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Naming the Dying Lady

In response to:

The Magician from the January 31, 1985 issue

To the Editors:

I must protest against Daniel Albright’s thoughtless remark concerning Richard Finneran’s commentary in his edition of Yeats’s poems [NYR, January 31]. Albright takes Finneran to task for not identifying the dying lady in Years’s “Upon a Dying Lady” as Mabel Beardsley; indeed, Finneran does miss an opportunity to enlighten the reader. But then Albright, flushed with discovery, turns the item into unwarranted conclusion:

…her name is omitted from the gloss, which instead talks about Petronius Arbiter and a warrior mentioned in the Rubáiyát. World history, literature, orthography are real to Professor Finneran; individual lives are not.

But hasn’t Albright looked at the dozens of biographical notes throughout the commentary? Obviously not; otherwise how could he utter such an indefensible remark?

Karl Beckson

Brooklyn College, CUNY

Brooklyn, New York

Daniel Albright replies:

I wonder whether Professor Beckson understands the extent of Professor Finneran’s revulsion against biography. He states in the new edition: “Unnamed individuals are normally not identified, except in poems explicitly presented as autobiographical statements, as with the work beginning, ‘Pardon, old fathers”’ (p. 613). The consequence of this policy is that the protagonist of “An Irish Airman foresees his Death” is not identified as Major Robert Gregory; the statue discussed in “A Bronze Head” is not identified as an image of Maud Gonne; and so forth. Professor Finneran is right to note that Yeats had some purpose in omitting such names from the text of his poems, but if an annotator tells us anything, he should tell us those names. If one assumes that ignorance is helpful to interpretation, then any annotation whatsoever is harmful to the text. Professor Finneran’s and Professor Jeffares’s conflicting speculations on the identities of Yeats’s remote ancestors, to whom Yeats dimly alludes in “Pardon, old fathers,” are of some interest; but the intimate, direct affiliation of the poems just mentioned with the lives of his friends is of much greater interest.

We all know that annotation requires such rigor of selection that one might say that to annotate is to omit. But I cannot approve of the tone that Professor Finneran takes when he says, at the beginning of his notes, that he is not going to mention that “Upon a Dying Lady” was based on the death of Mabel Beardsley (p. 613). It is as if he were pleased to withhold a fact that most readers would consider relevant.

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