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Yeats's Mask

Margaret Mills Harper
Warwick Gould


R. F. Foster, Words Alone: Yeats and his Inheritances (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), pp. xix + 236.

Geraldine Higgins

Texte intégral

1Yeats spent the first half of his life suffering from the anxiety of influence and the second half, wrestling with anxiety about succession. Approaching fifty, he apologizes to his ancestors that their bloodline has dwindled to an ink line, ‘I have no child | I have nothing but a book | Nothing but that to prove your blood and mine.’ The first volume of Roy Foster’s monumental biography of Yeats ends in 1914 with this poignant self-assessment:

2It is not that I have accomplished too few of my plans, for I am not ambitious; but when I think of all the books I have read, and of the wise words I have heard spoken, and of the anxiety I have given to parents and grandparents, and of the hopes that I have had, all life weighed in the scales of my own life seems to me a preparation for something that never happens (Life 1 531).

3For the reader who knows that still ahead for Yeats lies his greatest poetry, international acclaim and a Nobel prize not to mention marriage and fatherhood, this moment offers a point of reflection about life as it is lived and that same life as it appears in retrospect.

4No critic of Yeats has so mastered the chronological data and detail of his life as Roy Foster. His two-volume biography immerses us in the dailyness of that life – the meetings, the misspelled letters, the committees, the causes, and the dalliances. Indeed, we now know more about Yeats than he could possibly have known about himself. Words Alone (the first of Foster’s titles to use a Yeats quotation) is a deliberate swerve away from the minutiae and busyness of ‘the life’ towards the individual subject as a product of literary and historical trends. It examines the traditions that lay behind Yeats, rather than his own work and self-fashioned context. Here we encounter Yeats, not so much sui generis, inventor of literary modernism, as Yeats, the son of the Wild Irish Girl.

5Based on Foster’s 2009 Clark lectures at Cambridge, Words Alone deftly mobilizes the somewhat old-fashioned concepts of influence, inheritance and intention in order to reorient our thinking about Yeats’s intellectual debt to the writers and thinkers of post-Union Ireland. Foster is incapable of writing a dull book and the chapters are teasingly structured to keep Yeats resolutely out of the central frame, appearing only as prologue and epilogue until the finale, ‘Oisin Comes Home.’ This allows the reader to view the large cast of novelists, journalists, politicians and polemicists with historical second sight or what Foster describes as the Romantic nineteenth-century belief ‘that the historian was a prophet facing backwards’ (59).

6The first chapter, ‘National Tales and National Futures’ establishes the parameters of Foster’s historical back-story – Ireland after the Union in 1800 and before the Famine in 1845. More specifically, Foster examines the novels of Maria Edgeworth and Sydney Owenson, and their agendas of moral improvement and ‘historical enlightenment’ in the framework of the national tale. Foster discredits the interpretation of these novels as the colonial products of an Anglo-Irish settler elite written for metropolitan consumption and instead compares them to Scott’s historical novels of the same period.

7Rather than turning towards Scotland to ask again why there is no Irish Waverley, Foster notes the different experiences of Union in Ireland (the ‘broken promise’ of Catholic Emancipation) and Scotland (retaining ‘vital freedoms’ in religion and education) but argues that ‘experimental Unionism’ rather than proto-nationalism connects the two literatures. (Not surprisingly, this interpretation differs greatly from Terry Eagleton’s response to the similar conundrum of why there is no Irish Middlemarch.) The most interesting test case is Owenson’s 1806 bestseller, The Wild Irish Girl in which an aristocratic English traveller is enthralled by the ‘harp-playing and history lessons’ (37) of his wild (but noble) Irish hostess, Glorvina, and unites with her in a highly symbolic marriage. Although the ‘Glorvina solution’ promotes the conservative political ideal of reconciliation within the Union, The Wild Irish Girl is often read as a subversive text encoding nationalist grievance about the loss of native Gaelic culture. Foster warns against such ‘over-interpretation’ and instead shows how this book ‘set the tone both for polemicizing the Irish past and exoticizing the Irish future’ (38). If Scott is allowed to have ‘invented’ the historical novel, Foster’s Irish exemplars (that include the Banim brothers, Gerald Griffin and Thomas Moore as well as Edgeworth and Owenson) complicate the idea of the national tale as the evolutionary progenitor of nationalism.

