'I dreamed last night I was hanged,' W.B.Yeats once announced, 'but was the life and soul of the party.' It is impossible with such oracular Yeatsian pronouncements to separate mask from reality, the poseur from the sincere eccentric. Auden called Yeats 'silly like us', but he was really just being polite: this table-rapping, spirit-summoning Rosicrucian was a lot sillier than most of us. Few major modern writers have been, in terms of their intellectual interests, so completely off the wall. But Yeats was one of the last great self-fashioners, and it is never quite possible to know how far he credited his own scrupulously cultivated absurdities, or even what 'credited' there would actually mean. On the one hand, there was the Celtic visionary who when he lived in Oxford couldn't cross Broad Street without taking his life in his hands. On the other hand, there was the hard-headed Protestant with (as his father told him) the virtues of an analytic mind, the crafty operator who could launch a theatre and help organise a political rally. Writing of the way leprechauns spin on their pointed hats, he inserts the scholarly reservation: 'but only in the north-eastern counties'. Is Yeats here sending up the reader, the folklorists, or mocking his own relentlessly mythopoeic mind? Or is he sending up nobody at all? A poet who literally lives in one of his own symbols, a half-ruined tower in County Galway, is either peculiarly self-mythologising or unusually self-ironising, and the question with this posturing, passionate man is sometimes undecidable.
LRB 7 July 1994 | PDF Download