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:
But O, sick children of the world,
Of all the many changing things
In dreary dancing past us whirled,
To the cracked tune that Chronos sings,
Words alone are certain good.
It was imperative for him to come upon a principle, or failing that a theory, according to which he could interpret life in favor of loneliness, inwardness, and subjectivity. He needed to persuade himself that the apparent world was an evadable illusion. Otherworldliness was his chosen medium. On June 16, 1885, he presided at the first meeting of the Dublin Hermetic Society. Much given to séances and the occult, he immersed himself in mystical writings: Boehme, Blake, and Swedenborg.
In 1899 he read his friend Arthur Symons’s The Symbolist Movement in Literature and saw confirmed there what he already believed from instinct and his reading of Blake, that Symbolism is “a literature in which the visible world is no longer a reality, and the unseen world no longer a dream.” In “The Symbolism of Poetry,” written in 1900, he expressed his conviction that “the gross is the shadow of the subtle, that things are wise before they become foolish, and secret before they cry out in the market-place.” “I am certainly never sure,” he said, “when I hear of some war, or of some religious excitement, or of some new manufacture, or of anything else that fills the ear of the world, that it has not all happened because of something that a boy piped in Thessaly.”
It took him several years to discover that the boy who piped in Thessaly did not tell the whole story and that Symbolism had every merit except that of being verifiable. Those who were not of its party had to take it at its ethereal word. But reality in any mundane sense was not allowed to interrupt Yeats’s reveries. In the end it asserted itself. “Adam’s Curse” and “In the Seven Woods,” both written in 1902, are the first poems in which he admits that the common world exists and is administered upon irrefutable considerations of time, labor, and the frailty of one’s body.
I said, “It’s certain there is no fine thing
Since Adam’s fall but needs much labouring.
There have been lovers who thought love should be
So much compounded of high courtesy
That they would sigh and quote with learned looks
Precedents out of beautiful old books;
Yet now it seems an idle trade enough.”
Even a Symbolist had to make a career, or at least earn a living. In April 1887 Yeats moved with his family to London. The following year, he joined the Esoteric Section of the Theosophical Society, and in March 1890 he was initiated into the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. Between one occult session and the next he wrote essays, book reviews, stories, poems, and plays, often sluggishly and “in a tempered desperation.” He studied in the British Museum Reading Room—reading neo-Platonic philosophy, Henry More and Thomas Taylor especially, some history, much history of art—in preparation for the book on which he collaborated with Edwin Ellis, The Works of William Blake (1893). No money in that; he remained poor. To survive, he borrowed from relatives and friends, small sums from his friend John O’Leary, larger amounts and much more often from Lady Gregory: at one point he owed her å£500. In January 1890 he joined with Ernest Rhys to found the Rhymers’ Club, a group consisting of Lionel Johnson, Ernest Dowson, Richard Le Gallienne, Ellis, and other poets in irregular attendance. “We read our poems to one another and talked criticism and drank a little wine.”
By 1899, when he was thirty-four years old, he had for the first time the makings of a living. Magazines started paying him decent fees. The North American Review paid him å£40 for an article. The second volume of the Letters, edited now with impeccable precision and remarkably telling annotation by Warwick Gould, John Kelly, and Deirdre Toomey, shows him doing his best to get on in the world. But he didn’t make much money till he went on an extended lecture tour in America from November 1903 to March 1904. According to Foster, the tour netted him $3,230.40. Still, he wasn’t at ease financially till 1910, when he doubled his income by accepting, to the dismay of his nationalist friends, a Civil List pension of å£150 a year from the King. It was easy now to jeer at Pensioner Yeats.
