The Young Yeats

The Collected Letters of W.B. Yeats Vol. I, 1865–1895

edited by John Kelly
Oxford University Press (Clarendon Press), 548 pp., $29.95

This is the first volume of a projected complete edition of Yeats’s letters. Hitherto we have had only Allan Wade’s selection, The Letters of W.B. Yeats (1954), and a few scattered volumes such as Letters on Poetry from W.B. Yeats to Dorothy Wellesley (1940), Roger McHugh’s edition of Letters to Katharine Tynan (1953), and Ursula Bridge’s W.B. Yeats and T. Sturge Moore: Their Correspondence 1901–1937 (1953). It is estimated that the complete edition will run to at least twelve volumes. John Kelly has found thousands of letters which were not available to Wade. He has transcribed the letters afresh, corrected many of Wade’s readings, dated several letters more accurately, and given in full many letters which Wade gave only in part.

Yeats never learned to spell or punctuate. His letters to newspapers and periodicals were corrected before they appeared in print, but his personal correspondence was relentlessly wayward. When he inquired, in 1911, about the possibility of succeeding Edward Dowden as Professor of English at Trinity College, Dublin, he referred to the post as “proffesrship.” Kelly has decided to retain the errors for the sake of their spontaneity. Sometimes the reader has to divine that by “aphorious” Yeats meant “aphoristic,” and that at least once when he intended “with” he wrote “which,” but we soon learn to deal with such eccentricities.

The first volume starts in 1876, but there are only a few letters before April 1887 when the Yeats family settled in London. Yeats’s father, John Butler Yeats, made the mistake of thinking that he could make a living as a portrait painter in London, having failed in Dublin. In the event, lacking commissions, he lived on the proceeds of some inherited property in Thomastown, County Kildare, and gave his family a life compounded of upper- and middle-class poverty and much talk. The poet dealt with his homesickness by corresponding with friends in Ireland, writing “The Lake Isle of Innisfree,” and escaping, whenever he could manage it, to Sligo. “Any breath from Ireland blows pleasurably in this hateful London,” he wrote to Katharine Tynan in May 1887. In London, he was known as a young poet who knew the fairies. He had a religious sensibility, but no commitment to any church. He believed in some kind of reincarnation, and assumed that spirits could choose when to be reborn: meanwhile they could have many of the experiences they had in this life, and many they hadn’t had. There was nothing necessarily grim in their state.

Kelly brings the first volume up to 1895, when Yeats left home and took rooms with Arthur Symons at Fountain Court. He wanted privacy so that he could further his involvement with Olivia Shakespear, whom he had met in April 1894. An affair became more feasible in February 1896 when he moved into a flat at 18 Woburn Buildings.

Homesick or not, Yeats’s life in London was consistently productive: nine books written or …

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