ROY FOSTER has had the most splendid career of any Waterford-man in recent years.
A product of the famous Newtown School and of Trinity College Dublin, he became the first Carroll Professor of Irish History at Oxford and a Fellow of Hertford College whose most famous indifferent student was surely Evelyn Waugh.
Foster was already well known and widely respected before he published his monumental double biography of WB Yeats, a work of breathtaking scholarship. Any person who values the material of Ireland should read it. Evidence of wide and intensive reading, a hungering after details, a sceptical Quaker-like intelligence; all of these characteristic qualities are evident in this new book — a neat sonata to cap the earlier great symphonies.
As with every work he publishes, this book also has a distinctive character, an abiding tone of donnish know-all and tightly controlled humour. The subject matter here is Yeats, after all, Yeats who launched a thousand Aer Lingus flights and one hundred thousand welcome paying guests to our beleaguered country: it doesn’t do to break out and have too many laughs.
This book is a wide and marvellous reading of 19th century periodical literature and fiction. Those twin pillars of Dublin’s special pleading and political inquiry, the Unionist Dublin University Magazine and the nationalist Nation held up the edifice of a lively Irish metropolitan intellectual life. This was the world of Thomas Davis and Thomas Carlyle, of James Clarence Mangan and Isaac Butt.
It was a world of Repeal rhetoric and Ossianic kitsch. The subtext that Foster draws out from these tremendous journalistic and novelistic careers, like invisible writing disclosed by the heat of a fire, is the common Irish viewpoint of Catholic and Protestant writers in this era.
O’Connell hardly figures here. Foster scrutinises the anxieties present in works as different as Sheridan Le Fanu’s vampire novella, Carmilla, and Isaac Butt’s The Gap of Barnesmore.
The painterly myth-making of Daniel Maclise, father of two nationalist iconographies, British and Irish, and the folk gathering of Crofton Croker get a few honourable mentions here, but the worldview of Roy Foster, as of Yeats, is determinedly defined by a line of conversations drawn between cultural Dublin and Belfast.
I hate to bring the matter up for fear of being labelled a provincial apologist — the small matter of the absence of Munster from this survey of the early nineteenth century.
Foster writes confidently “The tendency to describe Ireland as a devastated cultural landscape between the Union and the literary renaissance of the 1890s needs to be countered: the distinct civic cultures of Dublin and Belfast in the pre-Famine era should be given their due.”
Fair enough, but what about the bustling cultural spaces further south: Bolster’s Magazine, The Cuverian Society, the Cork Institution, The Canova Casts; William Maginn and Father Prout, who between them produced two spectacular works of the 19th century, The Reliques and John Manesty; as well as the editing and co-writing of Fraser’s Magazine, the great rival to the Edinburgh Review?
While he does acknowledge the centrality of Crofton Croker and Daniel Maclise, prompted no doubt by Tom Dunne’s lonely efforts at enlightenment, Foster misses that particularly Edinburgh-like luminosity of Cork, and Munster in general.
Though in truth, in must be said, Yeats’s Cork inheritances were mainly the political and provincial stories he absorbed from Frank O’Connor, a deepening of the social realism he had already picked up from Kinsale’s Lennox Robinson.
Yeats was educated not by a university but by an early adult mania for anthologising the past. He accumulated anthologies the way a scholar accumulates degrees. Thus, for Yeats, every anthology marks a stage in his elaborate education. Words Alone is a powerful essay with a very determined purpose: to de-couple Yeats from his anthologised subject-matter. It is a four-part poem of origins, a deep mining of the ancestors. As a portrait of Dublin in the Davis and Le Fanu years it is masterful and as an epilogue to Foster’s own great biographies of the master, it is a rereading of sources, almost a prequel in the novelistic sense, as if his biographical construction of Yeats had thrown up yet another character.
That is the Goethe-like beauty of Yeats, of course there is always something left for the scholar to dine upon.
Thomas McCarthy is a Waterford-born poet. His latest books are Merchant Prince and The Last Geraldine Officer.