All Ireland's Bard

Tied by birth to unionism, memorialist of the executed Nationalist rebels of 1916, W. B. Yeats mirrored Ireland's divisions in his self-divisions -- yet saw the island as a single cultural entity sprung from common roots in common myths


The Apprentice Mage.
Oxford University Press,
640 pages, $35.00.

ONE of the most celebrated literary landmarks in Ireland is "the autograph tree," in what was once the walled garden of Lady Augusta Gregory's estate at Coole Park, in County Galway. On the welted bark one can still make out the famous initials: WBY, GBS, AE, and several more, including those of Violet Martin (the pseudonymous "Ross" of the Somerville and Ross writing partnership), who visited Coole in the summer of 1901, and wrote,

Yeats looks just what I expected. A cross between a Dominie Sampson and a starved R.C. curate -- in seedy black clothes -- with a large black bow at the root of his long naked throat. He is egregiously the poet -- mutters ends of verse to himself with a wild eye, bows over your hand in dark silence -- but poet he is -- and very interesting indeed -- and somehow sympathetic to talk to -- I liked him.... Augusta made me add my initials to a tree already decorated by Douglas Hyde, AE and more of the literary crowd. It was most touching. WBY did the carving, I smoked, and high literary conversation raged and the cigarette went out and I couldn't make the matches light, and he held the little dingy lappets of his coat out and I lighted the match in his bosom.


Already, at the age of thirty-six, Yeats was something of a legend. In his day-to-day life he presented a very deliberately composed profile to the world; in the course of his writing he equally deliberately re-presented himself. In the first schoolboy letter collected in the first volume of his correspondence he told about his efforts to walk on stilts (and provided a sketch of himself doing so), and from that point onward, right down to his final, valedictory poem, "Under Ben Bulben," in which he put himself into the third person and into history as "Yeats," the compulsion was always the same -- to raise himself to a new plane and a new power. His affectations, in other words, were just one consequence of his egregious need to manifest the artistic temperament. He famously declared that the man who sat down to breakfast was a bundle of accident and incoherence, whereas the man reborn in a poem was "intended" and "complete"; one way to see his life's work is as a pursuit of that intention of completeness. A writer's style, Yeats believed, is the equivalent of self-conquest, and he always envisaged his art as the reward of labor. The guardian angel of his "unchristened heart" was Plato's ghost.

His chosen comrades thought at school
He must grow a famous man;
He thought the same and lived by rule,
All his twenties crammed with toil;

The word "apprentice" in the subtitle of this magnificent first volume of Roy Foster's biography endorses the poet's view of himself as a toiling intelligence, a Dantesque spirit pushing toward ever higher levels of visionary understanding and stylistic mastery. But the word "mage" is a reminder that the stylistic was not the only kind of mastery that Yeats sought. He would have liked to be able to boast with Shakespeare's Glendower that he could "call spirits from the vasty deep," and from his youth he committed himself intensely to the project of becoming an adept in the occult sciences. It was, for example, mediums rather than madams that he visited when he was in Paris in 1914, whereas twenty-seven years earlier, in London in 1887, he had found his way to Madam Blavatsky, one of the founders of the Theosophical Society, a personage who proved as attractive to the realist in him as to the occultist. He liked her Russian horse sense and perspicacity; she was "a sort of old Irish peasant woman with an air of humour and audacious power," a woman who could say, "I used to wonder at and pity the people who sell their souls to the Devil, but now I only pity them. They do it to have somebody on their side."

In Blavatsky's "humour and audacious power" Yeats was surely recognizing qualities he himself possessed, even though contemporaries would describe the humor as "saturnine" and see the power and audacity as part of a general inclination to take control of every enterprise in which he involved himself. Indeed, one of the many virtues of Foster's magisterial book is the way it keeps overwhelming the reader with a sense of Yeats's tirelessness as a mover and shaker at every level of his affairs -- familial, cultural, sexual, political, artistic, amorous. A born publicist who was also a silence-seeking lyric poet, a self-made controversialist whose public stances often caused him much private pain, a heroic lover whose beloved desired him to abjure desire, a faithful friend with a habit of falling out with the ones who meant most to him, a cultural administrator and committeeman who did not believe in democracy in the arts, he always had his work cut out for him.

THE story of that work and of the man who did it has been told often, mainly along lines that Yeats himself dictated. Even during his lifetime the poet's detractors could not deny his central importance, and in affirming that importance after his death his advocates tended to take it as a more or less predestined phenomenon, as if all that W. B. had had to do was to await the artistic and genetic implications of one of his father's boasts: J. B. Yeats had declared that by marrying one of the turbulent Pollexfens, he had given a voice to the sea cliffs. Obviously, the early work of biography and criticism done by Joseph Hone and A. N. Jeffares relied substantially on the poet's own autobiographical and creative writings, and this is also true of the epoch-making books by Richard Ellmann (whose definitive work on Yeats tends to be overlooked because of the immense success of his Joyce biography). For decades, therefore, the effort has been to establish and salute exactly what was "intended" and "completed" by this modern master, and the plane from which these surveys were conducted has always been one established by the writings of the poet himself. Consequently, the biographies have been of the "critical" kind, as much about "the work" as "the man."

