Why Yeats Matters

By Charles Matthews
San Jose Mercury News, 2003

Was William Butler Yeats the last great poet to write in English? The last, that is, who could stand comfortably with Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Pope, Wordsworth, and Keats?

Of the poets from the generations that followed Yeats (who was born in 1865), only a few – perhaps T.S. Eliot, Robert Frost, and Wallace Stevens – would even be considered for that pantheon, but they seem somehow frail and spidery in the company of Milton and Wordsworth. As for contemporary figures, how many English or American poets under the age of 50 can you name?

It may be that the great age of poetry in English is over, and that 1939, the year Yeats died, can serve as the terminal date on its tombstone. So it seems appropriate to ask, when faced with the second volume of a 1,500-page biography of Yeats that has taken its author, R.F. Foster, 17 years to write: Is Yeats – is any poet – worth such an effort?

The first volume of Foster’s biography was published in 1997. His second volume begins when Yeats was 50. Offhand, I can’t think of any other writer whose greatest work was ahead of him at that age, but these were the years when Yeats produced such poems as ”The Second Coming,” ”A Prayer for My Daughter,” ”Leda and the Swan,” ”The Tower,” ”Sailing to Byzantium,” ”Among School Children,” ”Lapis Lazuli,” ”Long-Legged Fly” and – in the last year of his life – “The Circus Animals’ Desertion.”

He also married, fathered two children, served as a senator (a non-elective position) for the Irish Free State, continued his involvement with the Abbey Theatre, founded an Irish Academy of Letters, fought against censorship and for the separation of church and state, toured the United States, won the Nobel Prize, and even took a leading role in designing the new Irish coinage.

He indulged in several extramarital flings, had a vasectomy as part of a ”rejuvenation” treatment, used a blue rinse on his whitening hair, flirted with fascism, and grew more deeply involved with the occult, which resulted in his near-unreadable mystico-mythical theory of history, ”A Vision.” There were times while reading Foster’s fascinatingly detailed account of Yeats’ life when I marveled that so much nonsense could coexist with so much wisdom. How did a man who could have been an obscure crank, devoted to astrology and communicating with spirit guides, become a great poet?

It’s to Foster’s credit that he never stops to wrestle with such possibly unanswerable questions. Foster – who is a professor of history at Oxford, not a literary biographer – simply has a wonderful story to tell, and he tells it with a novelistic mastery, careful to put Yeats in his time and place and to delineate that time and place skillfully. As Foster told an interviewer for the Guardian, Yeats was ”not a loony misplaced southern Californian, but a quintessential Irish Protestant looking for his own kind of magic. As a Protestant, your relationship with the Irish land was extremely complicated and compromised.”

Yeats famously wrote, ”We make out of the quarrel with others, rhetoric, but of the quarrel with ourselves, poetry.” In fact he blurred that distinction more often than not, and the strength and sinew of much of his greatest verse comes from the tension between Yeats and his country, a readiness to quarrel with those whose vision of Ireland differed from his. And some of his best earlier verse came out of the lovers’ quarrels with the beautiful revolutionary Maud Gonne.

By the time this second volume opens, Gonne was separated from her husband, John MacBride, and was living in France. For his participation in the Easter Rebellion of 1916, MacBride was executed, earning his place in Yeats’ ambivalent tribute to the rebels, ”Easter 1916,” as the ”man I had dreamed/A drunken, vain-glorious lout” who ”had done most bitter wrong/To some who are near my heart” but had been ”Transformed utterly” by his participation in the rebellion.

MacBride’s death opened the way for Yeats to make yet another play for Gonne. Thwarted once again, he turned his attentions to her 22-year-old daughter, Iseult. Rebuffed by her, he married 24-year-old Georgie Hyde Lees, whose fascination with the occult matched his own. The marriage didn’t begin well. The groom had a psychosomatic breakdown, perhaps not unexpected from a 52-year-old man getting married for the first time, and to a woman less than half his age.

But George – as she came to be known after Ezra Pound started calling her that – had a special talent that cemented the marriage. She was adept at ”automatic writing,” serving as a conduit to the spirit world with which her husband was so eager to communicate. Foster gives us a droll, sly account of the way George manipulated Yeats with the messages she related from the spirits. She even managed their sex life, and carefully steered him away from his obsession with Maud and Iseult.

Given that Yeats was capable – as his poetry often demonstrates – of good sense, I sometimes wonder if his apparent credulity was not in part a pose. A game, after all, is more fun if you pretend that it’s real. But Foster helps us keep in mind that Yeats’ pursuit of the esoteric was a way of looking for certainties in a world that seemed more terrible with each year – the World War, the Bolshevik revolution, the rise of fascism and Nazism, and the outbreak of another World War whose inevitability was apparent in the last months of his life. And always in the foreground there was the violent struggle of his own country for independence.

Yeats may have dabbled in fog-brained mysticism and been tempted by narrow-minded politics, but he neither charged into the one nor retreated into the other. A distaste for democracy betrayed him into an early admiration of Mussolini, and of the Blueshirts in his own country, but while Foster finds Yeats ”elitist and oligarchic,” he’s inclined to downplay Yeats’ enthusiasm for fascism. Unlike many of his contemporaries, including Gonne, he never expressed anti-Semitic views, and his friendship with Pound was strained by Pound’s increasing fanaticism.

Yeats lived in uncertain times and reacted to them without the benefit of our hindsight. More to the point, he managed in his poetry to find a central humanity unfettered by ideology. This is what makes it possible for generation after generation to return to a poem like ”The Second Coming” and find truth in lines so often quoted that they come to us unbidden: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst/Are full of passionate intensity.”

”The Second Coming” is larded with esoteric references to ”Spiritus Mundi” and underpinned by his cyclical theory of history, and it was written in the aftermath of World War I, when the ”blood-dimmed tide” of revolution had been loosed into his own country. But these are just the specifics that underlie the universal in the poem, as the specifics of Yeats’ literary career underlie the universality of aging in ”The Circus Animals’ Desertion.”

The brilliant achievement of Foster’s biography is that it acquaints us intimately with the specifics, and thereby brings home more clearly how invaluable Yeats’ poetry is. No one, I submit, except possibly Shakespeare in ”King Lear,” has written more powerfully and persuasively on aging than Yeats did in ”The Circus Animals’ Desertion.” To read it, and the other poems that Foster cites, is to be reminded that poetry does some things that can’t be done by the dominant literary genre of our day, the novel, or the dominant media – film, television, popular music.

In ”Coole Park and Ballylee,” memorializing his patron, collaborator and friend Lady Augusta Gregory, Yeats wrote:

We were the last romantics, chose for theme

Traditional sanctity and loveliness,

All that is written in what poets name

The book of the people, whatever most can bless

The mind of man or elevate a rhyme;

But fashion’s changed….

When they’re read today, these lines could be an epitaph for poetry itself.