THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF WILLIAM BUTLER YEATS.
Author: William Butler Yeats (1865 - 1939)
First published: Reveries over Childhood and Youth, 1915; Four Years, 1921; The Trembling of the Veil, 1922; Autobiographies, 1926; Estrangement, 1926; Reflections from a Diary Kept in 1909, 1926; The Death of Synge and Other Passages from an Old Diary, 1928; Dramatis Personae, 1936
Yeats's Autobiography is important for several reasons, not the least of which is that it serves as an illuminating background to the greatest body of twentieth century poetry in English, The Collected Poems of W. B. Yeats. Yeats's poetry is about people: imaginary people (Michael Robartes, Crazy Jane), people of Irish legend (Cuchulain, Fergus), people of Irish history (Parnell, Robert Emmet), people to whom Yeats was related (the Middletons, the Pollexfens), people Yeats knew (Maud Gonne, Lady Gregory). All these, and many more, ate celebrated in his poems. The main figure in the poems is, of course, "I, the poet William Yeats."
The poems themselves are not important as autobiography, for the people in them exist in art, not in life. There is a "Yeats country" just as there is a "Faulkner country," but whereas Faulkner changed the names (Oxford, Mississippi becoming "Jefferson"), Yeats did not. In the "Yeats country" Michael Robartes is as real as Maud Gonne; Cuchulain is as alive as Lady Gregory. Yet we are always aware that many of Yeats's people are taken from real life, and in the Autobiography we are afforded an extraordinary view into that life. We read about the places Yeats made famous: Sligo, Coole, Ballylee. We meet the Yeats family and Irish peasants, poets of the 1890s, patriots and revolutionaries, spiritualists, and Swedish royalty. We are presented with the real-life equivalent of the "Yeats country" of the Collected Poems, and we see it through the eyes and through the memory of the poet himself.
The first section of the Autobiography, "Reveries over Childhood and Youth," begins with Yeats's earliest memories and concludes with the publication of his first book of poems, The Wanderings of Oisin and Other Poems (1889). The chief locales are Sligo, London, and Dublin.
As a very young child Yeats stood in awe of his sea-captain grandfather, William Pollexfen, but it was his father, John Butler Yeats, whose influence was dominant throughout his childhood and adolescence. The elder Yeats, a none-too-successful painter and an opinionated skeptic, influenced his son in several ways. He fostered his interest in literature by reading to him from the works of James Fenimore Cooper, Walter Scott, Chaucer, Shelley, Thoreau, and many other writers, and in the theater by taking him to see Henry Irving in Hamlet. Until he was nearly twenty Yeats seems to have shared most of his father's opinions (and they were generally outspoken ones) about art, education, and politics. It was only after he had begun to study psychical research and mystical philosophy that he finally was able to break away from his father's influence. But in some respects his father's influence was never broken; John Butler Yeats's hatred for abstractions, for example, was one opinion his son held to all his life, and it greatly influenced the younger Yeats's attitudes toward politics, art, and life itself. Moreover, Yeats was always conscious of being an artist's son and aware, therefore, that he must follow a career that would embrace the whole of life rather than provide a means to becoming well off and living pleasantly. The work that Yeats considered as embracing life was, of course, his poetry.
In this section we read of many things: Yeats's early interest in natural science (which he later grew to hate); his lack of scholarship and his resultant lack of anything like a systematic formal education; the influence on him of the Fenian leader, John O'Leary; and his continuing interest in legends of the Irish heroes, in stories of ghosts and omens, and in peasant tales of all kinds. It was only natural that Yeats was later to collect these stories (as in The Celtic Twilight, 1893), for he was never to forget his mother and a fisherman's wife telling each other stories such as Homer himself might have told.
