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W.B. YEATS, A LIFE by R.F. Foster Kirkus Star

W.B. YEATS, A LIFE

Vol. II: The Arch-Poet, 1915-1939

By R.F. Foster

Pub Date: Nov. 1st, 2003
ISBN: 0-19-818465-4
Publisher: Oxford Univ.

Eminent Irish historian meets eminent Irish poet, continuing the massive biography begun nearly seven years ago.

Foster (History/Oxford Univ.; The Irish Story, 2002, etc.) carries on with a number of themes that occupied The Apprentice Mage (1997): William Butler Yeats’s long infatuation with the Celtic bohemian Maud Gonne, his infatuations with many other women, his researches in the psychic and paranormal, and, above all, his refusal to be easily categorized in either poetry or politics, his twin vocations. Foster begins with Yeats in turning-point 1915, when he turned 50 and was beginning to tire of life in wartime London, writing of England’s war with Germany, “It is merely the most expensive outbreak of insolence and stupidity the world has ever seen, and I give it as little of my thought as I can.” Things were no quieter in Ireland, where, soon afterward, the Easter Uprising—the subject of some of Yeats’s most memorable poems—broke out, followed by civil war and the difficult birth of the Irish Free State. Back home, Yeats positioned himself, Foster shows, not quite on the sidelines, but certainly at some distance from the sloganeers on either side, and he did not please his nominal fellow nationalists (“whose strict Sinn Féin platitudes,” Foster sniffs, “seem[ed] bathetically ill attuned to the necessities of modern compromise”) by insisting that true Irish culture owed as much to Anglo-Norman as Celtic influences. Tweaking simpler-minded politics in his “Crazy Jane” poems, Yeats goes on, in Foster’s account, to poke about in less attractive corners of politics, expressing occasional admiration for the totalitarians across the sea; but mostly, having won the Nobel Prize, he retreats, slowly, into revered and grand-old-man-of-poetry status, getting himself in more trouble on the homefront than in the public sphere. Foster wisely lets Yeats’s poetry speak for itself, though he ably deconstructs the bard’s songs in light of contemporary events, and he provides an extraordinarily thorough context for scholars of a more strictly literary bent—and all in entirely readable, deeply nuanced fashion.

“We may come at last,” Yeats once remarked, “to think that all knowledge is biography.” Foster’s knowing, richly detailed investigation is a remarkable achievement, essential to serious students of Yeats’s life and work.