W.H. Auden and T.S. Eliot set the mode of eulogy immediately, Auden accepting (metrically as well as in other ways) Yeats's deathbed version of himself as poetic oracle and ancestor, carrying on the beat of "Under Ben Bulben" ("Follow, poet, follow right/To the bottom of the night"), and trying on the role. Eliot, on the other hand, in his memorial lecture at the Abbey Theatre in 1940, commemorated Yeats not as a Delphic voice but as an exemplary practitioner, one whose history was the history of his times, and thereby transferred to the dead archbard the kind of justifying claim that was then being made for his own peculiarly modern genius. The terms of Eliot's praise have often been cited and its justice recognized, but it is only with the publication of Roy Foster's life that the intensity and intimacy of Yeats's engagement with the life of his times can be fully appreciated.

Professor Foster is, among other things, a distinguished historian, and has already written a standard work on Charles Stewart Parnell and a much-lauded history of modern Ireland. He is identified as the most influential "revisionist" among contemporary Irish historians, which is to say that he, like his subject, has often been at the center of the culture wars. What the revisionists want to revise is a narrative put in place by successive generations of "Nationalist" historians which reads Irish history as the gradually successful emergence of the Gaelic nation from foreign domination, culminating in the reinstatement of native government and the official recognition of the native language and majority religion after Irish independence was gained, in 1921. The imposition of this narrative, it is argued, suppresses other "varieties of Irishness" (especially those alloyed with Britishness), and is therefore detrimental to any move toward a more politically workable, culturally pluralist future for the country, north and south. The revisionists would espouse a new narrative, conducive to a reconciliation of all the traditions on the island; and, indeed, the currency of those very words -- "reconciliation" and "traditions" (in the plural) -- is a testimony to the way they have changed the intellectual climate during the past thirty years, a period in which the activities of the Provisional Irish Republican Army have been a vehement reminder of where the freedom narrative can lead.

Nobody, therefore, was better qualified to write this book, which follows Yeats into his fiftieth year, through a period of Irish history when all the questions about national and cultural affiliation that have come so desperately to the fore again in Northern Ireland were being lived through in the rest of the country at both private and public levels and leaving their indelible mark on Irish life. But it was precisely because these crucial tensions had come to the fore that Yeats, at fifty, began to set himself up as the representative Irish poet of his times -- one whose ancestors included not only a soldier who had fought for William of Orange at the Battle of the Boyne at the end of the seventeenth century but also a country scholar who was friends with the revolutionary Robert Emmet at the beginning of the nineteenth. By invoking these figures in 1914, in the introductory verses of a volume significantly titled Responsibilities, Yeats was reminding his Irish readership that he took the strain of both the major ideologies that were exacerbating Irish political life in that critically important year.

As a Yeats, he belonged to the respectable stratum of Protestant Irish society that owed its position and power to William of Orange's victory and its consequences -- the establishment of an Anglo-Irish ascendancy and the institution of penal laws against the Catholic population. So as a Yeats he might have been expected to support the cause of the union of Ireland with the other British nations under the English crown. But as an Irish poet who had written a manifesto aligning himself with Irish Nationalist precursors such as Thomas Davis and James Clarence Mangan, as the author of the early, inflammatory "rebel" play Cathleen Ni Houlihan, as the chief inventor of the Celtic Twilight and a founding member of the Abbey Theatre, which claimed to be the country's national theater, Yeats had long been creating a vision of Ireland as an independent cultural entity, a state of mind as much as a nation-state, one founded on indigenous myths and attitudes and beliefs that pre-dated not only William of Orange but even Saint Patrick himself.

ALTHOUGH Yeats could manage his self-divisions skillfully enough in public, events were forcing him toward a new ordering of all his positions and dispositions. He might tell a questioner that he was not in the business of advancing Irish independence, and could only "prepare for the day after it has been obtained," but that was fundamentally a holding action. And what it held at bay was the deeply divisive question of the relationship that existed in Ireland between religious background and political predilection. The implications of this could usually be absorbed in the civilities of social life and the given conditions of constitutional politics, but when these given conditions were in crisis, as they were during the second decade of this century, the ideological silt on the bed of William's Boyne and at the foot of Emmet's gallows stirred and rose in the Irish psyche and endangered all consensus and civility.

