Alldritt: "Yeats: The Man and the Milieu"

"W.B. Yeats: The Man and the Milieu;"
By Keith Alldritt; Clarkson Potter; 388 pp.


By David Abel  |  The Palm Beach Post |  10/30/1997

Dead master poets, like bronzed sculptures, reflect man's hubris. They're our attempts to incarnate human divinity. W.B. Yeats, the turn-of-the-century Irish nationalist, dramaturge and Nobel poet laureate, resides in the pantheon of great poets, keeping company with Sophocles, Dante and Goethe.

In Keith Alldritt's new biography, the author acts as gentle iconoclast, daubing the poet's portrait with vivid clumps of impasto. The master metrical craftsman and romantic purveyor of Irish mystical folklore, the author writes, closeted a less-than-noble personality.

Yeats the man wore varying masks: insatiable self-promoter always eyeing posterity; money-lusting pauper preying on the wallets of his wealthy patrons; politically duplicitous patriot and rejected middle-aged lover making up for the sexual deprivation of his youth.

While Alldritt inflates some of the poet's inadequacies, he carefully avoids outrage or labeling Yeats' staunchly conservative leanings (leading him to sympathize with Spain's Franco and Italy's Mussolini) as fascist.

Yeats was a man who lived life lustfully, writing furiously until his death, truculent in his poetic and philosophical beliefs and open to altering his poetic impulses according to their inspiration, from lyrical ballads on Celtic legends to the modern verse of Ezra Pound.

But this, the latest of the many accounts of Yeats' whirlwind stampede through life, seeks to survey the poet as a man of his time, a man as deeply affected by the moods of his many mistresses as the tides of history.

Aldritt's slant shows a fastidious poet, who aimed toward the heroic more than the personal, history, love and the occult more than modernity's fissured self, craven for cronies and lurching for comfort from the solitude of dining alone.

Alldritt also places the poet in history - Rudyard Kipling and Jean Sibelius were born the same year; in the United States, Henry Ford was born two years earlier and Frank Lloyd Wright two years later.

The author traces Yeats' entrance into Irish politics by charting the path of his unrequited love affair with lifelong Irish patriot Maud Gonne. The reader journeys through the nooks and crannies of Yeats' rise to literary stardom as the penniless poet pursues Gonne from Dublin to London to Paris, justifying the use of violence to boot the British from Ireland or producing wrenching plays at the Abbey Theatre, which he founded.

Alldritt cites the volumes of the poet's work and how they fit into the trials of his personal history: his founding of the Rhymers Poets Society in London to lurking anonymously through Parisian cafes on the left bank, debates with Ezra Pound, to speeches against censorship in the Irish Senate and from his many love affairs to his marriage to a woman half his age, Georgie Hyde-Lees.

This is a Yeats without the gleam of nobility; this is a man who leaves his young family for mistresses and money, who refuses to help a dissident German silenced in a concentration camp, who acts Irish nationalist but remains on the payroll of the British government, and who, in the end, is obsessed with his public image.

But Alldritt does not pass judgment. He lets us look directly at the luminous star, to see the core of his gift: an unrelenting vitality. What Alldritt's portrait provides in detail, it lacks in style. The chapters segue with rote teases and the writing is more fact-revealing than story-telling. But Yeats' life is difficult to make dull. And the biography succeeds in piquing interest in the broader view of Yeats as a fallible man tied to the gravity of his times.

David Abel can be reached at

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