A review of W.B. Yeats: A Life—Vol. II: The Arch-Poet, by R.F. Foster

The other day I had lunch with Maureen Murphy of Hofstra, who knows a very great deal indeed about William Butler Yeats. I mentioned to her the question posed by my colleague Jeffrey Hart, in his own review of this book (National Review, February 23, 2004): Was Yeats the greatest poet of the twentieth century? I said that after reading through the Collected Poems again for the first time in many years, I was asking myself the same question in all earnestness. What did Maureen think about it? She smiled and nodded rather Irishly—I mean, leaving me unsure as to whether I should take this to be affirmation. I persisted: Did she think Yeats was really the greatest poet of the 20th century? Was he at least in the running? Maureen leaned across the table. "Never mind 'in the running,'" she declared, "He was it."

On further reflection, I agree: Yeats was it. I have had to overcome some inward resistance in order to arrive at this view myself. I was swept off my feet by Yeats's verse at a very young age, around 17, when of course the early romantic poems got my particular attention. (Was there ever a bookish, romantically-inclined adolescent who was not swept off his feet by those poems?) The unhappy consequence was that I came to regard Yeats as a guilty pleasure, to be put away with other childish things, and so I neglected him for a long time. Now, reading him again with full attention in middle age, I see his genius plainly. I see, too, that not only was Yeats's art of a very high order, it maintained its force across his entire lifetime with hardly a pause. Extraordinarily for a poet—especially a romantic poet—Yeats never "went off." His later verse is as good, though of course in a very different way, as his earlier. Even my own unformed youthful judgment seems to have grasped this. I recall thinking that "Leda and the Swan" was exquisitely beautiful. So it is; yet it was written in 1923, the poet's 59th year. "Lapis Lazuli," written 13 years later still—just three years before Yeats died—is as good as anything he wrote, is in fact thought by William O'Donnell, author of The Poetry of William Butler Yeats, to be his finest poem. Even when bemoaning his own faded powers, in the last year or two of his life, Yeats could not help but turn his lament into a superb poem, "The Circus Animals' Desertion," with those beautiful closing lines:

…Now that my ladder's gone

I must lie down where all the ladders start

In the foul rag and bone shop of the heart.

Who was he, this tremendous genius of English verse? The fullest answer anyone could wish for can now be found in Roy Foster's two-volume biography. This project was originally commissioned by Oxford University Press in 1974. The historian and biographer (and Provost of Trinity College, Dublin) F.S.L. Lyons took it up in the first place, but was still deep in the necessary research work at the time of his early death in 1983. Roy Foster then assumed the burden. A fluent, careful, and imaginative writer with a comprehensive understanding of Irish history—his 1988 book Modern Ireland is a minor classic, which I have been recommending for years to people seeking some basic understanding of that country—Foster has acquitted himself magnificently. His first volume appeared in 1997. Here is the second at last, and a great poet now has a full biography worthy of his greatness.

This second volume begins its narrative in 1915, Yeats's 51st year, and takes us to the poet's death on that "dark cold day"—it was January 28, 1939—immortalized by W.H. Auden in his obituary poem. This span of time contains most of those aspects of the poet's life one is curious about, the political and the personal as well as the literary. How did this constitutional nationalist weather the 1916 Easter Rising, the Anglo-Irish War, and the Civil War? What is the inside story of his marriage, at age 52, to an Englishwoman 27 years younger? What kind of a politician was he? (Yeats served in the Senate of the Irish Free State, 1922-28.) Did he really flirt with fascism in the early 1930s? How did he come to make those eccentric selections for the 1936 edition of The Oxford Book of Modern Verse? What caused the estrangement from Ezra Pound? What happened to Maud Gonne, the revolutionary virago to whom the early love poems were addressed?

