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Articles and Reviews: POETRY

W B Yeats – Man And Poet

By A Norman Jeffares

This reissued critical biography was first published in 1949, and remains one of the key texts about Yeats. Jeffares mixes biography and criticism, showing the interrelationship between the life and the work, and how one who said that we must choose either perfection of one or the other, achieved a high degree of accomplishment in both.

Yeats was lucky in having an indulgent father and a supportive family. He was no genius at school, and as anyone who has read his prose will know, he remained a bit woolly headed all his life. ‘You would like to be a philosopher when you are really a poet,’ his father told him. We learn of the meetings with, and influence of, George Russell, John O’Leary, Katharine Tynan and, of course, Maud Gonne. In later life, when he told her, ‘I am not happy without you.’, she replied, ‘Oh yes, you are, because you make beautiful poetry out of what you call your unhappiness and you are happy in that. Marriage would be such a dull affair. Poets should never marry. The world should thank me for not marrying you.’ We see how he endured poverty until well on in life, but stuck to his guns. He also stood by John Synge, when the mob was baying for his blood, and we get the details of the founding of The Abbey in 1904.

Jeffares is good on the different stages in Yeats’ development as a poet. He is right when he writes: ‘The verses in The Wind Among The Reeds have great beauty, but lack the honesty, even the bitter and brutal honesty, of much of his late work. That is why the newcomer to Yeats’ poetry finds that the unreality of the earlier symbolism is less striking than the expression of the full man in the later work.’ Jeffares is quite specific about the nature of the change: ‘He had cut away the props which supported his early work: he no longer relied on the elaborate mythology which he had created for himself out of the romantic poets, the Celtic legends, folklore and a smattering of symbolism. His verse had changed and he had begun to write the poetry which was to make him leader of a new generation of poets, unique in the history of English literature as a poet who was able to change his style so completely, to write with increasing energy as he grew older.’

My own view on Yeats is that he took a long time to grow up and get good, (he hadn’t done anything like his best work when he won the Nobel Prize), and that on a personal level he was probably the kind of person who was a royal pain in the ass to know, (I mean, you can hardly imagine going for a pint with him in The Flowing Tide when the was director of The Abbey). Even his wife George said, ‘He simply did not understand people.’ But he did remain in Ireland at a time when anyone with an ounce of creative talent was getting out as fast as they could, and any artist working in Ireland today owes something of the freedom they now enjoy to Yeats. In that measure, he is heroic.

This is a handsome edition, which will compliment Denis Donoghue’s Modern Masters study, and will provide a service until, and probably after, Roy Foster’s biography appears.

First published in the Big Issues


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