". In poetry, Yeats is no mean philosopher of history.

Witness the precise ambiguities of Easter 1916 , its complex transactions between moment and commemoration. And, however self-centred Yeats' autobiographies or his elegies for "Coole", they also reflect the altruistic "work of years". Conscious that "intelligence has no organisation whilst stupidity always has", he toiled for his poet's utopia: "The spiritual part of Free Ireland will be in the books." (Was he wrong?) As a senator (1922-28), he fought censorship and the censoring cultural ideology that marginalised southern Protestants and obstructed "getting the North".

Yeats combined political cunning with a tendency to lose everything for a rhetorical gesture. Foster refers to "his ancient genius for impartially irritating all quarters". Meanwhile, ancient enemies reappeared. Foster quotes marvellous passages from the Catholic Bulletin 's obsessive Yeats-watch: "Subsidised New Ascendancy linked up with the Associated Aesthetes and the Mutual Boosters." But Yeats' line "The finished man among his enemies" enacts his belief that creativity and conflict are interdependent. He dreaded ending up like Wordsworth, "honoured and empty-witted".

Foster does not reduce Yeats' politics to any single position. He brilliantly teases out the contextual nuances that make Yeats now criticise Patrick Pearse's "vertigo of self sacrifice", now internalise the executions as a collective tragedy, now identify with the Free State, now eulogise the Protestant "people of Burke and of Grattan", now praise Eamon de Valera. It might seem that Yeats finally lost it in the 1930s: his decade of dodgy politics, dodgy (or dodgier) gurus and dodgy women. Foster argues that not so much European trends as Irish conditions explain his longing for "the despotic rule of the educated classes". The subtext is less fascistic than sectarian when alarm at a "coarsening" of Irish culture leads Yeats to admire Italian autocracy, study eugenics, or briefly endorse General O'Duffy's Blueshirts. Foster ascribes the O'Duffy enthusiasm partly to Yeats' "fear that the loss of Coole... meant the loss of his inspirationI he was prepared to... work up his own poetic energies through a willing suspension of incredulity".

This also covers the relations with women that George tolerated after Yeats' "Steinach" operation had restored sexual interest if not full sexual powers. Lady Dorothy Wellesley's English mansion compensated for Coole. But Yeats over-stretched fragile muses, fragile literary talents. Vita Sackville-West said that Yeats made Wellesley "think she could think". In Man and the Echo Yeats himself asks of the unstable Margot Ruddock: "Did words of mine put too great strain/ On that woman's reeling brain?"

Wellesley and Ruddock got into Yeats' Oxford Book of Modern Verse (1936). Wilfred Owen did not.

Aberrations apart, no modern poet has done more than Yeats to reinvent the English lyric. "International" is as dubious a critical category as "national", but Foster reminds us how Yeats' impact, like his multifarious life, criss-crossed the Irish Sea and Atlantic. Thom Gunn recalls that the 1950 reprint of Yeats' Collected Poems ended the idea that "Eliot was the modern poet... suddenly here was someone with a lot more vigour, a bigger range". The comparison is not invidious: not only because Eliot is a bit of a one-hit wonder but because Yeats' lyric sequences of the early 1920s should be considered as epoch-defining as The Waste Land . A colourful thread in The Arch-Poet follows Yeats' relationship and dialectic with Ezra Pound to the point where his Oxford anthology criticises Poundian form. The posterity-conscious Yeats sensed that Anglo-American ("modernist") narratives of modern poetry, like narratives of Irish literary history, might misrepresent him. Yet his influence has been proportional to his protean creativity (see his variegated presence in contemporary Northern Irish poetry). The larger Yeatsian legacy is the supreme value he set on poetry. Perhaps this stunning biography will accelerate the return of that unfashionable literary gyre.

Edna Longley is emeritus professor of English, Queen's University, Belfast.

W. B. Yeats: A Life: Volume 2: The Arch-Poet 1915-1939

Author - R. F. Foster
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Pages - 798
Price - £30.00
ISBN - 0 19 818465 4

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