W. B. Yeats: A Life, Volume II: The Arch-Poet 1915-1939

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The acclaimed first volume of this definitive biography of W. B. Yeats left him in his fiftieth year, at a crossroads in his life. The subsequent quarter-century surveyed in The Arch-Poet takes in his rediscovery of advanced nationalism and his struggle for an independent Irish culture, his continued pursuit of supernatural truths through occult experimentation, his extraordinary marriage, and a series of tumultuous love affairs. Throughout he was writing his greatest poems: 'The Fisherman' and 'The Wild Swans at Coole' in their stark simplicity; the magnificently complex sequences on the Troubles and Civil War; the Byzantium poems; and the radically compressed last work -- some of it literally written on his deathbed. The drama of his life is mapped against the history of the Irish revolution and the new Irish state founded in 1922. Yeats's many political roles and his controversial involvement in a right-wing movement during the early 1930s are covered more closely than ever before, and his complex and passionate relationship with the developing history of his country remains a central theme. Throughout this book, the genesis, alteration, and presentation of his work (memoirs and polemic as well as poetry) are explored through his private and public life. The enormous and varied circle of Yeats's friends, lovers, family, collaborators, and antagonists inhabit and enrich a personal world of astounding energy, artistic commitment, and verve. Yeats constantly re-created himself and his work, believing that art was 'not the chief end of life but an accident in one's search for reality': a search which brought him again and again back to his governing preoccupations, sex and death. He also held that 'all knowledge is biography', a belief reflected in this study of one of the greatest lives of modern times.
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Editorial Reviews

The New York Times
Through Jamesian powers of indication, and 15 years of research, he makes one feel one has been there, in that death-room, with Yeats's three about-to-be ''widows'' (Lady Dorothy Wellesley, Edith Shackleton Heald and Mrs. W. B. Yeats), as the poet open-eyed moved toward his tomb … Foster's treatment is superior to anything we have had before on the subject. — Adrian Frazier
Publishers Weekly
The explosive era in both Irish history and Yeats's poetry justify the length of the second volume of Oxford historian Foster's masterful life of Yeats. Again Foster approaches Yeats's memoirs with skepticism, shrewdly and scrupulously applying the historical facts to Yeats's self-made image and his poetry. The result adds a unique, superb perspective on Yeats's poetic treatment of the Easter Uprising and subsequent civil war, his eventual disenchantment with the new Irish Free State and the restless philosophical questing of his last years, up to his death just before Ireland's break from Great Britain in WWII. Following Responsibilities in 1914, Yeats had hoped to start a domestic phase in his life with his marriage to Georgie Hyde-Lees and his homesteader purchase of Ballylee castle. Instead, this time of upheaval saw him apotheosize two martyrs, Maude Gonne's husband in "Easter 1916," and Great War casualty Robert Gregory, in "An Irish Airman Foresees His Death." Foster's consummate treatment of the Irish Free State's violent birth further illuminates Yeats's best work in The Wild Swans at Coole and The Tower with a vividness rarely found in biography. More personal matters, such as automatic-writing s ances with his wife and his theosophical treatise The Vision, are of less interest to the historian-biographer than Yeats's public figure, including his battles with Catholic censorship and his dubious but brief association with the "Blueshirt" fascist faction. Even as history caught up with and overtook the Free State senator and Nobel laureate, Foster splendidly rounds out the Celtic Twilight bard's inner revolution in his magnificent twilight years. (Nov.) Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Eminent Irish historian meets eminent Irish poet, continuing the massive biography begun nearly seven years ago. Foster (History/Oxford Univ.; The Irish Story, 2002, etc.) carries on with a number of themes that occupied The Apprentice Mage (1997): William Butler Yeats’s long infatuation with the Celtic bohemian Maud Gonne, his infatuations with many other women, his researches in the psychic and paranormal, and, above all, his refusal to be easily categorized in either poetry or politics, his twin vocations. Foster begins with Yeats in turning-point 1915, when he turned 50 and was beginning to tire of life in wartime London, writing of England’s war with Germany, "It is merely the most expensive outbreak of insolence and stupidity the world has ever seen, and I give it as little of my thought as I can." Things were no quieter in Ireland, where, soon afterward, the Easter Uprising—the subject of some of Yeats’s most memorable poems—broke out, followed by civil war and the difficult birth of the Irish Free State. Back home, Yeats positioned himself, Foster shows, not quite on the sidelines, but certainly at some distance from the sloganeers on either side, and he did not please his nominal fellow nationalists ("whose strict Sinn Féin platitudes," Foster sniffs, "seem[ed] bathetically ill attuned to the necessities of modern compromise") by insisting that true Irish culture owed as much to Anglo-Norman as Celtic influences. Tweaking simpler-minded politics in his "Crazy Jane" poems, Yeats goes on, in Foster’s account, to poke about in less attractive corners of politics, expressing occasional admiration for the totalitarians across the sea; but mostly, having won the Nobel Prize,he retreats, slowly, into revered and grand-old-man-of-poetry status, getting himself in more trouble on the homefront than in the public sphere. Foster wisely lets Yeats’s poetry speak for itself, though he ably deconstructs the bard’s songs in light of contemporary events, and he provides an extraordinarily thorough context for scholars of a more strictly literary bent—and all in entirely readable, deeply nuanced fashion. "We may come at last," Yeats once remarked, "to think that all knowledge is biography." Foster’s knowing, richly detailed investigation is a remarkable achievement, essential to serious students of Yeats’s life and work.
From the Publisher
"A great and important work, a triumph of scholarship, thought, and empathy such as one would hardly have thought possible in this age of disillusion. It is an achievement wholly of a scale with its heroic subject."—John Banville, New York Review of Books

