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

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Editorial Reviews

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.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780192880857
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press, USA
  • Publication date: 12/28/1998
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 704
  • Product dimensions: 9.20 (w) x 6.10 (h) x 1.60 (d)

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