John Butler Yeats (1839-1922)

(father of W. B. Yeats [WBY]); b. 16 March 1839, at Tullylish, Co. Down, son of Church of Ireland rector [see under WBY, Genealogy, infra]; ed. first at Liverpool, and afterwards Atholl Academy, on the Isle of Man, under a brutal Scottish headmaster, with Charles and George Pollexfen; then at TCD, 1857; stayed with his grandmother, great aunts and uncle Robert Corbet at Sandymount Castle; formed friendship with Edward Dowden and his br. John (later bishop of Edinburgh), and John Todhunter; eleced auditor of Law Students’ Debating Soc.; spent a post-grad. year at TCD; won £10 prize in political economy, as only entrant;
visited Pollexfens in Sligo with the money; became engaged to Susan Mar Pollexfen, 2 Sept. 1862; following the death of his father and his inheritance of Kildare estate, m. Susan, 10 Sept. 1863, at St. John’s Church, Sligo; studied law in Dublin (King’s Inns); entered Irish Bar, 1866, and briefly devilled for Isaac Butt, from whom he acquired his Home Rule sympathies, but did not practice long; detected sketching a Q.C. ‘a little too effectively’ (MS Memoirs, I, ff.25-26.)
moved to London, 1867 - though warned by an aunt ‘here you are somebody, there you will be nobody at all’; leased 23 Fitzroy Rd., Regent’s Park (6 yr.), London; enrolled at Heatherley’s Art School to learn oil painting and later at the Slade, where he formed friendships with John Trivett Nettleship and Edwin J. Ellis - all three being admirers of the pre-Raphaelites; spent summer holidays in Sligo, 1868-69, and 1870-71; by 1871, Susan and the children were staying at Merville - the family home - without him [var. returned family to Sligo, July 1872]; frequent correspondence to Susan (‘Tell Willy not to forget me’, 1 Nov. 1872); moved to 14 Edith Villas (W. Kensington); suffered death of dg. Jane, 1876; moved to 8 Woodstock Rd., Bedford Park, 1879; returned to Dublin, 1881 or 1882; JBY rented room for studio in York St.; took train to town with Willie, then at High School, sharing lunch together;
spent two-and-a-half years in Howth, where the family occupied Balscadden Cottage, and another address in succession; briefly lived in cramped home at Terenure, moving to London in April 1887; took Willie back to London, living at Burnham Beeches, without the rest of the family, 1887; joined by family and lived at 58 Eardley Crescent, Earls Court, Aug. 1887, and then quickly moved to 3 Blenheim Rd., Bedford Park, March 1888-Oct. 1902; Susan Yeats suffered her first stroke, Dec. 1887 and a second stroke, 1889; abandoned oil or pencil sketches, 1890; resumed oil painting, 1897; illustrated Lawrence and Bullen edition of Carleton’s The Black Prophet, intro. by D. J. O’Donoghue (1899);
Yeats’s platonic relationship of ten years standing with Rosa Butt (dg. of Isaac) now blossomed; assisted to return to Dublin by John Quinn, and settled in Dublin with his daughters Susan (Lily) and Elizabeth (Lolly); held joint exhibition with Nathaniel Hone, 1901; commissioned by Sir Hugh Lane in 1902 to paint series of portraits of leading figures of Irish literary revival incl. Synge, George Moore, Lady Gregory and Susan Mitchel, now in NGI, and moved to Dublin for that purpose; set up house in “Gurteen Dhas”, Churchtown [Dundrum], 1 Oct. 1902; maintained a hospitable studio at 7, St. Stephen’s Green; contrib. letter in United Irishman calling the outcry against Synge’s Playboy ‘dishonest’ and asserting that the real objection was to his attack on ‘loveless marriages’ in Ireland (31 October, 1903);
wrote to his son from 7, St Stephen’s Green, ‘participated in public meeting of 4 Feb. 1907, following Playboy riot’; exhibition of his paintings arranged by Sarah Purser; accompanied Lily to New York, 1907; decided to stay, Jan. 1908 (‘I am convinced that fortune awaits me here’); lodged initially at Grand Union Hotel; visited the Petitpas [Normandy sisters Marie, Josephine, and Celestine] at their restaurant/guest house at 317 W. 29th St., in Chelsea district of NY; initially as dinner-guest, Aug. 1908, and later as resident, Summer 1909; made friends there including the lawyer John Quinn and the dancer Isadora Duncan; JBY was the recipient of money when his son WBY arranged with John Quinn for the sale of manuscripts to him, with payment to be made to his father with declaring the source, during the American lecture tour of 1912-13; 
befriended artists Robert Henri and John Sloan; Quinn became his patron in regard to an never-ending portrait of himself, and bought manuscripts from his son W. B. Yeats, the money going to the painter’s upkeep; wrote essays and reviews, and brilliant letters (many unpublished) to his children and others; contributed 15-page letter to defence of Ulysses; in a last letter, to Lily, he insisted his belief that money was unimportant had borne fruit in the character of his son and professed ‘I am content’ (1 Feb.); d. 6.30 a.m., 3 Feb. 1922, after brief illness caused by long walk in the cold - John Quinn being at his bedside when he died; bur. in Chesterton, a village in the Adirondacks; left three-vols. unpubl. of Memoirs in two notebooks. DIB DIH OCEL

Playboy of New York

In May 1914 John Butler Yeats wrote from New York to his long-term correspondent and sometime lover Rosa Butt, dg. of Isaac Butt: ‘Had we married and lived together, our mutual unlikeness would have made us perfectly interesting to each other. I fancy you love Religion while I hate it, because of all its sins and wickedness. I am a radical socialist anarchist Home Ruler, everything you abhor, so I sometimes think it would be best to let this correspondence drop. If I go home this year we shall meet and have many talks and then start again to write to each other.’

