Some Letters from John Butler Yeats to his Son Jack B. Yeats in 1914

Source: Published in Declan J. Foley, , ed. & intro., The Only Art: Jack B. Yeats - Letters from his Father John Butler Yeats; Essays on Their Works (Dublin: Lilliput Press 2008), pp.73-76.

317 West 29 N. Y.
June 8th, 1914   

My dear Jack

Will you take my advice and buy (not merely borrow) Tom Jones by Fielding and read it. I have just read it several times over, and afterwards also buy Galsworthy’s The Country House. These two books will give you as they have me a deeper knowledge we both know something of, Fielding’s novel of the 18th century, and Galsworthy’s of the England today, the two England’s essentially the same, in each a love of personal liberty such as no other country seems to posses. And both novels will remind you of your grandfather. There is a heap in England which I dislike, but 1 have never lost sight of the fact that she has preserved from far back times when there was no government and no army the idea of a man being lord of himself and his property (his property including wife and children and beasts and servants). In France etc, he belonged to the government which had a big army at its beck and call.

Of course this had its origin in England being an island therefore safe from [73] its enemies. Everywhere else the man was a soldier, in England he was a free man, and all this because little England was an island. For this cause also it was that her population was always very small. In Henry the 8ths time there were only three millions. In those days of bad sanitation, population was continually being reduced by this and that epidemic, by typhus and the plague. In England the gaps in population could not be filled up. The stormy sea forbade it. Of course it was not so in other countries, where one had only to cross a ditch to pass from country to country. 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 Frenclunan 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. Susan Mitchell’s poetry is purely individual. I could not conceive her trying to uplift or improve anyone. Could you?

For a long time I have been trying to get people to see the truth of all this and have not made any converts except Willie, who has adopted all my views. As you are yourself in a very marked way an individual, perhaps you will appreciate what I say.

Yours affectionately, J B Yeats


Sept. 1 1914
317 West 29 NY

My Dear Jack

I should like very much to get a letter, just to know the colour of your mind in present crisis, I am extraordinarily anxious to see German militarism crushed. England humiliated would not mean for me the end of the world. I could survive seeing her taste a little of that humiliation which she has considered it her mission to inflict on everybody else, after all I am an Irishman first and a British citizen after. English disciplined would a great England, and the Kiplings and such like would find something to think about. The young Enlgish school man, six feet tall of the most magnificent [undecipherable] and superb haughtiness would disappear, and the real English man with his blue ovate eyes and bandy legs and real love of liberty and for having room to follow his own caprices and whims make his appearance, his real nature that of a trader and a poet (strange but true) and by no means a fighter longing to thrust and kill. As you know I was at shcool where most boys were English and I have never forgotten them.

The Germans millions have been captured soul and body by a parcel of human devils, the Kaiser and his yunkers, and are allowing themselves to be literally led to the slaughter, by their vast numbers hoping to choke the French and the children of light. In Russia it is much the same, only by lucky chane the Russians are on our side, at the present juncture. [...]

So far American opinion is against Germany and enthusiastically so, but [75] they are not a stable people. Tomorrow or the next day they will be all for Germany.

Yours affectionately, J B Yeats. - Love to Cottie who has quite forgotten me.

Sept. 17, 1914
317 W 29 NY

My dear Jack

Today in the New York papers appears John Redmond’s absurd speech inviting the Irish to enlist in order to mark their gratitude to England for a home rule that is so incomplete that it is an insult. I fancy that speech will do more than any other to stop enlisting. The tone of it and every word is disgusting. I wish you could see and hear [John] Quinn on the subject. We are the smallest people in the world scattered over a rich island (rich in its fertility and possibility) and made so by England’s misconduct, a misconduct in which Balfour and Bonar Law and Carson and the whole gang are anxious to continue. Redmond is the weakest man imaginable dependent on the good opinion of people immediately about him. J.S. Mill once described a class of statesmen who would not face a clique even though he knew a nation was behind him. Of course I hate German militarism and hope it will be crushed. But it is not for Irish nationalists to rally to the help of England when she is quite resolved to refuse them everything for which they ask. Yesterday and today I have done two sketches for Quinn, one of his niece and the other of his mother and sister, and I think he is pleased. I know I am greatly pleased to find my power of sketching has grown greatly. His sister, a handsome severe looking woman with abundance of white hair and very black eyebrows.

It is no joke making a sketch for Quinn, as he stands over and bullies you all the time, and he can’t understand your difficulties. [...] Sometimes he gets enthusiastically delighted with a part which you want to alter knowing it to be all wrong. [...] (p.76.)


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