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The Rescue of W.B. Yeats

The story of W.B. Yeats’s life, Roy Foster observes, “raises immediate and pressing questions about the relationship between everyday life and creative work.” In fact, the poet’s biography is an overwhelming refutation of his insistence that “The intellect of man is forced to choose/Perfection of the life, or of the work,” since he both lived magnificently and produced one of the greatest bodies of poetic work of the modern age. Of course, the dictum is flawed anyway, perfection being beyond the intellect of man, yet the lines persuade nevertheless, as so often in Yeats, by the force of their rhetoric and the harshness of their music. What the poet carried over from the mistiness of the early, Celtic Twilight years into the ebullience and transcendent plain-spokenness of his final period, the period covered in Foster’s second and final volume of the Life, was a calculated disregard for the merely actual. He knew the necessity for myth, and where he could not find myth preexisting, he invented.

Foster has put some fifteen years of unremitting and surely at times exhausting labor into this biography. He took over the task from F.S.L. Lyons, who died in 1983 after devoting ten years of research and writing to the project, and whose widow made the material amassed by her husband “unconditionally available” to his successor. Foster’s first volume, The Apprentice Mage, which appeared in 1997, was in general favorably received, although more than one critic grumbled at what was seen as an overemphasis on Yeats’s historical role at the expense of the poetry. Foster, it was pointed out, is, as was his teacher F.S.L. Lyons, a political and not a literary historian.

Volume II, the author informs us, “continues and completes themes laid out in The Apprentice Mage: notably the needs created by early emotional insecurity, the desire to achieve wholeness and pattern in life and work, and the complex relationship between the poet and his country’s history.” Yet it is clearly apparent that he has heeded those criticisms of the first volume. Now the poetry is set firmly at the center of the narrative.1 If sometimes Foster’s readings of the poems emit a faint whiff of midnight oil, they are as close as any critic could wish, and as penetrating. This is triumphantly a life of the poet.

The volume opens with a necessarily somewhat low-keyed chapter dealing mainly with Yeats’s ventures into Noh drama. Although his experiments in the form are a testament to the breadth and adventurousness of his questing imagination, the work itself is not among his most interesting—although the ritual stylization of Noh procedures would continue to be a significant influence on his work to the end of his life, and not only his stage work. It is 1915, and Yeats, about to turn fifty, has returned from Dublin and Sligo to reestablish the patterns of his life in England, at his London flat in Woburn Buildings and lodging with Ezra Pound at Stone Cottage in Ashdown Forest. As Foster emphasized in his first volume, Yeats liked to keep one foot on either side of the Irish Sea, and despite all his nationalist proclamations might early on have settled in London and become to all intents and purposes an English poet, had he not had the genius to see that Ireland, and the forging of the Yeatsian myth of Ireland, was his true destiny, and the deepest source of poetic inspiration.

Life at Stone Cottage, despite the fiery personality of his host, was tranquil and productive. He read randomly—“Norse sagas, Doughty’s Travels in Arabia Deserta, and Bram Stoker’s Dracula“—and wrote productively—Pound reported five Yeats poems submitted to Poetry magazine and three more still in his desk—and brooded, as always, on his love for Maud Gonne, chronic and impossible, but poetically sustaining, and increasingly irritating to his friends and present lovers. He was also burdened with the financial care of his ne’er-do-well but well-loved painter father, pleasantly whiling away his final years in New York, still embarking on grand but never-to-be-completed artistic enterprises, and writing marvelous letters to his grown-up children in Ireland. In one such, to Yeats’s brother Jack, the painter, the old man sturdily defended the poet as he developed and deepened a harsh new poetic voice in the early day of his late period:

A man of genius should be like a young boy who is never, never and never will be a grown up. He must have a new style & new methods. Not for fashion’s sake, but because he has outgrown the old ways. People are offended with Willie because he won’t go on writing Oisins & lyrics. They are fools for their pains & I anathematise them.

WBY—the form by which Foster refers to the poet throughout—reciprocated his father’s support by coming to an agreement with the New York lawyer and collector John Quinn whereby Quinn would pay a monthly allowance to Yeats père in exchange for a regular supply of WBY’s manuscripts; the old man placidly accepted the arrangement, being, as Foster puts it with elegant dryness, “courteously prepared to be as dependent as ever.” By this and other means WBY, amid outbursts of justified resentment and frustration, continued to keep his father in, if not the luxuries to which he was unaccustomed, at least the essentials of a not uncomfortable life until the old man’s death in 1922.