Quoted in Colm Tóibín, ‘The Playboy of West 29th Street’, in London Review of Books (25 Jan. 2018) - available online; accessed 14.01.2018.

See Derek Mahon - “Letter from New York: J. B. Y. in Exile”, in The Irish Times (4 Dec. 1993), p.8.

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  • Ezra Pound, ed., Passages from the Letters of John Butler Yeats (Dublin: Cuala Press 1917), 60pp. [400 copies].
  • Essays Irish and American (Dublin: Talbot Press; London: T. Fisher Unwin 1918), 95pp. [infra].
  • Lennox Robinson, ed., Further Letters of John Butler Yeats (Dundrum: Cuala Press 1920) [400 copies].
  • Joseph Hone [& O. Elton], ed., J. B. Yeats, Letters to his Son W. B. Yeats and Others, 1869-1940 [‘Memoir of John Butler Yeats’ by Hone; pref. by Oliver Elton (London: Faber 1944), 294pp. [err. 1941]; Do. (NY: Dutton 1946) [with slightly variant contents]; and Do. [reiss.] (London: Secker & Warburg 1983), and Do., [abridged] intro. John McGahern (London: Faber 1999) [contents].
  • G. O’Malley & Donald Torchiana, eds., ‘John Butler Yeats to Lady Gregory: New Letters’, in Irish Renaissance: A Gathering of Essays, Memoirs, and Letters from the Massachusetts Review, ed. Robin Skelton & David R. Clark [prev. as ‘Irish Gathering’] (Dublin: Dolmen 1965), pp.56-64.
  • William M. Murphy ed., Letters from Bedford Park: A Selection from the Correspondence (1890-1901) of John Butler Yeats (Dublin: Cuala Press [Dolmen] 1972), xii, 77pp.
  • [...]
  • Early Memories: Some Chapters of Autobiography (Dundrum: Cuala Press 1923), 99pp.

See also William Laffan, Friendship Portraits John Butler Yeats (Dublin: Pym Gallery 2005), 44pp. [incl. ports. of Jenny Yeats, Padraic Colum, J. M. Synge, George Russell, J. A. O’Rourke, Clare Marsh and self; also printed handkerchief made to raise funds for Hugh Lane gallery];


Note: JBY left three-vols. Memoirs in three volumes, in two notebooks - written on the recto only - ‘and for the third “volume” he simply turns his second notebook upside down and begins his writing from the rear.’ (See William M. Murphy, ‘Early Education of W. B. Yeats’, in A Revew of English Literature, ed. A. N. Jeffares, VIII, 4 (Oct. 1967), pp.75-96; p.78, n.1.)

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Bibliographical details
Essays Irish and American [The Talbot Press Books] (Dublin: Talbot Press; London: T. Fisher Unwin 1918), [4] 95, iv [1]p., 1 plate: port.; 18.3cm.. CONTENTS: An appreciation [by AE [George Russell]; Recollections of Samuel Butler; Back to the Home; Why the Englishman is Happy; Synge and the Irish; The Modern Woman; Watts and the Method of Art. [‘Four of the following essays appeared in Harper’s weekly and one in the Seven Arts.’

John McGahern, intro. Letters of John Butler Yeats [abridged edn. of Joseph Hone 1944] (London: Secker & Warburg 1983; Faber & Faber 1999). CONTENTS: List of Illustrations, p.vii; Introduction of John McGahern, 1-24; Notes by McGahern, 25-28; Index of Recipients of the Letters, 29; The Letters, 35; Index. 211. Ills. ‘Yeats as a Child’, pencil, c.1874; J. B Yeats, self-portrait, c.1875; William Morris at the Contemporary Club’, pencil, April 1886 [NGI]; John O’Leary at the Contemporary Club Pencil, c.1894 [NGI]; W. B. Yeats as a Young Man, pen. Jan. 1886; Portrait of Lolly Yeats, pencil, Oct. 6th 1898; John Millington Synge, Pencil, April 1905; George Hyde-Lees, Feb. 1920.

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  • Thomas Bodkin, ‘John Butler Yeats, R.H.A.’, in Dublin Magazine, I, 6(Jan 1924), p.484.
  • William M[ichael] Murphy, ‘Father and son, The Early Education of W. B. Yeats’, in Review of English Literature, 8.4 (Oct. 1967).
  • ‘A. N. Jeffares, ‘John Butler Yeats, Anglo-Irishman’, in The Circus Animals, ed. Jeffares (1970).
  • Douglas Archibald, John Butler Yeats [Irish Writers Series] (Lewisburg: Bucknell UP 1974).
  • William M[ichael] Murphy, Prodigal Father, the Life of John Butler Yeats (Ithaca NY: Cornell UP 1978), 687pp. [available in part at Google Books - online].
  • A. N. Jeffares, W. B. Yeats, A New Life (London: Hutchinson 1988).
  • James White, ed., Drawing and Paintings (1971), 159pp.
  • James White, John Butler Yeats and the Irish Renaissance, with Pictures from the Collection of Michael Butler Yeats and from the National Gallery of Ireland (Dublin: Dolmen 1972), 72pp. [incls. the poem “The Painter” - John Butler Yeats by Padraic Colum, from Irish Elegies, also publ. by Dolmen].
  • Douglas Archibald, ‘John Butler Yeats’, in W. B. Yeats in Context, ed. David Holdeman & Ben Levitas (Cambridge UP 2010) [Chap.10].
  • Colm Tóibín, ‘W. B. Yeats: New Ways to Kill Your Father’, in New Ways to Kill Your Mother: Writers and Their Families, London: Viking 2012, pp.33-34.
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See B. L. Reid, The Man from NY: John Quinn and His Friends (1968); William Murphy, Family Secrets, William Butler Yeats and his Relatives (1995), 464pp.; John McGahern, introduction to Letters of J. B. Yeats [abridged edn.] (London: Faber 1999); Janis Londraville, ed., Prodigal Father Revisited: Artists and Writers in the World of John Butler Yeats [Papers of a conference at Chestertown, NY, on 7-9 Sept. 2001] (NY: Locust Hill Press 2002).


