W. B. Yeats is usually seen as a great innovator who put his stamp so decisively on modern Irish literature that most of his successors worked in his shadow. R. F. Foster's eloquent and authoritative book weaves together literature and history to present an alternative perspective. By returning to the rich seed-bed of nineteenth-century Irish writing, Words Alone charts some of the influences, including romantic 'national tales' in post-Union Ireland, the poetry and polemic of the Young Ireland movement, the occult and supernatural novels of Sheridan LeFanu, William Carleton's 'peasant fictions', and fairy-lore and folktale collectors that created the unique and powerful Yeatsian voice of the decade from 1885 to 1895. As well as placing these literary movements in a vivid contemporary context of politics, polemic and social tension, Foster discusses recent critical and interpretive approaches to these phenomena.
He shows that the use Yeats made of his predecessors during his apprenticeship, and the part that a self-conscious use of Irish literary tradition played in the construction of his path-breaking early work as he attempted to 'hammer his thoughts into a unity' made him an inheritor as much as an inventor.
R. F. Foster was born in Waterford and educated in both Ireland and the United States. A graduate of Trinity College, Dublin, he subsequently became Professor of Modern British History at Birkbeck College, University of London and in 1991 the first Carroll Professor of Irish History at Oxford and a Fellow of Hertford College. He was elected a Fellow of the British Academy in 1989, was elected a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society in 1986, a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 1992, an honorary Member of the Royal Irish Academy in 2010. His books include The Irish Story: Telling Tales and Making It Up in Ireland (2001), which won the 2003 Christian Gauss Award for Literary Criticism, W.B. Yeats, A Life. I: The Apprentice Mage 1865-1914 (1997) which won the 1998 James Tait Black Prize for biography, and Volume II: The Arch-Poet, 1915-1939 (2003). He is also a well-known critic and broadcaster.