By any assessment, W.B. Yeats was an extraordinary man who led a more active and varied life than most poets. As R.F. Foster says, he was “a poetic genius who was also, both serially and simultaneously, a playwright, journalist, occultist, apprentice politician, revolutionary, stage-manager, diner-out, dedicated friend, confidant and lover of some of the most interesting people of his day.” He was also a gifted self-publicist who throve on opposition and defiance. Such a life leaves behind a mass of material for a biographer to manage. There is a large cast of characters to be depicted. There are many settings to be described and understood, and many journeys to be traced. There are issues to be explained and quarrels to be adjudicated. Above all, there is justice to be done to the man himself, and to his achievement. Otherwise, why write another biography? — not a trivial question, as it turns out.

R.F. Foster is a successful Irish professor of history now teaching at Oxford, where he is Carroll Professor of Irish History and a fellow of Hertford College. This is the first volume of his biography of Yeats, taking Yeats from birth to the verge of World War I, when he was nearly 50 years old. Foster tells us in his introduction that he has written a historian’s biography, not a literary critic’s. The difference, as he explains it, is that a literary biographer would begin from Yeats’s poetry and devote himself to looking for its causes and reflections in the poet’s life, while the historian would simply begin at the beginning and work forward, treating the poetry as one of the many things Yeats did. Chronology is everything; and, as things turn out, the beauty of that principle from a critically-minded biographer’s point of view is that it so effectively dismantles the poet’s own carefully spliced and edited accounts of his life. To give an example everyone familiar with Yeats’s poetry will recognize: Maud Gonne, as she appears in Yeats’s writing, was a tragic beauty. Loving her reflected favorably on Yeats’s own sensitivity, on his fineness of perception, and on his capacity for suffering and endurance. In contrast, Foster’s chronologically described Gonne is, not to mince words, an unstable crackpot whom only a rather peculiar man could have loved so ineffectively for so long.

In a book in which many people believe and do strange things, Maud Gonne did some of the strangest of all. She attempted to reincarnate a dead child by coupling with her French lover on the dead child’s grave. Later on, having long protested her dislike of sex to Yeats, she married a known Irish terrorist who abused her and her young daughter. Yeats, who knew nothing about the French lover’s existence, misread her completely. Lines from his early poems about her—”Tread softly, for you tread on my dreams”—hardly survive knowledge of the real Maud Gonne.

Foster writes so demurely, in such a plain, almost colorless style, that it is hard to know (especially with a whole volume to come), whether the book’s debunking edict is intentional or whether it simply goes with the approach. Whatever the cause, the effect is certainly there. Very little escapes. Yeats’s maternal relations in Sligo, much romanticized in his own autobiographical writings, appear as a race of narrow-minded, provincial businessmen. What is more, they were English. His father’s relatives are presented as seedy hangers-on of the governing ascendancy, a pattern continued in the life of Yeats senior—an unsuccessful artist with a gift for sponging.

As for Yeats himself, Foster shows him developing early on a man with a foot in both Ireland and England, adept at playing off one against the other to develop his career. Yeats deployed the cosmopolitanism of London against the provincialism and back-biting of Ireland, the romance of Ireland against the prosaic modernity of England. To the English, he was an exotic outsider, bringing Celtic mystery to mundane London; to the Irish, he was the homeboy with overseas backing whom everyone could be proud of, and no one could quite trust.

Presented in this way, and despite Yeats’s genius and obvious charm, his life is the story of a man not easy to like. Foster’s Yeats was a self-dramatizing, ruthlessly effective snob, a manipulator of people and circumstances who continually revised and rewrote his work and his life to align both with changing assessments of his position. Not that the story is uninteresting. In the lives of Yeats and his friends, politics, nationalism, occultism, art, and sex combined in a pungent mixture, with results ranging from the appalling to the farcical. In that respect, Yeats’s Anglo-Ireland was a microcosm of modern Europe and America, but as one reflects upon the sinister mixture of occultism and nationalism in Yeats’s circle, there is no denying that Yeats’s poetry begins to lose its authority.

Foster justifies his substitution day-to-day chronological events for Yeats’s carefully shaped retrospections by saying, “We do not, alas, live our lives in themes, but day by day.” That is, to say the least, a debatable proposition. To begin with, it is a false antithesis; some of us think we live our lives in themes, day by day. Some of us would even be prepared to say that, considered as an organizing principle, that sentence disqualifies one from writing any kind of biography, let alone a poet’s.

Fortunately, and like many a writer, Foster does not believe in his own principle. He uses it to dismantle Yeats’s patterns and themes but forgets it when he comes to assemble his own. His book has a narrative pattern; it treats Yeats as a generic Anglo-Irishman growing up, as Foster says repeatedly, in the decline of the Protestant ascendancy, driven to reimagine a version of Ireland that would accommodate him and his ambitions. Consequently, he turned to Irish nationalism, and to an idiosyncratic blend of Celticism and occultism, for the materials of stories in which he could play the characteristic ascendancy roles of hero, master, and sage.

This is where one hears, in the background of Foster’s book, the faint sounds of an axe being ground. If Yeats’s version of Ireland, which has proved so influential with readers of his work outside of Ireland, should prove to be an ascendancy myth in another key, then it has no more authority, as history, than his other personal inventions.And if that is so, then from an Irish point of view, Yeats’s literary reputation must be at best an irrelevance, at worst a case of spectacular meddling in the national life. To see whether this is the drift of Professor Foster’s book, we shall have to wait for the second volume, which will take Yeats through the 1916 rebellion, the civil war, and the Irish senate.

In the meantime, this is a fascinating book. The story of how Augusta Gregory and Yeats used Annie Horniman’s money to found the Abbey Theatre, and then got rid of her, is alone worth the price of admission. Inevitably, in such an exhaustive piece of work, there are some weaknesses. Foster brings in too many inadequately described characters to populate the context or provide a quotation, and his index offers little help in identifying them. His grammar and syntax are not always correct, and there is no real bibliography, which one hopes will be supplied in the second volume.


[W.B. Yeats: A Life. Vol. I: The Apprentice Mage, 1865-1914, by R.F. Foster (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press) 704 pp., $35.00]