See also the remarks on the Dublin paintings of J. B. Yeats in the National Gallery of Ireland in Stanislaus Joyce, Letters of James Joyce, Vol. 2, ed. Richard Ellmann, Faber 1966, p.116 [under Walter Osborne, infra.]

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W. B. Yeats (1): ‘[He] was affectionate but intellectually dominating, filling the house with his personality and with his opinions [...] had little sense of financial responsibility.’ (Autobiographies [q.p.])

W. B. Yeats (2): ‘My father began life a pre-Raphaelite painter; when past thirty he fell under the influence of contemporary French painting. Instead of finishing a picture one square inch at a time, he kept all fluid, every detail dependent upon every other, and remained a poor man to the end of his life, because the more anxious he was to succeed, the more did his pictures sink through innumerable sittings into final confusion.’ (ibid., p.16). ‘My father says, “A man does not love a woman because he thinks her clever or because he admires her, but because he likes the way she has of scratching her head”.’ (Ibid., p.463.)

W. B. Yeats (3): ‘When I was in my ’teens I admired my father above all men; from him I learned to admire Balzac and to set certain passages in Shakespeare above all else in literature, but when I was twenty-three or twenty-four I read Ruskin’s “Unto This Last” of which I do not remember a word, and we began to quarrel, for he was John Stuart Mill’s disciple. Once he threw me against a picture with such violence that I broke the glass with the back of my head. But it was not only with my father that I quarrelled, nor were economics the only theme. [...]’ (On the Boiler, Cuala Press 1941, pp.14-15; cited in Richard Ellmann, Yeats:: The Man and the Masks, 1948, p.278 see further, infra.)

W. B. Yeats (4): in ‘‘Beautiful Lofty Things’’, John Butler Yeats is said to have told the audience in The Playboy controversy and debate that Ireland is an island of saints - ‘plaster saints’. Cf. his own recollection of events in which he recalls his words thus: ‘Of course I knew Ireland is an island of Saints, but thank God it is an island of sinners - only unfortunately in this Country people cannot live or die except behind a curtain of deceit’, the last phrase striking him as ‘manifestly a blunder’ although he ‘did enjoy it’ (Letters to his Son, 1944, p.214).

W. B. Yeats: [recalls his father working on a painting of] ‘the first big pond you come to if you have driven from Slough through Farnham Royal. He began it in spring and painted all through the year, the picture changing with the seasons, and gave it up unfinished when he had painted the snow upon the heath-covered, banks. He is never satisfied and can never make himself say that any picture is finished.’ (Autobiographies, p.28.)

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Beatrice Webb: Webb quotes John Butler Yeats: ‘An ardent student of Adam Smith, Malthus, and particularly of Nassau Senior, she [her mother] had been brought up in the strictest sect of Utilitarian economists. ... My mother practised what she preached. ... Her intellect told her that to pay more than the market rate, to exact fewer than the customary hours or insist on less than the usual strain - even if it could be proved that these conditions were injurious to the health and happiness of the persons concerned - was an act of self-indulgence, a defiance of nature’s laws which would bring disaster on the individual and the community. Similarly, it was the bounden duty of every citizen to better his social status; to ignore those beneath him, and to aim steadily at the top rung of the social ladder.Only by this persistent pursuit by each individual of his own and his family’s interest would the highest general level of civilisation be attained. No one of the present generation realises with what sincerity and fervour these doctrines were held by the representative men and women of the mid-Victorian middle class. [“]The man who sells his cow too cheap goes to Hell” still epitomises, according to John Butler Yeats, “the greater part of the religion of Belfast” - that last backwater of the sanctimonious commercialism of the nineteenth century.’ (My Apprenticeship, London: Longmans, Green 1926), pp.14-16; quoted in Fionntán de Brún, ‘Expressing the Nineteenth Century in Irish: The Poetry of Aodh Mac Domhnaill (1802–67)’, in New Hibernia Review/Iris Éireannach Nua, Spring 2011, p.99.)

John Quinn [on J. B. Yeats in New York]: ‘And so the book comes to a triumphant close, with the victory of the Lama over his family, over the Ambassador, over the Doctor, over the nurse, and over his friends, it all being a triumphant vindication of the philosophy of the ego, of the victory of the man who regards only himself, of the man who does not care for others when they cease to amuse him, the artist’s ego, the ego parading in the poet’s singing robes, and - to use a vulgarism which Henry James would, I am sure, hugely enjoy - the egotist in his singing robes, crowned with laurel, the consummate artist, the playboy of West 29th Street, the youth of eighty without a care, with never a thought of his family or his friends, with eternal self-indulgence, with an appetite for food and drink at the age of eighty that is the envy of his younger friends and the despair of the Ambassador; this young man who has enjoyed fifty years of play and talk and health and high spirits and wine and drink and cigars, the man who enjoys the evasions of the artist - he “gets away with it”, as Henry James would say.’ (Quoted in Colm Tóibín, ‘W. B. Yeats: New Ways to Kill Your Father’, in New Ways to Kill Your Mother: Writers and Their Families, London: Viking 2012, pp.37-38; n. source.)

