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54 of 54 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Casting a Cold Eye
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...
Published on June 6, 2000 by A. R. Paterson

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6 of 8 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Interesting book in its time -- 1948 -- but now outdated and often soporific
The reviews quoted inside the front cover point out that Professor Ellmann's book is a critical biography and not a popular one, an apt distinction, as many of the fascinating events and facts of Yeats's life are sparsely covered. On the first page the book refers to W.B. Yeats as "The poet of Shadows," and it goes on to explore Yeats's many dualities, whether between...
Published on July 27, 2012 by John Peter Altgeld


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54 of 54 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Casting a Cold Eye, June 6, 2000
By 
A. R. Paterson (London United Kingdom) - See all my reviews
(REAL NAME)   
This review is from: Yeats: The Man and the Masks (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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37 of 37 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Biograph Master, April 11, 2003
This review is from: Yeats: The Man and the Masks (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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10 of 12 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Yeats - Magic, Masks, and Muses, September 27, 2009
This review is from: Yeats: The Man and the Masks (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.

Some poets prefer simplicity and are not overly complicated, being fond of wine, woman, and song. But Yeats (who definitely loved the first two, but had no ear at all for music) was a complex man of immense yearnings and dreams, and involved himself in numerous movements and causes throughout his life. He was, first and foremost, one of the driving forces behind the Irish literary renaissance. He was also the co-founder of Dublin's Abbey Theatre, which had an immense impact on drama by providing a place for Irish playwrights "to bring upon the stage the deeper emotions of Ireland." He was an Irish Nationalist who dreamed of an Ireland independent of Britain, but who thought that violence was not the solution. He later came to see the that the "terrible beauty" of the Irish Easter Rebellion of 1916 was, in fact, a bloody means to a greater end. Yeats was also a magician and mystic who enthusiastically joined Madame Blavatsky's Theosophical Society, and later was an early member of the Order of the Golden Dawn - a Rosicrucian/Masonic-style occult society devoted to raising its members' consciousness to higher levels.

The Golden Dawn drew upon the Western kabbalistic and esoteric traditions, and his involvement had a great influence on both Yeats the Man and Yeats the Poet. For instance, he experimented with séances and automatic writing as a means of contacting the spirits he believed helped him unlock his latent powers as a poet and a magician. But his great breakthrough came after he married the patient and witty Georgie Hyde-Lees (whom he called George) as he neared his fiftieth year. It was Mrs. Yeats' great gift for automatic writing, and well as Yeats' dogged persistence, that allowed him to develop his system of symbols, and to become a far deeper poet than the simple lyricist he had been in his youth. Yeats' poetic vision of masks, his gyres (pronounced with a hard "g") - whirling spirals shaped like two intersecting triangles, his belief in his daimones (spirit guides or perhaps even muses), and his phases of the moon corresponding to levels of human awareness all sound very odd indeed and make one wonder if he was not mad. These ideas combined, however, to take his poetry to levels he had never before attained. Even more than these, the most important aspect of his poetic maturation was that he achieved what he called Unity of Being, and what others might call the Completeness of Character or Personality, by slowly combining the many and various sides of his psyche into a complete whole. Yeats thus forged himself into the great poet he had always longed to be, and achieved a much greater power with his written words than any other writer of his day and age.

As he grew into old age, Yeats became a revered figure and received many awards and prizes, but he was profoundly troubled by what he felt to be a lessening of his poetic powers. For someone who saw all art as "an expression of desire," these powers were inextricably interlinked with his libido, and so in 1934 at the age of 68, he underwent a new surgical operation called the Steinach operation. This procedure was evidently a variation on a vasectomy, and promised renewed vigour and strength to those who underwent the knife. Whether it was real or all in his mind, amazingly Yeats poetic ability rose phoenix-like and sustained him during the last five years of his life, years during which his wife George sustained, nursed, and humored him for the sake of his work and their love.

This early biography of Yeats strips away some of the intricate masks he created for himself - masks that he removed only for his closest family and friends. It is a vital literary biography for anyone seeking to understand how a minor Irish poet with some rather fantastic notions about magic and symbolism remade himself into the one of the greatest poets of all time. I recommend it primarily to those who enjoy literary biography, and who want to read in great detail how the life, loves, and poetry of W. B. Yeats were intricately and symbolically, intertwined.
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4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Masterpiece., July 4, 2012
This review is from: Yeats: The Man and the Masks (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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6 of 8 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Interesting book in its time -- 1948 -- but now outdated and often soporific, July 27, 2012
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This review is from: Yeats: The Man and the Masks (Paperback)
The reviews quoted inside the front cover point out that Professor Ellmann's book is a critical biography and not a popular one, an apt distinction, as many of the fascinating events and facts of Yeats's life are sparsely covered. On the first page the book refers to W.B. Yeats as "The poet of Shadows," and it goes on to explore Yeats's many dualities, whether between "the man and the masks" or reality and dream or the artist and the art. Yeats was a consummate artist who won the Nobel Prize for literature and was publicly active in many important issues of his time, such as Irish nationalism and the Irish cultural renaissance. On the other hand, he was a gullible man who believed in seances, automatic writing, and spiritualism, and the sections of the book on these aspects of his life make for tedious, soporific reading.