Yeats himself was acutely aware of his unmarried and, more importantly, his childless state. The Easter Rising of 1916, led by a small band of romantic nationalists who knew their venture in arms would fail in the short term but triumph in the long, had taken him by surprise, not only refocusing his attention on Irish politics but stirring up old passions, not least his passion for Maud Gonne, who was and would remain an implacable enemy of the English2 and exulted in the blood sacrifice of the Rising. By now, however, Yeats’s fancy was turning heavily toward Gonne’s daughter Iseult, a neurasthenic, self-destructive, would-be ar- tist. It is unlikely that this young woman cared in any deep way for Yeats: years afterward she told Yeats’s biographer Richard Ellmann that she had considered “keep[ing] Yeats about as her mother had done.”

Luckily for Yeats, he was rescued, or rescued himself, from this queasy, Jamesian triangle through the person of the twenty-four-year-old Georgie Hyde-Lees, whom he had met as far back as 1911, in the company of her mother, at tea one afternoon at the home of Yeats’s sometime lover Olivia Shakespear. Georgie was lively, self-confident, and highly educated—she was fluent in Latin and spoke most of the major European languages, had read the works of such mystico-philosophers as Plotinus, Raymond Lull, and Pico della Mirandola—and, most importantly, was deeply interested in spiritualism.3 Although he did not realize it straightaway, Georgie, or George, as Yeats rechristened her, was an ideal mate for him. They were both members of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, into which Yeats had introduced her, although she quickly overtook him, climbing through the complex stages of magical expertise with ease, so that when eventually they withdrew from the semisecret society there was only one degree of expertise separating them.

Yeats proposed to George in September 1917—despite his friend Lady Gregory’s frostily expressed reservations on the match—and they were wed the following month in a London register office. This “occult marriage,” as another recent Yeats biographer, Terence Brown,4 calls it, got off to a disastrous start. The nuptials were hardly concluded when Yeats came down with severe stomach cramps, and took to his bed at his flat in Woburn Buildings. Undaunted, his young bride immediately assumed the role of nurse and secretary, cooking soothing broths for the poet and writing letters at his dictation. When he was well enough, they moved to a hotel in Ashdown Forest to begin their honeymoon. Now came a letter from Iseult Gonne, wishing the couple well and referring to George, prophetically, as it would turn out, as a sphinx. This rearing of Iseult’s handsome head threw Yeats into another nervous crisis, in which he blamed himself bitterly for having by this marriage betrayed three women, Maud Gonne and her daughter, and his new wife. In the poem “Owen Aherne and His Dancers,” written at the time, the poet’s heart asks plaintively:

How could she mate with fifty years that was so wildly bred?
Let the cage bird and the cage bird mate and the wild bird mate in the wild.’

Help came, perhaps unsurprisingly, from the spirit world. Here is Yeats’s account of what happened:

On the afternoon of October 24th 1917, four days after my marriage, my wife surprised me by attempting automatic writing. What came in disjointed sentences, in almost illegible writing, was so exciting, sometimes so profound, that I persuaded her to give an hour or two day after day to the unknown writer, and after some half-dozen such hours offered to spend what remained of life explaining and piecing together those scattered sentences. “No,” was the answer, “we have come to give you metaphors for poetry.”5

There has been endless speculation on the nature of this “automatic writing,” much of it centering on the question of whether it was indeed automatic, or merely a young woman’s desperate attempt to save a marriage that was faltering before it had properly begun. George’s biographer Ann Saddlemyer maintains a scrupulously neutral position, observing that

we can safely acknowledge what critics…have always known: the “Wisdom of Two” [as she called the writing] was constructed by George on a foundation of shared knowledge and experience of which [Yeats’s] previous writing and study played no small a part.

Although Foster too in his gentlemanly way is indulgent of George as sphinx and seer, it is apparent that he has no doubt that she was, not to put too fine a point upon the matter, making it all up. However, this does not blind him to George’s profoundly important role in Yeats’s poetical life:

What remains astonishing is the depth, ingenuity, and oracular confidence of the bizarre wisdoms she imparted. From her side, the phenomenon is convincing evidence of her powerful mind and wide reading. From his, it reveals a good deal about what he wanted to know, and what he wished to be true. This applied not only to the voices from the void and his belief in the possibility of two minds sharing access to a common thought, but to the dilemmas of his personal life.

Certainly, Yeats found in George a rich source of “metaphors for poetry”—and he used them in the poetry that he made in the twenty-odd years that remained to him following his marriage. The extraordinary combination of spiritualism, political extremism, and sexual passion, all channeled through a style hard as stones, that marks the work of the 1920s and 1930s made for a synthesis of power and resourcefulness unmatched in twentieth-century poetry. One of the greatest of his late poems, “Byzantium” (1930), blends all his visions and obsessions into a series of unforgettable images:

At midnight on the Emperor’s pavement flit
Flames that no faggot feeds, nor steel has lit,
Nor storm disturbs, flames begotten of flame,
Where blood-begotten spirits come
And all complexities of fury leave,
Dying into a dance,
An agony of trance,
An agony of flame that cannot singe a sleeve.