* * *

Let us take the political aspect first. Yeats had the great good fortune, and glory, to be present at the birth of a nation, modern Ireland—a nation whose consciousness he himself, through work on behalf of nationalist enterprises like the Abbey Theatre, had done much to form. The birth was a painful one, with an exceptionally brutal guerilla war against the British, 1919-21, and then a bitter civil war, 1922-23. At the end of it all the new nation's direction was still unsure. What kind of nationalism was to sustain her? Was it to be an ethnic nationalism, based on blood and race? Or a civic nationalism, in which patriots of every faith and lineage might join? The argument has still not been conclusively settled even today. Radical republicans of the Gerry Adams type preach the universalist civic nationalism of Wolfe Tone for public consumption; but it is all too easy to suspect—and the memoirs of IRA defector Sean O'Callaghan confirm—that what the ordinary IRA foot-soldier objects to in the unionists of Ulster is not that they are tools of British Imperialism, but that they are insufficiently Irish to belong to the pure ethno-state of extremist-republican fantasy. In the euro-ized, globalized Ireland of today (I see there are now seven mosques in the Republic) the ethno-nationalist cause is surely a lost one, but it is still taking lives for all that.

As a member of an old Ascendancy family, Yeats could hardly be anything but a civic nationalist. His own inclinations, philosophical and artistic, anyway drew him in that direction. In the early years of the new Ireland, though, the trend was all the other way. This was especially so after Éamon de Valera came to power in 1932 and began to lay the foundations of the poverty-stricken, emigration-sapped, culturally-obscurantist, wellnigh-theocratic "confessional republic" that was Ireland through the middle decades of the last century. It is as well that Yeats did not live to see that. His pronouncements on Irish politics are uniformly sensible and generous in spirit.

I have no hope of seeing Ireland united in my time, or of seeing Ulster won in my time; but I believe it will be won in the end, and not because we fight it, but because we govern this country well. We can do that, if I may be permitted as an artist and writer to say so, by creating a system of culture which will represent the whole of this country and which will draw the imagination of the young towards it.

This kind of thing did not sit well with republicans of the sterner kind. At the height of the Civil War, just before Christmas 1922, the Yeatses' Dublin house was fired upon, in spite of there being armed guards posted outside. "One bullet came into the nursery and knocked plaster out of the wall, hitting (though not injuring) George [Yeats's wife], who was soothing Anne [their daughter] on her knee." Yeats took it in his stride: "Mary Ann [the housemaid] is ill & scared & will go home for a while," he wrote to a friend, "but George & I we are quite cheerful & I dont think the children mind." (Yeats was ungrammatical in his correspondence, and a terrible speller.)

As for the flirtation with Eoin O'Duffy's Blueshirt movement, which Foster describes with fine precision as "para-fascist," it amounted to almost nothing. All his life Yeats had believed in rule by an educated, cultured elite. As his friend, Blueshirt organizer Dermott MacManus, noted: "Yeats was not a fascist, but he was an authoritarian." In none of his published work, correspondence, or recorded talk is there any trace of antisemitic feeling. Certainly he had no illusions about National Socialism. When, in February 1934, a neighbor's dog killed one of the Yeatses' hens, they complained, and the dog was put down, along with three others. "Note the Hitler touch," remarked Yeats, on being told this.

The "silliness" that Auden noted consisted mostly in an attraction towards the occult. Though having no interest in organized religion, Yeats was all his life preoccupied by séances, spirit voices, astral projections, ectoplasm, ouija boards, oriental mysticism, and so on. As one of his friends commented: "Willy believes in every supernatural being except God." Foster deploys all this flapdoodle with a gentle hand, turning it into a sort of light relief to the grander themes of Yeats's life. The poet's young wife George, a practiced medium, played on his occultist preoccupations with great skill, sometimes to manipulate him in petty ways, but much more importantly as part of a deliberate campaign to help keep alive his poetic gift. They held séances together—hundreds of them, with "instructors" from the spirit world speaking to Yeats through his wife by automatic writing. Foster reports that: "From 5 November [in 1917—that is to say, 16 days into the marriage] a vast body of automatic script accrued; this has since been devotedly examined by a phalanx of scholars…. The sessions took place in the evening, continuing until the medium's energy gave out—a juncture usually signalled by a helpful warning from the void." 

