W.B. Yeats, A Life - 1. The Apprentice Mage, by R.F. Foster (OUP, £15 in UK)

 

The over-used word "magisterial" is unavoidable in considering this first volume of Roy Foster's life of Yeats, which he took over from Denis Donoghue, who in turn had taken over from F.S.L. Lyons. Foster, like Lyons, is a historian, not a literary critic, a fact about which he is not a little apologetic, not to say defensive, in his introduction. But apology or defence are not required. Yeats was wholly an engage poet - even if his manner of engagement was entirely his own - and it is appropriate that his life and work should be considered in the light of the history of his time. The Yeats who emerges from Foster's portrait is far from the Celtic mystifier he pretended to be. He was shrewd, manipulative, hungry for power and influence - the account here of his days at the Abbey Theatre is an eyebrow-raiser - and a diner-out to challenge Henry James. Foster's writing is elegant and incisive as always. Roll on Volume II.