The poet who misread the Word
Jyoti Singh

Blood Kindred: W. B. Yeats, the Life, the Death, the Politics.
W. J. McCormack.
Pimlico, London. Pages 482. £ 8.50.

Blood Kindred: W. B. Yeats, the Life, the Death, the PoliticsNOBEL Laureate William Butler Yeats (1865-1939) is one of the greatest litt`E9rateurs of the 20th century. His personality has endless fascination for biographers. Blood Kindred serves as his political biography. W. J. McCormack claims to lay bare Yeats’ "political unconscious" and the investigation of "affinities largely denied in life", which various biographers failed to examine.

The work shows how the poet’s literary corpus of poetry and prose presents in symbolic form the conflicts and tensions embodying Irish Society and its relation with the material world. The author successfully demonstrates how the works of the poet are an essential part of national history and international crisis, too.

Writing about his political life, McCormack does not ignore Yeats’ strong spiritual views on death and afterlife. The poet made a canonical statement in A Vision (1925): "At death, the man passes into what seems to him afterwards a state of darkness and sleep. During the darkness, he is surrounded by his kindred, present in their simulacra, or in their Spirits when they are between lives, the more recent dead the more visible." This statement lends the biography its title, Blood Kindred.

The writer explores what former associates and "blood kindred", "congenial minds not related biologically", did the soul of Yeats see when released from the body in 1939. He conjures "a vision of the blood kindred", whom the Yeatsian tableau did not previously accommodate—George Russell, Richard Ellmann, Maud Gonne, Dermot Arthur Maurice MacManus, Patrick Moylett, Roger McHugh, Arthur Griffith, George Berkeley, Eduard Hempel, Josephine MacNeill and many others—figures all too characteristic of the time in which they lived.

The biographer traces Yeats involvement with Maud Gonne and her daughter Iseult. In proposing incessantly to Maud, Yeats motives are clear, but the transfer of the same emotions to her daughter indicate his unsteady emotional life.

Cormack meticulously explores the poems written related to Maud Gonne and Iseult. The Dreaming of The Bones (1917) is a play carrying forward Yeats complicated feelings for Iseult. His affairs with Dorothy Wellesley, Edith Shackleton Heald and Ethel Mannin reflect his infatuations that he never took to the point of an exclusive fidelity.

The book carefully documents and analyses Yeats’ engagement with Fascism. Yeats was never a member of the Fascist Party or the movement and he never endorsed a majority of those crucial areas of policy and practice that characterized Fascism.

McCormack shows how during his appointment to the Irish Senate and in the absence of a member of the so-called Anglo-Irish ascendancy who played a significant role in national politics, it became necessary for Yeats to look abroad for stimulation in this regard first to Mussolini’s fascisti, to L’Action Francaise in the mid-1920’s, and after 1933 to Hitler’s Gennany also.

How, violence forming an intrinsic part of Fascism in action and theory bred envy in Yeats, whether the exemplar was Patrick McCartan or Adolf Hitler, is highlighted with deftness. Also unveiled is the way the theory of violence clued up Yeats’ philosophical writings, often through the notion of "terror".

The admirers of Yeats might be outraged at the revelation of the sinister side of Yeats’ visionary philosophy. Like many others, Yeats’, too, was influenced by the Bhagavadgita. The way Yeats’ late writings, carrying themes of decay, pollution and conflict, manifest urging "action without attachment" made it germane to debates about German philosophy and its relationship with the "disrupted world" of Fascism become evident.

The warrior’s code of The Gita: "To perform without attachment that action which is duty,’ is presented as a means of persuading Arjuna to participate in the war against his own kin. The writer highlights how spiritually it can be read as a path towards a release from the self and, in this regard, commended itself to Mahatma Gandhi.

His attempt to show how Sanskrit scholarship and Indology, respectable disciplines, got inducted into rhetoric of Hitlerite myth and how the misreading of the "doctrine of action without attachment" was used to legitimise violence, is striking.

Yeats secret consultations with officers of the Irish army during his Senate years, his incidental anti-Semitism and his approval of the right-wing royalist group, L’Action Francaise, have been dexterously documented. The 1916 rising and the death of Pamell have been reoriented within a sweeping new interpretation of Yeats’ life through his poetry and plays.

It’s an argumentative, entertaining biography, as McCormack lets Yeats speak for himself through generous quotations from his newly available correspondence, shedding light on every aspect of Ireland’s greatest literary figure.