I think my favorite among these diverting passages on Yeats's spiritual explorations is the story of the gaseous Swami. Yeats has taken it upon himself to make a translation of mystical Hindu writings with the assistance of Shri Purohit Swami.

By early April [of 1936] he was working on the Upanishads again, drily observed by George. The collaborative murmurings of WBY and the Swami were punctuated by the flatulence of the holy man, who ate great quantitites of rice. "So you would hear them saying something like 'the ineffable wisdom of the blessed sushupti' and the next moment you'd hear…a loud rrrppff from the Swami. Or W.B. would be saying 'the deep and dazzling darkness of the Eternal Mind,' followed by rrreeeppp! again from the Swami."

The truly astonishing thing about all this occultist buncombe is not that Yeats was so interested in it, but that it so little affected his verse. It is there, all right, if you go looking for it, especially in the "passionate metaphysics" (Yeats's own phrase) of the later verse, yet there is hardly any poem—I do not believe there is even one—whose success depends on an understanding of that metaphysics. Yeats's poem "The Second Coming," for example, is one of the best-known and most-quoted of the 20th century. But what is that "gyre" in the first line? I had always vaguely supposed that it just referred to the upward widening-spiral flight of the falcon. Not so: it alludes to one of an interpenetrating pair of moving cones, whose waxing and waning intersections model the great cyclical movements of history. (I hope I have got that right.) Did anyone ever enjoy this poem the more for knowing that? I doubt it. It is as if the amplitude of Yeats's poetic gift was so great as to drown out his own intellectual enthusiasms, so dazzling bright as to shine out clear through them, leaving them wraith-like and insubstantial by contrast.

* * *

Yeats's ideas about other people's poetry were expressed in his introduction to the 1936 Oxford Book of Modern Verse, and embodied in his selections for that anthology. He quoted with approval Goethe's remark that "the poet needs all philosophy but must keep it out of his work." He was an unapologetic romantic: "[N]othing is poetry that does not run in one's head because of the sweetness or majesty of the sound. Owing to the struggle for new subject matter the younger poets today lack that sound." The Oxford anthology contains nothing from "Prufrock" or The Waste Land, a decision that seemed outrageous to many at the time, but which I think looks less so now, and will look much less so still after another 67 years.

As well as this wealth of private detail, and coverage of large public issues that are in many cases still with us today, Roy Foster has succeeded in giving us the man. Here is Yeats in all his aspects and seasons. The impression one comes away with, setting down this splendid biography at last, is of a good and decent man. I nurse the private notion (it hardly rises to the level of a theory) that while bohemian rules-don't-apply-to-me egotists of the type drawn so memorably by Paul Johnson in his book Intellectuals—Shelley, Hemingway, and so on—have certainly given us much, the truly towering geniuses are solid citizens, morally centered, and, with due allowance for the minor foibles of genius, fundamentally bourgeois. 

Yeats conforms to this notion. He was a filial son, a loyal sibling, a reliable friend, a brave and conscientious patriot, and a loving father. He was essentially uxorious, too; his few mild lapses in this respect being in line with his aristocratic/romantic ideals, ideals his wife understood and tolerated. He was kind and forbearing towards his admirers. For example, he came to detest "The Lake Isle of Innisfree," written in 1888, through having had to read it so many times to audiences; yet he went on gamely giving it to them until nearly the end of his life, because he knew how much they loved it. (And still do. When, in 1997, the London serious-music radio station Classic FM polled their listeners to nominate their favorite poems, "Innisfree" ranked No. 17, ahead of Shakespeare's Sonnet Eighteen, "Ode to a Nightingale," and "Kubla Khan." "The Cloths of Heaven" and "When You are Old" also made it into the top 100.) A good man, an admirable man, for all the silliness. And yes, yes!—William Butler Yeats was it.