BOOKS

A very public poet

W. B. YEATS: A LIFE Vol. l:The Apprentice Mage By Roy Foster

John Bemrose July 1 1997
BOOKS

A very public poet

W. B. YEATS: A LIFE Vol. l:The Apprentice Mage By Roy Foster

John Bemrose July 1 1997

A very public poet

BOOKS

Yeats filled his days with meetings—and romance

W. B. YEATS: A LIFE Vol. l:The Apprentice Mage By Roy Foster

Few writers have paid as much attention to how they appeared in the public eye as Irishman William Butler Yeats. Arguably this century’s greatest poet in English, Yeats (1865-1939) spoke and acted with elaborate affectation, and dressed like a romantic in dark cloaks and slouching hats. More important, in his poems and autobiographical writings he shaped an image of himself as lover and sage that has dominated his readers’ perceptions of him ever since. Even his biographers have largely succumbed to the Yeatsian spell, creating portraits that are so idealized and esthetically pleasing that they scarcely seem true.

Now, however, Irish historian Roy Foster has offered up a different sort of Yeats in his enthralling new biography. The first of a projected two volumes—it breaks off in 1914, when Yeats was 49—Foster’s book will no doubt be interpreted by some as a debunking of the Yeatsian myth.

And certainly there is much here that Yeats might cringe to see written about in so much detail, from his notorious vanity to his awkward sexual adventures (he was a virgin until nearly 30). But on the whole, Foster has deepened appreciation of Yeats’s achievement—and he has done it by creating a thorough, almost exhausting picture of Yeats’s day-to-day existence. Foster’s Yeats is an intensely social and political animal, deeply involved in the gritty detail of Ireland’s struggle for independence from Britain—and at the centre of the crucial efforts to build an Irish national theatre.

In other words, this is a Yeats who spent a lot of his time in meetings, a harried, letterwriting, memo-buried Yeats who often scarcely had time for poetry, let alone for earning a meagre living as a freelance journalist and lecturer. Foster’s Yeats is also far more encumbered with the sticky strands of human relationships than his self-wrought image as a poetic loner would imply. Take, for example, his connection to Maud Gonne,

the beautiful Irish patriot with whom Yeats fell hopelessly in love in his early 20s and who—despite her long refusal to sleep with him—became his muse for decades afterwards. In the lyric “Is No Second Troy,” Yeats compares her to the immortal Helen, but it is fascinating to read Foster on what a confused, suffering, queerly grandiose figure she actually was—and how Yeats helped her when her marriage to drunken Irish nationalist John MacBride fell apart in 1904. Foster—trying to end a long controversy—

speculates that Gonne and the poet finally became lovers then, though their physical relationship did not last: Gonne disliked sex, and Yeats, it appears, was not very good at it.

Foster’s study offers much new detail about all the people Yeats immortalized in his work, including his patron, Lady Gregory. But he fails to create a sense of Yeats’s psychology—of the inner dynamics that drove him to turn his life into artifice. On the other hand, Foster has made the workaday Yeats clear as never before. That the poet was able to transform such a clogged web of commitments into the purity of high art now seems the very essence of his genius.

JOHN BEMROSE