Foster offers a formidable interpretation of Yeats’s dealings with magic and the occult. These were not the eccentricities of a wayward genius, as T.S. Eliot thought, or outbreaks of the “Southern Californian” element in an otherwise fairly reasonable man, as W.H. Auden believed. They were interests consistent with a particular Anglo-Irish predicament. Yeats was born to a beleaguered Irish Protestant family on the way down if not already out, at a time when it was clear that power in Ireland would inevitably pass into the hands of bourgeois and petit-bourgeois Catholics. Foster argues, in the new biography as in his Paddy and Mr. Punch (1993), that “Protestant Magic,” as he calls it, was a desperate response to these conditions. The predicament was expressed in the Gothic fictions of such writers as Charles Maturin, Sheridan Le Fanu, and Bram Stoker. Maturin’s Melmoth the Wanderer, Le Fanu’s Uncle Silas and Carmilla, and Stoker’s Dracula are the work of Irish Protestants,
often living in England but regretting Ireland, stemming from families with strong clerical and professional colorations, whose occult preoccupations surely mirror a sense of displacement, a loss of social and psychological integration, and an escapism motivated by the threat of a takeover by the Catholic middle classes—a threat all the more inexorable because it is being accomplished by peaceful means and with the free legal aid of British governments.
By “peaceful means” and “free legal aid” he means the several Land Acts that British parliaments enacted in the later years of the nineteenth century: their aim was to facilitate the gradual transfer of the ownership of land in Ireland from landowner, usually Protestant, to tenant, usually Catholic. Foster’s argument is suggestive, though it doesn’t account for the proliferation of occult practices elsewhere during Yeats’s lifetime, as in the England of Madame Blavatsky and MacGregor Mathers and the US of Agnes Repplier. Some of the beliefs studied in William James’s Varieties of Religious Experience (1902) don’t seem more bizarre than Yeats’s. But Foster still has a point. John O’Leary once scolded Yeats for his recourse to occult and magical practices: it was bad for his health. But Yeats would not accept the rebuke. He replied to O’Leary in a letter of approximately July 23, 1892:
Now as to Magic. It is surely absurd to hold me “week” or otherwise because I chose to persist in a study which I decided deliberately four or five years ago to make next to my poetry the most important pursuit of my life.
Not that he was always grim about this pursuit. On June 8, 1898, he told Lady Gregory that he proposed to go down to Newgrange “to interview a god or two at the old pagan burial place there.”
He still had to establish himself in London. In October 1895 he moved out of his parents’ home and took rooms with Symons at Fountain Court in the Temple. In February 1896 he moved again, this time to 18 Woburn Buildings, near Euston Station, partly because he needed private rooms in which to conduct a love affair—his first—with Olivia Shakespear, and partly to extend his social life. He was determined to make himself a public figure by getting to know everyone worth knowing in the literary world. In the end, his visiting list became a select dictionary of national biography: William Morris, Bernard Shaw, Lady Wilde, Oscar Wilde, Lady Gregory, Edmund Gosse, and many other men and women more useful than the Rhymers. On a visit to Paris with Symons, Yeats played the bohemian. “We will expect you & Rambosson at 6 o’clock, so that we may take our haschisch before dinner,” Symons wrote to Henry Davray. Over the years, Gosse brought Yeats to meet every Lord This and Lady That in London: if he failed to catch an aristocrat, Lady Gregory’s circle of the great made up for the deficiency.
On January 30, 1889, Yeats met Maud Gonne and “the troubling of my life began.” She was a beautiful, well-to-do Englishwoman, twenty-two years old, more Irish than the Irish, an ardent revolutionist. It was hopeless love on his part, even if we note a sexual episode between them at long last in December 1908. With less passion and more success he pursued Florence Farr and Mabel Dickinson. On October 20, 1917, he married George Hyde-Lees. Four days later, on their honeymoon, she discovered, having started by pretending to have a gift for automatic writing, that she had such a gift, and that she could receive messages from certain Communicators, Thomas of Dorlowicz, Ameritus, or others. The messages continued to be received till March 28, 1920, when Yeats and his wife settled on a new method of soliciting instruction. The messages formed the basis of his book of mystical philosophy, A Vision, dated 1925, published in 1926.