In their years together Yeats and George lived variously in Oxford, London, Italy, the West of Ireland, and Dublin. Before they were married Yeats had, to the gentle amusement of his family, purchased a “castle” in County Galway not far from Coole Park, the emblematic Big House inhabited by Lady Gregory. Thoor Ballylee, as he named the tower-house, was not much more than a square stone tower with a cottage attached. When George first saw it in 1918 she fell in love with it, and at once set about turning it into a habitable home for herself and her husband and, eventually, her two children. Although they spent increasingly less time at Ballylee—the castle was frequently flooded, the walls oozed damp, the chimneys smoked—the tower became a vital eminence in Yeats’s poetic landscape, and the inspiration for many of the poems in what is surely his greatest single volume, The Tower, published in 1928,6 containing between one set of covers such masterpieces as “Sailing to By-zantium,” “Meditations in Time of Civil War,” “Leda and the Swan,” and “Am- ong School Children.”

Later the couple bought a fine old Georgian house in Dublin on Merrion Square, a couple of hundred yards from the National Gallery and, significantly, Government Buildings. In the second half of his life Yeats the aesthete had given way to the smiling, or more often scowling, public man. Even in his earliest years he had none of the poet’s tendency to shrink from the common affairs of men, as he demonstrated for instance in his pugnacious commitment to the founding and maintaining of the Abbey Theatre—“Players and painted stage took all my love,” as he wrote in “The Circus Animals’ Desertion”—and now, as the skies over Europe steadily darkened, he turned his energies, those he could spare from poetry, to the pursuit of politics. He was, as Foster’s account makes clear, a meddler of giant proportions. Of one of the many political shenanigans into which he sought to insert himself he wrote: “It was no business of mine, and that was precisely why I could not keep out of it.”7 As a member of the Senate, the largely symbolic upper house of the Irish Parliament, he thundered forth repeatedly on the issues of the day, glorying in his rhetorical powers and delighting in raising the hackles of those whom he saw as his enemies.

Yeats’s politics in the 1930s were, like those of so many intellectuals of the time, not a pretty thing to contemplate. His lifelong contempt for democracy, which he saw as the triumph of shopkeepers and petty clerks over the nobility and the noble peasantry, and his terror of socialism, “that mechanical eighteenth-century dream,”8 hardened into a vision of imminent apocalypse out of which would come that infamous rough beast, slouching toward Bethlehem to be born. The mundane version of this blood-boltered Apocalypsis cum figuris was heralded in the comic-operetta form of one General Eoin O’Duffy, commissioner of the newly founded Garda Siochána, the Irish police force. O’Duffy, playing on the discontents of army veterans, the supposed threat of an IRA takeover of the state, and the danger that the country would turn to communism, set up a ragtag force known as the Blueshirts.9 Yeats briefly supported O’Duffy, and even sank so low as to write a set of four songs for his followers to march to—execrable verse in an execrable cause. This is a part of Yeats’s life and work into which the commentator, particularly the Irish commentator, steps with the daintiest care. Foster, as always, holds to a studious sense of balance:

To an extent perhaps unrecognized [by whom?], WBY’s affinity with Fascism (not National Socialism) was a matter of rhetorical style; and the achievement of style, as he himself had decreed long before, was closely connected to shock tactics.

It is one of the smaller but still significant of modern Ireland’s misfortunes that Yeats’s awful politics, expressed most strongly through a shrill insistence on the superiority of his own caste—“I suppose public life is a Protestant creation”—should have blunted the challenge he offered to the country of living up to the magnificent image of it that he had wrought through his poetry, through the foundation of a National Theatre, and through his stance as a heroic public figure in a long line of Anglo-Irish heroes such as Edmund Burke, Bishop Berkeley, and Jonathan Swift.

