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ELT: Volume 33:3 1990 The Spirit of Biography, it is the spirit that killeth while the letters, the facts, the material ends and means giveth life. Avrom Fleishman The Johns Hopkins University Yeats and the Rhymers Joann Gardner. Yeats and the Rhymers' Club: A Nineties' Perspective. New York: Peter Lang, 1989. xv + 249 pp. $31.50 IN THIS DETAILED AND FASCINATING STUDY, Joann Gardner traces the background, history, and contribution of the Rhymers' Club and its influence on Yeats's imagination and artistic development. In the process she also provides vivid portraits of the other poets associated with the Club (such as Ernest Dowson, Lionel Johnson, and Ernest Rhys), gives a clear picture of the artistic and social climate of the finde -siècle period, and explains adequately the reasons for the Club's demise and the eventual failure of all its members with the exception of Yeats. As to the latter concern, she demonstrates well how the artistic views and personal lives of a number of the Club's writers, most notably and tragically Oscar Wilde, came in direct conflict with traditional late Victorian values and how, as a result, the ideas of the "decadent" movement became discredited. Yeats alone may have escaped the fate of the other members (who either slipped into oblivion or met with early deaths) in part because, according to Gardner, "he had a practical sense of what art could do—because it was not, for him, an isolated experience, but a starting point for moral and intellectual responsibility." The author develops these assumptions in a carefully researched, tightly organized book, supplemented by biographical sketches of the Club's membership, a chronology of related literary events from 1883 to 1897, and five illustrations. As she describes in the introduction, her intention is to "plot the evolution of myth" surrounding the Club, to show how Yeats benefitted from the association, and to suggest reasons why he later succeeded while others in the group failed. In the first chapter, "Where All Ladders Start," she chronicles the "mythologizing process" that was already evident in the lives and associations of the poets belonging to literary clubs that preceded the Rhymers. As Gardner earlier explains, this process, allied to a strict view of art for art's sake, provided the decadents with "a way of rejecting society, an exploration of inner life at the expense of outer 356 Book Reviews belonging." As she later points out, such total rejection could in time only lead to failure and tragedy. Myth and mythmaking is also the subject of the second chapter, "The Pattern in the Web," in which Gardner looks at the establishment and early stages of the Rhymers' Club, beginning in 1891. As she describes it, most of the members (including Yeats) demonstrated a "tendency to romanticize their roles, seeing themselves as poets who confronted history, society and unspeakable odds in their bid for literary achievement." Such a tendency may help explain why the record of these early meetings remains inconsistent and incomplete and, more importantly, may suggest why the Club was so short lived, a concern addressed in the next chapter, "The Turning of the Gyre." Here Gardner narrates the circumstances surrounding the dissolution of the Rhymers' Club, pointing to those factors that contributed to its break-up, principal among these Wilde's trial and conviction. For the decadents, experience had always been judged aesthetically, according to artistic tastes rather than established moral principles. The Wilde case, however, made such a position socially untenable and publicly dangerous. In the fourth chapter, "Myth and Failure," the focus is again on myth, yet this time on Yeats's use of it, especially in his depiction of the Rhymers' Club as an "ideologically coherent" group of "victimized" artists. By giving this naive and disparate collection of poets the status of a persecuted literary movement, Yeats not only was able to identify himself with the artist's struggle against society, but also to clarify his own position in this development, "locating himself at the source of modern poetic practice." Gardner's specific aim in the chapter is to contrast this use of "fact for mythical ends" with other contemporary accounts, specifically the reviews...


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pp. 356-358
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