"Marvelous.... The major poems are swiftly, meticulously and deeply read..... They startle one into a renewed sense of their magnificence.... Yeats is a great subject, none greater in 20th-century literature, and 'The Arch-Poet' is the book he deserves, a classic."—Adrian Frazier, New York Times Book Review

"Triumphant.... The Apprentice Mage gave promise of a masterwork and the promise is fulfilled in The Arch-Poet. What we have now is one of the great biographies, as affectionate as it is scholarly, intellectually equal to the tasks it sets itself.... Roy Foster exemplifies the virtues of that Irish intellect so often invoked by Yeats himself, independent, vigorous, liberal and, on occasion, consciously provocative."—Seamus Heaney, Financial Times

"Magnificent.... The Yeats who emerges from these pages is allowed to be haughty and humble, polemicist and priest, prig and profligate, arch-poet in the sense of 'first poet' but also in the sense of 'clever, cunning, crafty, roguish, waggish.' Violet Martin's assessment of Yeats's impact on Irish poetry, that he had 'flung open a great window,' may now be justly applied to Foster's own achievement in W. B. Yeats: A Life."—Paul Muldoon, The Times, London

"A model of the serious literary life. It is learned and scholarly, but the book never fails to carry its learning lightly. It is astonishingly detailed, more so than any other Yeats biography, but the details never clog or slow down the narrative.... His manner of presentation has a good humored sureness of touch throughout; this is no dry-as-dust final reckoning."—The Economist

"It is the great achievement of the second volume of Roy Foster's superb biography that it delivers us late Yeats in all his troublesome immediacy. Foster does this not just by cutting across the record with new facts from the archive—itself a considerable feat, given that half a dozen biographers have already been over the ground—but by constantly reconfiguring what seems familiar."—John Kerrigan, London Review of Books

"It is an enormous achievement, not simply in size—the two books together come to more than 1,400 pages—but of biographical art: no future literary biographer should put pen to paper without studying Mr. Foster's example. His knowledge of Yeats's life and work is complete; what is rarer, his searching inquiry never damages his sympathetic reverence for his subject, and vice versa. Most striking of all, Mr. Foster—a historian, not a literary critic—has a deep and subtle grasp of the Irish history that shaped Yeats, and that Yeats shaped."—Adam Kirsch, New York Sun

"Everything about the work is first-rate: the scholarship, the literary criticism, Foster's lucid and civilized style. It is hardly imaginable that there will be a successor."—Jeffrey Hart, National Review

"An ardor steeled by judgment and prose that is all brains and style."—Richard Eder, New York Times

