F.S.L. Lyons, who first undertook this large-scale biography of Yeats, died in 1983, and after some vicissitudes the task devolved on Roy Foster, the professor of Irish history at Oxford. He has had access to Lyons's notes and transcripts, invaluable to a successor confronted, as he says, with 'a vast and unfamiliar subject'. Vast it remains, but the unfamiliarity has clearly evaporated. Foster insists that his business is history, not literary criticism: Yeats, he remarks, was a poet, but he was '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 therefore offers not a study of the poetry from a biographical angle but a chronological account of the life during which the poetry was written: the packed and laborious life of an extraordinary man, a genius, if the word is still allowed to mean anything; a great though sometimes rather absurd figure whose career is inextricably involved in the history of his country (and with much else) from the 1880s to the 1930s. 'Most biographical studies of WBY are principally about what he wrote; this one is principally about what he did.'
LRB 20 March 1997 | PDF Download