Note that Tóibín also quotes J. B. Yeats's remark on the millenium to come ‘when Science and Applied Science release us from the burthen of industry and necessity’, though at present man would sink to the condition of brutes in such a regime - on a letter of April 1917, which Tóibín sees as anticipating “The Second Coming”, shortly to be written. (ibid., p.35).

Richard Kain, Dublin in the Age of William Butler Yeats and James Joyce (Oklahoma UP 1962; Newton Abbot: David Charles 1972): ‘John Butler Yeats’s portraits of the major figures in the revival retain much of the graciousness of Dublin at the turn of the century. At the suggestion of Hugh Lane, the poet’s father left London in 1902 and undertook an extensive series of portraits in oil and crayon. Most of literary and artistic Dublin sat for him. Years later Susan Mitchell, one of his subjects, recalled his manner of painting: “The brave, tall figure, brush in hand, advancing on his canvas with great strides ... putting on touches with the ardour of one who would storm a fortress,” and, of course, “talking enchantingly all the time, his whole nature in movement.” His rooms on St. Stephen’s Green, more salon than studio, were filled with friends. He kept so busy chatting [61] that his portraits were produced very slowly; moreover, as his son recalled, his impressionable mind was always open to afterthoughts, so that everything he did was a constantly being retouched.’ (pp.61-62.) See also his account of John Butler Yeats’s conversation and aphorisms, ibid., p p.97-98.

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Richard Ellmann, Yeats: The Man and the Masks (London: Faber [1948; rev. 1960]), ‘Chap. II, “Fathers and Sons”, gives an account of John Butler Yeats; his schooling; his apostasy; his marriage to Susan Pollexfen; her family (‘so silent, so instinctive, so deep-feeling’) sought by his as an opposite to his own ‘affable, argumentative, opinionative mind’ [10]; quotes W. B. Yeats: ‘what talent I have for honest living, I think I learned from him’; ‘my father theorised about things and explained things, and that delighted me, not because I had any mental conceit but because I delighted then as I still do in reasoning’ [12]; ‘W. B. Yeats wrote to Arthur Power, ‘Something of what you say I have tired to do, I mean I have tried to create standards, to do and say those things that accident made possible to me, the accident being I suppose in the main my father’s studio.’ [14]; John B. Yeats communicates his designs for paintings done at Heatherley’s in letter to Dowden; profession of belief in letter to Dowden; ‘It seems to me that the intellect of man as man, and therefore of an artist, the most human of all, should obey no voice except that of emotion, but I would have a man know all emotions. A doctrine or idea with Catholicity in it is food to all the feelings, it has been the outcome of some strong and widely developed mature, and every other nature is quickened by it. Art has to do with the sustaining and invigorating of the Personality. To be strong is to be happy. Art by expressing our feelings makes us strong, and therefore happy. When I spoke of emotions as the first thing and last in education, I did not mean excitement. In the completely emotional man the least awakening of feeling is a harmony, in which every chord of every feeling vibrates. [... &c.] [15]

Richard Ellmann (Yeats: The Man and the Masks, 1960) - cont.: ‘There are two kinds of belief; the poetical and the religious. That of the poet comes when the man within has found some method or manner of thinking or arrangement of fact (such as is only possible in dreams) by which to express and embody an absolute freedom, such that his whole inner and out-self can expand in a full satisfaction. In religious belief there is absent the consciousness of liberty. Religion is the denial of liberty. An enforced peace set up among the warring feelings ... that is why the true poet is neither moral nor religious.’ (Robinson, ed., Further Letters, p.22); Ellmann writes, ‘was this not his secret? Unable to rest easy with his scepticism, yet opposed to faith, he exalted poetry as a form of knowledge which was independent of both.’ [20]. Further, quoting John Butler Yeats’s letter to his son on the ‘sort of Yahoo great men’ advocated in his Neitszchean philosophy, Ellmann writes: ‘One can be grateful that J. B.Yeats, though he had aristocratic prejudices too, stood always on the side of humanity’ - and further quotes a letter to Dowden in which JBY says that he does not want Yeats to be his successor as Professor of Poetry: ‘In the first place he is naturally conservative & very conservative & and I dont want to see that side of his character developed - I would rather keep him in the ranks down among the poor soldiers fighting for sincerity and truth.’ (pp.181-82).

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Maurice Harmon, reviewing William Murphy, Family Secrets, William Butler Yeats and his Relatives (1995), Books Ireland (Sept 1995), p.201, writes: ‘The affair between John Butler Yeats and Rosa Butt [...] would be farcical if it were not so pathetic. He encouraged her to respond in kind to his suggestive letters. They agreed to destroy each other’s letters. For him this meant they could be as sexually explicit as they wished. But while he kept his side of the agreement, she did not. It was, she may have felt, more his agreement than hers.’ See also Books Ireland (May 1995), “First Flush”, Rosa’s collection of letters providing much of the documentation of the doings of the Yeats sisters in Murphy’s book (p.125.)

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William M. Murphy, Prodigal Father (Ithaca: Cornell UP 1978; Syracuse UP 2001): ‘In mid-July of 1909 the usually tight-fisted Julia Ford offered a way out of the mounting bills. Her son Ellsworth had just vacated a studio with bedroom attached in a building at 12 West Forty-fourth Street. An artist wanted to use it, but Mrs. Ford thought the rent he offered too low and preferred to let JBY have it for nothing from August through October. It was opposite the Harvard Club, to which he was given visitor’s privileges for a month.’ (pp.353-54; quoted in Declan Foley [email message], noticing imminent publication of Janis Londraville, ed., Prodigal Father Revisited [2002].)