What he feared most, and most strongly warned against, especially in his Senate speeches, Foster writes, was the rise to power in the nascent Irish state of the bourgeoisie, the shopkeepers, priests, and small farmers who would trample upon the “many ingenious lovely things” that he and Lady Gregory and John Synge, among others, had labored to create. Nowadays, mired—a favorite Yeatsian term—as Ireland is in scandal, violence, and low politics, the notion of an “indomitable Irishry” provokes only a wearied and embarrassed laugh.10

Besides questionable politics, the other enthusiastic pursuit of Yeats’s last years was women. His amorous frolics in old age were known about, but what we did not know until now was their extent. After the famous “Steinach operation” he underwent in the spring of 1934—not an injection of monkey glands, as popular legend has it, but merely a vasectomy—the poet experienced an extraordinary resurgence of sexual energy, and entered upon a series of love affairs that would have left the most energetic Hollywood playboy out of breath. What exactly were the nature of his relations with these women is a question Foster addresses with his accustomed delicacy, and for that one can only be grateful. Certainly the women, tolerated, perhaps even encouraged, by George Yeats, illuminated the gloom of Yeats’s final years and fired him to poetry, which he was still writing, as strongly as ever, mere weeks before he died, at Roquebrune in the south of France in January 1939, surrounded by a bevy of his unmistakably corporeal muses.

Both the politics and the harsh, at times boorish, sexual energies of his final years were all put to use in the ever-grinding poetic mill. In what Foster calls this “miraculously productive” period Yeats wrote some of his finest work, including “Long-Legged Fly,” “The Statues,” “The Circus Animals’ Desertion,” and the Crazy Jane poems, and what is perhaps his most successful dramatic achievement, the ghostly tragedy Purgatory. His last finished poem, “Cuchulain Comforted”—originally titled “Cuchulain Dead”—was copied out on January 13, 1939, less than two weeks before he died. Although in that month Yeats had experienced a final upsurge of physical and poetic strength, the poem is a somber vision in which “A man that had six mortal wounds, a man/Violent and famous, strode among the dead.” He was, as his brother Jack said, dying like an empire. The previous September he had written, at the close of “Under Ben Bulben,” his own epitaph, urging that a cold eye be cast on life, on death. As usual, the Yeatsian rhetoric, magnificent as ever, had got it wrong, for never was a more fiercely burning eye than his turned upon the “blood and mire” of human life and its mysterious ends.

W.B. Yeats: A Life is a great and important work, a triumph of scholarship, thought, and empathy such as one would hardly have thought possible in this age of disillusion. It is an achievement wholly of a scale with its heroic subject.

  1. 1

    The book is scattered throughout with long quotations, and most of the major poems of the period are given in full, as if to say, “You want poetry? I’ll give you poetry.” The quotations add, literally, to the weightiness of the tome. Although it is beautifully and meticulously published, the book is physically awkward to read, requiring almost the support of a lectern. One understands the economic difficulties of modern publishing, but this biography should really have been spread over three, or even four, volumes.

  2. 2

    As well as a political reactionary and an anti-Semite. Yeats himself was no democrat, to say the least, but, unlike Pound, Eliot, and many others of his circle, he was not anti-Semitic.

  3. 3

    Ann Saddlemyer’s Becoming George: The Life of Mrs. W.B. Yeats (Oxford University Press, 2002) is a superb, exhaustive biography of this remarkable woman. See my review of the book in The New York Review, April 10, 2003.

  4. 4

    Terence Brown, The Life of W.B. Yeats (Oxford University Press, 1999).

  5. 5

    W.B. Yeats, A Vision (London: Macmillan, 1925, reprinted 1962), p. 8.

  6. 6

    A facsimile of the first edition, edited with an introduction and notes by Richard J. Finneran, has just been published by Scribner.

  7. 7

    W.B. Yeats, Autobiographies (London: Macmillan, 1955), p. 354.

  8. 8

    Yeats, Autobiographies, p. 537.

  9. 9

    To this day, during rowdier exchanges in the Irish parliament, cries of “Blueshirt!” will be hurled from the benches of Fianna Fáil, the party founded by Eamon de Valera, at the representatives of Fine Gael, the constitutional party that grew out of O’Duffy’s aborted fascist movement.

  10. 10

    Ironically, the one modern-day Irish “public man” who sought to live up to the Yeatsian ideal was Charles Haughey, a leader of Fianna Fáil and taoiseach (prime minister) in the 1980s. A son of the lower-middle-class Dublin suburbs, Haughey claimed a complicated rural ancestry, set himself up in a Big House, and became a hard-riding country gentleman. He bought an island off the west coast where he reigned as a cross between a Gaelic clan chieftain and an Anglo-Irish squire and became a patron of the arts, collecting pictures and promoting Irish art abroad. He instituted a revolutionary tax-free scheme for artists, and set up Aosdána, an Irish acad-emy of writers, painters, and musicians. Meanwhile he presided over a party and government in which financial corruption was widespread, as we have learned over the past ten years of endless tribunals of inquiry into bribery, illegal land speculation, and the wholesale buying of political votes, all set in motion by the revelation that Haughey’s grand life of houses and horses and fine art was financed by money passed to him under the table by his businessmen cronies, chief among them the owner of a chain of supermarkets. The shopkeepers had triumphed, after all.

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