The Myth of W.B. Yeats

W.B. Yeats: A Life

Volume I: The Apprentice Mage, by R.F. Foster
Oxford University Press, 640 pp., $35.00

The Collected Letters of W.B. Yeats

Volume II: 1896-1900, edited by Warwick Gould, by John Kelly, by Deirdre Toomey
Oxford University Press, 790 pp., $75.00

W.B. Yeats was born in Dublin on June 13, 1865, the eldest child of mismatched parents. His father, John Butler Yeats, came from an Irish Protestant middle-class family much reduced in fortune and repute: he furthered the reduction by being a barrister who did not practice at the bar, a portrait painter who rarely completed a portrait, and a gentleman who cultivated a social style without adequate means. JBY, as R.F. Foster calls him, acted upon the belief, which he conveyed to his son Willie, that “a society of poor gentlemen upon whose hands time lies heavy is absolutely necessary to art and literature.” He remained improvident, except for the production of conversation, letters, speeches, and an engaging manner, all his life. WBY’s mother, Susan Mary Pollexfen, came from a Protestant trading family in Sligo: they had money enough from shipping and flour-milling, but they retained it in Sligo; it did not find its way to Susan and her debt-ridden husband. The Pollexfens, as Foster says, “were drawn to mysticism and morbidity.”

To these propensities Susan added her particular forms of discontent. She had cause. Her husband moved her and the children back and forth between London and Dublin in the dim hope of finding commissions. Susan hated London and the gregarious life he imposed. She liked Dublin only while they lived in a house in Howth—Balscadden Cottage—that reminded her of Sligo. When JBY’s financial situation got worse, she took the family back to Sligo and stayed there as long as she could. As Foster notes, “The marriage could not prosper.” JBY found his wife cruel and rancorous when she was not silently dejected. She, with more reason, judged him blatantly irresponsible.

Meanwhile WBY grew up and failed to acquire an education. His father did not approve of schooling. When JBY tried his hand at landscapes and proposed to be inspired by the vistas of Surrey, WBY joined him and went through the motions of studying geography and chemistry by wandering around the countryside. He attended his first school, the Godolphin in Hammersmith, when he was eleven and a half. “In the Lent term of 1878,” Foster records, “he was bottom, or next to it, in every subject.” He found it difficult to write and spell, and impossible to learn a foreign language. When the family came back to Dublin, he attended the Erasmus Smith High School, with no better success, and soon left to enroll at an even less demanding institution, the Metropolitan School of Art. He grew up, as Foster says, “lanky, untidy, slightly myopic and painfully thin; he was possibly tubercular.”

He was also painfully shy, a condition he tried to deal with by retreating, as in his early Symbolist poems, to vagueness and the consolations of words:

The woods of Arcady are dead,
And over is their antique joy;
Of old the world on dreaming fed;
Grey Truth is now her painted toy;
Yet still she turns her restless head …

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