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W. B. Yeats: A Life, Volume I: The Apprentice Mage, 1865-1914

W. B. Yeats: A Life, Volume I: The Apprentice Mage, 1865-1914

by R. F. Foster, Foster

William Butler Yeats has cast his long shadow over the history of both modern poetry and modern Ireland for so long that his preeminence is taken for granted. Now, in the first authorized biography of Yeats to appear in over fifty years, leading Irish historian R.F. Foster travels beyond Yeats's towering image as arguably the century's greatest poet to restore a


William Butler Yeats has cast his long shadow over the history of both modern poetry and modern Ireland for so long that his preeminence is taken for granted. Now, in the first authorized biography of Yeats to appear in over fifty years, leading Irish historian R.F. Foster travels beyond Yeats's towering image as arguably the century's greatest poet to restore a real sense of Yeats's extraordinary life as Yeats himself experienced it--what he saw, what he did, the passions and the petty squabbles that consumed him, and his alchemical ability to transmute the events of his crowded and contradictory life into enduring art.
In the first volume of this long-awaited biography, Foster covers the poet's first fifty years, bringing new light to bear on Yeats's heroic and often ruthless efforts to invent himself as a poet and public figure. Drawn from a fascinating archive of personal and contemporary documents with the cooperation of surviving members of the Yeats family, it dramatically alters long-held assumptions about the poet's background, his relationship with Maud Gonne and other women, and his roles in the great cultural and political upheavals that transformed Ireland in his lifetime. A rich and entertaining account of Yeats's boyhood days amidst the talented but troubled members of the Yeats and Pollexfen clans provides important insight into the poet's deep and lifelong connection to the Irish landscape, his early, impassioned embrace of the nationalist cause, and his later retreat to the traditions of the once grand Protestant aristocracy. In his own day Yeats attracted enemies and admirers with equal passion, and Foster vividly recreates the friendships, love affairs, and simmering rivalries that swirled about the poet's circles in London, Dublin, and Coole Park. Complementing his meticulous scholarship with a shrewd wit and a novelist's eye for detail, he chronicles the romantic disappointments, financial difficulties, experimentation with hashish and mescal, and the growing preoccupation with the occult that prefaced Yeats's attempt to unite Irish politics with high culture and his creation of an Irish national theater. Here are the poet's memorable encounters with many of the most interesting people of his time, including Oscar Wilde, George Bernard Shaw, Lady Gregory, J.M. Synge, Ezra Pound, James Joyce, and the wildly diverse leaders of the Irish independence movement. And here at last is a full accounting of the complex bond between Yeats and the incomparable Maud Gonne, revealed as an influence eternally recreated 'like the phoenix,' affecting almost everything he did.
Poet, playwright, mystic and revolutionary; lover, confidant, and friend. This brilliant account of the public and private lives of William Butler Yeats illuminates not only the wellspring of his artistic vision, but the modern Irish identity he helped to create. It is essential reading for anyone intrigued by one of the most original and influential voices of the twentieth century.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"Rich as Yeats's achievements had been, Mr. Foster says in his final paragraph, what lay ahead would be more astonishing. The old magician, apprentice no longer, has found in Mr. Foster a worthy biographer. He would be relieved to know, as readers of Irish writing have known for some years, that the biographer is himself a fine writer, bearing with grace his knowledge of Irish history, and writing with wit, authority and, when appropriate, considerable eloquence."--New York Times Book Review

"A wonderful work of scholarship. It turns Yeats around, making us see his poems from within his life and helps us to experience them in a way that both revealing and intensely moving."--Washington Times

"The often quite grim youthful experiences, the yearnings, the search for love, the magical evocations of place and time, which we have all known for so long, take on a new and deeper intesnsity as we explore with Mr. Foster their background and their inspiration. This is a great story of Ireland's greatest poet, and it is superbly told."--

"With a shrewd sense of irony, Foster vividly evokes the frustrations of Yeats's apprentice years."--Inside Publishing

"By showing that the explosion of heroic myths can enhance rather than diminish humanity, Roy Foster's book has opened up new visions not just of Yeats but of the Irish culture he did so much to create."--he Economist Review

"In this superb biography, Foster unscrambles destiny and complicates it into life. The most distinguished Irish historian alive, Foster floods his Yeats with historical detail"--James Woods, Slate