It was evidently Yeats’s policy, in Dublin and London, to take part in any movement compatible with his temperament. Every society congenial to his occult interests had his attention. He expressed his nationalist convictions through the Young Ireland League, the Pan-Celtic Society, the National Literary Society, and the Irish Literary Society. He joined the Irish Republican Brotherhood and the Irish National Alliance, but it is hard to know what his membership in those associations entailed. He supported Home Rule for Ireland, but he was not ready to take up a gun. Still, he aligned himself with virtually every group that had Ireland and Irish culture for its concerns.
If a suitable group didn’t exist, he established one. With Lady Gregory and Edward Martyn, he worked to found a national theater in Dublin, and had the satisfaction of seeing the Abbey Theatre open its doors on December 27, 1904. Later exacerbations—“theatre business, management of men”—did not erase the joy of the accomplishment. But Yeats was a difficult member of any association, he was not a company man. Foster’s biography and the new Letters are rich in the detail of his quarrels in nearly every group he joined. He had a gift of friendship, but also a remarkable capacity—or he acquired the knack—of making enemies and of putting them to shame by appealing to a structure of values he claimed he had indisputable right to invoke. He was a nationalist, and he shamed the exponents of the British Empire by inventing an ancient Ireland, a spiritual entity, vivid in imagination, spirited in desire, which had a clear right to embodiment and independence. He took part in the centenary celebrations of the rebellion of 1798, perhaps more boldly than he would have chosen if the cause had not been especially close to Maud Gonne’s heart. He denounced Queen Victoria’s visit to Ireland in April 1900.
But he was also a Protestant, if a theologically unexacting one, so he derided modern Catholic Ireland by appeal to a pagan Ireland of freedom and gaiety. When lower-middle-class Catholics started coming forward and taking con-trol, he ridiculed them—“fumbling in a greasy till”—by contrast with Italian Renaissance princes—“William who dreamed of nobility,” Ezra Pound later called him—and the Protestant Ascendancy of Ireland in the eighteenth century. Most of his Italian princes were also murderers, and while a few of his exemplars of the Protestant Ascendancy were great men—Swift, Berkeley, Burke—many of them were merely the moneyed burghers of Dublin; but these considerations were not allowed to count. When he considered himself insulted by his one-time friend George Moore, he claimed that he had “blood/That has not passed through any huckster’s loin.” How could he be sure? But he insinuated that Moore’s blood was a tainted liquid. When the leaders of the Rising of Easter Week, 1916, took his Ireland away from him and replaced his words by deeds, he soon took it back again by writing a play about 1916, The Dreaming of the Bones (1919), “Easter, 1916,” and other poems in which he gave the executed leaders their place not only in Irish history but in the larger perspective of myth.
When we try to get a sense of Yeats’s life as a whole, we come—it seems to me—upon a comprehensive project. Not upon his occult practices, important as they were. I can’t agree with Foster that the mage was Yeats’s definitive role, even in the early years. I think the first consideration was his need to transform himself from the shy, disheveled man he knew he was into a poet of power and authority. The poet, he convinced himself, “is never the bundle of accident and incoherence that sits down to breakfast.” After breakfast, he acted out the doctrine of the Mask which he devised from his readings of Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, and Wilde:
If we cannot imagine ourselves as different from what we are and assume that second self, we cannot impose a discipline upon ourselves, though we may accept one from others. Active virtue as distinguished from the passive acceptance of a current code is therefore theatrical, consciously dramatic, the wearing of a mask. It is the condition of arduous full life.
The most enabling “second self” to choose was the one furthest removed from his natural self or his given configuration of qualities. This, you may say, is merely the application of a theatrical metaphor to the standard Romantic theory of the creative imagination; but it was enough to give Yeats a project for his mature years. In the poem “Ego Dominus Tuus,” the speaker who stands for Yeats calls upon his second self as “the mysterious one”:
I call to the mysterious one who yet
Shall walk the wet sands by the edge of the stream
And look most like me, being indeed my double,
And prove of all imaginable things
The most unlike, being my anti-self,
And, standing by these characters disclose
All that I seek…
The claim Yeats made for this device was that it would release him from accident and incoherence. A poet in this mode is “more type than man, more passion than type:”
He is Lear, Romeo, Oedipus, Tiresias; he has stepped out of a play, and even the woman he loves is Rosalind, Cleopatra, never The Dark Lady. He is part of his own phantasmagoria and we adore him because nature has grown intelligible, and by so doing a part of our creative power.
