Words Alone: Yeats And His Inheritances, By RF Foster

Roy Foster's Words Alone brings together the Irish historian's 2009 Clark Lectures at Cambridge. Foster established himself as a formidable and popular Yeats scholar with his acclaimed two volume WB Yeats: A Life: a commanding look at the Nobel prize-winning poet, dramatist and critic, who died in 1939.

Now Foster offers a view of Yeats's cultural and intellectual hinterland. As he points out, "One result of Yeats's spectacular imposition upon events and people around him and after him is that what came before tends to take second place, or to be taken for granted". That leads us to overlook the "fertile seedbed of nineteenth-century Irish writing".

The opening section, "National Tales and National Futures", places Yeats, born in 1865, in the context of Ireland after 1800, exploring the supposition that "Irish imaginative writing in the nineteenth century was seen as actively and instinctively 'political'''. Foster turns his attention to the versions of "Young Ireland" that existed between Catholic Emancipation in 1829 and the Famine of 1846, and the role of key figures in Irish Romantic Nationalism, such as Charles Gavan Duffy, with their "mobilizing rhetoric" and "determination to educate the nation into consciousness of its own nationhood".

The third part, "Lost in the Big House", provides a fascinating disquisition on the house as a literary topos that combined "loneliness, uncertainty... an implicitly threatening countryside, unknown natives, the threat of death". Foster has a great skill for resetting assumptions that history has suggested and literature underscored, reminding us for instance how recent historiography has emphasised an Irish imperial energy. Young middle-class Catholics, fast-tracked in the necessary examinations by the new Queen's Colleges, took themselves off to the Empire and "ran bits of it as to the manner born, just like their Scottish contemporaries".

The final section, "Oisin Comes Home", considers the influence of figures such as Fenian agitator John O'Leary and the strategies Yeats deployed to engage with these legacies. In his early work, he adopted "a deceptive simplicity of language which would suggest a connection to the authenticity of the peasantry".

Words Alone is supported by illustrations, including a reproduction of part of a "note by Yeats on talent and genius" from 1887, and Max Beerbohm's 1904 cartoon of Yeats presenting novelist George Moore to the Queen of the Fairies.

In charting the flow and interchange of ideas across Ireland and Britain, this richly atmospheric book both complicates and enhances our view of history and Yeats's place in it. By the simple virtue of its own excellence, it deserves a wide readership.

Adam O'Riordan's 'In the Flesh' is published by Chatto & Windus

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