W.B. Yeats: A Life Volume II: The Arch-Poet, 1915-1939
by R.F. Foster
Oxford. 798 pp. $45.00
W. H. Auden was being charitable when he said that William Butler Yeats, by common consent one of the greatest poets if not the greatest poet of the 20th century, was “silly like us.” Affected, credulous, obsessed with the occult, politically reactionary, and often downright foolish, Yeats was unlike anybody; and he was not so much silly as half-mad.
Roy Foster, a professor of Irish history at Oxford, has written the most recent and perhaps the most ambitious biography of Yeats, a scholarly two-volume work of about 1,400 pages in all. Foster is also an authorized biographer, and has thus had access to more information than anyone before him. This he has tried to organize between four covers.
In the introduction to the first volume, The Apprentice Mage (1997), Foster bluntly explained his approach to his subject: “Most biographical studies of [Yeats] are principally about what he wrote; this one is principally about what he did.” By giving just the facts, in chronological order, he would, he suggested, avoid woolly literary speculation and cloudy psychologizing at once. And the facts assembled by Foster in that first volume did indeed show the unfolding development of a day-dreaming young poet into a confident man of letters—without, however, acknowledging the essential, abiding mysteriousness of the process.
In this newly released second volume, Foster covers Yeats’s much more interesting late years from 1915 to 1939. Here once again his approach is to shadow the facts closely. Moving year by year, he tells us what Yeats was reading and writing, who his mistresses were, where he was traveling, and so forth. Throughout, he emphasizes actions rather than the poet’s inner life or work.
At the start of the book, in 1915, Yeats is a fifty-year-old bachelor anxious to marry and start a family. Since the age of twenty-three, he had been in love with Maud Gonne, a zealous political activist of independent means. Unfortunately Gonne had declined to return his sentiments. An art-hating ideologue, she was, to say the least, an incompatible choice for Yeats, although her cryptic snubs did inspire many of his most romantic poems. In 1916, he proposed marriage, not for the first time, and was once again refused. Soon thereafter his thoughts turned to Maud’s daughter Iseult, then an introspective and troubled girl of twenty-one (she had been molested by her father). Unsure of her feelings, she, too, turned him down.
Undeterred, Yeats now proposed for the third time that year—to Georgie Hyde Lees, a sensible girl of twenty-four from a well-to-do family. Although he was not in love with her, he thought of Georgie as a kind, considerate woman, and an added bonus was that she shared his interest in the occult. At the start of their honeymoon, suffering pangs of remorse, Yeats luckily discovered that Georgie had a facility for “automatic writing”—i.e., retrieving messages from the spirit world; the ardent nature of the messages that issued from her pen (with his solicitous help) seem to have saved the honeymoon.
Foster tries hard to keep a straight face in writing about Georgie and Yeats’s occult activities. Like many middle-aged women of the era, Yeats appears to have consulted the spirit world less for metaphysical knowledge than for humdrum advice. In a typical session, he would instruct Georgie to inquire what the spirits wanted him to do that day; most often, they suggested a little more action in the bedroom. The technique, perhaps deserving of revival in an advice column today, did a great deal to make their marriage a happy one.
If Yeats’s private life was busy in these years, so too was his political life. Born of an Irish Protestant family, many of whose members had been staunch unionists and partisans of the British Empire, he came to favor Irish independence and made friends with nationalists. These were famously divided between advocates of violent revolution and supporters of a “home rule” bill to be wrung from the British parliament. Yeats, who was nonviolent by nature, favored the parliamentary route. His nationalist passions were in any case focused mainly on creating a distinctly Irish literature—a project to which he contributed poems and plays, often not his best, drawing on Irish folklore and myth (The Wanderings of Oisin, for example)—and strong cultural institutions like the Irish Academy of Letters and the Abbey Theater.
But he was deeply shaken by Britain’s cruel response to the 1916 Easter Rising—a nationalist sedition that began with the seizure of a few administrative buildings in Dublin and ended with the capture and wholesale execution of the plotters, many of whom Yeats had known. The episode inspired one of his most famous poems, “Easter 1916,” with its even more famous lines: “All changed, changed utterly / A terrible beauty is born.”
