- Words Alone: Yeats and His Inheritances
“Talk to me of originality and I will turn on you in rage,” wrote the most original poet in English of his generation. Like many autodidacts, W. B. Yeats was an omnivore, devouring whatever materials he came across. R. F. Foster’s illuminating, if slightly misnamed new book (a more accurate subtitle would be Yeats and His Irish Inheritances) makes that emphasis clear in four polished chapters—one on national tales and novels in Ireland and Scotland, one on the Young Ireland. [End Page 140] movement, a third on the supernatural in Anglo-Irish literature, and a final one on Yeats’s absorption and remaking of Irish materials. Never a mere imitator, Yeats instead creatively remade a diverse range of influences into his own distinctive achievement.
Foster approvingly quotes a passage from the late Richard Ellmann’s Eminent Domain about Yeats’s relation to his contemporaries: “Writers move upon other writers not as genial successors but as violent expropriators . . . they do not borrow, they override,” a notion akin to Harold Bloom’s celebrated “anxiety of influence.” As we might expect from a leading Irish historian and author of the standard two-volume biography of Yeats, Foster writes out of impeccable research and solid grounding; luckily for us, he wears his learning lightly and expresses it in a clear and sometimes witty style. The focus is relentlessly on nineteenth-century Irish materials except for forays into comparisons with Scottish, and therein lies the book’s value and its greatest obstacle for readers. The value comes from Foster’s rich command of the Irish side of Yeats, in particular the Irish Protestant side. The problem is that most non-Irish readers will be unfamiliar with the materials and often the names cited. Even Thomas Davis or Charles Gavin Duffy are not well known outside of Ireland, let alone William Carleton or the Banim brothers. And only students of Irish literature will have read even the triad “Davis, Mangan, Ferguson” invoked in Yeats’s poem “To Ireland in the Coming Times.” In an early newspaper piece later collected in Letters to the New Island, Yeats wrote that “one can only reach out to the universe with a gloved hand—that glove is one’s nation.” Foster’s timely study reminds us that the glove was on an Irish hand.
George Bornstein, Patrides Professor of Literature emeritus at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, is the author of The Colors of Zion: Blacks, Jews, and Irish from 1845 to 1945; Material Modernism: The Politics of the Page; The Iconic Page in Manuscript, Print, and Digital Culture; and Contemporary German Editorial Theory. He is the editor of three volumes of Yeats’s poetry and essays.