A sublime poet, an avowed defender of Ireland

Frank Kermode is the author of many books, including "Shakespeare's Language," "The Genesis of Secrecy," "The Sense of an Ending" and the forthcoming "The Age of Shakespeare." He is former King Edward VII professor of English at Cambridge and Charles Eliot Norton professor of poetry at Harvard.

In the first volume of this biography, published in 1997, R.F. Foster explained that he wanted to "restore the sense of a man involved in life and in history: notably in the history of his country," rather than to offer "an exegesis of the poetry from a biographical angle." Yeats lived through a tormented period of Irish history, and he knew its sometimes tragic intricacies. Its heroes and politicians as well as its poets and playwrights were acquaintances of his. He saw firsthand the wounds of civil war. He defended what he took to be the true Anglophone culture of Ireland. He fought for its theaters and its paintings, he wrote its poems; he even devised its coinage.

His life, public and private, is documented in the enormous deposits of manuscripts that supplement his voluminous publications. To show how radically this man was involved in the history of his country was a formidable undertaking for a biographer.

Foster has achieved it, and although Yeats scholarship goes on apace, it is reasonably safe to say that much of his work is definitive. Foster is Irish, a professor of Irish history at Oxford. He handles with great skill and authority aspects of the poet's life and times that might simply bewilder the uninstructed reader.

In this second volume, he has to deal with the last quarter-century of Yeats' life, a period crammed with interests of many kinds -- political, biographical, erotic. But it was above all the period when Yeats wrote most of the poetry that won him the accolade of the greatest poet of his age. In his first volume, Foster was avowedly more at ease with the life and the politics than with the poems, which he expressly undertook to treat "in their immediate historical context." And for all that one greatly admired in that volume, it seemed possible that the extraordinary masterpieces of Yeats' later years might be a problem for him.

The worry was unnecessary. Foster nearly always has something enhancing to say about the poems, as he does about every aspect of the poet's amazingly full life. This second volume is equal to its great subject. It represents, among other things, a triumph of tone, which may be illustrated by his treatment of the automatic writings of Yeats' wife, George.

The one thing everybody knows about Yeats is that he was, for much of his life, enchanted by the implacable republican activist Maud Gonne (now best remembered as the recipient of some marvelous love poems). He was later in love with Maud's gifted, difficult daughter, Iseult, and came quite close to marrying her ("Ah, if only you were a young boy!" she said). He had memorably written the lines: "Although I have come close to forty-nine, / I have no child, I have nothing but a book ... " And so, in his early 50s, he married somebody else. His wife, supported him with great patience and intelligence throughout the last crowded, prolific, eccentric period of his life.

The marriage got off to a bad start. It was saved when George discovered that by means of automatic writing she could convey to the poet the admonitions of certain supernatural instructors. In the pages Foster devotes to George's scribbled messages from these beings, one can gauge Foster's skill, his control of tone.

The situation is faintly but irremediably ridiculous. George used the writings not only to give Yeats "metaphors for poetry," as he claimed, but also to change his habits. One cause of the early unhappiness of the marriage was the poet's lack of sexual interest in his new wife; he had had lovers but had not acquired the habit of regular sexual performance. Moreover, his imagination was still dwelling regretfully on Maud and Iseult, and, as always, he was enjoying a privileged intimacy with his indispensable old friend and colleague, Lady Gregory. So George was crowded out. She responded by sending him messages, some very explicit, from beyond, instructing him to do something urgently about his shortcomings as a bridegroom.

Here, and in many other manifestations of Yeats' credulity concerning the occult, Foster is amused but will not allow himself free expression of his amusement (he sticks to the facts); we are given no reason to think Foster would have joined any of the poet's various magical and mystical circles. He deals with these matters as he deals with matters of business, that "theatre business, management of men" that Yeats complained of but was so surprisingly good at. Foster is helped by his appreciation of the poet's own sense of the ridiculous, shared by his idle golden-tongued father and by his sisters, who ran an unprofitable printing press, largely financed by Yeats.

Not the least interesting products of Foster's care for detail are mundane explanations as to why the poet had to be so busy. At the height of his fame, he was nearly always short of money. The 1923 Nobel Prize, which might have given him a comfortable old age, was wasted on bad investments. He had a pension from the English crown, for which he was elaborately scorned by his Irish enemies. In any case, it was not much. His Abbey Theatre nearly always needed funds.

