Letters of J. B. Yeats, edited by Joseph Hone, abridged and with an introduction by John McGahern (London: Faber & Faber 1944; reiss. Secker & Warburg 1983; 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; Portait of Lolly Yeats, pencil, Oct. 6th 1898; John Millington Synge, Pencil, April 1905; George Hyde-Lees, Feb. 1920.

J. B. Yeats [JBY] 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 Soceity]; visited Sligo in Sept. 1862; met Susan, m. Sept. 1863;

Watching hs daughters work and struggle [at Bedford Park], JBY 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 sketch, 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].

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 famil[y]” 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 [of his father] 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 success 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 eans the grace and aurbanity 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]

John McGahern [JMcG] 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]

JMcG quotes: 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 dreaming away from the facts and wakefulness dreaming in close contact with the facts, and since the facts excite our dreams and feed them we get as close as possible to the facts if we have the cunning and genius of poignant feeling.’ [24; in full at p.153]

Further, ‘Now, a most powerful and complex part of the personality is affection and affection springs straight from the memory. For that reason what is new whether in the world of ideas or of fact cannot be subject for poetry, though you can be as rhetorical about it as you please - rhetoric expresses other peoples’ feelings, poetry one’s own.’ [24] .

On Constance Wilde: ‘the poor wife is offered for sacrifice - expasperating, tiresome, silly, &c. - as I dare say she is - her purely feminine charm being so to Oscar nothing - his terrible passions having gone elsewhere.’ (JBY to WBY, 16 Sept. 1898; here 35.]

Letter to WBY (5 April, 1911) (p.95): ‘To be a man of Intellect in America means to have opinions - and live in that kind of medium - these opinions being entertained not for the sake of intellectual happiness, but for the sake of moral progress and action. The Americans are the most idealistic people in the world and the least poetical. Opinions such as their mean logic, oratory and didacticism, and all the restlessness which is fatal to poetry, and to poetical learning. / The distinction between materialism and ideality is a false distinction. It is a new form of the old error, the distinction between the senses and the spirit - sense and spirit cannot be separated, and we must not speak of one in terms which insult the other. The Irish peasant is the least idealistic person in the world and the most poetical - only the harvest runs to waste, for they do not know how to gather it and stow it, and new we have Plunkett and Russell digging it all up, so that their taskmasters may not be affronted by a kind of life which yields no revenue, either to the Catholic Church or the English capitalist.’

‘I always think the Salvation Army is a splendid instance of what a democracy can and cannot do. It is absolutely efficient, and its ends those of the most beneficent utility. But its religion is bosh - while being so articulate that even a child can understand it. The Catholic Church built up by individual men, aristocrats by their singularity and their intellectual culture, preaches doctrines whose mystery no one can unravel, and these the million - the impatient million - were not allowed to touch - and yet it was sufficient since the ignorant can enjoy what it cannot cannot explain, as all men enjoyed the rainbow thousands of years before Newton explained it. [… /] Protestantism made people practical and prospoerous because it was an easily understood morality, enforced by lucid logic, and the menace of Hell, and because it excluded all religion which is poetry, for poetry weakens the practical will. The Democrat is proud of his reasoning power and rightly so, and yet it is all he has got - when he attempts poetry he only succeeds in being didactic and eloquent, and eloquent of what? Duty and morality and upliftment - matters which, however valuable, are not poetry - one cannnot be eloquent of beauty - one can only pull away the curtain, and less said about the vision the better. It would be “a getting in the way”’. [p.118]

Canon Hannay and his wife are here now, about his play General O’Regan produced with very great success, and they are delighted with everything, especially the climate and its almost perpetual sunshine … [116]

I have read Father Ralph and am indeed delighted with it - particularly towards the conclusion. All through there is intensity and yet what delicacy and what restraint! I wish he had told us a littl emore of Hilda the mother - I mean before the Bishop and the priests took entire possession of her, about this part of her life he talks only in generalities and apparently has no facts to go on, or does not wish to reveal them. [119]

JBY call Arnold’s theory that poetry is criticism of life ‘a bad heresy I think’ [124]

‘Whether [James] Stephens is a poet or a prose writer turns upon whether or not he is enough self-centred to do his thinking and his feeling all by himself. If he cannot do his best without having some one to [assail] or cajole or persuade then he is of the prose writers - and only incidentally a poet. The true poet is all the time a visionary and whether with friends or not, as much alone as a man on his death bed …’ [125]

‘[P]eople don’t realise and don’t remember that Christ was a man tempted in all things. Of how few men could this be said? Certainly not of Meredith or of George Eliot and yet it would be true of Fielding. Once lecturing in Dublin I proposed that the word invitation should be substituted for temptation since we really came on earth to be tempted, and that in most cases I was our business not to resist but to yield to it and take the consequences, even tho’ it required the courage of a hero.’ [125]

‘It is quite possible to be lyrical and not poetical [- to be a poet it is necessary first of all to be a man.’ (To WBY; 2 July 1906; p.65.)

‘A man with a personality may talk about many things, but in things which touch his personality, he will prefer to be silent. … Personality has too much to say for mortal speech.’ (To QWBY, 29 Jan. 1913; p.109.)

‘[A] poor gentleman upon whose hands time lies heavy is absolutely necessary to art and literature. Being gentlemen they know how to idle with dignity, and because of their poverty there is no distraction to prevent their brooding on life and truth. Thinking of life, they become poets; thinking of truth, scientific students.’ (8 March, 1913; p.111.)

‘I see that Edward Dowden is dead; among his own family and small circle of friends it will be an event of very great importance. Weak health caused him early to withdrawn from this world and this was increased by his mystical doctrines, and so his wiritng was without actuality, or rather monotonous. A sharp and incessant concussion is necessary to release the fire in the flint. In these days in Ireland he’d have written poetry. [112] … Mahaffy’ statement that Dowden did not work very hard in his professorship was one of those things that endear Mahaffy to all his friends and contemporaries …. Another reason made Dowden a recluse from art as well as from the world; he was with his present wife extraordinarily happy. … Personality is born out of pain. It is the fire shut up in the flint.’ [To WBY, 6 April. 1913; p.112-13.)

[At the theatre]: ‘The plays were uproariously applauded - some voices shouting dissent. John Devoy started up among the stalls, and during Murray’s play when one brother chokes the other shouted out, “Son of a b-itch, that’s not Irish”. The old fool. [...]’ [131.]

[ back ]
[ top ]