“there is always a phantasmagoria.”

As a biographer of the subject, and a writer who has previously focussed on the history of artistic, literary, dramatic and political influence exercised in London by Irish incomers, historian Roy Foster is well qualified to examine William Butler Yeats’ desire to “hammer his thoughts into a unity”

Above all, Yeats implicitly announced an enterprise that he never really abandoned: a determination to exoticise Irishness, to proclaim the essential difference and originality of his country’s culture. This may reflect his own uncertain status – Protestant, slightly déclassé, living between London, Dublin and Sligo at the whim of his splendidly bohemian father. At the beginning of his career he stamped his work by the use of magnificently sonorous Irish names, whether of the Sligo lakes and mountains of his youth or of heroes from the sagas – as well as by a deliberate invocation of the Fenian tradition of sacrificial nationalism. His nationalist fervour cooled notably from the turn of the century, but he would continue to identify Irish cultural individuality by claiming Dublin as the home of a distinctively modern drama, focused on the astonishing plays of JM Synge, a constant presence in his elegiac poetry. Later, Yeats’s evocation of the salty wisdoms spoken through the mouths of Irish bawds and beggars differentiates them from English bourgeois niceties; and throughout his life he claimed a place for Ireland in the mainstream of European culture.

As Roy Foster goes on to say

“A poet writes always of his personal life,” he wrote in a “General Introduction for my Work” unpublished in his lifetime, “in his finest work out of its tragedy, whatever it may be, remorse, lost love, or mere loneliness; he never speaks directly as to someone at the breakfast table, there is always a phantasmagoria.” Appreciation of the poems from 1916, which move from disillusionment through catharsis to revelation, is greatly enhanced by an understanding of the development of his emotional life, and his preoccupation with the great political crises of 1916 to 1922 – not only in Ireland, racked by guerrilla warfare and military oppression, but in Russia, Italy and central Europe.

Adds Missed this first time through online but, from the print edition, it looks like this is from the introduction to the Folio Society’s W B Yeats: Collected Poems

And the Guardian also adds Yeats’ The White Birds

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  • parcifal

    Hope radio 4 do some extracts

  • Shane L

    I seem to remember one of my high (secondary) school teachers pressing the same point. What new scholorship is Mr Foster adding to our grasp of Yeats? Simple run-of-the-mill observations and regurgitation. It’s well known, nearly canon, that the entire literary movement of the times in Ireland was pressing for the reinvigoration of a Irish national culture, many protestants and the well-off included.

    As Heaney wrote in his 1990’s Redress of Poetry: “The history of Irish poetry over the last 150 years is in itself…grounded to a greater or lesser degree in programmes with a national purpose.” Continuing “Yeats, for example…endowed this personal stylistic ambition with national significance by relating it to ‘an Irish preference for a swift current’ and contrasting it with the English mind…meditative, rich, deliberate’.

  • susan

    “Phantasmagoria” is a well-chosen word, Pete. So much kinder to the inevitable loss and regrets that stalk human existence and the known and unknown mysteries of the universe than the phrase “Flying Spaghetti Monster.”

    In my humble pissed-off opinion, anyways.

  • Garibaldy

    Shane L,

    Foster has added quite a lot to scholarship on Yeats. The definitive biography for a start. And he understands the political elements of the revival better than anyone else.