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John McGahern, Introduction to Letters of J. B. Yeats [abridged edn.] (London: Faber 1999). J. B. Yeats Yeats read Comte, Darwin and John Stuart Mill (‘that man with no peacock feathers’); rejected his father’s Anglican religion based on Butler’s Analogue of Faith; ‘I came to recognise natural law, and then lost all interest in a personal god, which seemed merely a myth of the frightened imagination.’ (p.4). Gave lecture on ‘The True Purpose of A Debating Society’, i.e., to discover truth, as auditor of the Student Society [?Hist ?Law Society]; visited Sligo in Sept. 1862; met Susan, m. Sept. 1863; watching his daughters work and struggle [at Bedford Park], J. B. Y. felt his own lacks even more keenly. In a quarrel with Willie late in his life he articulated bitterly his feelings that the normal expectations they should have enjoyed for young women of their rank and talent had been sacrificed on the altars of their brothers’ early careers and his own woeful ineffectiveness. Not dissimar are the same self-recriminations on the life he had provided for Susan Yeats, her withdrawal into illness and death. ‘Had I money your mother would never have been ill and would be alive now - that is the though always with me - and I would have done anything to get it for her - but had not the art.’ [9] Lady Gregory commissioned JBY to do a sketch of his own son: ‘She was impressed by his drawing and gave him further commissions for pencil sketches of priminent figures of the Irish Literary Revival. Lady Gregory say that his skill lay in the pencil sketche, done in a single sitting and not easy to revise and, in his case, eventually to ruin. Also, it allowed him to concentrate purely on the face, which was his chief interest. At a single stroke she gave him self-respect and an income, and a pattern was set that would be continued by her nephew, Hugh Lane, and the distinguished American lawyer and patron John Quinn. The result was a whole gallery of brilliant pencil sketches. [10] Lady Gregory wrote to John Quinn: ‘I think him the most trying visitor possible to a house[.] Space and time mean nothing to him, he goes his own way, spoiling portraits as hopefully as he begins them, and always on the verge of a great future.’ [11].

John McGahern (Introduction to Letters of J. B. Yeats, 1999) - cont.: Seen off at Liverpool in Dec. 1907 by Oliver Elton, prof. of English there, and met at the pier by Quinn; stayed at the Petitpas restaurant and boarding house; WBY and Quinn arranged the purchase of Yeats’s MSS to Quinn, value to accumulate in a trust account which might be drawn on to defray debts to the Petitpas ladies. wrote to Wilie after the publication of Autobiographies, of his sisters: ‘they paid the penalty of having a father who did not ear enough and was besides an Irish landlord. I am sure that “enraged family” was a slip of the pen. I fancy you yourself did regard us as having the brand of inferiority, but they didn’t mind. What woman does?’ [20]. WBY wrote to John Quinn: ‘It was this infirmity of will which has prevented him from finishing his pictures and ruined his career. He even hates the sign of will in others. It used to cause quarrels between me and him, for the qualties which I thought necessary to sucess in art or in life seemed to him “egotism” or “selfishness” or “brutality”. I had to escape this family drifting, innocent and helpless, and the need for that drew me to dominating men like Henley and Morris and estranged me from his friends … I find even from letters written in the last few months that he had not quite forgiven me.’ [20] Eliot wrote of him for Egoist: ‘Mr J. B. Yeats is a highly civilised man; and he had the kingdom of leisure within him. Leisure for Mr Yeats means writing well even when not writing for publication; writing with dignity and ease and reserve. And letter-writing for him means the grace and urbanity of the talker and the depth of the solitary; it means a resolute return to a few important issues, not ceaseless loquacity and novelties …’ [here 22] McGahern writes: ‘The letters have given me pleasure for many years. They can be gossipy, profound, irascible, charming, prejudiced, humorous, intelligent, naïve, contradictory, passionate. They are always immediate. … In abolishing time and establishing memory, the letters of John Butler Yeats go straight to the very heart of affection.’ [24; END; for Letters, see Archives, “Authors”, infra.]

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Tongue to the sea cliffs [on the Pollexfens]: ‘This curious solitariness was characteristic of the whole family. I myself am eagerly communicative, and when my son first revealed to me his gift of verse, “Ah!” I said, “Behold I have given a tongue to the sea cliffs.”’ (Early Memories: Some Chapters of Autobiography, Dublin: Cuala Press 1923, p.20.)

Cf., W. B. Yeats, Autobiographies (1955): ‘Two eighteenth-century faces interest me the most, one that of a great-great-grandfather, for both [have] under their powdered curling wigs a half-feminine charm, and as I look I discover a something clumsy and heavy in myself. Yet it was a Yeats who spoke the only eulogy that turns my head. ‘We have ideas and no passions, but by marriage with a Pollexfen I have given a tongue to the sea cliffs”’. (p.23.)

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On TCD: ‘Instead of entering Trinity I am persuaded it would have been better for me to have become an art student at once and not waited until I was test years older. I was born to observc, and paint what I saw. With a man of my type curiosity is a passion, not malignant, which is the soul of gossip and scandal, nor yet that of the scientist who wants, to how things, but that of the artist. If I go into the woods to find a flower, it is not that I want a flower important to the botanist or the doctor. I merely desire a flower to my taste, as a young man finds his sweetheart - like his, my choice a mystery, and in his case has miracle of success or failure. An artist has the vagrant mind, and to such Trinity College is not congenial. Always at the back of Trinity College, drawing it on, are, hungry parents and the hungry offspring of a poor country. Trinity flourishes by pleasing these people.’ (Memoirs, I, f.23; quoted in William M. Murphy, ‘Early Education of W. B. Yeats’, in A Revew of English Literature, Oct. 1967, p.79.)

