``W.B. YEATS: THE MAN AND THE MILIEU''
By Keith Alldritt
Clarkson Potter. $35.
Biographer Keith Alldritt resurrects William Butler Yeats as the Jolly
Green Giant of Irish authors, who romps the hills and sings immortal tunes,
while revolutions, world wars and other apocalyptic events serve as mere
backdrops for the illumination of his literary imagination.
While Alldritt claims to place the poet in a social and historical
context rather than see him as a product of his own spiritual or
psychological potential, he contradicts his own claim by adding plaudit to
paean in homage to the cult of authorship. In the end, the world only exists
to mildly irritate and provoke the genius.
Yeats starts out in Alldritt's account as ``a man unusually susceptible
to his surroundings'' but becomes the great Modernist author who ``must
transcend causes and persist in his longer and lonelier enterprise.''
As such, Alldritt finally accepts Modernism's assumptions on its own
terms, seeing the literary ``man'' as somehow outside of time, only deigning
to participate in the usual aspects of human affairs.
``Casting a cold eye'' on the story of Yeats as told by Alldritt,
however, one finds that his career was made possible largely by a
rejuvenated Irish nationalism and Fenian leader Jack O'Leary's call for a
national literature. Literary identity, O'Leary declared, was the most
important component of a new society built upon the legacy of the Young
Ireland movement of the 1840s. The rising tide of Irish pride provided a
market for things Irish, and Yeats stepped in as a strangely suitable
purveyor of poetry and drama.
Reared intellectually by his idiosyncratic father, Yeats was a romantic
and mystic who believed in, and spoke with, fairies, yet who maintained a
firm grip on the spirit of literary marketing.
While the book doesn't claim to engage in much literary criticism, it
does imply that Yeats in his early poems and plays indulged in
phantasmagoria. In them he not so secretly smuggled Irish themes under a
thin scrim of overly allegoric imagery. His faithfulness to Irish themes
helped secure him a reputation on which to build him more mature verse and
Early contacts helped Yeats solidify his literary identity as he
hobnobbed with Oscar Wilde, William Morris (famous and wealthy socialist),
George Bernard Shaw, and his juniors, James Joyce and Ezra Pound.
While helped by his father's artistic bent and associations, the legacy
of penury left by his parent plagued Yeats for years. Not until he was
nearly middle-aged, when he began to receive regular and handsome incomes
for writing, speaking and statesmanship, did he elude the ever-threatening
specter of need.
Should we be surprised that Yeats, though to a lesser extent than his
friend Pound, was attracted to Mussolini's Italy, seeing in Italian fascism
a possible model for an Irish republic? Not if we view the author as
embedded in circumstance. Yeats looked for an end to unrest in Ireland and
saw a strong leader as the solution.
More committal than Yeats, Pound went so far as to actively promote
fascism on Italian radio, for which zeal he was later arrested and tried for
treason in the U.S.
Maud Gonne, with whom Yeats maintained a life-long quixotic passion, was
in the end sacrificed to his supposed political aloofness, as Yeats the
Irish senator, whose government had imprisoned her, used his power only to
the extent of having extra blankets sent to her jail cell.
Alldritt refrains from criticism, seeing politics as irrelevant to art.
Yet Yeats had, as one of his socialist lovers pointed out to him,
capitalized on politics, and in fact built much of his career on it.
Alldritt's account is exhaustive (and exhausting), bringing innumerable
details to bear, from Yeats's first erection on a Sligo beach, to what must
be considered creative constructions of his mature erotica, to a virtual
While setting out to correct earlier Yeats biographies, in which, he
complains, ``the individuals around him, colleagues, contemporaries, family,
are subordinated to the story of Yeats's inner development,'' Alldritt ends
up subordinating them to his career development, as if everyone were
strategically placed in Yeats's life in order that he fulfill his role as a
poet and playwright.
Even the Irish revolution and World War I are viewed as minor tributaries
to his literary achievements.