8Throughout Words Alone, Foster schools the reader in his preferred historical-literary mode of interpretation which tends to privilege the historical side of the hyphen while interrogating the literary side with some suspicion. Ever alert to schematic, or as he sees it, ideologically motivated attempts to backdate the ‘national story’, he eschews sweeping ‘cheerful phrases’ like ‘the Nationalist project’ (6) in favour of the historically specific ‘Catholic Emancipation’ when considering the agendas of these novelists. Foster wants us to start by thinking historically rather than theoretically to avoid ‘the retrospective wishful thinking [that] characterizes a good deal of politicized literary history’ (42).

9The second chapter, ‘The First Romantics’, demonstrates the benefits of thinking historically while employing the ironies of historical hindsight:

Duffy would, through his newspaper, effectively call for armed revolution in 1848 and be tried for treason. Others of his Young Ireland group would be transported for their failed rising against British rule. The era of experimental Unionism and a possible via media for Ireland had disappeared, and, with it, hopes that Ireland’s development within the United Kingdom might resemble Scotland’s (46).

10The central drama of influence in the chapter is the friendship between Charles Gavan Duffy and the sage of Chelsea, Thomas Carlyle. Carlyle might seem an unlikely precursor for the Irish Revival given his virulent anti-Irish sentiments and dismissal of Irish claims to self-determination. His journey through Ireland in 1849 (accompanied by Duffy and at the height of the famine) yielded an intemperate set of quasi-racist impressions published by Froude after his death. Yeats rarely mentioned Carlyle except to disparage his prose style but his works appeared on the shelves of Lady Gregory, Edward Martyn, George Moore, John O’Leary and most influentially, Standish O’Grady. Foster does not so much rehabilitate Carlyle as deploy Duffy as Marc Antony to his Caesar. We hear about Duffy’s loyalty to what he calls ‘the real Carlyle’ and learn of the latter’s excoriation of ‘Skibbereen Unions, Liberation O’Connells, and the exile of Ireland’s bravest sons.’(80) Nevertheless, it must be said that Carlyle’s influence on Young Ireland’s Romantic critique of modernity was much greater than Young Ireland’s influence on Carlyle’s critique of Ireland, despite this surprising reference to Skibbereen.

11The Carlylean view that the Bible of any nation must be its history is adopted wholesale by Standish O’Grady and underpins the preoccupation with ‘great men’ in the pages of the Dublin University Magazine as well as the Nation. Foster’s consideration of the DUM as a precursor to the Nation and his examination of conservative Romantics like Isaac Butt, Samuel Ferguson and Sheridan Le Fanu adjusts our understanding of the post-Emancipation literary and political scene, shining a light beyond the triumvirate of ‘Davis, Mangan, Ferguson’ in Yeats’s ‘To Ireland in the Coming Times.’ Of course, Davis’s powerful mobilization of history as revolutionary politics through the ‘rhymed lesson book’ of The Nation will remain the dominant model for Yeats in the 1890s, serving both as ‘political inspiration and aesthetic warning’ (52). Yeats’s battle with the legacy of Davis is traced through the 1880s and 90s in Foster’s final chapter in which Yeats seeks to differentiate his own movement from the Young Ireland of the 1840s. The difference between the two movements was summed up by United Ireland at the inaugural meeting of the Irish Literary Theatre:

  • 1 Quoted by John Kelly, ‘The Fall of Parnell and the Rise of Irish Literature: An Investigation’, An (...)

Mr. Yeats ... declared that the means in this matter were nobler than the end; but, let us not put too much faith in books. Thomas Davis was as fond of literature qua literature as any man, but when he wrote for Ireland, it was not the book he was thinking of but what the book might do.1

12Perhaps the most successful chapter in Words Alone is ‘Lost in the Big House’, which opens with a wonderful long scene from the eccentric Lord Dunsany’s The Curse of the Wise Woman (1933), mapping the co-ordinates of Irish Gothic fiction. Having launched the investigation of Protestant magic some twenty years ago, Foster now notes that there is a ‘historiography’ (102) of the Irish supernatural encompassing folklore, anthropology and occult studies as well as literature and history. He lures us into his reappraisal of Irish Gothic with the plausible suggestion that ‘Irish novelists withdraw into a traumatized space where they negotiate with historical guilt, in fictions set in houses which symbolize the architecture of an authority based on dispossession’, and just as we are sitting comfortably, he pulls away the chair, ‘But this seems too simple’ (96).

