A Life in Themes

By any assessment, W.B. Yeats was an extraordinary man who led a more active and varied life than most poets. As R.F. Foster says, he was "a poetic genius who was also, both serially and simultaneously, a playwright, journalist, occultist, apprentice politician, revolutionary, stage-manager, diner-out, dedicated friend, confidant and lover of some of the most interesting people of his day." He was also a gifted self-publicist who throve on opposition and defiance. Such a life leaves behind a mass of material for a biographer to manage. There is a large cast of characters to be depicted. There are many settings to be described and understood, and many journeys to be traced. There are issues to be explained and quarrels to be adjudicated. Above all, there is justice to be done to the man himself, and to his achievement. Otherwise, why write another biography? — not a trivial question, as it turns out.

R.F. Foster is a successful Irish professor of history now teaching at Oxford, where he is Carroll Professor of Irish History and a fellow of Hertford College. This is the first volume of his biography of Yeats, taking Yeats from birth to the verge of World War I, when he was nearly 50 years old. Foster tells us in his introduction that he has written a historian's biography, not a literary critic's. The difference, as he explains it, is that a literary biographer would begin from Yeats's poetry...

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