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W. B. Yeats: A Life, Volume II: The Arch-Poet 1915-1939 Hardcover – December 1, 2003

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Editorial Reviews

From 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 seances 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.
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc.


"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

  • Series: Wb Yeats a Life (Book 2)
  • Hardcover: 798 pages
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press (December 1, 2003)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0198184654
  • ISBN-13: 978-0198184652
  • Product Dimensions: 9.4 x 2.1 x 6.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 3.4 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (5 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #683,157 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful By Alan Charnock on January 29, 2013
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This is, without any hesitation, the best, most readable, and most comprehensive Yeats biography that I've ever read, and the combination of comprehensive and readable is a master-stroke in itself. This poet has been my passion for going on five years, and the gift of having this book in existence is inexpressible.
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1 of 2 people found the following review helpful By conjunction on March 29, 2013
Format: Hardcover
This book may be much better than four stars but to be honest I stopped reading after about half way. This was not because of any fault of the book, simply because my interest was not sustained. There are some things about Yeats I understand and some things I do not. I understand his love of the land and of tradition, I understand his interest in the past and Irish mythology, and I understand his promotion of Irish cultural life, the energy he put into the Abbey Theatre, and his carefully measured but at times passionate support for the independence movement. I also have an interest in how the occult becomes a constant theme in Yeats' poetry and his interest in the relationship between image and truth, 'How can you know the dancer from the dance?'

But for me the real interest in Yeats is his struggle to arrive at the kind of plateau he seems to have arrived at by the mid 1920s, from which point he seems to repeat old themes, and whatever there is that is new and further refined somehow ceases to engage me.

For me the vital chapters of this book are those that deal with the sudden re-arousal of Yeats' ferocious political instincts which occurs at the time of the Black and Tans, (as evidenced by his poem 'Reprisals', a fine poem never before printed but here included), and then Foster's careful discussion of 'A Vision', which I have never read but intend to, and which is no doubt a summary of many of his beliefs.

As in the first volume Foster's approach is exhaustive and meticulous without being dry or disinterested. All his relationships are hung up to dry, but for me are perhaps less fascinating than in the earlier volume. The relationships which most interest me are those with Gonne, Synge and Gregory, and to some extent his wife; those that came later don't grab me and unless I'm missing something it is Synge and Gonne more than anyone who turn up again and again in his poetry throughout his life.
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2 of 4 people found the following review helpful By J. Farrell on December 28, 2008
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Roy Foster has lived up to the standard he set in the first volume of this biography. This is deeply researched, well-written, and wonderfully informative account of Yeats's life.
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12 of 23 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on May 21, 2004
Format: Hardcover
I agree, largely, with what I've read here. Foster *is* an anteater, to quote one Amazon reviewer.
On the other hand, you're dealing with Yeats. Yeats was probably the most sophisticated thinker about literary persona and literary stance that Western literature has ever produced. Only Shakespeare--who, as far as we know, never theorized explicitly about any of this, much less wrote it down--surpasses him, and not by design. Such figures as Pound are nothing in comparison. It should come as no surprise that Yeats' own autobiographical material is forbidding in the extreme; if you get past that you have Ellmann to deal with, and you'd best go loaded for bear.
Foster has taken a blunderbuss, since Ellmann showed up with a rifle. Nonetheless, both approaches are invaluable. Foster's work is magisterial, even if it's not a great literary biography *taken as such*. On the other hand, it offers an incredible resource for the serious student of Yeats. Detail aside (helpful as that is to scholars) Foster makes a very good case for Yeats' persona-management in public and private, something I have come to feel is essential to understanding the poet and which, along with the occult study, has been imperfectly examined. (See Maddox's ridiculous effort for an example of this at its worst.)
Read together, though, both major biographies tend to compliment each other very nicely. Give that a try.
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23 of 54 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on June 1, 2002
Format: Unknown Binding
If I may be permitted to speak oxymoronically, this book as it once indispensable and utterly useless. It is indispensable for the sheer wealth and weight of fact it carries. The book constitutes a veritable rhapsody of small details, collected without due regard for relevance and with every regard for hanging on the the myriad fruits of bibliophilia. How then is it useless?It is useless because it dispenses with the immense effort - at once imaginative and cognitive - of reconstructing the relationships and the world to which the work and activity of Yeats was a response and against which he defined himself. This task of reconstruction is never only a matter of painstaking factual excavation. It is a question of reimagining a whole "field of force" (Wittgenstein) into which, so to speak, the poet was "thrown". This bok is a heroic but antiquarian leviathan.
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