W B Yeats was deeply caught up in the factional fighting surrounding Ireland's struggle for independence, says Florence O'Donoghue. It inspired some great poetry, and this magnificent second volume of Roy Foster's biography
W B Yeats: A Life, Volume Two: The Arch-Poet 1915-1939 by R F Foster, Oxford University Press £30 Towards the end of the first volume of his biography of W B Yeats, Professor Foster tells of the trouble Yeats had with Dr Mahaffy, the polyglot polymath who had been Oscar Wilde's tutor at Trinity College, Dublin. Mahaffy, now belatedly made Provost, had to deal with the College's Gaelic Society's plan to commemorate another Trinity man, Thomas Davis (1814-1845), poet and nationalist inspirer. Yeats came back from London to speak. The students also invited Patrick Pearse, who was against recruiting for the British Army. Mahaffy forbade entry to the College by "a man called Pearse".
The meeting moved to the Ancient Concert Rooms. Yeats said that he was vehemently opposed to the Unionism of Mahaffy, as he was to Pearse's anti-English and anti-recruiting views. He asked also those who would die for their country to raise their hands. As he later wrote to Lady Gregory, "One man did, amidst laughter." Pearse, born to an English father and an Irish mother, was learned in Irish and English literature, went on to lead the Easter Rising and, with martial law in force, was executed by firing squad at 3.30 am on May 3, 1916. On May 5, John MacBride was executed. He had been a major with the Boers and avoided trial for treason by settling in Paris, where in 1903 he married Yeats's great love, Maud Gonne. The marriage failed. In what Foster calls "a real, and surprising penance", Yeats put hitt, with Pearse, in "Easter 1916":
This other man I had dreamed A drunken, vain-glorious lout.
Ile had done most bitter wrong To some who are near my hear:, Yet I number him in the song; He, too, has resigned his part In the casual comedy; He, too, has been changed in his turn, Transformed utterly: A terrible beauty is born.
Yeats's sister Lily, "as caustic as ever", wrote to him: "Maud Gonne is at last a widow, made so by an English bullet. It must have been some humorist who got him the post of water bailiff to the corporation." The fifteenth execution, the last, was of the socialist, James Connolly, on May 12. Yeats told Lady Gregory of Maud Gonne's assertion that the rebels had raised the Irish cause to a position of tragic dignity, and "I am trying to write a poem on the men executed — 'terrible beauty has been born'" He now took up the cause of Sir Roger Casement. This "uniquely dashing figure" Foster's words — had been knighted for exposing the oppression of workers in South America and the Belgian Congo. On leaving the Consular Service, he showed his nationalistic fervour, tried to recruit Irish prisoners-of-war in Germany and on Good Friday 1916 a submarine landed him in County Kerry. Nearby, a German vessel disguised as a Norwegian merchantman had tried to deliver thousands of firearms. The captain scuttled his ship when the Royal Navy chased him.
Casement was sent to the Tower of London and had a full public trial for treason. Yeats, Shaw and the Archbishop of Canterbury were among the eminent who pleaded with Prime Minister Asquith to save Casement from the gallows. He was hanged at Pentonville on August 3, three months after Pearse was shot.
Yeats, in "Sixteen Dead Men", now numbers Casement in the song:
0 but we talked at large before The sixteen men were shot.
But who can talk of give and take, What should be and what not While those men are loitering there To stir the boiling pot?
How could you dream they'd listen That have an ear alone For those new comrades they have found, Lord Edward and Wolfe Tone, Or meddle with our give and take That converse bone to hone?
And, three years on, the pot boiled over into what was styled the Troubles, ending with the Anglo-Irish Treaty on December 6, 1921. Eamon de Valera rejected it. His 1916 death sentence had been commuted. He now adhered to Pearse's republican aim, against the Dominion ticket provided by the Treaty. Civil war followed. Maud Gonne was for de Valera, and his Irregulars (her son Sean was with them) Yeats for the new Irish Free State and, writes Foster, he now traced the anarchy back to 1916, and declared: "Perhaps there is nothing so dangerous to a modern state, where politics take the place of theology, as a bunch of martyrs. A bunch of martyrs (1916) were the bomb & we are living in the explosion." During the bombings, killings and 77 executions by firing squad through 1922-3, Yeats, sometimes from his first house, the ancient Thoor Ballylee in County Galway, for which he had paid £35, crafted "Meditations in Time of Civil War". He takes the image of the starling feeding its young:
The bees build in the crevices Of loosening masonry, and there The mother binds bring grubs and flies.
My wall is loosening, honey-bees Come build in the empty house of the stare.
We are closed in, and the key turned On our uncertainty; somewhere A man is killed, or a house burned, Yet no clear fact to be discerned; Come build in the empty house of the stare.
We have fed the heart on fantasies, The heart grows brutal from the fare, More substance in our enmities Than in our love; oh, honey-bees Come build in the empty house of the stare.
Before "Meditations" appeared, President Cosgrave, now head of the Provisional Government, chose Yeats, together with some Anglo-Irish Lords, for the new Senate. The poet put up with police protection; he made brave speeches and looked to the designing of a new coinage. The Nobel Prize for Literature came in 1923. There was a story that, to an editor who telephoned him with the news, he said: "How much is it, Smyllie, how much is it?" Though he had never been rich, he may have been joking. In 1932, de Valera, whose republicanism kept him from power for 10 years, formed a government. Yeats went to see him about the Abbey 'Theatre, and was impressed "by his simplicity and honesty, though we differed throughout I had gone there full of suspicion but suspicion vanished at once".
Yeats died at Roquebrune, overlooking Monaco, in January 1939, and was buried there. In 1948, de Valera lost power to a coalition. The Minister for External Affairs was Sean MacBride, whose republicanism had brought him to prison and exile. His influence led to the declaration of the Irish Republic. And it was ill 1948 that the Irish Navy brought Yeats's body to Galway for burial "under bare Ben Bulben's head". Sean MacBride was present.
In February 1939, W H Auden's great tribute to Yeats declared: "Mad Ireland hurt you into poetry." T S Eliot said that Yeats "was one of those few poets whose history is the history of our time".
Foster's biography is a magnificent achievement.