Having married late, he had two children to educate in years when he might have felt like slackening his pace. He spent a lot on the reconstruction of his symbolic tower residence, Thoor Ballylee, which was only occasionally habitable. For much of his life he had access to Lady Gregory's great house at Coole, and much later to Lady Dorothy Wellesley's in England; he was keen on great houses but never came close to owning one himself, unless you count the tower. And money worries can shape or distort a life.

But Yeats was equal to the demands made on his time and his strength. Even when his health deteriorated alarmingly, his energy remained extraordinary. Most of it went into writing, especially the poems of the later collections. He was not rich but he was "world-famous," an expression he sometimes used with a tinge of irony. "The Tower" and "The Winding Stair" had finally established him, in the 1920s, as a great modern poet. He almost died in 1930 of a lung hemorrhage but recovered to make his last decade the most astonishing.

Some of this energy may be ascribed to a remarkable sexual reawakening. Yeats famously underwent a Steinach operation -- which seems to have been simply what is now called a vasectomy. There has been much argument concerning the outcome of this procedure. Could it possibly have cured his impotence? The medical opinion seems to be that it couldn't. Yet it was certainly, in this case, followed by a remarkable revival of poetic energy and by a renewed interest in sex.

Ireland had a state censorship, which Yeats of course opposed; he was a champion of James Joyce and so of impolite language. He had long since discovered the poetic power of the colloquial, but now his language became more exultantly coarse and explicit than even his bitterest opponents could have expected. (Foster often quotes, rather mischievously, the highly literate and insulting comments of the Irish Catholic press.) The old poet now announced that sex and the dead were the only serious subjects. He interested himself in the spiritual-erotic disciplines of Tantric Buddhism and began to live according to his new principles. The "Crazy Jane" sequence of poems gave some of them appropriately vivid literary expression. But he also seems to have had at least four quite serious affairs: with the aristocratic Lady Dorothy, the socialist novelist Ethel Mannin, the young actress Margot Ruddock (Yeats' "crazed girl") and a dull upper-class English lady, Edith Shackleton Heald. (There also seems to have been a moment with Lady Ottoline Morrell.) All these goings-on were observed, at a distance and with apparent calm, by George.

Meanwhile, the poet's political views were becoming more violent. At the time of the Easter Rising of 1916, Yeats had regretted it, not only because it resulted in the deaths or imprisonment of friends, but also because he still hoped that Home Rule, enacted by the British government but suspended during World War I, would be reinstated when that war ended. It took him years to see the Rising as a great symbolic moment in Irish history, and his magnificent poem on the subject did not appear until 1920. Later, he lost his political caution and became convinced that the condition of the world was such that only authoritarianism would solve its problems. He was for a time involved with the fascistic movement of Gen. Eoin O'Duffy and his Blueshirts. (Possibly this deviation was partly a result of his long, and mostly fruitful, friendship with Ezra Pound.)

So the talented 1890s poet turned into the greatest of modern Irishmen and then into a Wild Old Poet, full of outrageous stories and opinions expressed, as Foster remarks, "with gleams of merciless humour." Sometimes things went wrong: among the last poems, some are guilty of what Foster calls a "hectoring didacticism" -- "Under Ben Bulben" for instance. But the achievement of those years remains virtually without parallel.

He kept up his lifelong interest in the wisdom of the East and would spend hours with his guru, Shri Purohit Swami, their religious musings punctuated by the noises resulting from the Swami's flatulence. Foster characteristically allows George to tell this anecdote in her own words. He has an eye for the comic, but allows himself only a faint smile. It adds to his authority that he can, when he needs, be forthrightly critical, as when he describes some of Yeats' mystical writings as capable of wrapping even "the most attentive reader in a dense fog." But he is not afraid of the poet's willful obscurities, as in late poems like "The Statues," remarking that their obscurity paradoxically helps to make them memorable.

In 1937, within months of his death, Yeats described himself as "more a man of genius, more gay, more miserable" than he had been formerly. He was ill but abundantly creative, enjoying a terminal burst of well-being, and never more fully himself. He was writing poems and plays as he had done for so long, but now in a bolder, more outrageous manner, confident of his powers, careless of responses to the sometimes miraculous results.

Such a life, such an extraordinary old age called for a great book. To write it called for exceptional powers. It was not just that an enormous amount of material had to be controlled and digested -- that might have been done by uninspired diligence. The bedrock of this enormous volume is not just Foster's intimate and consolidated knowledge but his deep and loving respect for Yeats -- and also his care to deal justly with the poet's family, friends, business associates, mistresses and fellow-poets from whom he learned and whom he taught. I have never read a biography of any poet that has conveyed so clearly the genius of its subject and the talent of its author.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
62°