So Yeats replaced “the common dream”—commitment to a worldly definition of reality—with the high dream in which responsibility begins. His father told him, in a letter of August 30, 1914:
A people who do not dream never attain to inner sincerity, for only in his dreams is a man really himself. Only for his dreams is a man responsible—his actions are what he must do. Actions are a bastard race to which a man has not given his full paternity.
Living by the high dream, Yeats devised a myth for himself and for Ireland. A myth, he said, is not a fiction, “but one of those statements our nature is compelled to make and employ as a truth though there cannot be sufficient evidence.” This was his chosen work in many poems, and in several plays he wrote for a national theater, especially The Countess Kathleen (1892), Cathleen ni Houlihan (1902), Deirdre (1907), and his plays of the mythic hero Cuchulain, On Baile’s Strand (1904), The Green Helmet (1910), At the Hawk’s Well (1917), The Only Jealousy of Emer (1919), Fighting the Waves (1929), and The Death of Cuchulain (1939). In those works he summoned up a nation on the evidence of folklore, visions, and the paganism that persisted even after the arrival of Saint Patrick and the conversion of Ireland to Christianity. He called the nation Ireland and gave it a soul, such that even now, when Ireland has become a modern country much like any other, mention of Yeats in Dublin stirs misgiving even among the worldliest of the citizens of the European Union. For himself, he invented a myth and attracted to its orbit the lives of family, friends, lovers, companions in poetry. Lady Gregory, J.M. Synge, Maud Gonne, George Hyde-Lees, Lionel Johnson, Symons, Dowson, JBY, George Pollexfen, even his old enemy George Moore, live in Yeats’s myth just as fully as in their own works and deeds.
Foster tells the story of Yeats’s life from 1865 to 1914. He has chosen to end the first volume in 1914 because, I assume, it was the year in which Yeats published a crucial book of poems, Responsibilities, and wrote Reveries over Childhood and Youth (1916), his first attempt to transform his life into a work of art, making his nature intelligible. It was a time of memoirs. Yeats’s friend Katharine Tynan published her Twenty-Five Years in 1913, Lady Gregory Our Irish Theatre in 1914. Moore had to be punished for making fun of Yeats in his mischievous autobiographical books Ave (1911) and Salve (1912), and especially for an insolent account of Yeats, Lady Gregory, and Synge he published early in 1914 and again a few months later, with just enough textual changes to deflect Lady Gregory’s threat of a suit, in his Vale (1914). Yeats wrote two “poems of hatred” on that occasion, and used one of them, “Notoriety,” to bring Responsibilities to an angry end:
…till all my priceless things
Are but a post the passing dogs defile.
Wisely, Foster has chosen a good year for the ending of the first volume. The second volume will be equally rich in the detail of Yeats’s middle and later years. Foster is a historian, not a literary critic: he deals with Yeats’s writings mainly for historical evidence. No matter. Literary critics have had their say with the poems and plays and will continue to speak. Foster’s narrative procedure is chronological: and then and then and then. This was probably inevitable, given the immense amount of material to be dealt with. But it makes it virtually impossible for him to elicit patterns and cadences in the poet’s life, the repetitions and rhythms that make Yeats’s life a work of art rather than a mere sequence of episodes. Each episode, as Foster comes to it in chronological order, seems to be on the same level of significance as the preceding one. But Foster’s book is by far the most detailed, the most informative, biography of Yeats we have. And he has practiced the method recommended for commentary by T.S. Eliot, that of being very intelligent.
February 19, 1998