Poetic licence

April 17, 1998

Huw Richards talks to reluctant revisionist Roy Foster about his role as official biographer of W.B. Yeats, 'the greatest poet in English of his time'

When, in the mid -1970s, critic and academic Denis Donoghue withdrew as official biographer to the Irish poet W.B. Yeats, he explained his decision by saying he had no desire to become like Yeats.

This response puzzles the man who now has the job, Roy Foster, Carroll professor of Irish history at Oxford University. He found the idea of method-acting biographers engaging so completely with their research that they become their subjects rather odd: "I don't see any evidence that Colin Matthew has turned into Gladstone and I don't think that I became like Charles Stewart Parnell or Randolph Churchill when I was writing about them. Just as well!" Nonetheless, it is easy to see why having one's working life dominated by the achievements of another might have a dramatic effect. American biographer Robert Caro lived for months in the most backward region of Texas in order to research the early sections of his multi-volume life of American president Lyndon Johnson. It is almost routine for authors' acknowledgements to include an apology to their family for introducing this almost tangible extra member. The biographer's family must sometimes feel like Mrs Anthony Eden, who in 1956 felt that the Suez was flowing through her front room.

Foster himself appears relaxed with the burden, although he intends to clear other research commitments in order to concentrate on volume two of the magnum opus, due in 2001. Volume one, The Apprentice Mage, published last year, left Yeats at the age of 49 - as it happens Foster's own age - in 1914, with the Easter Rising of 1916, marriage, membership of the Irish Senate, the Nobel prize and the great works of the 1920s and 1930s still in front of him.

But despite his relaxed demeanour it is possible to ruffle the professor. An academic lifetime labelled "revisionist" has left a distaste for the word, or at least the way it is used: "All historians are revisionists by definition," he points out. One interviewer irritated him by asking how Irish he was, in otherwords, equating Irishness with Catholicism. He has frequently pointed out that, though Protestant, the Yeats family never had the slightest doubt about its Irish identity. He can say the same of himself.

Yeats is a formidable subject. Foster has acknowledged that: "Yeats inspires possessiveness. Everyone feels they own a bit of him, that he means something special to them." But he has long experience in the controversies of Irish history: "I was interviewed recently by a woman who is doing an anthropology PhD and she kept on returning to this theme of how controversial Irish history is. I think she was disappointed that I didn't register more evidence of embattlement. I don't feel embattled."

He doesn't look it either, seated in his booklined room - Irish history down the long wall, British, largely Victorian, closer to the door - in Hertford College, Oxford. Yet the question was a fair one. History matters in Ireland. Foster sees this as advantageous: "It means you get good audiences for lectures and public interest in what might seem fairly specialised issues. People will read your stuff and debate it." It makes the prominent historian, if not a public figure, at least a serious contributor to the debate: "I think the idea that you have an identifiable intelligentsia is more readily accepted in Ireland than in England."

With this comes controversy, detailed and often fierce scrutiny of a historian's work and the knowledge that, to paraphrase Yeats, even if you tread softly, you are treading on somebody's myths: "In any country with a dominant close neighbour, there are numerous contested areas and issues of identity. It goes with our multiple forms of insecurity, leading to what Yeats called 'continuous quarrel and continuous apology'."

He believes both professional and public opinion are receptive to versions of Irish history at variance with the traditional nationalist narrative of the 800-year struggle against the British government, the old oppressor:

"The people who appear to mind nowadays when you question the traditional version are mostly what might be called the 'preachers', people who have a vested political interest."

Foster himself has long been impatient of the pieties of the traditional view, and has pointed out that re-examining British rule does not invariably lead to a more positive verdict. He acknowledges the seductiveness of nationalist myth - he often cites a purple passage of Fenian mysticism and asks the reader or listener to name the author. While the nationalist Padraig Pearse is the usual and obvious choice, the author was, in fact, the coolly analytical Marxist rationalist James Connolly. One of the issues confronting Foster in volume two of the biography is that of explaining why the poet swung back from the detached and slightly contemptuous view of Fenianism expressed in his debates with Pearse in 1914 to the mood that generated the poem Easter 1916, about the Fenian rising and its subsequent suppression and execution of ringleaders by the British, with its endlessly quoted line "A terrible beauty is born".

