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.

It is not surprising, then, that in July 1892 Yeats rejected John O’Leary’s attempt to separate him from magical practices:

Now as to Magic, It is surely absurd to hold me “week” or otherwise because I chose to persist in a study which I decided deliberately four or five years ago to make next to my poetry the most important pursuit of my life. Whether it be, or be not, bad for my health can only be decided by one who knows what magic is & not at all by any amateur. The probable explanation however of your somewhat testy post card is that you were out at Bedford Park & heard my father discoursing about my magical pursuits out of the immense depths of his ignorance as to everything that I am doing & thinking. If I had not made magic my constant study I could not have written a single word of my Blake book nor would “The Countess Kathleen” have ever come to exist. The mystical life is the centre of all that I do & all that I think & all that I write.

Yeats went on to claim a part in “a greater renaisance—the revolt of the soul against the intellect—now beginning in the world.”

It is only a short step from magic to Yeat’s poetry. When Yeats went to London, he sought the company of poets. It was a mark of his gregariousness that in 1890 he founded the Rhymer’s Club, a setting for his friendships with Arthur Symons, Lionel Johnson, Richard Le Gallienne, Rolleston, and Ernest Rhys. He was already drawn to a kind of poetry, more akin to Coleridge and Shelley than to Wordsworth, which was “separated from all the general purposes of life”; and to poets who, as he described them many years later, “sought this new, pure beauty, and suffered in their lives because of it.” He felt himself of their party.

Yeats’s early poetry issued from two moods or desires which we can distinguish more sharply than he felt necessary. In the first, he intuited as an instance of cosmic harmony the companionship of subject and object, consciousness and the natural world. His tribute to that harmony was a style in which both partners would be recognized as emanations from an ultimate unity. The natural world could freely be regarded as prior to man, and its separateness could then be mitigated by assimilating its forms to those of consciousness. Each constituent participated in the unity which Yeats named the Divine Essence. Language provided a place for that participation because of its diverse capacities of reference, incantation, and projection. In this mood, Yeats does not ascribe his feelings to objects, which would then be merely passive receptors; but he endows objects with consciousness, the particular power they seem to lack. Objects do not give up their objectivity; they gain the subjectivity they share with their perceiver. Hence islands, in “The Indian to his Love” if not elsewhere in life, are said to dream, and in “The Wanderings of Oisin” days “whisper and sigh to each other.” The words still, of course, allude to islands and days as particular forms of natural life.

But it is clear, from the letters as from the poems, that Yeats in another mood felt misgivings about a poetic procedure that could seem on Monday to be irrefutable and on Tuesday to be vain. Misgivings arose, I think, from this question: Should a poet entrust his feelings to a hypothetical relation between consciousness and the natural world, a relation authenticated indeed by natural images; or—the second mood—should he consign his desires to their determination within a poetic tradition independent of particular objects, occasions, and landscapes? Such a tradition must, he thought, be occult, if only because it is self-perpetuating and not mimetic: it assumes that the natural world is alien to man, and therefore scorns to imitate natural forms. But its independence can’t, after all, be complete, if only because words sprawl beyond the boundary of whatever poetic tradition seems to hold them.

Paul de Man has represented the question as a choice between symbols and emblems; symbols, which have their meaning by a natural right of reference and association; emblems, which are sustained by relations and polarities internal to the poetic tradition they acknowledge. I used to think the early poems too sickly to be worth bothering about, but I now think it is vulgar to assume that we know, better than the young Yeats did, what reality is. His early experiments, practicing with symbols or emblems, kept Yeats more world-minded (to use Empson’s term of praise) than he would otherwise have been. The symbols—such as rose, lily, reed, and wind—are always symbols of something; they never entirely leave the world in which he found or conceived them. The emblems—such as meteor, shell, and cave—issue from what Shelley’s Cythna calls “a subtler language within language” and are authenticated by poetic tradition. But the distinction between symbols and emblems isn’t always maintained. Together, they show how much Yeats wanted to be other-worldly, the kind of man Joyce in Ulysses mocked him for being, and yet how decently he respected mundane things and the language that protects them. When the early poems seem sickly, it’s because they murmur to their muse words sacred to initiates and ludicrous to anyone outside the circle. When you read “A Poet to his Beloved,” you find Yeats offering a “White woman,” the muse, passionate rhymes which accompany a

…heart more old than the horn
That is brimmed from the pale fire of time.

But the rhythm, the reverie, of the poem discourages anyone but an initiate from hovering to work out the precise relation between “horn,” “brimmed,” “fire,” and “time.” Reverie makes a space, and the reader enters, leaving his analytical insistence behind. It may be a dire procedure for writing poems, but there’s no merit in being scandalized by it or concluding that Yeats needed a vacation in the Swiss Alps.

Yeats wavered between the two moods. When he was immersed in esoteric lore, he trusted to the strength of the poetic tradition he avowed. Sometimes, as in a letter of December 21, 1888, to Katharine Tynan, he thought the procedure too much of a good thing:

We both of us need to substitute more and more the landscapes of nature for the landscapes of Art. I myself have another and kindred need—to substitute the feelings and longings of nature for those of art…We should make poems on the familiar landscapes we love not the strange and rare and glittering scenes we wonder at—these latter are the landscapes of Art, the rouge of nature.