13Although he allows that these Big House novels are ‘infused with the idea of history as a haunting’ (95), Foster wants to decouple this guilt and unease from easy assumptions about landlord oppression. Citing the extraordinary example of one oblivious Anglo-Irishman, John Auster, who believed that the rural mob threatening his carriage were admirers of his literary prowess, Foster suggests that ‘we may be more conscious of the Ascendancy’s need to feel guilt than they were’ (112). Here again, ‘ingenious’ literary readings of Dracula with his boxes of earth as a metaphor for rapacious Ascendancy landowners are found to be ahistorical and unconvincing. Instead, Foster promotes Le Fanu’s vampire novel Carmilla (1872) and particularly his ghost story Uncle Silas (1864) as a Swedenborgian fable that manifests Anglo-Irish theological uncertainty rather than historical guilt.

14When Yeats appears for a longer stay in the final chapter, ‘Oisin Comes Home’, Foster has already prepared us to see the young poet of the 1880s and 90s in the light of his inheritances. The seedbed of his imagination has been sown by the texts and topics of post-Union Ireland and he begins his writing life by prospecting in that fertile ground. The chapter begins with Ellmann’s assessment of influence, ‘writers move upon other writers not as genial successors but as violent expropriators ... they do not borrow, thy override’ (Foster, 129). The examples that follow show Yeats both as ‘violent expropriator’ and anxious Bloomian mis-reader of his precursors in the construction of his own literary pedigree. The familiar forefathers reassemble here – John O’Leary and Ferguson (whom Foster calls ‘the Platonic nationalist’ (139) for Yeats) as well as the more problematic Davis and Gavan Duffy. One of my favourite moments in the book is Foster’s analysis of the passage in Yeats’s Autobiographies in which he recalls his battle with Duffy for control of the Library of Ireland:

Sir Charles Gavan Duffy arrived ... He hired a young man to read him, after dinner, Carlyle’s Heroes and Hero-Worship, and before dinner was gracious to all our men of authority and especially to our Harps and Pepperpots ... One imagined his youth in some gaunt little Irish town, where no building or custom is revered for its antiquity ... and of his manhood of practical politics, of the dirty piece of orange-peel in the corner of the stairs as one climbs up to some newspaper office ... No argument of mine was intelligible to him (145, Au 224-25).

15Having met the dynamic Gavan Duffy of the 1840s, we almost gasp at the audacity of Yeats here. As Foster says, ‘that piece of orange-peel is pure genius, but the unfairness of the whole thing is devastating’ (145), particularly when he points out that Yeats, aged twenty-seven at the time of this recollection, was himself ‘already a veteran of those unswept staircases leading up to newspaper offices.’(146) Here we see Foster at his best, stripping what he calls the ‘layers of fabulous polish applied to [Yeats’s] memoirs’ (146) in order to recapture his actual position at the time.

16Words Alone, despite its title, is not a book about Yeats’s poetry (only a handful of poems are referenced or quoted) but it is about the power of books. Gavan Duffy’s Ballad Poetry of Ireland appears in the hands of Jane Carlyle and then reappears as ‘a sort of sacred book’ (142) for the young Yeats. John O’Leary’s library is Yeats’s university, schooling him in nineteenth-century Romantic history and fiction as well as Young Ireland rhetoric. His battle with Duffy is about control of the canon through the selection of material for the Library of Ireland and his first appearances in print are reviews of Ferguson’s poetry. Foster describes The Celtic Twilight not only as the title ‘the era was waiting for’ but also as ‘the book which brought Augusta Gregory to him’ (160). (Maud Gonne however, needing no book to capture him, is mentioned, disparagingly, only once). Even the novels of the neglected Walter Scott appear as the staples of Yeats’s childhood, books that he will read to his own children half a century later (132). We already know a great deal about Yeats the writer: here we have Yeats the reader.


1 Quoted by John Kelly, ‘The Fall of Parnell and the Rise of Irish Literature: An Investigation’, Anglo-Irish Studies 2 (1976), 21.


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