BOOKS: THE SEXED-UP SENATOR ; Yeats Was Firing on All Cylinders Almost to the Last. Mark Bostridge Marvels at the Culmination of a Majestic Biography; W B Yeats: A Life II: The Arch-Poet by R F Foster OXFORD Pounds 30 Pounds 26 (+ Pounds 2.25 P&P PER ORDER) 0870 800 1122

By Bostridge, Mark | The Independent on Sunday (London, England), September 28, 2003 | Go to article overview
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BOOKS: THE SEXED-UP SENATOR ; Yeats Was Firing on All Cylinders Almost to the Last. Mark Bostridge Marvels at the Culmination of a Majestic Biography; W B Yeats: A Life II: The Arch-Poet by R F Foster OXFORD Pounds 30 Pounds 26 (+ Pounds 2.25 P&P PER ORDER) 0870 800 1122


Bostridge, Mark, The Independent on Sunday (London, England)


This second and final volume of R F Foster's biography of W B Yeats opens in 1915, in Yeats's 50th year, and at an important crossroads in the poet's life. Yeats had recently completed a memoir of his childhood in which he had concluded that all life was a preparation for something that never happens. He was in a mood for summing up, for polishing his public image and securing its rightful place in Irish history. The drama of his first half-century had vitally interconnected with - and shaped - Ireland's development towards national self-consciousness, and he was already a strongly mythologised presence in the annals of modern literature. In the handy phrase of an earlier commentator, Francis Hackett, he could be said to have "achieved Yeats".

Yet, as Roy Foster sets out to discover, Yeats's remaining quarter-century was to be a period of "seismic shifts" in his personal, political, artistic and spiritual life. This upheaval is initially most apparent in his poetry. The delicate, rarefied beauty of his early verse, drawing on Gaelic legends, had acquired a more personal and realistic tone in the love poetry addressed to Maude Gonne at the beginning of the 20th century. By 1914, however, a bleaker, more disillusioned voice dominated his work. Yeats had decided to write poems that would be "a criticism of life", that would allow him to continue waging cultural war in Ireland and to engage in the political wrangles surrounding the emergent Irish Free State.

Having distanced himself from his youthful Fenianism through his support for Home Rule, Yeats would find himself in a new political role in the 1920s as a Senator of the Free State, making significant interventions on the thorny issue of divorce in Ireland (pointing out the backwardness of countries that didn't accept divorce), attacking the de Valera government's censorship of so-called "Evil Literature", and acting as chairman of the commission on the coinage. He also enjoyed world recognition with the award, in 1923, of the Nobel Prize for Literature. Meanwhile, there had been significant changes in his personal life. The "burdensome beauty" of the increasingly fanatical Maude Gonne, now joined by the equally disturbing presence of her daughter Iseult, with whom Yeats was also besotted, remained a constant factor in his imaginative and emotional existence, as did the companionship and support of his erstwhile collaborator, Augusta, Lady Gregory. But his marriage in 1917 to Georgie Hyde Lees heralded a more settled and contented phase as well as providing a new and invigorating source of inspiration. On their honeymoon her experiments with automatic writing revived Yeats's interest in the occult and had a profound effect on his work, leading to a system of symbolism, later published as The Vision.

One of Yeats's aims in The Vision is to uncover his own "Unity of Being", and much of Yeats's work from this latter part of his life, his poetry and autobiography as well as his mystico-philosophical writings, is taken up with weaving the past into a pattern, and giving a unitary force to his own personal mythology. "Hammer your thoughts into a unity," as Yeats told himself in 1919. As Yeats's first fully authorised biographer in over 50 years, Foster has described his task in terms of patiently unstitching that pattern, of finding the "incoherence" of Yeats's life as opposed to the unity that Yeats himself imposed upon it. Previous biographers have dealt with Yeats's "intellectual omnivorousness", which only appeared to increase with age, by breaking it down ruthlessly into compartments; Foster's approach, by contrast, has been to allow all Yeats's "frantic and diverse involvements" to cut across one another and emerge biographically as they happened. This is very much biography written by a historian, not simply because Foster is unrivalled in his ability to convey the intricate steps of the ghastly dance of death that is the history of 20th-century Ireland but, more significantly, because of Foster's rigorous reliance on a strict chronology and the reconstruction of the everyday.

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BOOKS: THE SEXED-UP SENATOR ; Yeats Was Firing on All Cylinders Almost to the Last. Mark Bostridge Marvels at the Culmination of a Majestic Biography; W B Yeats: A Life II: The Arch-Poet by R F Foster OXFORD Pounds 30 Pounds 26 (+ Pounds 2.25 P&P PER ORDER) 0870 800 1122
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