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Yeats: The Man and the Masks by Richard…
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Yeats: The Man and the Masks (1949)

by Richard Ellmann

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Forty percent of the way in, Ellmann notes that a chronological account of Yeats' activity is always challenged by his manic and mixed pursuits: it is, the author notes, as if Yeats was in a large hotel running up and down the halls, knocking on random doors, looking for his own room.


The interest in myth, theosophy and spiritualism all receive fair analysis--though at the expense of the man himself. Yeats is left masked, an author behind some brilliant work and a legion of batshit ideas. Ellmann avoids the tempest of Yeats' family and instead devotes considerable to time to persuading the reader that Yeats wasn't a fascist (his penchant for wearing blue shirts was fashion not ideology) despite some speeches which soundly suspiciously so. Reading this wasn't a bad way to spend a Sunday, but I had hoped for more. ( )
  jonfaith | Feb 22, 2019 |
It was an interesting book in its time -- 1948 -- but is now outdated and often soporific.

The reviews quoted inside the front cover point out that Professor Ellmann's book is a critical biography and not a popular one, an apt distinction, as many of the fascinating events and facts of Yeats's life are sparsely covered. On the first page the book refers to W.B. Yeats as "The poet of Shadows," and it goes on to explore Yeats's many dualities, whether between "the man and the masks" or reality and dream or the artist and the art. Yeats was a consummate artist who won the Nobel Prize for literature and was publicly active in many important issues of his time, such as Irish nationalism and the Irish cultural renaissance. On the other hand, he was a gullible man who believed in seances, automatic writing, and spiritualism, and the sections of the book on these aspects of his life make for tedious, soporific reading.

Because he was writing a critical biography and first published it in 1948, Professor Ellmann gives short shrift to some fundamentally important aspects of Yeats's life, such as his many women and sexual confusion. For a livelier and more knowledgeable presentation (from the 1980's) on these aspects, see Ellmann's chapter on Yeats in "Four Dubliners," entitled "W.B. Yeats's Second Puberty."

Ellmann also makes errors that illustrate how out of date the book now is. For example, Maud Gonne was the great love of Yeats's life and was intertwined "with all his thought and action during his youth," page 241. W.B. Yeats proposed to her many times, but was refused. When he was about 50 years old and determined to be married, he proposed to Gonne again and was refused again. "[H]e then became infatuated with her beautiful adopted niece, Iseult," page 222, who also refused him. Iseult was in reality Maud Gonne's illegitimate daughter, and for Ellmann not to know (or state) such a crucial fact diminishes his credibility. Of course, this mistake may be partially the result of the book originally being published only nine years after Yeats died and Ellmann receiving valuable help from Maud Gonne MacBride and Iseult (Mrs. Francis Stuart), as he acknowledged in the Preface. ( )
  JohnPeterAltgeld | Jul 27, 2012 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0393008592, Paperback)

The definitive biography of William Butler Yeats

The most influential poet of his age, Yeats eluded the grasp of many who sought to explain him. In this classic critical examination of the poet, Richard Ellmann strips away the masks of his subject: occultist, senator of the Irish Free State, libidinous old man, and Nobel Prize winner.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:21:13 -0400)

(see all 2 descriptions)

A critical biography of the great Irish poet traces his intellectual growth and relates his mystical concerns and involvement in public affairs to his poetry.

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W.W. Norton

An edition of this book was published by W.W. Norton.

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