Years later, when 26 counties of Ireland were granted independence from Britain, Yeats was given an honorary appointment to the senate of the new Irish Free State. During his term, he earned a reputation as a liberal in artistic matters, battling with some success for the cause of intellectual freedom, and also acted the part of the worldly European, losing a tough fight with his provincial Catholic colleagues (whom, to complicate matters, he considered his social inferiors) over a proposed constitutional ban on divorce. But in his correspondence, in his lectures, and in his vision of the proper society—partly expressed in an ignorant work called, appropriately, A Vision—he gave free rein to his deep reactionary sympathies.
Foster does not hold Yeats’s opinions against him, however indefensible some of them now seem. He was, for example, a supporter of eugenics, and he was also an odious snob, at one time writing a song with the lyrics, “What’s equality—muck in the yard:/ Historic Nations grow/ From above to below.” Indeed, he never had much use for liberal democracy, declaring in a speech to undergraduates during a visit to the United States that “I would go back to the Middle Ages, to the time of Thomas Aquinas.”
In his great poem “The Second Coming” (1919), Yeats foresaw that a violent new ideology—fascism—might come to crush democracy, a premonition for which in retrospect he has been given enormous credit. But George Orwell, for one, thought that, given the choice, Yeats might have preferred fascism to democracy. In light of his social attitudes and his admiration for Mussolini, it is certainly possible. Happily, he managed to keep free of political parties for the remainder of his years.
No matter how busy his public life, Yeats the private man always pops back before us in Foster’s pages. We see him as a white-haired libertine, paunchy, impotent, but enjoying a radiant “second puberty” as he chases after younger women and generally makes an ass of himself. In 1934, nearing seventy, he eagerly underwent the “Steinach operation,” a medical procedure promising “sexual rejuvenation” that in fact was no more than a vasectomy. In Yeats, it inspired some lurid dalliances with young beauties like Ethel Mannin and Margot Ruddock, affairs that were condoned by Georgie though they made Yeats a more distant and detached father. Three of his mistresses stood vigil by his deathbed in 1939.
This volume is titled The Arch Poet, but (as my brief summary suggests) its main focus is elsewhere than on Yeats’s poetry. That is a shame, for if Yeats was more than a poet, he was at his best as a poet, and in the final two decades of his life he published collections that ensure his immortality: The Tower, The Winding Stair, and Parnell’s Funeral. These are major works, the poems full of imaginative force, inspired imagery, elegant rhythms, astonishing and profound turns of phrase. One of my favorites, “What Then?,” expresses Yeats’s despair at old age:
All his happier dreams came
A small old house, wife,
Grounds where plum and
Poets and Wits about him drew;
“What then?” sang Plato’s ghost,
In addition to delicately rueful lyrics like this one, the later Yeats wrote explicitly political verse (“Come Gather Round Me Parnellites”), poems featuring odd personae (“The Lady’s First Song”), searching metaphysical meditations (“Among School Children”), and further verse re-workings of Irish myths (as in “Cuchulain Comforted”).
Foster, who is far from being a literary critic, dutifully places the late collections in context, briskly summarizing their contents and quoting liberally. By sticking loyally to his historical method, he successfully avoids a number of longstanding literary quarrels, including over the question of whether even Yeats’s best poems are rendered somehow imperfect by his tendency to use inflated or affected language.
Affectation, at any rate, is one fault that Foster regrettably shares with his subject. Both volumes of this biography are marred by his habit of sprinkling his prose with Latin and especially French ornaments, so that whole pages dissolve in terms and phrases like faits accomplis, déclassé, ci-devant, demi-mondaines, de haut en bas. As for Foster’s English, it is serviceable enough, though it can run to the turgid and the academic, favoring farfetched terms and circumlocutions over simple nouns and active verbs.
A more pressing issue is whether these books help make Yeats less mysterious as a man and a poet. A very short answer would be that they do, by sheer dint of the many facts they reveal about his life. But the lamentable thing is how little Foster does to evaluate or interpret those facts. Yeats was a complex genius, and the facts do not speak for themselves.
True, Foster does not commit the sin of most Yeats biographers, which has been either to ignore or to explain away his subject’s reactionary opinions, his pretensions, his credulous occultism, and his foolishness. It is, after all, precisely in these “silly” aspects of Yeats’s character that one can begin to discern some broad connections among his life, his work, and his thought. But facts alone cannot draw those connections for us, even over the expanse of two large volumes.