A bill granting Home Rule to Ireland was under consideration in the British Houses of Parliament, and the minds of Irish Protestants in particular were greatly concentrated. As Foster reports, when Yeats was invited to propose a motion affirming faith in the tolerance of the Catholic Church, he returned an unmistakably negative (if private) answer.

There is intolerance in Ireland, it is the shadow of belief everywhere and no priesthood of any church has lacked it. . . . how can I who have been denounced by Cardinal Logue for a romance [his early play The Countess Cathleen], and seen lying leaflets based on material sent from Dublin distributed at chapel doors in America during the tour of the Abbey Players ... affirm that there is not both shadow and substance?

It was at this point that W. B. Yeats began one of his most important remakings of himself, which was to turn into a freedom narrative of sorts also. What was happening throughout his forties was a growing disenchantment with "advanced nationalism," the wing of the movement that at its most extreme was not averse to armed rebellion and at its most populist tended to assume that Catholic values and Irish nationality amounted to much the same thing. One symptom of this disenchantment was his gradual alienation from the Celticist and broadly propagandist milieu that he had embraced in his younger days and that had been created largely by his own efforts. Thus the Abbey Theatre came to define itself against a more politically composed and motivated theater such as the Theatre of Ireland, and J. M. Synge's masterpiece, came to represent the kind of untrammeled, radically unaligned work that the Abbey's three famous directors -- Synge, Gregory, and Yeats -- wished to espouse and promote. But this kind of work could also be decried as something that "besmirched the name of Irish womanhood" and could be read as condescension, perhaps even a deliberate attack by the Protestant directorate upon the Catholic morality and piety of the whole country. Thus high artistic purpose was by no means a prophylactic against the prevalent sectarian conditions.

INEXORABLY, therefore, Yeats was drawn to a haughtier attitude, and before long a whole rethinking of his relationship to the traditions of Anglo-Ireland was under way. This would entail a switch of allegiance from folk culture to high culture, and would be accompanied by a corresponding shift in his social and political attitudes. So, for example, the cottages in Kiltartan where he had once gathered folklore with Lady Gregory were now referred to as "mean roof-trees," and Irish Catholics who in the 1880s and 1890s might have been called "the children of the Gael" were now lumped under the far more demeaning names of "Paudeen" and "Biddy." These developments, combined with a reading of Nietzsche and the naturally increasing solitude of middle age, intensified his search for "completeness" and set Yeats to work on the first of his great series of autobiographical essays, "Reveries Over Childhood and Youth," which he completed just at the point where The Apprentice Mage comes to an end.

In these reveries and in subsequent installments Yeats created an enduring profile of himself as a noble poet working toward high national (and supranational) purposes, a profile that Foster does not wish to alter; he also created "Yeats country" through a loving evocation of the Sligo where he spent so much of his early life, under the mountains of Ben Bulben and Knocknarea, and along the shores of Lough Gill; and he drew vivid portraits of those who would be transformed by his poetry into "all the Olympians": John O'Leary, the old Fenian who had directed the young Yeats toward Irish themes and backgrounds; the Pollexfens and Middletons of Sligo; the aforementioned writers and colleagues at the Abbey; and, of course, Maud Gonne, who transfigured his emotional life, got him entangled with revolutionary politics, was his mystic bride for years before she became (briefly) his bodily mate, and generally elevated his sense of personal and poetic destiny. What the whole story amounts to is the creation myth of one who lived a passionate and singularly individual life, who sought solidarity only to find it constricting, who praised the virtues of consensus but was actually far more animated by combat, whose conduct as poet and citizen was (as he said of Gonne) of "a kind/That is not natural in an age like this,/Being high and solitary and most stern."

A sentence like the previous one turns a life into a set of phrases, and that is what much biographical writing aspires to do -- to translate a consciousness and a personal history into a style, to interpret what happened rather than set it forth. What Roy Foster attempts, however, is much rarer, much more difficult, and (from the reader's point of view) much riskier. Foster is intent on creating a record as well as a "reading"; his method is to let the myriad facts that he places before us speak for themselves -- although it must be said that when he does permit himself the luxury of a personal touch, things perk up very cheerfully indeed, as when he suggests that Maud Gonne's Dublin Castle acquaintances might have regarded her attraction to republican politics as a "sort of trahison des débutantes." The risk lies in not providing more of this kind of charm and flourish, but the author is prepared to run it, because of a lovely sense of decorum, a feeling that his book is an epic of service to its subject, not a vehicle for his own personality or opinions. It is a mighty argosy of scholarship, dauntingly in possession of all that has been said and written by and about this astonishing poet and genius. It is very deliberately a historian's book, almost all life and no criticism. It goes at a slow pace, a cargoed galleon set deep in the water, a work of huge significance because it is intellectually equal to its subject and intuitively at one with him, since Foster's own preoccupation is with the old Yeatsian question of how Ireland, a country of deep political division and high cultural potential, might still properly define itself.

