Yeats's swirling intellectual origins


BIOGRAPHY: NICHOLAS ALLENreviews Words Alone: Yeats and his InheritancesBy RF Foster Oxford University Press, 226pp. £16.99

FOR A POET, dramatist and critic, William Butler Yeats crossed the lines between art and history with occult transparency. His lifelong obsession with systems and symbolism had its roots in the arcane traditions of the 19th century, in theosophy and the Order of the Golden Dawn. As plots to reconnect the invisible world with a global moment of imperial expansion, these ritual societies offered the young poet, and many others like him, a synthesis between religion and the imagination that Darwin and his dread attendants threatened to break. An inner emigre, Yeats was in flight from the iron logic of the late British empire and its provincial governance in Ireland.

The collision between poetic genius and world conditions in the compact space of a declining Protestant bourgeoisie gave a charge to Yeats’s early emotional life, spread as it was between Sligo, Dublin and London. This context has come to define Yeats’s first phase of development, at least until The Wind Among the Reedsof 1899, a lyric collection that said goodbye to a century in its twilight perfection, Aengus left searching for the silver apples of the moon, the golden apples of the sun.

That this past can be drawn at all depends in large part on the pioneering work of RF Foster. A historian in the way that Joyce was a novelist, Foster has tracked Yeats through the thickets of biography and poetic self-invention for decades, and the world of letters is richer for the effort. Foster has combined his cultural forensics with a vigorous polemic of what he perceives to be modish or imprecise. Accordingly, Words Alone: Yeats and His Inheritancesoffers rich entertainment in its footnotes, which take partisan positions with the flourish of a master.

This provocation extends to the book’s initial argument, which is that Yeats’s 19th-century formation is best understood in the context of an insular literary and political culture whose close comparative is Scotland. This association is less national than urban, in circulation between Dublin and Edinburgh. Neither did Scotland disappear in the 20th century. Even in Yeats’s later life the island fringes came to Irish attention through Hugh MacDiarmid, while Louis MacNeice’s I Crossed the Minchsecured another thin line around the northern archipelago. Foster is attuned to this cultural history in the context of the Union and is fascinating on the sympathies of Walter Scott, the novels of Maria Edgeworth and Yeats’s attention to William Carleton.

Words Alonegrew from Foster’s delivery of the Clark Lectures at Cambridge University in 2009. Its four chapters cross and deepen themes of intention, audience and reception that underpin excursions into diffuse aspects of 19th-century cultural history. Especially rich is Foster’s evocation of the uncertainty at the heart of Victorian Britain. Dressed in the rich vestments of a world empire, Britain shivered in the union that brought the Famine to Ireland. This catastrophe informed a history of silence that attended mass death and emigration.

Foster sidesteps this problem of silence by looking at the mid century through the careers of the Young Irelanders whose projects for political renewal shaped the mentalitéof the late-century Dublin in which Yeats was active as artist and organiser. Most striking is Charles Gavan Duffy’s friendship with Thomas Carlyle, Carlyle’s intemperate antagonism to Ireland measured against his sympathetic reading of the Nation, the nationalist weekly newspaper that Gavan Duffy co-founded.

Foster relishes the improbable careers of the Young Irelanders, with Gavan Duffy, for example, emigrating to Australia to become governor of Victoria and a knight. Gavan Duffy’s contemporary Thomas Francis Meagher later commanded the Irish Brigade at the Battle of Antietam, during the American Civil War, and has found his way into fiction as a shadow character in Joseph O’Connor’s magnificently dark novel Redemption Falls.

The intellectual legacy of these mid-century characters swirled in the Dublin of Yeats’s early formation. The idea has been, from the poet’s own Autobiographies, that Yeats entered a world born old, conversation corralled by Edward Dowden, a Trinity professor of English whose opinions were as walled-in as the university. This was unfair to Dowden and to Dublin, but genius has no sympathy for others’ truth. Foster captures the early paradox of Yeats’s self-making brilliantly, Ireland a necessary stage for confirmation first and rejection after.

The confusion of artistic arrival in a culture sundered by language, faith and politics registers throughout the book, and Foster’s gift is to orchestrate the whole into a discordant singing school. Surprising conjunctions between Irish folklore and northern Europe find form in Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm’s translation into German of Thomas Crofton Croker’s Fairy Legends and Traditions of the South of Ireland, from 1825. Croker’s tales had an afterlife that extended to influence Douglas Hyde and the young Yeats, who responded to the precedent set by the peasantry that social change could be understood through the ancient mechanism of the fairies. Recently the gruesome Gothic that followed has been read to symbolise Anglo-Ireland’s guilt, with Bram Stoker’s Dracula an ascendancy figure in disguise, dripping with the blood of his tenants. Foster has little sympathy for this, substituting Swedenborg for Edward Said, putting theology where empire might rest.

Foster finishes this study with a return to arguments first considered in the earlier biography. Considering Yeats’s apprenticeship again, Foster connects the disturbed root system of 19th-century Ireland to the bloody soil from which the poet grew, Fenians, fairies and philosophy caught in a crucible that produced some of the 20th century’s greatest literature.

As a young man Yeats scrawled a motto on his notebook: “Talent perceives difference, genius unity.” Foster’s great achievement is to mould the early cast of Yeats’s art into the twisting shape of a century whose intimates were tragedy and the imagination, close familiars to a poetry that soon changed the world from which it was made.

Nicholas Allen is the Burns Library visiting scholar in Irish studies at Boston College and the Moore Institute professor at the National University of Ireland Galway