Foster was an undergraduate at Trinity College, Dublin - no longer quite the University of the Ascendancy, but still with its leavening of young Englishmen disappointed of places at Oxbridge - around half a century after Ireland's independence in 1921. The timing is significant. He notes: "50 years appears to be about the time it takes for people to be ready to interrogate received versions of history. Sunil Khilnani has made the same point about India." It is not so much a matter of the anniversary prompting retrospection, as of the passing of two generations.

Going on to a doctorate on Charles Stewart Parnell (1846-91) - as leader of the Irish party during the 1880s and a supporter of home rule, one of the key figures of the era - Foster began the work that was to earn him the revisionist label: "I looked at his family - his sisters were radical nationalists who founded the Ladies Land League - and put him into the framework of the declining and impoverished gentry. This made his politics much less illogical than they had previously been painted." Published in 1976, his biography of Parnell was followed by a life of Conservative politician Lord Randolph Churchill (1849-95).

Having established his professional reputation - he joined Birkbeck College on a one-year contract in 1974 and stayed 17 years, ending up as head of department - Foster came to wider notice with his Modern Ireland 1600-1972, which took him most of the 1980s to complete. While widely regarded as the nearest thing to a standard work the topic has, it was not quite the book he intended: "I had hoped to do for Ireland what Theodore Zeldin has done with his books on France, but I found that Ireland didn't lend itself to this. Where you can extrapolate something about French mentalities from an account of provincial life in the 19th century, you can't do the same for Ireland. There is a solidity, depth and continuity to French culture. Ours is more fluid and contested. The result was much more orthodox in approach than I originally planned."

The offer to do Yeats came from the poet's family. He got the job by mischance, when Leland Lyons, the University of Kent historian who had succeeded Donoghue as the chosen biographer, died suddenly in the mid -1980s. The decision to ask a historian rather than a literary critic to do the job came from Yeat's surviving children, in Foster's view: "exemplars of the way a literary estate should be handled." He says: "There were already plenty of literary biographies. They felt what was needed was a life as it was lived, put into the historical context of his times."

In other words, what Foster had already done with Parnell. The life, rather than the literature, is the focus. But he cites Richard Ellman's life of James Joyce as the model of what good literary biography can do in relating the two, and as well as the poetry has made considerable use of Yeats' often unconsidered prose - particularly an essay on the playwright John Millington Synge - as a source.

Correspondence is another vital source: "Not only Yeat's own correspondence. Other people wrote about Yeats endlessly, almost obsessively. How other people saw him provides an extra dimension." He admits to mixed feelings at the prospect of any more Yeats letters being discovered - a fresh cache held him up at a crucial stage in producing volume one.

Two failings he intends to avoid are the literary biographer's over-possessiveness: "Biographies of E.M. Forster that refer to him throughout as Morgan" and a tendency to over-emphasise the importance of the subject.

His advantage is that Yeat's importance needs no emphasis: "There is a real fascination in a life which is lived at the very peak of achievement. It is an extraordinary life, embattled and absorbed in history as well as being the greatest poet in English of his time - I have no doubt of that."

Thirteen years after first accepting the commission, he finds that he admires the man as well as the artist: "He had many insecurities in himself, and managed to combat them and I am constantly amazed at his ability to recover from apparently crushing blows. There is a belief in himself which becomes a certain grandiosity in later life, but is utterly admirable when he is young and poor. I think that artists live heroic lives. He shares with Joyce a commitment and belief that gave him the ability not to compromise, be driven into hack work or sell himself short."

In his own case, refusal to compromise takes the form of ferocious concern with footnotes: "If I am not careful they start to creep up the page as in Flann O'Brien's The Third Policeman." Scrupulousness also brings disappointments, such as the discovery that a photograph of Maud Gonne used in The Apprentice Mage was not as ideally timed as he had hoped: "It looked to be from around the time when she and Yeats finally consummated their relationship - and I very much wanted it to be from that time - but another copy has been found, with clear evidence that it was taken at a different time."

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