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. 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 …

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