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Letters to W. B. Yeats (1): ‘Your mother married me because I was always there, and the family helped’ - with further remarks on the Yeats family. Also: ‘What a lost the Irish bar had when I turned artist ... had I remained a barrister and become a judge – there would have been no famous poet and Jack would not have been so distinguished – content only to be the wag of the Four Courts. To be sure Lolly and Lily would have married – however we are in God’s hands – and I think we are a lucky family – my four sons and daughters have realised themselves though I would have liked to see Lily married.’ (Quoted in Frank Tuohy, Yeats, 1976, p.22.)

On W. B. Yeats composing (in boyhood): ‘Everything else became of little importance. At that time for the sake of a necessary thrift we gathered every evening in one room round the single lamp, and my son would be quiet over his lesson. These finished, he betook himself to the study of verse, murmuring ever to himself the line as he made them, at first quietly so as to disturb no one - only his voice would grow louder and louder till at last it filled the room. Then his sisters would call out to him, “Now, Willie, stop composing!” And he would meekly lower his voice. Alas, the murmuring would again become, a shout. My daughters would again object, the evening always ending in his finding another lamp and retiring with it into the kitchen where he would murmur verses in any voice he liked to his heart’s content.’ (Memoirs, I, ff.63-4; quoted in William M. Murphy, ‘Early Education of W. B. Yeats’, in A Revew of English Literature, Oct. 1967, p.92.)

On W. B. Yeats composing (in manhood): ‘Swaying his head from side to side wherever you met him, in the house or in the street, he looked at you with unseeing eyes, his voice filling the air with murmured verses ...]’ (Ibid., I, f.64; quoted in Murphy, op. cit., p.92.)

Note - Murphy adds: ‘Years later, at Coole Park, he would pace all morning on the floor of the room above the kitchen while below Robert Gregory and his tutor T. Arnold Harvey (later to become Dean of St Patrick's and a Bishop of the Church of Ireland) heard him muttering the verses.’ (Conversation with Bishop Harvey; Murphy, idem.)

... my son a poet: ‘It is impossible for a rich man’s son to enter the heaven of poetry, yet a poor man’s son should avoid poetry, because it is impossible to make money by the writing of poetry. My son and myself both saw all this to be true. Neverthelsss he abided by poetry and I encouraged him. It was a secret between us. I was not anxious to proclaim to the world that I, a poor man, was bringing up my eldest son to be a poet.’ (MS Memoirs, I, f.51; quoted in William M. Murphy, ‘Early Education of W. B. Yeats’, in A Revew of English Literature, Oct. 1967, p.93.)

... shared anxieties: ‘I worried him a good deal about his lessons. Subconsciously I resolved that he sould be a distinguished man, and I htink he caught the infection from me, so that my anxieties because his anxieties.’ (Memoirs, I, f.51; quoted in William M. Murphy, ‘Early Education of W. B. Yeats’, in A Revew of English Literature, Oct. 1967, p.93.)

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Letters to W. B. Yeats (2): ‘The real object of Protestant teaching is to make a boy behave even tho’ no one is watching him. The whole effort of Catholic teaching is to keep a boy under closest scrutiny night and day, and by their confessional they can carrying spying into the reaches of the poor lad’s soul.’ (Quoted in Frank Tuohy, op. cit., p.123.) Further: JBY calls In the Shadow of the Glen an attack on ‘our Irish institution, the loveless marriage’ (Idem.) [On staying in America:] ‘I am in love with the country as much as ever. They don’t understand art and have no manners, but there runs through all ranks a goodness and kindness ...’ (Ibid., p.134.)

Letters to W. B. Yeats (3): ‘[I]f so your demi-god is after all but a doctrinaire demi-godship. Your words are idle – and you are far more human than you think. You would be a philosopher and are really a poet [...] the men whom Neitszche’s theory fits are only a sort of Yahoo great men. The struggle is how to get rid of them, they belong to the clumsy and brutal side of things.’ (Letter to W. B Yeats [7, St Stephen’s Green, 1906], at the time of Yeats’s quarrel with Lollie; Hone, ed., Letters to His Son and Others, 1944, p.97.)

Note that A. N. Jeffares identifies the sentence, ‘You would be a philosopher ... &c.’ as summing up the truth about A Vision. (W. B. Yeats: Man and Poet, Routledge 1949, p.204.)

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Letters to W. B. Yeats (3): ‘... a certain personal intensity habitual with you ... I ought to have said that the intensity by the time it reaches its expression is no longer personal, entering into the world of art, the personal ego is dropped away, for I think personal art is bad art, at any rate second rate.’ (Dated New York, 22 Oct 1912; quoted in Patricia Boylan, All Cultivated People: A History of the United Arts Club, Dublin, Gerrards Cross: Colin Smythe 1988, p.150, citing J. M. Hone, ed., Letters to His Son, London 1944.)

Letters to W. B. Yeats (4): ‘Personality is neither right nor wrong – for it is divine – it transcends intellect and morality. Real Poetry is Real Personality, a little child when it is learning to talk, unurdened by ideas of right or wrong, and without intellect, and often a woman when she is in love or when she has little children –here is Pure Personality’ (Letters to His Son, ed., J. Hone, Dutton 1946; cited in Flannery, Yeats and the Idea of the Theatre, 1976, p.59.)

