The magic of poetry

28th March 1997 at 00:00
W B Yeats: A Life Volume 1: The Apprentice Mage By R F Foster Oxford University Press, Pounds 25

Christopher Hawtree reads the first part of a long-awaited biography of W B Yeats.

At Lady Ottoline Morrell's London house, one tea-time in the Thirties, there was a meeting between young Stephen Spender and the aged, if not especially old W B Yeats. "At the age of seventy, he had something of the appearance of an overgrown art student, with shaggy, hanging head and a dazed, grey, blind gaze." Their conversation was not a success, for Spender mistook an earnest question about the Sayers, a troupe of poetry reciters, for chat about detective fiction.

With which, Lady Ottoline sought to ease matters by reaching for the telephone and summoning a bemused Virginia Woolf to join them. "I listened,relieved not to have to take part in the conversation, while Yeats sat on the sofa with Virginia Woolf and explained to her that her novel, The Waves, expressed in fiction the idea of pulsations of energy throughout the universe which was common to the modern theories of physicists and to recent discoveries in psychic research." Not only that, but as Spender later heard from her, the poet had gone on to "speak of the carved wooden head of a baby on a pillar at the foot of a staircase, which Yeats said had spoken Greek to him. She went home impressed and elated and amused and mocking."

Whatever Virginia Woolf's genius for exaggeration, it is a view of Yeats with which all but his most deluded admirers must concur. Life is too short to linger over the bizarre theories of A Vision - let alone the annotated edition to which one academic gave precious time. Even so, the preposterous was central to Yeats's art. Such a spirit is never far from this sober chronicle which, ending some two decades before that tea at Lady Ottoline's, is the first volume of a long-awaited definitive biography. The magisterial tone might be inferred from its referring to the subject throughout as WBY, something which obliges one to compress the author himself into RFF.

A historian by calling, RFF took on the biography from F S L Lyons, whom it had killed. No such strain is apparent in this large, elegantly-produced volume, nor is there any truck with fashionable literary theory as RFF diligently sets about recreating Yeats, his wild family, wilder times - and even wilder spelling, something which would have been the despair of a national curriculum which gives him an honoured place.

There are no sensational revelations in this account of a man who, at 22,was canny enough to note on a manuscript: "Talent perceives Difference Genius un-ity." All that galvanised his two great waves of poetry is here set out by RFF - those affairs of state and of the heart, all of them compoun-ded by a preoccupation with the occult. Such is the power of his late-Twenties work that one can forget that, near the beginning of the century, he had issued a Collected Works - and that he had gained a substantial audience during visits to America, where his voice was not always readily understood (which hardly surprises anybody who has sat through his declamatory recording of "The Lake Isle of Innisfree").

Somewhat belatedly, he was embroiled in celebrated love affairs as tangled as any dealings with the Abbey Theatre and such contemporaries as Synge, while he advised Joyce that "the qualities that make a man succeed do not show in his work, often for quite a long time." This could not exactly be said of Yeats himself, for his early work remains the most anthologised, but, we, knowing what was to come, cannot find it immodest of the young upstart American Ezra Pound, who had agreed to stay with him as critical adviser and wrote to his mother: "Yeats will amuse me part of the time and bore me to death with psychical lectures the rest. I regard the visit as a duty to posterity. "

RFF's biography, which is true to that spirit, will find an equal welcome from posterity - one which will agree that if it is not the first book on Yeats to read, it is one of the few to re-read.

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