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Journal of Modern Literature 26.3/4 (2003) 128-135

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Yeats with Lacan: Towards the Real Modernism

Temple University
R.F. Foster. W.B. Yeats: A Life II: The Arch-Poet, 1915-1939. Oxford University Press, 2003. 856 pp. $45.00.1

The second volume of R.F. Foster's biography, W.B. Yeats: A Life: The Arch-Poet, 1915-1939 (the first volume was the award-winning The Apprentice Mage) clearly completes a major achievement in literary biography every bit as masterful and illuminating as Richard Ellmann's life of James Joyce. Despite this obvious achievement, however, I come away from finishing my reading of it disturbed. What disturbs me is not the usual kind of complaint about literary biography, that the biographer has poured so many facts into his text the writer's work has been overwhelmed by the contexts of history and personal life.

Foster has already demonstrated brilliantly in the first volume, and he continues the demonstration here, that he can marshal all the facts and place the work in context and still do justice to its large formal structures and major themes. Although close textual analysis of a specialized kind is apparently not Foster's forte, for purposes of literary biography it is not really necessary, and in fact would just get in the way, stopping the onward dynamic thrust of the story he has to tell.

Basically, that story is how the fifty-two year old W.B. Yeats (whom Foster consistency refer to, for short, as WBY), on marrying the twenty-four year old Georgie Hyde Lees in October 1917 finds not only an erotic and domestic partner, willing to bear him children and run his everyday life more efficiently and sympathetically than anyone else ever could. But he also finds, for the first decade of their marriage at least, an occult muse whose automatic writing, dream-visions, and oracular medium-like trances give him, as the spiritual Instructors later claims, "metaphors for poetry," not to mention the most sustained and successful sexual relationship in his life. Indeed, she gives him, as Foster shows, metaphors for the experience of poetic inspiration and visionary [End Page 128] eroticism, so powerful and original, whatever their traditional sources, that it could rightly be said that if any person (other than Yeats himself) remakes this once minor figure into the major poet to write English in the last century, it is certainly she.

But it is not, of course, Foster's magisterial rehearsal of this familiar story that disturbs me. Nor it is that Foster writes dismissively of Yeats's occult beliefs, for he does not. In fact, even as he leavens the more absurd events and speculations with light humor, as is only fitting, given the expectations of a secular intellectual audience, he treats the occult and spiritualism with critical seriousness, as rightly important to our understanding his subject's imagination. Rather, my disturbance arises from Foster's habit of reading Yeats's erotic preoccupations and their connections to poetic genius and occult spirituality as if they were primarily symbolic in nature, at best as merely imaginary spurs to his poetic creativity, especially later in his life. Foster thus short-changes the real power of the creatively disorienting experience of eros and experimental occult sexuality, which Yeats repeatedly cultivates and testifies to with a poignancy that pierces the most hard-boiled reader's defenses.

For example, in the doctrinal poem, "The Gift of Harun Al-Rashid" (1923)—a cross between a Browning dramatic monologue and The Arabian Nights—which introduces the original 1925 private edition of A Vision, Yeats makes the intertwining relationships of genius, vision, and sexuality crystal clear:

    The voice has drawn
A quality of wisdom from her love's
Particular quality. The signs and shapes;
All those abstractions that you fancied were
From the great Treatise of Parmenides;
All, all those gyres and cubes and midnight things
Are but a new expression of her body
Drunk with the bitter sweetness of her youth.2

The young woman...


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