I am a writer, editor and gardener living in the Calder Valley, West Yorkshire. I have a degree and masters in Literature and Philosophy undertaken while living in London. I obtained a PGCE in English and History and taught for two years in a secondary school in England (age range: 11-18). My writing credits can be viewed here. I have had two poetry books published and am co-translator of Alain-Fournier:Poems (Carcanet, 2016). I am an editor and associate publisher at The High Window Press.
In memory of W.B. Yeats
Joseph Hone's biography of Yeats
I was unaware when I bought Joseph Hone's biography of Yeats from the 'for sale' shelf of Brighouse library that it was 150 years since Yeats was born. Pure coincidence. It has to go down as one of my best buys, and not just because it cost a mere £1.50! The book was first published in 1943, four years after Yeats' death, and I would like to know if there is a better biography of Yeats?
This book, despite being in circulation in Calderdale from 1962, is in good condition. It was borrowed eight times between 1962-68. It then remained on the shelves in Brighouse library for 25 years before it was loaned out again in 1993. It was loaned again the same year and then once more in 1998. 17 years on, with no further interest in this magisterial book, it was put up for sale and I bought it in May, 2015.
I know Yeats' poems well having first read him 25 years ago. He never figured on the syllabus at Middlesex, but he was the poet (fifty years after his death) that me and fellow undergraduates were talking about and quoting at length on long literary booze-filled nights. Falling into a drowsy sleep with the images produced by 'Leda and the Swan' dominating dreams and the best lines of 'Sailing to Byzantium' fresh on our lips.
Hone puts the phases of Yeats poetic life broadly into lyrical, symbolic and philosophical/stately. I always preferred mid to late Yeats and I have always been astounded that in his ouevre he has several great poems (most poets would settle for one). Hone's book is like looking at a film of someone's life, Hone the time-travelling narrator opening up a series of windows (or chapters) on Yeats' life.
The highlights for me are numerous, but I love Hone's ability (after a few pages of biographical drawing) to sum up Yeats with a critical pensee such as:
"Mysticism for Yeats was the Soul rebelling against the intellect"
And yet, Hone is a master of knowing when to let Yeats speak for himself...
"Eternity is a small thing"
"A blank verse line should always end with a pause in the sound"
"The point of the poem is that we beget and bear because of the incompleteness of our love"...
I was struck by the sheer restlessness of Yeats' life. This may have had something to do with the political undercurrent of Home Rule, Civil War, Partition, or by both his Irishness and his anglophilia, but he was always on the move throughout his life, back and forth between counties and continents and countries, still moving nine years after his death, his body being brought back to Ireland from France.
If home was a hundred places and his politics often ill-defined, poetry was the sure-fire centre point in his life and sustained him throughout unrequited love and loss, the huge political and social changes occurring in Ireland. I still don't know where Yeats' politics lie. He wanted to promote Irishness around the world, and yet he had a hankering to be like one of the English men of letters, he was a member of the IRB but not the IRA, he respected de Valera and was a member of the Irish Senate in the days of the Irish Free State. He revelled in Maud Gonne's anti-English and pro-Irish activities, yet she thought he was "contaminated with the British Empire".
Hone has it that Yeats was more interested in culture than anything else.
Maud Gonne and Lady Gregory and Lady Wellesley were strong female figures that Yeats needed. They figure more prominently in Hone's biography than Yeats' wife. Perhaps these women were a counterpart to the strong influence of his larger than life father, Jack Yeats?
Many of Yeats' letters are here; he wrote many and often dictated 15 in an afternoon. They show us his strength of passion, his intellect, his weaknesses and his brilliance with language.
24 chapters from 'Schooldays' to 'Last Days' with the death of Parnell in between. Thank you Joseph Hone. And thank you W.B. Yeats
To the eleven readers in Calderdale who have read Hone's book since 1962, we share the same experience...we are 12.
I will finish with some wonderful lines of Yeats that Hone incorporates into an epigraph from the chapter detailing Yeats' time in Oxford. Does anyone know from which poem they come?
Midnight has come, and the Christ Church Bell
And many a lesser Bell sound through the room;
And it is All Soul's Night,
And two long glasses brimmed with muscatel
Bubble upon the table. A ghost may come;
For it is a ghost's right,
His element is so fine
Being sharpened by his death,
To drink from the wine-breath
While our gross palates drink from the whole wine