Great poet, reactionary nationalist

Frank Foley reviews The Life of W B Yeats by Terence Brown, IR£13.40 pbk

In against the Grain, Terry Eagleton asserts of the literary critic John Bayley: "The whole body of his work is caught within a spurious belief that the truth of a text resides in the consciousness of its author.... Yet it is remarkable to what illuminating uses this discredited theoretical doctrine is turned".

The Life of W. B. Yeats, which is in equal measures biography and textual analysis, reminds one of Eagleton's pronouncements.

Brown begins with the arrival of Jervis Yeats in Ireland "in the wake of the Williamite Settlement" and provides a wealth of biographical and historical detail, continually applied to Yeats' oeuvre.

He describes Yeats' traumatic early years; his social ineptitude and the old man who, having undergone Steinach's rejuvenation operation in 1933, sought in sexuality as death neared, "the transcendental illumination of consciousness that ritual magic had once seemed to promise".

Yeats believed that "the month of October 1917 was astrologically a most propitious time for him to enter on the hazardous experiment of matrimony." Yeats, rejected by Iseult, Maud Gonne's daughter, on October 20, aged 52 married Bertha Georgina Hyde-Lees.

In a life dominated by contradictions the author of Easter 1916 received an English Civil List pension.

The uprising upset his "habits of thought and work", but not enough to prevent him from delaying its publication so he would not jeopardise his income from the British establishment.

Brown's academic rigour and passion for the subject are truly impressive, as is his knowledge of Yeats' life and vast literary oeuvre, but he indulges Yeats' character defects as a "great man's peccadilloes".

Not that he is oblivious to complexities, contradictions, and irrationality of a practising spiritualist who thought modernity had caused a "desacralisation of the world."

Influenced by Mathew Arnold, Yeats saw the "Celt as nature's dreamer," innately incapable of self-government. His Celtic lyricism was acceptable to an English imperialist periodical like W E Henley's National Observer.

Yeats' crude élitism was commonplace among his peers. He despised democracy and loathed socialism. He showed "patrician contempt" for the efforts of labour leaders like Connolly and Larkin, trying to alleviate the appalling poverty of the majority of Dublin's population -- Base-born products of base beds (Under Ben Bulben).

Conor Cruise O'Brien iconoclastically marked the centenary of Yeats' birth by portraying him in an influential essay as a man who combined passion and a strategic self-serving political cunning through most of his life.

In a lecture given in 1989, the basis of The Intellectuals and the Masses, Professor John Carey claimed: -- "The principle around which modernist literature and culture fashioned themselves was the exclusion of the masses, the defeat of their power, the removal of their literacy, the denial of their humanity".

This observation applies as much to W B Yeats as to T S Eliot, Carey's prime target.

October/November 2001

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