Letters to W. B. Yeats (5): ‘My dear Willie - I am afraid you must sometimes think be very conceited - the fact is not only am I an old man in a hurry, but all my life I have fancied myself just on the verge of discovering the primum mobile.’ Further: ‘My theory is that we are always dreaming - chairs, tables, women and children, our wives and sweethearts, the people in the streets, all in various ways and with various powers are the starting points of dreams ... Sleep is the dreaming away from the facts and wakefulness is dreaming in close contact with the facts, and since facts excite our dreams and feed them we get as close as possible to the facts if we have the cunning and the genius of poignant feeling ...’ (Quoted in John McGahern, Trinity Quattrocentenial essay, in The Irish Times, 9 May 1992, “Weekend”, q.p.)

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Letters to W. B. Yeats (6): ‘Now a most powerful and complex part of the personality is affection and affection springs straight out of the memory. For that reason what is new whether in the world of ideas or of fact cannot be subject for poetry, tho’ you can be as rhetorical about it as you please - rhetoric expresses other people’s feelings, poetry one’s own.’ ‘I have no belief in what is called a personal God, but do believe in a shaping providence - and that this providence is what maybe called goodness or love, and that death is only a change in a world where change is the law of existence’ (Quoted in McGahern, op. cit., 1992.)

Letters to W. B. Yeats (7): ‘Had you [W. B. Yeats] stayed with me and not left me for Lady Gregory, and her friends and associations, you would have loved and adored concrete life for which as I know you have real affection. What would have resulted? Realistic and poetical plays – poetry in closest and most intimate union with positive realities and complexities of life ... I bet it is what your wife wants – ask her ... Had you stayed with me, we would have collaborated and York Powell would have helped.’ (Letter to W. B. Yeats, 1921; quoted in Frank Tuohy, Yeats, 1976, p.136.)

See longer extract:

When is your poetry at its best? I challenge all the critics if it is not when its wild spirit of your imagination is wedded to concrete fact. Had you stayed with me and not left me for Lady Gregory, and her friends and associations, you would have loved and adored concrete life for which as I know you have a real affection. What would have resulted? Realistic and poetical plays - poetry in closest and most intimate union with the positive realities and complexities of life. And that is the world that waits, so far in vain, its poet.

He went on:

Am I talking wildly? Am I senile? I don“t think so, for I would have said the same any time these twenty or thirty years. The best thing in life is the game of life, and some day a poet will find this out. I hope you will be that poet. It is easier to write poetry that is far away from life, but it is infinitely more exciting to write the poetry of life - and it is what the whole world is crying out for as pants the hart for the water brook.

Quoted in Colm Tóibín, “The Playboy of West 29th Street”, in London Review of Books (25 Jan. 2018) - as attached.

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Letter to John O’Leary: ‘[...[ If you will allow me to say so, when I met you - your friends I for the first time met people in Dublin who were not entirely absorbed in the temporal and eternal welfare of themselves ... It was meeting you all that has left an impression on my young people that will never be quite lost.’ (Lettter of 10 Jan. 1888; quoted in R. F. Foster, W. B. Yeats: The Apprentice Mage, Oxford 1997, p.43, citing NLI MS 5925; also in Foster, ‘Square-built Power and Fiery Shorthand: Yeats, Carleton and the Irish Nineteenth Century’, in The Irish Story: Telling Tales and Making It Up in Ireland, Penguin 2001) [Chap.7], p.115.)

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Letter to Jack & Cottie Yeats (23rd Nov. 1909; addressed from 317 West 29th Street, NY): ‘Above is a picture of myself looking very mild so forgive me for not answering any of your letters. I don’t write because there is so much to say and so little to say, so much to tell - am I not in New York? - so liettle to tell, because I find it very difficult to pay my way. […] Tomorrow being Thanksgiving day I am to dine with John Sloan and his wife. Henri andhis wife are to there also. Henry to my mind is the best painter in America. I am not sure if he is not one of the finest painters anywhere, and he is the most delightful company anywhere. Jack and he would be great friends. People think I suppose that I am staying here because I am making money. It is rather the other way. If I made some money I would go home pretty quick. I will write soon again. Every little bit of news about Jack and his work I greedily devour, and he seems to be doing well. / Yours affectionately / J B Yeats.’ (In Declan J. Foley, ed. & intro., The Only Art: Jack B. Yeats - Letters from his Father John Butler Yeats - Essays on their Work, Dublin: Lilliput 2008, p.31.)

Letters to Jack & Cottie Yeats (8 June 1914; addressed from 317 West 29th Street, NY) ‘[...] In England with a small population no army and consequently no strong central government. Men grew up in both ease and liberty, no competition and therefore no hard work. Out of all this came men like your grandfather. I never met a Frenchman or German without in fancy seeing the military stripe. Every glance of the eye suggest the soldier, and the man wider orders, the eagle look of freedom not theirs. / It is this individualism that makes England great in art and literature. In France these are rhetorical and theatrical, the finest of a fine kind. That which is absolutely spontaneous without rhetoric seeking to impress no one is English. Italy in the time of Michaelangelo was like England. In those ages men lived for themselves and for their own masters, each man apart in a fortress of his own building, his own soul everything to him, and no elses affair. And how gentle and humble minded they were, unlike the rhetorical Frenchman who is at heart a tub thumper. / In America there is no individualism. It is drowned in this and that cause, philanthropic and social or in some effort "to uplift" the nation. [...; &c.]’ (See full text, infra.)

Irish playwrights: ‘It is natural to an Irishman to write plays; he has an inborn love of dialogue and sound about him, of a dialogue as lively, gallant, and passionate as in the times of great Eliza. In these days an Englishman’s dialogue is that of an amateur - that is to say it is never spontaneous. I mean in real life. Compare it with an Irishman’s, above all a poor Irishman’s reckless abandonment and naturalness, or compare it with the only fragment that has come down to us of Shakespeare’s own conversation [...]’ (Quoted by W. B. Yeats in Plays and Controversies; quoted in Alan Warner, A Guide to Anglo-Irish Literature, Dublin: Gill & Macmillan 1981, p.29.)

