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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 edited in the first seven years. Poems and Ballads of Young Ireland (1888), Fairy and Folk Tales of the Irish Peasantry (1888), The Wanderings of Oisin and Other Poems (1889), John Sherman and Dhoya (1891), The Countess Kathleen and Various Legends and Lyrics (1892), The Works of William Blake (1893)—a collaboration with Edwin J. Ellis—The Land of Heart’s Desire (1894), A Book of Irish Verse (1895), and Poems (1895) kept Yeats’s name before an increasingly attentive readership. Besides, he was always ready to leap into print. If one of his books was ignorantly reviewed, he set the reviewer straight. When Tennyson died, he informed the British public that neither of the poets worthy to be Laureate—Swinburne and Morris—would accept the position.

The letters show, more clearly than ever, that Yeats’s life in London was an elaborate and difficult quadrilateral of forces. At any moment, one of the four might threaten the structure, but Yeats contrived somehow to hold things together.

First, there was his immediate personal life, dominated by his love of Maud Gonne. He met her on January 30, 1889 when she came with a letter of introduction to John Butler Yeats from the poet Ellen O’Leary. WBY pretended to John O’Leary that he found her merely interesting:

Miss Gone came to see us the day before yesterday. I dined with her & her sister & cousin last night. She is not only very handsome but very clever. Though her politics in European matters be a little sensational:—she was fully persuaded that Bismarck had poisoned or got murdered the Austrian King or prince or what was it? who died the other day [Crown Prince Rudolph, son of the Emperor Franz Josef]. It was pleasant, however, to hear her attacking a young military man from India who was there, on English rule in India. She is very Irish, a kind of “Diana of the Crossways.” Her pet monkey was making, much of the time, little melancholy cries on the hearthrug—the monkeys are degenerate men, not man’s ancestors, hence their sadness & look of boredom & old age—there were also two young pigeons in a cage, whom I mistook for sparrows—It was you, was it not, who converted Miss Gone to her Irish opinions.

But it was clear to everyone that Yeats was in love with her. She was pleased, no doubt, but couldn’t take his love seriously enough to let it disturb her affair with Lucien Millevoye. When Yeats resorted to Mrs. Shakespear, he reasoned that, as he wrote in the “First Draft” of his autobiography, “If I could not get the woman I love, it would be a comfort even but for a little while to devote myself to another.” But after a year or so, Olivia couldn’t bear being second in his thoughts.

There was also Ireland, a country he determined to invent. Yeats became convinced, especially after Parnell’s death on October 6, 1891, that the next phase of Ireland’s development must be literary and artistic rather than overtly political. In November 1892 he told readers of the Boston Pilot that “amidst the clash of party against party we have tried to put forward a nationality that is above party, and amid the oncoming roar of a general election we have tried to assert those everlasting principles of love of truth and love of country that speak to men in solitude and in the silence of the night.” He convinced himself that people who were kept apart by political differences could be brought together by a shared mythology, ancestral images, and the lore of holy places. “It is very curious how the dying out of party fealing has nationalized the more thoughtful Unionists,” he reported to Katherine Tynan in March 1895.

The first step toward inventing a country and calling it Ireland was to turn away from England. Yeats associated England with the scientific mentality, positivism, Locke, materialism, industrialization, democracy, hated cities, the printing press, the spinning jenny, realism in the novel—the dreaded George Eliot, “she has morals but no religion”—and “the fallacy of our time, which says that the fountain of art is observation, whereas it is almost wholly experience.” Ireland, as even Matthew Arnold and Renan could see, had the great blessing of being backward. The Celtic element in Irish life was imaginative, rural, oral, fantastic, visionary: a rich lore, and an extraordinary mythology, might take social form in the kinship of peasant and aristocrat. Nationalism as exemplified by Swift, Archbishop King, Berkeley, Burke, and Goldsmith could maintain an unbroken tradition in the work of Carleton, Allingham, Mangan, Ferguson, and Standish James O’Grady. Douglas Hyde’s lecture “The Necessity for De-Anglicizing Ireland” showed what must be done.

In this spirit, Yeats summoned into existence an Ireland he conceived in the image of his desire. The letters in this first volume show him founding an Irish Literary Society, in London, a National Literary Society, in Dublin, trying to establish a system of lending libraries in the provincial towns and to arrange for lectures there—Maud Gonne and Douglas Hyde spoke in village halls—and a New Irish Library to stimulate common interest in Irish history and legend. It is often assumed that the young Yeats was a dreamy, wilting fellow, too frail for a rough world. Yeats fostered the notion, dressed as an aesthete, and trained his hair for Shelleyan intimations. But when it mattered, he proved a capable manager and ready polemicist; he enjoyed the rough stuff of controversy. Sometimes he lost, as in a dispute with Sir Charles Gavan Duffy and T.W. Rolleston about the library; sometimes he won, as in the several rebukes he administered to Edward Dowden for scorning Irish literature without having read it.

The third force was Magic, a word sufficiently accommodating to include Yeats’s various dealings in theosophy, psychical research, astrology, his membership of the Dublin Hermetic Society, the Esoteric Section of the Theosophical Society, and the Order of the Golden Dawn. Magic was much in the London fog of the Nineties. G.K. Chesterton, who knew Yeats in London, praised him as “the real original rationalist who said that the fairies stand to reason.” Chesterton was much impressed by Yeats’s observation that the people who see the fairies are farmers rather than poets. In Chesterton’s version: “It is the agricultural labourer who calls a spade a spade who also calls a spirit a spirit.” It was also a good choice, according to Chesterton, that Yeats went to Madame Blavatsky, “who was a coarse, witty, vigorous, scandalous old scallywag,” rather than to the unspeakable Annie Besant. If he insisted on being bewitched, he chose the right witch.

But Chesterton’s worldliness hasn’t been accepted, except by William Empson, who quoted him with approval on the matter of Yeats and fairies. W.H. Auden derided Yeats’s occult practices as the Southern Californian element in a great poet, but it is clear that they were crucial to Yeats for several reasons. They gave him access to a religious tradition, heterodox by reference to Christianity but—the names of Plotinus, Henry More, Thomas Taylor, Boehme, Swedenborg, and Blake are enough to make the point—not at all discreditable. Yeats believed that images which arise in one’s mind have issued from a great storehouse, the spiritus mundi. Such images may be summoned by emotion, and especially by those emotions which are universal by virtue of their power to transcend differences—“deeper than the intelligence which knows of difference.”

Reverie” was Yeats’s word for the prolonged meditation, in this spirit, upon images and symbols. Magic enabled him to disown, in silence, his father’s bluff agnosticism, and to conduct a secret life against the otherwise triumphant positivism that surrounded him. He could clear a space, and let his imagination breathe. When you read newspapers or watch TV, reverie seems either nonsense or a doomed form of sense, but when you read, say, Gaston Bachelard’s La Poétique de la Rêverie, you don’t see any reason why imagination shouldn’t try to have a future, and to clear a space for it.

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