All Ireland's Bard - William Butler Yeats

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."

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