THE book will be definitive because of the amount of old and new research it garners, letting us know when the poet first smoked hashish or slept with Maud Gonne, letting us into the sadness surrounding the poet's withdrawn mother and into the domestic poverty that his siblings faced with such resource and resilience. But Foster's main achievement is to give us a precise sense of Yeats (and people like the Yeats family) as part of the drama of Irish history; in fact, it may be that this biography will be more effective than any of Foster's previous writings in persuading readers of the necessity for inclusiveness when imagining a new Ireland. Foster presents the Yeats family as a marginalized group within the already historically marginalized Anglo-Irish, all of them in need of reintegration into a larger and more positively future-seeking whole, and what he has to say about this scenario will speak to everyone who has endured the state of crisis that has persisted in Ireland since 1968. His story of a consciousness stretched, as Czeslaw Milosz said of himself, between "the contemplation of a motionless point and the command to participate actively in history" will strike all Irish readers as a form of remembrance.

So this is a book for the times, but not just the Irish times. However revolted Yeats would eventually feel at the onset of the "filthy modern tide," many of his own insights and strategies look forward to the flightier waftings and draftings of the postmodern. He was always in tune with the idea of the instability of the self, of consciousness as a site where many moods, voices, selves, spirits, presences -- call them what you will -- visited and vanished. His sense that poetic vocation entailed an election to nobility and its obligations strengthened the image he had of himself as a chosen vehicle of principle and impulse. But he also conceived of himself as a testing ground where principles and impulses would have to fight it out, and this meant that he was more prepared than most to admit his contradictions. Enjoined by his calling to live freely and truly, he gave full rein to what was passionate in his sensibility and skeptical in his intelligence; he could be majestic in public and mocking in private, self-absorbed and vigilant in turn, tactical and obstinate, clandestine and confrontational, down-to-earth and elevated. Yet these were symptoms not of an absence of coherence but of an appetite for abundance; in fact, the coherence lay in his determination to live more extravagantly than "the merchant and the clerk," and the honesty of perception and expression that this determination compelled turned him not only into a great artist but also into a great observer and reporter of the world and its inhabitants.

One of the incidental pleasures of these pages is the constant stimulation of the wily remarks and up-front judgments that Yeats made with such accuracy and relish. Early on, for example, he expressed a liking for Ernest Rhys, because, unlike most literary men, he "had no 'bon mots' and several convictions." Winston Churchill, encountered years later at a weekend house party, seemed "a mixture of ungraciousness and geniality." G.R.S. Mead, a member of the Blavatsky circle, had "the intellect of a good sized whelk." And at the funeral of his uncle, George Pollexfen, so many strange people turned up that it was "like the dredging of a pond." But as attractive as this off-the-cuffness can be, the real attraction of Yeats lies in the essential nobility of his mind, the way he combined ardor with rigor, the ideal of service behind and beneath the self-centeredness and the attitudinizing. "Why do I write all this?" he asked, after he had administered a well-deserved rebuke to himself in his journal for failing to take on Edmund Gosse (Gosse had written insultingly to Lady Gregory), and replied,

I suppose that I may learn at last to keep to my own [values and instincts] in every situation in life; to discover and create in myself as I grow old that thing which is to life what style is to letters: moral radiance, a personal quality of universal meaning in action and in thought.

It was this pursuit of radiance, of a crystalline purity of motive and conduct, that redeemed much of the egotism and the codology. Another incidental strength of Foster's writing lies in his natural sympathy not only for his subject but also for those who had to put up with him; he takes cognizance of their attitudes, ranging from the debunking to the malicious, concedes their justice, and yet does not allow them to demean Yeats's essentially beneficent, astonishingly sustained exercise of creative power. In fact, The Apprentice Mage triumphantly confounds the poet's own negative estimate of scholars: "Lord," Yeats once exclaimed in a poem about them, "what would they say/Did their Catullus walk that way?" Not only does Roy Foster understand the Catullus element in Yeats (he is particularly beguiling, for example, when communicating the physiotherapeutic charms of Yeats's Dublin Lesbia, Mabel Dickinson); he also convinces us that by the end of the next volume his scholarship and "sedentary trade" will have produced a biography that should go far toward satisfying even Plato's implacable ghost.

"The work is done," grown old he thought,
"According to my boyish plan;
Let the fools rage, I swerved in naught,
Something to perfection brought";

Seamus Heaney is a former Boylston Professor of Rhetoric and Oratory at Harvard University. He received the 1995 Nobel Prize for literature.


The Atlantic Monthly; November 1997; All Ireland's Bard; Volume 280, No. 5; pages 155-160.