[ See also his intervention in the Shadow of the Glen controversy of 1903 - under Synge, infra. ]

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Gentleman born: ‘[A] Gentleman [...] is such simply because he has not the doctrine of getting on and the habit of it. The contest is not against material things, but between those who want and those who don’t want to get on, having other important things to do.’ (Letters of W. B. Yeats, ed., Joseph Hone, p.24; quoted in Terence Brown, Life of W. B. Yeats, 1999, p.11 [pb. edn. 2001].) Cf. W. B. Yeats, Autobiographies: ‘My father brought me up never when at school to think of the future or of any practical result. I had even known him to say, “When I was young, the definition of a gentleman was a man not wholly occupied in getting on.’ (pp.89-90; quoted in G. J. Watson, ed., The Short Fiction of W. B. Yeats, Harmondsworth: Penguin 1995, p.xxiv.

Preraphaelite?: JBY: ‘Had I met Rossetti in the flesh I think I should have cast out forever this questioning intellect which has haunted me all my life […] and led the imaginative life.’ (Early Memoirs, Cuala Press 1923, pp.27, 29; quoted in Paul Murray, MA Diss., UU 2004.)

Accursed opinions: ‘Poets must not meddle with opinions ... It should never be forgotten that poetry is the Voice of the Solitary Spirit, prose the language of the sociable-minded.’ Cf. W. B. Yeats’s modification of this, as noted by Louis McNeice (W. B. Yeats, 1941): ‘We make prose from our quarrel with other people, poetry from our quarrel with ourselves.’

Attributed speech: ‘All must be an idealisation of speech at some moment of passionate action or somnolent reverie.’ (W. B. Yeats, Autobiographies.)

Butt v. Parnell, ‘The Irish took to hatred when they deserted the statesman Isaac Butt for the politician Parnell. Hatred is a prison where people can only foam at the mouth and tear their blankets and attack the keepers and yell obscenities, finally to be quenched and put in punishment cells. [...]. An educated reflecting people like the Scotch would never have deserted Butt, and they’d have won, or the Butt method would have won. Parnell was not a great man, I remember at school certain boys who had a natural leadership and who always had a certain following, and I remember also that they were never otherwise interesting and never by any means intellectual. A certain combination of egoism and vanity and activity and courage did the trick’ (Letters to Susan Mitchell, 20 Sept 1915.)

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Thought & technique: ‘The Portrait painter with the full mind will find interest in his sitter, his chief, his sole inspiration - to make his technique equal to his thought will be his humble painter’s hope. The other sort will think only of his technique.’ (Letter to W. B. Yeats; cited in Hilary Pyle, Estella Solomons: Patriot Portraits, 1966.)

Criticism: ‘To criticise is neither to praise or denounce, but to get nearer to your subject.’ (Quoted in Archibald, J. B. Yeats, Bucknell UP, pp.62; 76; 85-86.)

James Joyce: J. B. Yeats remarks that ‘self discipline of the sternest kind is evident in every sentence he writes.’

Protestants & Catholics: ‘Our feelings were curious and though exceedingly selfish not exclusively so. We intended as good Protestants and Loyalists to keep the Papists under our feet. We impoverished them, though we loved them; and their religion by its doctrine of submission and obedience unintentionally helped us; we were convinced that an Irishman, whether a Protestant or Catholic, was superior to every Englishman, and that he was a better comrade and physically stronger and of greater courage.’ (Cited in L. Ó Bróin, The Stopford Connection,1985, p.13, and quoted in McDowell & Stanford, John Pentland Mahaffy, 1972, p.120).

Trinity College, Dublin: ‘Always at the back [?of] Trinity College drawing on it, are hungry parents and the hungry offspring of a poor country. Trinity flourishes by pleasing these people.’ (Memoirs, I., f.23.) [source lost]. ALSO, letter to W. B. Yeats (Dec. 1913), ‘You have been liable at times, only at times, to a touch of the propaganda fiend’ [cited in Conor Cruise O’Brien, Ancestral Voices, Religion and Nationalism in Ireland (Poolbeg 1994), pp.61.]

The USA: ‘What America needs to rescue it from its unrest and delirious collectivism is poets and solitaries, men who turn aside and live to themselves and enjoy the luxury of their own feelings and thoughts.’ (?Archibald, supra.)

Mad fools (arguing that the English should have jailed the 1916 leaders rather than execute them): ‘Ireland would have pitied and loved and smiled at these men, knowing them to be mad fools. In the end they would have come to see that fools are worst criminals.’ (Quoted in Hugh Kenner, Ulysses [Unwin Critical Library, gen. ed., Claude Rawson], London: George Allen & Unwin 1980, p.93.)

Poor Lollie: see Cian Ó hÉigeartaigh, ‘Even Dead Yeatses Deserve Some Privacy’, in The Irish Times (17 May 1995), remarking that William Murphy’s Family Secrets, William Butler Yeats and his Relatives (1995) occasioned controversy through unkind treatment of Lollie.

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University of Ulster (Morris Collection) holds Letters from Bedford Park ... 1890-1901 (Dublin: Cuala Press 1972).

Belfast Central Library holds John Butler Yeats, Early Memories (Dundrum: Cuala Press 1923), 99pp; J.B. Yeats, Letters to His Son W. B. Yeats and others 1869-1922 [1944] 294pp; Passages from his letters, selected by Ezra Pound (Cuala P. 1917), 60p. [limited ed. 400 copies.]

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