But there were still other times when Yeats thought—it is a nuance of the first mood—that what mattered was not the objects in view but the suspension of one’s will in their presence. In “Symbolism in Painting” (1898) he wrote:

A person or a landscape that is a part of a story or a portrait evokes but so much emotion as the story or the portrait can permit without loosening the bonds that make it a story or a portrait; but if you liberate a person or a landscape from the bonds of motives and their actions, causes and their effects, and from all bonds but the bonds of your love, it will change under your eyes, and become a symbol of an infinite emotion, a perfected emotion, a part of the Divine Essence; for we love nothing but the perfect, and our dreams make all things perfect, that we may love them.

In later words, “the mind liberated from the pressure of the will is unfolded in symbols.” If Shelley was not a mystic, the reason was that “his system of thought was constructed by his logical faculty to satisfy desire, not a symbolical revelation received after the suspension of all desire.”

What we find in these early poems, and often in the letters, is a poet practicing various devices to release the mind from its contents, even from those contents it has chosen. Some readers refuse to imagine such a desire. The reason why Harold Bloom’s book on Yeats isn’t convincing is that he refuses to make Yeats’s distinction between imagination and will. Committed to Emerson and Freud, he can’t conceive of imagination as anything but the power of will; and he can’t think of will except in the moments of its exercise. He can’t construe such a sentence as this, for instance, from the Yeats–Ellis Blake:

Therefore when the Imagination enters experience to turn it into symbol and release the mind from its domination, that is to say when Christ is born of Mary, he puts on, through his maternally derived portion, a body for the express purpose of putting it off.

I have glanced at these matters, at the four irregular forces that emerge in the early letters, mainly to suggest the kind of interest the letters have. In them we see Yeats becoming a social self, engaging in the heterogeneous pursuits he thought he must exclude from his poems. The social self was evidently a relief from those “meditations upon unknown thought” which, as Yeats wrote in “All Souls’ Night,” “make human intercourse grow less and less.” From time to time he faced the terrible possibility that the local triumphs of his poems were Pyrrhic; as he veered from one mood to the other, I think he sometimes felt that it was the veering itself that enchanted him. He hadn’t yet discovered how to turn to account the misgivings he felt about consciousness and nature, subject and object. He hadn’t read Nietzsche, or found that consciousness might take conflict as its form, and deal with misgivings by involving them in the sturdy resolutions of drama, theater, tragedy. The perception of consciousness as conflict later enabled him to let into the poems anything that happened: he didn’t have to be afraid that the texture of the poems wouldn’t stand the strain.

It is time to say that the editing of these letters is superb. Virtually every difficult reference is explained, and nothing is explained away. I give one example of John Kelly’s annotation. In December 1895 there was a possibility of war between the US and Britain over the disputed boundary between Venezuela and British Guiana. Yeats wrote to Florence Farr:

The war would fulfil the prophets and especially a prophetic vision I had long ago with the Mathers’s, and so far be for the glory of God, but what a dusk of the nations it would be! for surely it would drag in half the world.

And in a footnote to this passage John Kelly quotes from Max Nordau’s Degeneration:

In our days there have arisen in more highly-developed minds vague qualms of a Dusk of the Nations, in which all suns and all stars are gradually waning, and mankind with all its institutions and creations is perishing in the midst of a dying world.

It is exactly the note we need.

I have a few small reservations. It seems unlikely that the “organization” mentioned in Yeats’s letter of mid-July 1892 to O’Leary was military or revolutionary, despite the statement in the next letter that “Mathers is a specialist & might have given useful advice to any one who thinks as you do.” O’Leary wanted to see Ireland independent of Britain, but he was long past dealing in arms and force. Mathers had translated a French military manual, but what he was a specialist in was nothing more than the amalgamation of nationalist and mystical sentiments, issuing in the kind of cult Yeats wanted to establish at Lough Key. I agree that the references are obscure.

Kelly says that there is no evidence of an affair between Yeats and Florence Farr. Richard Ellmann, in Yeats: The Man and the Masks says there was an affair sometime after 1903. Mrs. Yeats said of them in a foreword to Florence Farr, Bernard Shaw and W.B. Yeats (1941) that “their brief love affair came to an end because ‘she got bored.’ ” I assume the quoted words were Yeats’s chivalrous account of the matter to his wife. The date of Yeats’s admittance to the grade of Theocritus Adeptus Minor in the Golden Dawn is given as January 10, 1912. Kelly silently accepts this date, I infer, from Ellic Howe’s The Magicians of the Golden Dawn (1972). But the evidence of George Mills Harper’s Yeats’s Golden Dawn (1974) indicates July 10, 1912. There are a few misprints: Zeland for Zealand on p. 488, and on p. 521 O’Donaghue for O’Donoghue and Henly for Henley. Otherwise, the book is impeccable.

This Issue

August 14, 1986