This section of the Autobiography is a portrait of the artist as a young man. At first Yeats merely played the roles of sage, magician, poet. Sometimes he was Hamlet, or Byron's Manfred, or Shelley's Alastor; at other times he was Byron himself. Then he began to write poems in admiring imitation of Shelley and Spenser. All of his early work was derivative; it was not until years afterward that he began, deliberately, to reshape his style by discarding traditional metaphors, employing looser rhythms, communicating emotion that he described as "cold." But for now there was nothing "cold" about his emotion. Very much under the influence of his father's belief that only passionate poetry is important, he filled his early lyrics with imagery and color, a heritage from the Romantic poets.
The longest section of the Autobiography, "The Trembling of the Veil," deals with the period between 1887 and the turn of the century. On the one hand this section is a record of his friendships during these years. Nearly all of the famous literary figures of the 1890s ate here: W. E. Henley, Oscar Wilde, William Morris, Lionel Johnson, Ernest Dowson, George Bernard Shaw, George Russell ("A. E."), John Synge, Arthur Symons, Aubrey Beardsley, Max Beerbohm, William Sharp ("Fiona Mcleod"), Paul Verlaine--Yeats knew them all. On the other hand the section is a record of the coming to maturity of Yeats's own work and its chief importance is perhaps that it gives us insights into the development of his theories of poetry.
He did not forsake his interest in emotion, but he began to write poems combining personal feeling with larger patterns of myth and symbol. His interest in myth and symbol, an understanding of which is essential to an understanding of his mature poetry, led him into a series of esoteric studies. He was associated with the Theosophist, Madame Blavatsky; he experimented with the evocative power of symbols under the direction of Macgregor Mathers and later in conjunction with his uncle, George Pollexfen. He eventually realized that he dad found only a variety of images. He had been searching for a tradition--for the centrality of a tradition--but he had hit upon its opposite: fragmentation.
Yeats envied Dante for having dad a unified culture out of which to write. "Unity of Culture," a unity stemming from a universally accepted mythology, is precisely what, in Yeats's view, the modern world lacks. Symbolism he saw as the language of mythology. For years Yeats was occupied with the attempt to regain, in Ireland, that "Unity of Culture" which would make the language of symbolism intelligible. He hoped to find his mythology in peasant legendry. He hoped to encourage a national literature, one above politics and all temporal disputes, which would draw upon such a mythology. Finally he came to realize that his dream of a modern nation returned to Unity of Culture, was false. When this dream failed, he inevitably turned inward. Lacking a traditional mythology, he created one of his own, compounded from a complex variety of sources. He adopted myths and symbols from Christianity, from paganism, from the Orient, from Theosophy, and from Irish folklore.
In the third section of the Autobiography, "Dramatis Personae, 1896-1902," the main "Personae" are Edward Martyn, Arthur Symons, George Moore, and, above all, Lady Gregory. This section recounts the struggles of a small group of people to found in Ireland a native and national theater. But most of all it serves as Yeats's graceful and grateful tribute to Lady Gregory, his patron, collaborator, and friend. She encouraged him in his work and lent him money. Of even greater influence in the development of his art, as Yeats recalled years later, were the times he stayed at Coole, Lady Gregory's home, where Yeats spent the summers of twenty years. Among the trees and by the lake at Coole, Yeats was to do much of his greatest work, and the place itself, which he said he knew better than any spot on earth, became, like the people he knew, a familiar and important part of the world of his Collected Poems.
The Autobiography is far from being a complete account of Yeats's life. The first three sections cover the years 1865 to 1902, but Yeats was to live until 1939, and to do nearly all of his important work during the remaining years. Of the last three sections of the book, two ("Estrangement" and "The Death of Synge") are but fragmentary extracts from a diary Yeats kept in 1909. "Estrangement" is a collection of scattered and, at times, half-formed ideas about art, and is not, in the true sense of the word, autobiography. "The Death of Synge" is also largely a series of reveries about art; those reveries, in particular, which were induced by his friend's death. The final section of the book, "The Bounty of Sweden" (written in 1925), is a relaxed account of his trip to Stockholm in 1923 to receive the Nobel Prize.