Most biographies of literary figures are a wonderful substitute for actually having to read the work. Instead of wrestling with Leaves of Grass, you can speculate about how many bastard children Whitman fathered. Plodding your way through Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus is for some a less enthralling pursuit than looking into the question of whether its author was a gay Roman Catholic. In the eighteenth century, Dr. Johnson published his magisterial Lives of the Poets; nowadays, it would have to be Sex Lives of the Poets.
Things are different, however, with William Butler Yeats. Because Yeats was a public poet, in a way that is impossible now and was difficult even then, there can be no clear division between the life and the work. This was not true of his English contemporaries. Somewhere between Shelley and Tennyson, poetry in England ceased to be a public affair. As we moved toward the modern age, art, like religion and sexuality, shifted from the public domain to the private one. All three became more like personal hobbies than affairs of state. Penning a lyric, going to church or wreathing your partner in chains and padlocks were now, like collecting beer mats or butterflies, nobody’s business but your own.
Yeats’s Ireland, however, had a venerable tradition of the poet as public figure, all the way from the early medieval bards to the nineteenth-century nationalist literati. For both good and ill, the distinctions between art, politics, religion and culture were less marked on the colonial island than in the metropolitan nation. Yeats spotted with his customary canniness that the post of public bard was still vacant around the turn of the twentieth century. The Irish revolution of independence was stirring, and the movement needed what Gramsci would have called its “organic” intellectuals. The middle-class Anglo-Irish Protestant poet from the west of Ireland applied for the position, so to speak, and was granted it to general acclaim. (In this, he was rather more successful than in his application for a post of professor of English at Trinity College, Dublin, which was turned down on the grounds that he misspelled the word “professor.”) Soon Yeats would be not just poet and mystic but sage, theater director, cultural commissar, public man of letters and clandestine member of the Irish Republican Brotherhood. If the Celticizing, poetic part of him was away with the fairies (an Irish expression for madness), the hardheaded Protestant part took naturally to chairing committees and organizing demonstrations.
The Gaelic Catholic nationalist movement, to be sure, produced a robust intelligentsia of its own, from Daniel O’Connell to James Connolly. But the Anglo-Irish Ascendancy to which Yeats belonged had an honorable tradition of supplying that movement with some of its most distinguished leaders, all the way from Wolfe Tone to Charles Stewart Parnell. Governing classes enjoy more leisure, resources and education than their underlings, and will always produce deviant sons and daughters who hop over the class barriers to put their intellectual talents at the service of the common people. Yeats himself was hopelessly in love with one of those dissident daughters, Maud Gonne, and close to another, Countess Constance Markiewicz.
If this class treachery was generous-hearted, it was also deeply self-interested. Whenever one hears a passionate appeal for unity, of the kind Yeats and his colleagues were accustomed to promulgating, one can usually be sure that somebody’s privileges are being quietly protected. By the turn of the twentieth century, with its landed estates confiscated by the British government and its political power undermined by the nationalists, the Anglo-Irish Ascendancy was more or less washed up as a ruling class. Soon, its big houses would be burned to the ground in the war of independence of 1919-21, an act that Yeats himself thought should be made a capital offense.