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Yeats: The Man and the Masks Paperback – January 23, 2013

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Editorial Reviews

About the Author

Richard Ellmann was Goldsmiths’ Professor at Oxford University and Woodruff Professor at Emory University. He achieved world fame for his biography of Joyce and wrote many scholarly and critical works, including two on Yeats.
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 348 pages
  • Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company; First Edition edition (February 17, 2000)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0393008592
  • ISBN-13: 978-0393008593
  • Product Dimensions: 0.6 x 0.1 x 0.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 11.4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (10 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #87,242 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

60 of 60 people found the following review helpful By A. R. Paterson on June 6, 2000
Format: Paperback
THE definitive, open, and engaging study of the man T.S.Eliot declared the greatest poet of his age. Richard Ellman is no longer with us, but this is a monument of Yeats biography and criticism, the book which all subsequent biographers try to rewrite. The text itself, written as it was amidst a flurry of uncollected papers in the forties and with the co-operation of W.B.'s widow George, is understandably reticent about some elements of the poet's private life, notably his early lovers and extra-marital affairs; but the introduction printed with this new edition fills in many of the blanks, and gives the reasoning for Ellman's assertion that Yeats's affair with Maud Gonne was indeed finally consummated, confirming a suspicion hitherto based only on ambiguous references in letters and the poem 'A Man Young and Old'. Most of all, however, it is Ellman's sensitive and insightful treatment of Yeats's at once shy and self-possessed nature that impresses; the writer will never have a more accurate critic, and the man never a more sincere and biting appraisal of his contradictions. This is the place to start if you are interested in Yeats: you may not find the book or the man that you were expecting, an easy dreamy life of lost women and lake isles, but the portrait is truer, and the artistic genius more clearly delineated than in any other book on the subject, and there have been many. Ellman went on to write the definitive lives of James Joyce and Oscar Wilde; that his first essay in literary biography stands comparison with these is its own testament.
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39 of 39 people found the following review helpful By Arch Llewellyn on April 11, 2003
Format: Paperback
Ellmann was only 30 when he published this in 1948, less than 10 years after Yeats's death; he was the first biographer to see Yeats's papers in their chaotic entirety. What an astounding job! You'd think this would read like a warm-up for his later magisterial biographies of Joyce and Wilde, but "The Man and the Masks" holds its own against those works, giving a sensitive, economical portrait of an unusually fractured poet.
Ellmann stresses Yeats's life-long effort to forge his thoughts into a unified system in the teeth of inbred skepticism, shyness and vacillation. He draws a discreet curtain over the sexual parts of Yeats's life but compensates with a keen understanding of the courage it took for this diffident, ill-read & dreamy man to make himself by fits and starts into a modern poet. My favorite parts of the book were the sections where Ellmann compares earlier drafts of the poems to the printed versions, showing just how hard-won Yeats's genius was. He tempers a critical eye towards Yeats's excesses--the wild mysticism, the Fascist sympathies, the arrogant public demeanor--with an understanding of Yeats's deep need for masks. According to Ellmann, Yeats's theories and systems weren't dogmas so much as postures he assumed to fulfill his own desire for a certainty of belief he never quite attained. Ellmann shows how that drive shaped the poems and ultimately rescued them from the deadness certitude would have brought. A classic study and an excellent starting-point for further reading on Yeats's life and work.
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12 of 14 people found the following review helpful By Stephen Hammack on September 27, 2009
Format: Paperback
"Yeats: The Man and The Masks" (1979, W.W. Norton & Co., New York) by Richard Ellman is a landmark study of the greatest poet of the twentieth century. As a literary biography, it does far more to explain how Yeats continually recreated himself as a poet than would a mere historical biography only full of facts. First published in 1948, this book is based on the unlimited access Yeats' widow gave Ellman to literally thousands of unpublished papers in the decade after the poet's death, and is full of keen philosophical insight into the poet's life and writings.

Yeats' life and poetry were most influenced by two people - firstly by his father, who consciously sought to educate and shape him into a poet, and secondly by the woman who became the great love of his life. John Butler Yeats was a minor artist of the Victorian period who, although he could never quite achieve the visions he set for himself as a painter, was a great lover of the arts, and imparted his creative gifts to all his children. His was a very strong personality, and it dominated the family like an iron glove. Although they did not get along well in his formative years, Yeats acknowledged his father's very positive impact on his life and ideas in later years. Maud Gonne, on the other hand, was Yeats' partner in many of his early plans and schemes to resurrect Irish nationalism, theatre, and literature. He fell desperately in love with this tall, wild woman, but she never requited that love and broke his heart repeatedly. He pursued her for over a decade, and when she married another it looked at first as if he would never recover. But Yeats did survive, and his poetry was much richer for the experience of loving, and eventually outgrowing the self-absorbed Maud Gonne.
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7 of 8 people found the following review helpful By conjunction on July 4, 2012
Format: Paperback
In the sixties I dipped into this book for quotes to put in 'A' Level essays, but never read it fully.

Having finally got around to it it was probably just as well because much in the complexity of themes would have escaped me.

Yeats' life encompassed the turn of the nineteenth century and the drowning of the 'ceremony of innocence'. As a passionate Irishman, he was at the fulcrum of one of the vortices of this process. He was pivotally involved in the ongoing development of Irish nationalism and also in its cultural history, from Cuchulain (and before) to the Abbey Theatre. He brought to these concerns a rejection of conventional religion and a sustained and scientific as well as mystical approach to the occultism of Madame Blavatsky and others.

To Yeats all these belief systems, as well as his own development as a human being, were all intertwined, and even in a sense one and the same.

Ellman's biogrphy was first published in 1948, in a less sceptical age than ours, and he approached all Yeats' beliefs with no little understanding and appreciation. It is hard to imagine any academic now feeling able to give any kind of creedence to Madame Blavatsky: scientific dualism has given the world to the bankers, and now we cry, not even able to imagine how to get it back.

I have not read the much newer two volume biography by the historian Foster, but understand that Yeats' occultism is given short shrift.

Ellman to my mind in quite a short book by modern standards does a brilliant job of synthesizing themes, giving due weight to all and drawing out key points, especially, as another reviewer here or on Amazon.com has said, by drawing on eary unpublished versions of later published essays and poems.

A masterpiece.
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