Songs at twilight

Books: Terry Eagleton treads softly on an Irish bard's dreams: W B Yeats: a life. Vol I:
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W B Yeats: a life. Vol I: The Apprentice Mage, 1865-1914 by R F Foster, Oxford University Press, pounds 25

You were silly like us", W.H. Auden wrote of Yeats, but he was really just being polite: Yeats was a lot sillier than almost any of us. Few poets of comparable greatness have believed such extravagant nonsense. Spiritualism, Theosophy, astral bodies, occultism, and (some would add) Irish Fenianism: Yeats managed to swallow all of this, along with regular doses of hashish and mescalin. "I was once afraid of turning out reasonable," he wrote to a colleague, but the anxiety was quite misplaced.

At one spiritualist seance, he was urgently buttonholed by a ghostly voice as "Mr.Gates", consoling evidence that not even the spirit world is free from human error. Yeats displayed a remarkable capacity to credit almost any high-toned gobbledygook currently in fashion, and in the spook- ridden fin-de-siecle there was a lot of it on offer. This was especially true of pre-revolutionary Ireland, where it was easy to cross over from gun-running to Rosicrucianism. But Yeats combined this gullibility with a tough-minded refusal of anything as vulgarly constricting as belief, and for the most part kept it well out of his poetry, like some brilliant surgeon who proves able to stitch up a heart even when hallucinating.

He was also more contradictory than most of us. If he was occult and oracular he was also an operator, scheming and caballing in quarrelsome Ireland while preserving an air of disinterested Olympian wisdom. Investing a ferocious Victorian energy in post-Victorian affairs, he launched the Irish literary revival and the Abbey theatre, but was so absent-minded that he once had to ask a waiter at his club whether he had eaten his dinner or not.

He was a Protestant gentleman among nationalist schoolteachers, a hardheaded businessman who believed in fairies, a distinguished man of letters who couldn't spell the word "feel", a would-be aristocrat who lounged in country houses and celebrated the simple peasantry. A charming, distracted figure loftily aloof from politics, he was in later life an enthusiast for racist eugenics, blood elites and the cleansing power of military violence. As a flamboyant egocentric, he dreamed of extinguishing the self, and was torn all his life between the smell of horses and the odour of sanctity.

It is doubtful that Yeats would have altogether approved of biographies, though he penned one or two such fragments himself. What he valued in life was what could be transmuted into art, which life could then imitate if it pleased; and like his compatriot Oscar Wilde, he conducted his personal existence as a kind of public mythology. The self was not something to be observed buttering toast or putting the cat out but was a sort of artistic self-fashioning, an heroic enterprise to be lived with one canny eye on how it would all look to the historians. Ordinary life could be left to servants and shopkeepers - or to the materialist English, whose passion for realist novels he always thought faintly ill-bred.

The official biography, even so, is here at last, after two false starts: one by the critic Denis Donoghue, and one by the Irish historian Leland Lyons, or "British Leland", as those compatriots who found him a shade too suburban-English might have called him. The Apprentice Mage, which takes Yeats's life up to the brink of his fiftieth year, is a marvel of painstaking historical research, which distils a formidable heap of evidence into a splendidly elegant narrative. R F Foster has a remarkably shrewd, worldly-wise sort of mind, at once tough and generous, and resists both idolatry and iconoclasm in this magnificently sane account. It is also for the most part a remarkably judicious, even-handed portrait, which in the snake-pit of Irish studies these days is something of a minor miracle.

As a leading "revisionist" Irish historian, Roy Foster is well-known for his suave massaging of Irish history to take the pain of out of it: the man who made Connemara safe for Camden Town. There are hints of that here - Yeats's lover Maud Gonne is hammered for her anti-Semitism but uncredited for her work among women - but the High Table scoffing at aspects of Gaelic culture which disfigures his work elsewhere is here thankfully muted.

In another sense, however, this book lacks some of Foster's sterling historical virtues. His work Modern Ireland displays a kind of long-headedness, a plucking of trends and patterns from the ruck of historical detail, which The Apprentice Mage notably lacks.

This meticulous, blow-by-blow account, which takes Yeats from his art- school days through to the Irish Revival, London literary life, early nationalism, the founding of the Abbey theatre and his first encounters with Ezra Pound, commits the familiar biographer's mistake of concealing the wood with the trees. Intent on his deft brushstrokes, Foster hardly ever steps back from the canvas to size up the full figure evolving beneath his art. That he can discern significant patterns is clear enough; it is just that he too often fails to let the reader in on them. One has the curious sense that Foster knows quite a bit more about Yeats than he is telling us.

After some quarter-of-a-million words, it is hard to know what, say, Yeats's dominant aesthetic ideas were, or how to assess the relations between his work and European modernism. What was it about a late 19th- century colonial backwater which managed to produce such a world-class poet, and how was Yeats at once the child of that context and creatively askew to it? Foster's whole treatment is too briskly externalised, too much a question of the dental treatment which kept the poet in London during a June heatwave.

Understandably anxious that other biographers have been there before him, Foster has decided to concentrate less on what the poet wrote than on what he did; but it is a hard distinction to sustain, and in any case Yeats's poetry enthrals us more than his dining habits. One suspects that it might enthral Foster more too, given the fineness of his odd flashes of literary analysis; but the sensitive critic is grimly subordinated to the workaday historian. For all its perceptiveness, the book is oddly unreflective.

Some English readers, obsessed with "real life" and sceptical of big ideas, will doubtless find this limitation a virtue. But this sumptuous, astutely intelligent work hasn't even much bold revaluation to offer of the life. Here, at least, one could wish for a little more abrasive revisionism. The Apprentice Mage marvellously fills out the familiar contours of the poet's frenetic life, but does little to reshape them. After some 500 pages, we know incomparably more about this self-mythologising maestro than we did, but little of what we learn challenges the received images of him.

Perhaps such an overview will emerge in Volume Two, but by then there will be an enormous amount to summarise. Anyway, it will be interesting to see how Foster deals with the more embarrassing aspects of his protagonists' later quasi-fascist views - whether their repugnance will be blandly massaged away, or candidly confronted.