"Foster has rightly dubbed his biography a 'thick' history of Yeats's life; it's also a smoothly written one that is politically as well as psychologically astute."--The Nation

"Mr. Foster has a jeweler's eye for the crystallizing moments in Yeats's development."Wall Street Journal

"Foster gives us a considerably more nuanced view of what it means to be a mystic, a holy man, a seer in modern times than Yeats biographers before him. He shows that Yeats was a s much a striver as a seeker--that the poet cannot be understood except as a man on the make, in pursuit of fame, love, and revelation."--Weekly Standard

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
In a poem ("The Choice") written in his late 60s, William Butler Yeats (1865-1939) asserted that "The intellect of man is forced to choose/Perfection of the life or of the work." Previous studies (notably those by Richard Ellmann, Denis Donoghue and A. Norman Jeffares) have concentrated on the work. In a significant departure from that approach, Irish historian Foster (a professor at Hertford College, Oxford, and biographer of Lord Randolph Churchill and Charles Stewart Parnell) focuses on what Yeats did rather than on what he wrote. Raised in genteel poverty in Dublin, Sligo and London, Yeats was largely self-taught. Beginning in his early 20s he threw himself into various unconventional pursuitsthe occult, the theater and Irish nationalist politicswith feverish energy, moving restlessly between Ireland and England. While projecting an otherworldly air, early on Yeats took to heart Oscar Wilde's dictum that "a man should invent his own myth," and Foster shows how his "great talent for managing publicity" figured in the construction of his own artistic image. Driven by an almost ruthless need to dominate events, Yeats imposed himself at the center of cultural, literary and political controversy, making important friends (and enemies) in all walks of life. This meticulously researched "authorized" biography, prepared with the cooperation of Yeats's children, lets the facts speak for themselves and bears out T.S. Eliot's later observation that Yeats was "one of those few whose history is the history of their own time, who are part of the consciousness of an age which cannot be understood without them." Illustrations not seen by PW. (Apr.) FYI: Foster's biography is dedicated to the distinguished Irish historian F.S.L. Lyons, who at the time of his death in 1983 had been working on a biography of Yeats for nearly ten years. Foster drew on Lyon's extensive research notes but acknowledges that this book is very different from the one Lyons might have written.
Kirkus Reviews
Instead of offering another biographic gloss of Yeats's poetry, historian Foster (Irish History/Oxford; Paddy and Mr. Punch, 1994, etc.) concentrates on the young poet's many personae: journalist, revolutionary, playwright, political figure, and occult experimenter.

Foster's detail-weighted, date-ballasted tome sets itself in contrast to previous biographies, such as Richard Ellmann's elegant and compact Yeats: The Man and the Masks. The Apprentice Mage is an episodic serial of the poet's diverse activities up to his 50th year, concentrating on action rather than on art. If Yeats inherited his volubly aesthetic nature from his bohemian father, John Butler, he was grounded in Ireland on his mother's side (the dourly mercantile Protestant Pollexfens). Foster sees the Pollexfens as the source of Yeats's problems with Anglo-Irish politics. His exile with his family in London gets some credit for stimulating his fledgling talents. Foster does a good job of tracking the young man's footloose intellectual rovings in the 1890s, from the British Museum to the decadent Rhymers club and his dabblings with the Golden Dawn, an occult society. But his analysis of character seems rather rudimentary: The author baldly states that Yeats's early career was shaped by "sexual frustration" and "personal ambition," and that's about as much psychological insight as he provides. If Foster never really grasps his subject's mercurial personality, to say nothing of his poetry, at least he never falls under its spell as he charts Yeats's political progress from Fenian fellow traveler at the beginning of the Celtic Twilight to his Home Rule Liberalism in the face of the Sinn Féin generation. He maintains a distanced objectivity even while describing some of Yeats's most passionate experiences, including his affair with Maud Gonne and his life at the Abbey Theater.

This is the Pollexfen account of Yeats's life: dense with facts, skeptically commonsensical, but a bit obtuse in spirit.

Product Details

Oxford University Press, USA
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
9.56(w) x 6.56(h) x 1.71(d)

Meet the Author

R.F. Foster is Carroll Professor of Irish History, Hertford College, Oxford. His books include Modern Ireland 1600-1972, The Oxford Illustrated History of Ireland, and acclaimed biographies of Charles Stewart Parnell and Lord Randolph Churchill.

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