The first volume of R.F. Foster’s acclaimed biography of William Butler Yeats (The Apprentice Mage) appeared in 1997.  Yeats’ son and daughter (now in their 70’s) chose him to be their father’s official biographer after their previous choice, F.S.L. Lyons, passed away, and Foster has been working on this project for the past 17 years.  Best known for his history Modern Ireland 1600-1972, Foster is Carroll Professor of Irish History at Oxford.  Like Yeats, Foster hails from the once-mighty Anglo-Irish Protestant Ascendancy.  These people were forcibly settled in Ireland by the British Crown to keep down the wild Irish Catholics by taking their land, language, and identity.  (To his great credit, Foster does not shy away from exposing Ascendancy prejudices toward the Irish people.)

Yeats was proud of his people’s heritage, bragging to the Irish Senate in 1922 that the Anglo-Irish are “no petty people, we are the people of Burke; we are the people of Grattan; we are the people of Swift, the people of Emmet, the people of Parnell.”  The appointed Free State senator explained to Lady Gregory, “[W]e Protestants did not like to boast while we were the oppressors, of our intellectual superiority and moral courage, but now under a Catholic majority we can do so.”

Richard Ellman’s Yeats: The Man and the Masks (which Foster believes holds the field in Yeatsean biography) sought to offer the reader a whole and coherent view of the man by a study of his life and poetry.  Foster employs a different method: “[M]ost biographical studies of WBY are principally about what he wrote; this one is principally about what he did.”  Why Foster decided on this approach is not clear.  Yeats’ last line from his poem “Among School Children” comes to mind: “How can we know the dancer from the dance?”

The professor seems to think that accurate and abundant chronology will somehow tell the story itself.  Foster provides scarcely any analysis and no conclusion regarding his subject.  Instead, he unrolls a large narrative skein from many documented sources.  Paraphrasing Yeats, Foster writes, “WBY himself expected biography to happen.”  This one is also a good history of Ireland during its subject’s lifetime (1865-1939).

Born in Dublin in 1865 to a family of clergymen,

Yeats was four years old when Gladstone disestablished the Church of Ireland, which provided livings for many of his ancestors.  He was five when the 1870 Land Act interfered with landlord’s control over their property.

By the time Yeats was 21, a bill was introduced for home rule in Ireland.  Ireland would soon achieve independence and join what Yeats’ friend A.E. called “that half crazy Gaeldom.”  Foster’s first volume presented an aggressive and egocentric poet unalterably determined to achieve fame.  Narrating the first 50 years of Yeats’ life, it covers his Celtic Twilight movement, his interest in occultism, and the founding of the Abbey Theatre.  Volume II opens in 1915 with the acclaimed poet now 50 years old and takes us through the Easter Rising, Yeats’ late marriage in 1917, and the episode concerning his wife’s automatic writing as relayed to her by the spirit world.  It moves on to the Irish Civil War, Yeats’ appointment as senator in the Irish Free State, his Nobel Prize, and his death in France in 1939.

Foster gives short shrift to Yeats’ Autobiographies, sadly missing the essential religious nature of the man.  (“I am very religious, and deprived by Huxley and Tyndall of the simple minded religion of my childhood, I have made a new religion, almost an infallible church of poetic traditions.”)  In a letter to John O’Leary, he notes, “I have always considered myself a voice of what I believe to be a great renaissance—the revolt of the soul against the intellect now beginning in the world.”  Foster believes Yeats’ occult interests and search for the supernatural were merely a means of finding metaphors for his poetry.  Yeats, however, saw the supernatural and unseen things as essential to man’s nature.  He fiercely attacked the modern world and science for reducing man to a toolmaking animal with no eternal soul.

Quoting Berkeley, Yeats dismissed the materialism of the Enlightenment: “[W]e Irish do not hold this.”  Yeats indicted Descartes, Locke, Newton, and the scientific method for having emptied Western life of its spiritual heritage.  (They took the world and “left us excrement instead.”)  He developed an antithesis to their scientific method.

I began by telling people that one should believe whatever had been believed in all countries and periods and only reject any one part of it after much evidence instead of starting over again and only believing what one could prove.

