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Yeats Biographer, Vendler Reassess Yeats’ Life, Works

By Lisa M. Puskarcik, Crimson Staff Writer

It shouldn’t be surprising that an Irish poet and dramatist as prolific as William Butler Yeats elicits similarly verbose responses from authors and scholars alike.

Unlike the many great poets whose works will seldom extend beyond the confines of high school classrooms and university literature departments, the life and verse of Yeats has maintained its popularity through a large and active international fan base.

Recently, Yeats aficionados the world over have been given another reason to celebrate the poet—the final volume of Yeats’ extensive biography, W.B. Yeats: A Life, The Arch-Poet, 1915-1939, has been released. The prolific work details the second half of his life and includes some of his most critically acclaimed poetry.

The task of penning Yeats’ biography was juggled between Yeats’ family and select literary critics before finally landing in the lap of Roy F. Foster, a historian of modern Ireland at the University of Oxford. On Wednesday, Foster spoke about his final volume in Askwith Lecture Hall as part of the Harvard Bookstore’s Author Series.

Arthur Kingsley Porter University Professor Helen Vendler was among the reviewers of Foster’s biography who recognized that the acute attention paid to Yeats’ verse in the second volume was an important factor that set it apart from the first. Vendler said that Yeats’ later poems provided much richer material for a historian and biographer because those works were far more concerned with current events and politics than his earlier, more mythical poems.

From Yeats’ 1916 collection Easter Rising, through his Meditations in Time of Civil War and beyond, his poems portray political events that “happened right on his doorstep,” according to Vendler. “His house was fired into. A bullet narrowly missed his wife.”

Vendler marveled at how Yeats could depict violence and horror without taking sides.

His poetry offered a “point of view that’s larger than any faction,” Vendler said. “His poems came out as national statements.” She added that his ambivalence did not please everyone. “The poetry,” she said, “was not an unqualified piece of propaganda.”

Vendler is a Yeats scholar—she even wrote her dissertation on him—but she said that Foster’s biography had a lot to teach her about the supernatural element to Yeats’ late life and works.

Whereas she originally thought Yeats’ preoccupation with ritual and superstition a bit “weird,” Foster convinced her that his behavior was a reaction to the void that the Anglo-Irish felt in the face of the superstitions and beliefs held by the Catholic majority.

Vendler said that Yeats wanted a “symbolic reservoir” beyond mythology or Christianity to find alternative ways of thinking; taking a page from the philosophy of William Blake: “I must create my own System, or be enslaved by another man’s.” Vendler also discussed how Yeats turned his own experience with old age into a “new phase of themes” in his late works. “He was 74 years old, dying from about five different things,” Vendler explained, recalling aloud some of his famous last lines from his poem “Circus Animals’ Desertion”: “…Now that my ladder’s gone,/ I must lie down where all the ladders start/in the foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart.”

Vendler noted that Yeats dictated his last two poems to his wife while literally lying on his deathbed. The works were published only weeks prior to his death.

Yeats’ fans do much more than informally discuss his poetry; they are an organized group who have further immortalized Yeats through clubs, societies and schools. The Yeats Society of New York, for example, is a 400-member strong literary group dedicated to breathing new life into the poets’ works through readings, poetry competitions and other events. And for those with an extreme fondness for the poet, there is even a Yeats camp, a two week-long summer institution formally titled The W.B. Yeats International Summer School, in order to hear the world’s most trusted and respected scholars lecture on the man and the myth that is W.B. Yeats himself.

The Yeats summer school in Siglo, Ireland, is what Vendler—a past director of the program—describes as a two-week long “whirlwind of activity,” featuring twenty lectures in two weeks, seminars each afternoon, trips around the Yeats’ countryside, and production of Yeats’ plays. Vendler is fond of the program, which attracts a wide variety of participants, from 17-year-old students to retired professors from all over the world.

This summer Vendler will be in residence at the school, along with Irish poet Seamus Heaney, John P. Marquand Professor of English Peter Sacks and Boylston Professor of Rhetoric and Oratory Jorie Graham. Vendler calls the institute “a true meeting place for all Yeatsians,” adding, “He was a world poet, and has this appeal to the world.”

—Staff writer Lisa M. Puskarcik can be reached at puskarc@fas.harvard.edu.

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