At this point in literary history, any biographer of W.B. Yeats is up against some stiff competition. Most of the late Richard Ellmann's work on the poet is, alas, out of print. But to judge from its first installment, R.F. Foster's double-decker life looks to be a monumental accomplishment, while in the recent Yeats' Ghosts, Brenda Maddox casts a cold (and discerning) eye over her subject's erotic life and supernatural predilections. Now comes The Life of W.B. Yeats by the Irish scholar Terence Brown. His book is very much a critical biography, attending more to the perfection of art than the perfection of life (while gracefully conceding that neither in fact exists). So there's relatively little frolicking around in the poet's boudoir à la Maddox. Still, Brown has a gift for conveying the texture of Yeats's life, selecting just the right details from what is now a copious historical record. Here he delivers a fine snapshot of the poet paying court to chain smoker Iseult Gonne after having been spurned by her notorious mommy:
In August 1917 Yeats had visited Maud and Iseult Gonne in Normandy where he renewed his suit for Iseult's hand. She was moody, sickly from over-indulgence in cigarettes, flirtatiously affectionate but no more inclined to marry Yeats than she had been the previous summer. Her mother he found surrounded by the usual menagerie which included a laughing parrot whose forte was peals of hysterical laughter.
Still, Brown is strongest on the poetry itself, which he methodically mines for fresh insights. And he's refreshingly open to scolding his subject when he falls short of his own gargantuan talents (even Responsibilities
, which most Yeatsians consider a breakthrough into the poet's major, post-Celtic Twilight phase, gets some flack from Brown: "The several poems in which Yeats celebrates Irish beggary as a metaphor of the spiritual freedom the Irish materially minded moneyed class so signally lacks, are without purchase on much beyond the literary salon's version of mendicancy"). There are times, to be sure, when the author's prose bogs down a bit, and he's hardly aided by the publisher's eyeball-punishing type size. Yet Brown's Life of W.B. Yeats
remains an enlightening account of how one Irish poet in particular did
learn his trade--to a degree that most of his fellows are still struggling to match. --Ingrid Broun
From Library Journal
In this New Age, "the academic world is less embarrassed by the paranormal than it used to be," notes Maddox (Nora: The Real Life of Molly Bloom). Here are two biographies that focus extensively on the psychic interests of renowned poet and playwright Yeats (1865-1939). Both authors acknowledge that spiritualism was popular around the turn of the century as a reaction against scientific developments, and both highlight Yeats's 1917 marriage to the psychic George Hyde-LeesAwhich Brown terms "one of the strangest acts of imaginative collaboration in all of literary history," with its emphasis on such practices as automatic writing. Brown (English, Trinity Coll., Dublin; Ireland's Literature: Selected Essays) traces Yeats's "Irish instinct for the spooky" to his childhood in a dysfunctional family. Maddox presents Yeats as an eccentric married to a woman shrewd enough to realize that the survival of her marriage depended on proactively supporting her husband's occult obsessions. (Maddox also looks frankly at the Nobel prize winner's relationships with the many women in his life, including patron of the arts, Lady Gregory; the great love of his life, the revolutionary Maud Gonne; and an assortment of mistresses.) While both books are extensively documented and well researched, Brown's is the more academic and analyzes Yeats's major works to a greater extent than Maddox's study. With its conversational style and flashes of wit, Maddox's work is more accessible to general audiences. Brown's book is recommended for academic libraries and Maddox's for both public and academic libraries.ADenise J. Stankovics, Rockville P.L., Vernon, CT
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