Out of Celtic Twilight

Biography focuses on people and events that influenced W.B. Yeats

IT'S doubtful that this book will ever get a fair hearing. At first glance, the production is pure blarney. Florid green endpapers, gold leaf and Celtic design on the spine, medieval type for cover and title page, numerous black and white photographs throughout, some full page. Yet once into it, from time to time, one is struck by a nice coordination of picture and text, sometimes a startling one. And the text - termed pedestrian by impatient reviewers - proves sound. But this is not the long awaited, ``official'' biography of the Irish poet W.B. Yeats: That is being written by Roy Foster, a historian.

A. Norman Jeffares published his first study of Yeats 40 years ago. His new book, he says, is a ``study of Yeats's life rather than a blend of biography and a critical assessment of the writings.'' Long ago Yeats reached the status of the classic, which, as this great Yeats scholar once put it, means he had more pages written about him than he himself wrote.

Most people know Yeats as the author of `The Lake Isle of Innisfree,'' ``Speech after long silence,'' and ``The Second Coming'': ``Things fall apart, the center cannot hold; mere anarchy is loosed upon the world ... The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.'' Those must be the most quoted lines by any modern poet.

Yeats's canonical status has made him almost anonymous. As Jeffares documents in this scrupulous and fair presentation of the facts of Yeats's life, the poet emerged from ``The Celtic Twilight'' (as he titled an early prose work) into his role as ``a sixty-year-old smiling public man'' (from his poem ``Among School Children'') at a time when modern Ireland came of age. Born in 1865, Yeats was 37 when a play of his turned up the heat on Irish nationalism.

Schooled briefly in the visual arts (his father was a painter), Yeats devoted the first part of his life to exploring native Irish legends and the occult sciences with equal intensity. His lifelong love for Maud Gonne (she had the leading role in his first hit play) is one of the constants in the constant scene-changing charted with precision and interest by Jeffares. Yeats, called ``The Great Founder'' of modern Ireland, spent most of his life elsewhere.

Yeats looked back on the first, romantic phase of his career with misgiving. In 1913, he wrote: ``Romantic Ireland is dead and gone.'' But when the rebels took over the Dublin post office in what would later be called the Easter Rebellion, he felt the wind shift: ``All changed, changed utterly: A terrible beauty is born,'' he wrote in his poem ``Easter, 1916.'' The pattern was established. Fueled by a mix of romantic Irish legend and modern ideology, Irish rebels would push the police (later the British forces in the north) into reaction. The 1916 rebels became martyrs when executed; Maud Gonne's estranged husband was among them. The cause now had its saints.

Yeats recoiled. ``Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,'' he wrote in ``The Second Coming.'' He married Georgie Hyde Lees a year later. They eventually had two children. ``His marriage transformed his life,'' writes Jeffares. On their honeymoon, Yeats discovered that George (as she was called after their marriage) was a medium. Her gift for automatic writing eventually helped him publish his work on speculative history, ``A Vision'' (1926). Jeffares points out that often the content of the messages that came through George related to his obsessions with other women, ``diminished his guilt and enabled him to achieve a certain detachment.'' Yeats's role as Gaelic poet and womanizer thus received another check. First history - the violence of the Easter Rebellion - then George.

Yeats wrote that ``We make out of the quarrel with others, rhetoric; but out of the quarrel with ourselves, poetry.'' These quarrels exhausted him; George often had to act as nurse as well as medium. Jeffares connects Yeats's depressions with his quarrel with Ireland: ``...what he was experiencing was the difficulty of influencing men and women of lesser vision, lesser energy.'' And he points out that ``the answer to his difficulty in concentrating lay in the discipline of art.''

From these dense, prosaic pages, we come to see why Yeats would finally write: ``When I try to put all into a phrase, I say, `Man can embody truth, but he cannot know it.''' From his early interest in the occult to his later focus on Swift, Berkeley, and Burke, Yeats always sought something impersonal to believe in.

Of his stranger mythic notions - the gyres and cycles of ``A Vision'' for example - Jeffares writes, ``He regarded them as stylistic arrangements of experience which helped him to hold reality and justice in a single thought.'' His use of Japanese masks in his plays and symbols in his lyrics point to his belief in the universal mind and memory. In his last years, it appears he was thinking about the nature of the ``individual mind.''

Yeats was a tireless worker and reworker of his poems. He constantly shaped and reshaped his own voice. Of the many theses one can discern in these pages, this is one of the most timely. Yeats may have been a romantic at heart, but he was a self-critical one. In his great poem ``Among School Children,'' he addresses enduring images as presences, ``O self-born mockers of man's enterprise,'' and explains: ``Labour is blossoming or dancing where/ The body is not bruised to pleasure soul,/ Nor beauty born out of its own despair,/ Nor blear-eyed wisdom out of midnight oil.'' The negatives point to clich'es. The poem ends on a line that has been seen as a key to modern poetry. ``How can we know the dancer from the dance?''

This biographer of Yeats prudently avoids separating the dancer from his dance. Jeffare's modest claim for his biography - ``a study of Yeats's life'' - seems entirely in keeping with the spirit of the master.

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