Celtic Pride

Yeats’ literary nation-building.

W.B. Yeats: A Life
1: The Apprentice Mage 1865-1914
By R.F. Foster
Oxford University Press; 640 pages; $35

William Butler Yeats liked to organize his life into zones and areas, but he was a biased cartographer of these regions. On Yeats’ map of himself, there are no obscure towns, and all roads lead to Rome. His was, as he saw it, a continuous poetic journey, aided here and there by slaves or muses–Arthur Symons, the symbolist who introduced him to the poetry of Paul Verlaine and Stéphane Mallarmé in the 1890s; Maud Gonne, who made Irish nationalism romantic; Lady Augusta Gregory, an Irish Protestant aristocrat who collaborated with Yeats in his search of old Irish folklore and legends; and Ezra Pound, who stiffened Yeats’ soft “Celtic” verse with a little modernist geometry.

In his later verse and in many of his letters, Yeats interpreted those friendships as inevitable. They fed his destiny, which was, as he saw it, to be Ireland’s greatest poet. Critics and biographers have too often collaborated in this legend, separating their accounts of Yeats into green “developments” and golden “phases.” The result is a fairly schematic narrative: The young hothead of the early Celtic Revivalist years produces lovely impracticalities until 1914, when Ireland explodes; he learns about reality, becomes a great poet of civil war, and a modernist to boot; after 1925, or thereabouts, he becomes one of those “monuments of unageing intellect” about whom he writes in “Sailing to Byzantium”–the splendid complainer of the late verse. Even Richard Ellman, the poet’s finest biographer before Roy Foster, followed Yeats’ own division of himself into two opposing selves–the great bard and the man who sat down to breakfast each morning.

In this superb biography, Foster unscrambles destiny and complicates it into life. The most distinguished Irish historian alive, Foster floods his Yeats with historical detail. He is less interested in literary exegesis than in historical accident; indeed, his criticism of the poems is a little spare. But he attends to the chaos of Yeats’ early life, a bohemian shuffle during which he was at the mercy of his improvident peripatetic father, the painter J.B. Yeats. He gives a deep description of the tensions and ambiguities of Yeats’ shabby-genteel Protestant origins. His sketch of the hierarchical and socially touchy Dublin of the 1880s is almost novelistic–something like the caste-frozen Bombay of some contemporary Indian fiction.

How silly was Yeats? Auden uses the adjective in his elegy for the poet, and it is supposed to include all of us: “You were silly like us.” But Yeats had a singular silliness, which is what makes his early poetry so patchy. Bounced between London and Dublin, he was not at one school long enough to collect a rounded education. Throughout his life, he fed on scraps–in particular, Irish literature, and magic. In the 1880s, he was snared by Madame Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, the eccentric Russian who invented theosophy–a blend of Eastern mysticism, occult optimism, and universal brotherhood. He never really escaped. When he shaved off his beard in 1889, Blavatsky (then living in London) lamented the loss of “the mesmeric force that collects in a beard.”

Yeats remained a devotee of various forms of spiritualism and mesmerism. Theosophy was the craze of the age and, like D.H. Lawrence, who had a keen interest in the occult, Yeats was on the creative qui vive. But he seemed to swallow far too much tainted water. He believed almost all of it. He confessed that he saw no reason not to believe in the actual existence of Irish fairies and goblins. A faith in magic, in the spirit world, became his aesthetic: He denounced naturalism, fought George Bernard Shaw’s “mechanistic” vision (he once had a dream in which Shaw appeared, clicking like a sewing-machine and smiling insanely), and proposed a poetry of dream and Celtic twilight that would shun the hustle of the world. He would “live alone in the bee-loud glade,” as he put it in “The Lake Isle of Innisfree” (1890), one of the early poems that established his renown.

This perfumed hermeticism produced early verse that is easy to love and hard to like. It is poetry to which one swooned as an adolescent. Looking again at the poetry written between 1889 and 1914, one notices the scattered petals of familiar flowers, the secondhand imagery, the automatic despondency (far too much “ancient sorrow”), the druids, fairies, hermits, and witches. Goodness, here is something called “Druid vapour”! Too often, the poetry yields no intellectual sap. One longs for Browning to clear the mist.

