Life of W. B. Yeats. By Joseph Hone. The Macmillan Company. $6.00.
In the Andersen fairy tale illusion alone clothed the Emperor as he paced solemnly down the festive way, but it clothed him to the satisfaction of all except the little boy who insisted on seeing the naked truth. Mr. Joseph Hone, in his “Life of W. B. Yeats,” has done better than that for Ireland’s great poet. He has not stripped him bare and left him “walking naked”—although perhaps there might have been “more enterprise” in such a venture; neither has he smothered the man in
Covered with embroideries Out of old mythologies From heel to throat.
Instead he has tailored for him an admirable suit of clothes, conservative in fabric and color, discreet in cut—such a suit as any gentleman might wear with ease and pleasure, confident that it displayed him to the best advantage and enabled him to present to the public eye a figure agreeable to his family and friends, and sustaining to their pride.
This he has done by a deft weaving together of details, almost innumerable, gathered from many places and persons, and presented with a clarity that seems impartial and with an accuracy, especially in minutiae, that is impressive and sometimes amusing. For example, he takes the trouble to point out that No. 18 Woburn Buildings, where Yeats lived for many years, is now No. 5 Woburn Walk. And in writing of a trip to Ireland which Yeats took with Arthur Symons in 1896, he records: “They went first to Sligo, lodging with people called Siberry on the slopes of Ben Bulben near the Glencar waterfall”—and then he adds in a footnote: “Mr. Siberry sent Yeats a telegram of congratulations on his seventieth birthday.”
But this biography is not merely an accumulation of minor details, however useful that accumulation may be in the future. Mr. Hone might almost have taken a passage from Louis MacNeice’s “Poetry of W. B. Yeats” as a text:
Thus in reading Yeats it seemed to me to be helpful to know who Yeats was, who were his friends, what were his literary influences, political opinions, and social prejudices. These things were not the cause of his poetry, but they were among its conditions.
Mr. Hone has done all this. He has chronicled faithfully the poet’s strenuous life on this earth, and has constantly presented clues to the connections between Yeats’ life and his poetry. He has written of Yeats’ family background (a most important factor in the poet’s work and thought), of his loves, friendships, politics, and ideas; of his literary and political fights and feuds and accomplishments, positive and negative; of his preoccupation with things mystical and of his practical business ability; of his faults and failures as well as of his virtues and strength; of all the factors that, added together, in one way or another resulted in the production of great poetry. Of all these things he has written with discretion and restraint, and with such delicate omissions and innuendoes that the careless reader might easily miss the author’s intent and purpose, and the over-careful scrutinizer might add too much beyond the actual word. For instance, the relation between Yeats and Maud Gonne is handled with apparent frankness from their first meeting (“Yeats was now twenty-three and the trouble of his life had begun.”) to the last poem that he wrote about her, just after he had seen a plaster head that showed her age and spirit:
No dark tomb-haunter once; her form all full As though with magnanimity of light, Yet a most gentle woman; who can tell Which of her forms has shown her substance right? Or maybe substance can be composite. . . .
Their encounters over a period of fifty years are referred to constantly throughout the book. Yet reticence is the keynote throughout. This feeling of things withheld is perhaps made stronger by the fact that, as Mr, Hone notes in his bibliography, “Very few of Yeats’ letters to Madame Gonne MacBride have been available, as many were left in Paris and others were lost in Ireland during the troubled times.” Another example of reticence is to be found in the way in which Mr. Hone handles Yeats’ apparently growing inclination toward fascism and delicately bleaches the color from his connection with the Irish Blueshirts.
The emphasis in the book is on the man, but the poet is never long out of sight. Besides using parts of Yeats’ poems at the head of each chapter as an indication of the contents, Mr. Hone weaves a good deal of the poetry into the pattern of his book. The sources of a number of poems —a child’s remark, the memory of a friend, an uproar in Ireland—are presented as they occurred, and are followed by enough of the poem to show the poet’s verbal alchemy. Yeats frequently changed his poems after they had been published, and Mr. Hone points out enough of the variant lines to make a convincing case for his wish to see a variorum edition of Yeats’ work.
The book, as a whole, gives the effect of an excellent photograph of Yeats, fully clothed and reading from his own book. The picture lacks color, but it is clear as far as the poet is concerned. His father, too, is well and fully portrayed; in fact, he seems more real than the son, in many ways, perhaps because his eccentricities and flamboyancies have been given their due and have not been discreetly toned down. But respect, and perhaps pressure, has had the unfortunate result of making shadows of others who knew the poet well and who are still alive.
The complete life of Yeats cannot be written, of course, while consideration for the living must inevitably curtail truth and set it askew. This is true of Mr. Hone’s biography, not so much in what is said as in what is passed over in silence. What is said is important. No future biographer will enjoy the advantages of personal acquaintance and recollection that Mr. Hone has been able to draw upon, and that he has used with skill and lucidity. His work will bej invaluable in the future as a source book for those readers of Yeats who will continue to find in the life of the man interesting explanations of the poet. For in the future, as in the past, scholars and critics, like the blue lilies in Dorothy Wellesley’s poem, will
bloom by lions dead Of old age in the wild.