"A definitive life of Ireland's best-loved poet.... Yeats once described his art to Ezra Pound as 'an accident in one's search for reality.' In this lively new book Foster captures all the richness of that reality, creating a balanced view of Yeats's poetry and his politics alike."—Newsweek International

"Mr. Foster is fully equal to the demands of this many-sided story. He is both an urbane writer and a precise one. He marshals his facts with a skill that ensures that they never impede the narrative flow. He has a shrewd insight into the complications of Yeats's personality and a sure grasp of the social contexts within which the poet lived and moved."—John Gross, Wall Street Journal

"I have never read a biography of any poet that has conveyed so clearly the genius of its subject and the talent of its author."—Frank Kermode, Los Angeles Times

"Foster shows in this learned and engaging biography that Yeats's life, however elevated the realms in which it unfolded, was nothing if not messy.... Foster's disentangling of the complicated skein of Irish political and revolutionary activity over the broad period under consideration is one of the book's great strengths. But it is the fantasia of Yeats's personal life that is most compelling." —Christopher Cahill, Atlantic Monthly

"Yeats emerges from Foster's account of him as a man among men—no saint, not even a sage, yet endlessly compelling."—Denis Donoghue, Harper's

"A formidable scholarly achievement. The research that informs it is staggering; its critical dissections are delicate and acute; and its supple, lucid prose is splendidly stylish.... Grippingly readable and intellectually rich, the book is without doubt one of the mightiest biographies of our age."—Terry Eagleton, The Nation

"Foster has emerged from the massive archive with a story impressively in order. In a triumph of deft arrangement, he intertwines the historical, the literary, the professional, and the personal throughout the sixteen briskly advancing chapters of this second volume."—Helen Vendler, The New Republic

"Foster has quite magnificently done his best to help us reach into and read W. B. Yeats. To recommend this book to others is an honor."—Toronto Globe and Mail

"Foster's knowing, richly detailed investigation is a remarkable achievement, essential to serious students of Yeats's life and work."—Kirkus Reviews

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780192806093
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press
  • Publication date: 5/19/2005
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 824
  • Product dimensions: 9.20 (w) x 6.00 (h) x 1.80 (d)

Meet the Author

Roy Foster is Carroll Professor of Irish History at the University of Oxford and a fellow of Hertford College. His books include Charles Stewart Parnell: The Man and His Family, Lord Randolph Churchill: a Political Life (OUP, 1981), Modern Ireland 1600-1972, Paddy and Mr Punch, and The Irish Story: Telling Tales and Making It Up in Ireland. The prize-winning first volume of this biography, W.B. Yeats, A Life. I: The Apprentice Mage 1865-1914 was published by OUP in 1997.

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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations xi
Acknowledgements xv
Introduction: Accidence and Coherence xix
Prologue: Crossways 1
Chapter 1 Accomplishment and Noh 1915-1916 5
Chapter 2 Shades and Angels 1916-1917 44
Chapter 3 The Sense of Happiness 1917-1919 94
Chapter 4 A Feeling for Revelation 1919-1920 140
Chapter 5 'Weight and Measure in a Time of Dearth' 1920-1921 170
Chapter 6 Living in the Explosion 1922-1924 205
Chapter 7 Bad Writers and Bishops 1924-1925 254
Chapter 8 Vanity and Pride 1925-1927 293
Chapter 9 Striking a Match 1927-1930 343
Chapter 10 One Last Burial 1930-1932 395
Chapter 11 Struggles Towards Reality 1932-1933 441
Chapter 12 A New Fanaticism 1933-1934 466
Chapter 13 Passionate Metaphysics 1934-1935 496
Chapter 14 Fire and Eating 1936-1937 536
Chapter 15 Folly and Elegance 1937-1938 571
Chapter 16 Dying Like an Empire 1938-1939 611
Epilogue: Genius and History 653
Appendix 1 Letter and Memorandum from the Abbey Directors to the Free State Government, Opening Negotiations for a Subsidy 661
Appendix 2 Lionel Curtis's Account of His Meeting with WBY on 20 January 1923 668
Abbreviations 671
Notes 675
Index 769
Sources of Illustrations 797
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