Because he was writing a critical biography and first published it in 1948, Professor Ellmann gives short shrift to some fundamentally important aspects of Yeats's life, such as his many women and sexual confusion. For a livelier and more knowledgeable presentation (from the 1980's) on these aspects, see Ellmann's chapter on Yeats in "Four Dubliners," entitled "W.B. Yeats's Second Puberty."

Ellmann also makes errors that illustrate how out of date the book now is. For example, Maud Gonne was the great love of Yeats's life and was intertwined "with all his thought and action during his youth," page 241. W.B. Yeats proposed to her many times, but was refused. When he was about 50 years old and determined to be married, he proposed to Gonne again and was refused again. "[H]e then became infatuated with her beautiful adopted niece, Iseult," page 222, who also refused him. Iseult was in reality Maud Gonne's illegitimate daughter, and for Ellmann not to know (or state) such a crucial fact diminishes his credibility. Of course, this mistake may be partially the result of the book originally being published only nine years after Yeats died and Ellmann receiving valuable help from Maud Gonne MacBride and Iseult (Mrs. Francis Stuart), as he acknowledged in the Preface.
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7 of 11 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Admirable, but not Perfect, June 24, 2000
By A Customer
This review is from: Yeats: The Man and the Masks (Paperback)
Though I have the greatest admiration for Ellman, I must say that this critical biography of Yeats has a few too many blindspots, is too vague and shapeless in its outline of Yeats' life, to satisfy entirely. Roy Foster's two-volume account is ultimately preferable because far more complete.
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4.0 out of 5 stars Four Stars, July 19, 2014
This review is from: Yeats: The Man and the Masks (Paperback)
very good book
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2 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A PRICELESS JEWEL AT A VERY SLIGHT PRICE, February 10, 2009
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This review is from: Yeats (Hardcover)
Certainly some wag somewhere will say this Irish Little Book series is great, if only they had large print.

For truly 'tis a wee little book, not quite four by six inches. Your postcard home is larger, perhaps, but can never carry this great value, as well as you write.

Within this priceless Irish Little Books series we may find our greatest cultural and religious legacy, the enormous The Book of Kells (Irish Little Books). We find a book on The Famine (Irish Little Books), on Celtic Art, on Irish Blessings (Irish Little Books), on Irish Children's Names (Irish Little Books) (are they changed at the age of majority?), on Irish Sayings (Irish Little Books), Irish Toasts (Irish Little Books), Irish Verse, and here, the most wondrous of all, Mr. Yeats, illustrated and illuminated with Romanticist drawings and paintings.

Certainly there are several other books which are little, books which are Irish and little, even a Little Irish Bookshelf, but this series has been perfectly crafted. It is a jewel, and it is very favorably accessible. It will last a lifetime, even within your pocket, your purse, your boot. This is a pilgrim book, one for the road, and well represents the finest work of the great Mr. Yeats.

For we find here once more his best known verse. We read here gratefully again the famous Lake Isle of Inisfree. We watch in wonder and remorse the Wild Swans at Coole. We hear as the Irish Airman Foresees his Death. We remember When You Are Old. We recall together HB Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven: "Tread softly because you tread upon my dreams." We mourn "Down by the Salley Gardens." We sing the Song of Wandering Aengus, and the Song of the Old Mother. We watch that playful Squirrel at Kyle-na-no, altogether over thirty poems, well-loved, well packed here for the long pathway on ahead.

"When you are old and grey and full of sleep,
And nodding by the fire, take down this book,
And slowly read, and dream ( . . .)"

Exquisitely designed, as if a gift for a literate culture, it indeed makes a perfect gift for your best beloved, and for your own self. The illustrations are truly well selected for each poem, and tastefully placed. The font and its size are perfect for reading, with the titles in Celtic characters, and the poems in something like Times New Roman. It is hard if not impossible to find anything at all that is wrong in this book, except perhaps, of this Little Irish Book, I might wish, as my eyes grow further old and dim, for the Large Print Edition!

See also the great commentary in Professor Helen Vendler's Our Secret Discipline: Yeats and Lyric Form, and the further and comprehensive collected works of Mr. William Butler Yeats, including in the ten (or more!) volume series The Collected Works of W. B. Yeats (Collected Works of W B Yeats, Volume 1: The Poems) through The Collected Works of W.B. Yeats, Volume X: Later Articles and Reviews : Uncollected Articles, Reviews, and Radio Broadcasts Written After 1900.
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Yeats: The Man and the Masks
Yeats: The Man and the Masks by Richard Ellmann (Paperback - February 17, 2000)
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