Yeats hoped that Ireland, in his day unaffected (as he saw it) by the forces of materialism, would bring about a restoration of European civilization.  “Here will be an imaginative culture and power to understand spiritual things.”  G.K. Chesterton, a friend, said that he preferred Yeats’ Celtic Twilight to the Materialistic Midnight.  Yeats would become sorely disappointed in Ireland, however, and his later poetry expresses this disillusionment.  Believing that our civilization was finished, he consoled himself to sing in “tragic joy.”  With the help of Ezra Pound, Yeats emerged fully from the romantic mists of the Celtic Twilight with a lithe, lean, classical style.

Patrick Kavanagh, the greatest Irish poet since Yeats, recognized that the Celtic Twilight “was a means of providing irish protestants who were worried about being ‘irish’ with an artificial country” and pointed out that “literature has to do with sincerity and not nationality.”  It is a tribute to Yeats’ genius that he learned to write out of his and his people’s experience in Ireland.  His later poems express the dignified viewpoint of an Anglo-Irish aristocrat.

Yet Foster does not fully appreciate the unique vantage point provided by the dying Anglo-Irish order.  Yeats straddled two worlds, being accepted neither by the English as English nor by the Irish as Irish—a kind of orphan child of British imperialism.  His displacement gave him a sense of loss, an appreciation of the past, and a powerful prophetic vision.  He described his epoch as anarchic, a “numb nightmare,” and saw “confusion fall upon our thought.”  The progressive degradation has continued apace, so that, in the 21st century, poor confusion has no thought left to fall upon.  Through this chaos, as Cleanth Brooks said, “Yeats courageously asserted the power of the human spirit against the spiritual and intellectual corruption of our time.”

Yeats became a kind of Prospero of his own people’s lost grandeur.  He purchased a medieval tower in the Irish countryside and summoned his people—Goldsmith, Swift, Burke, and Berkeley—and in “The Seven Sages,” condemned our time as all “Whiggery” (or liberalism): “A levelling, rancorous, rational sort of mind / That never looked out of the eye of the saint / Or out of a drunkard’s eye.”

It is a shame that Foster does not make a deeper examination of the poetry itself.  His separation of the poet from his poetry and his restricted view of the poems in their “immediate historical context” is not the way to approach any poet—particularly not Yeats.  Poets, by the very nature of their work, transcend time.  The Greeks were careful to distinguish chronos (time) from the eternal kairos, which they strove to touch through ceremony.  Yeats, too, throughout his life struggled to reconnect time with eternity and make sense of our human predicament.

When Foster offers comment on Yeats’ poems, he fails miserably.  He attributes Yeats’ “The Second Coming” to the “doubts and feelings of a generation at a moment of flux.”  Faced with the collapse of civilization (of which World Wars I and II were only symptoms), Yeats longed for “a ceremony of innocence” worthy of the human soul.  Although he was not a professed Christian, “The Second Coming” brings about a remarkable restoration of meaning to worn Christian images and a frightening view of a post-Christian future.  (“What rough beast slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?”)

Of Yeats’ masterful “Prayer to My Daughter,” in which the words custom and ceremony appear three times each in the last stanza, Foster says,

This use of language is a Renaissance style archaism, the sentiments, as well as the formality of language and the structure should be read in terms of the belief (which currently possessed him) that his daughter represented the incarnation of a 17th century countess of the House of Ormond.

Foster misses the point of this prayer that the purified soul, through some abiding ceremony, may survive and transcend the vicissitudes of time.  “How but in custom and in ceremony / Are innocence and beauty born?”

Foster’s remarks on Yeats’ poetry reflect the thought of most modern academic poets who reject metaphysical vision.  For them, words have no transcendent meaning.  Such poets have reviewed this book favorably.

Though a member of what Lady Gregory called the “Connacht peasantry,” I long ago took the oath pronounced in his last poem, “Under Ben Bulben”: “Sing whatever is well made / Scorn the sort now growing up / All out of shape from toe to top.”


[W.B. Yeats: A Life, Volume II: The Arch Poet 1915-1939, by R.F. Foster (New York: Oxford University Press) 798 pp., $40.00]