But Yeats’ talent was huge: It survived by consuming its own weaknesses. Yeats effectively shut down his Celtic dream world in 1914 with the starker, more acute verse of Responsibilities. He let the realities of Ireland’s civil war invade and occupy his poetic world. More than this, he used the earlier romanticism of the verse as a wainscot against which he might scuff his heels: “Romantic Ireland’s dead and gone,” he wrote in “September 1913.” His later poetry tolled this bell again and again. Yet this “Romantic Ireland” was largely Yeats’ own poetic creation in the first place. He turned his own earlier verse into a nation at the very moment of its abandonment. It was a brilliant feat of personal expansion.

Besides, the early poetry is tougher than it seems. There are realities, homely details, and gorgeous originalities alongside the more sentimental visions. If Yeats has three hermits meet on a beach, one of them is not concerned with being a seer, but is scratching himself–“rummaging for a flea.” One is never far from “Porter-drinkers’ randy laughter.” Or from lines that fly beyond accountability: “the leopard-coloured trees”; “For God goes by with white footfall.”

Foster’s biography shows us this double-masked poet, a dreamer who never strayed very far from reality. Above all, Foster is ruthless about Yeats’ ruthlessness: He shows how Yeats went about building modern Irish literature in Dublin and in London at the end of the 19th century, and how Irish goblins and fairies were foot soldiers in that campaign. Irish mythology had to be dragged into Irish poetry. Yeats was energetically shameless in this regard. He wrote kind reviews of books on Irish history and mythology by his friend Lady Gregory. He demolished, in print, rivals and competitors. He was especially harsh with his former friend Ernest Dowden, who espoused a benevolent Irish cosmopolitanism in opposition to Yeats’ literary nationalism. Between 1887 and 1892, Yeats published more than 100 items in newspapers and journals. He also wrote his long (and beautiful) poem “The Wanderings of Oisin” (1889); published, in 1895, a list of the best Irish books; edited a book of Irish verse; and, with Lady Gregory as co-worker, toured villages and towns asking peasants for their folk memories.

Very occasionally, one wishes that Foster would look up from his table of details and survey the larger literary scene. Yeats’ literary nation-building is a case in point. Foster might have attended to the poems and shown how willfully they use place-names (and in the later verse, Yeats’ famous friends’ names) to erect the mansion of Irish literature. Yeats wants to leave his “traces/ On Munster grass and Connemara skies.” Pushkin, who was building Russian poetry out of very little, did something very similar in Eugene Onegin, only 50 years before. Fernando Pessoa, almost exactly contemporary with Yeats, was doing the same thing for Portuguese literature, producing patriotic and nationalistic verse.

But Foster’s expertise is historical, and he warns us that he will write as a historian. No one is going to better him in this area. He goes behind the wrestled solemnities of the poetry to reveal the effort, the strategizing, and the silliness. We learn, for example, that on his field trips with Lady Gregory, Yeats had difficulty understanding the thick Irish accent of the peasants. The incomprehension was mutual. The subjects of this anthropology looked at Yeats’ stylish black London suit–he was always a careful, “poetic” dresser–and took him to be a proselytizing clergyman.

Above all, Foster shows us a historical actor, propelled and limited by his inheritance. Yeats was a Protestant in a Catholic country, which, Foster suggests, might have led him to overcompensate with a romantic idealization of Ireland fiercer than that of his Catholic countrymen. At the same time–and this is where Foster’s careful discriminations are so useful–Yeats hated obviously ideological poetry. He was that unfamiliar compound, a political aesthete. “Irish poets, learn your trade/ Sing whatever is well made,” he grumpily advised in 1938 in “Under Ben Bulben,” one of his very last poems. This struggle between “the marvelous and the murderous,” as Seamus Heaney has put it, is still acute in modern Irish poetry. Foster’s book is not only a fine account of Yeats’ early life; it is a subtle introduction to 20th century Irish nationalism.