Richard Ellmann, James Joyce (OUP 1959, 1965 Edn.), “1902” [Chap. VII] - on the Joyce/Yeats meeting.

See also various extracts [infra] and an extract on the 1904 “Portrait Essay” [infra].

[ Epigraph: ‘If one has the stomach to add breakages, distortions, inversions of all this chambermade music one stands, given a grain of goodwill, a fair chance of actually seeing the whirling devish, Tumult, son of Thunder, ... self-exiled in upon his ego .... ’: Finnegans Wake, p.184 ].

In 1902 literary life in Dublin was ambitious and intense. Joyce could be as distrustful as he liked of the directions that Yeats and Moore were taking, but in English there was no one writing verse or fiction whom he admired more. Synge had begun to write his plays; Lady Gregory at the age of fifty had revealed an unexpected skill at peasant comedy; George Russell, talented himself, was hospitably encouraging a c6nacle that included Padraic Colum, “Seumas O’Sullivan” [J. S. Starkey], and other writers who, if they were minor, were young and lively. The Irish literary movement, fostered by Standish O’Grady, John O’Leary, Yeats, Douglas Hyde, and others, had made Dublin an intellectual centre, and in spite of his careful dissociation of himself from many shibboleths of the new literature, Joyce profited from its momentum.

During the summer of 1902 he decided to make himself known in Dublin literary circles. He presented himself first to George Russell, who was approachable and indulgent, and who, unlike Yeats, was always in Dublin. Russell, then thirty-five, was the youngest of the senior figures of the revival, Yeats being thirty-seven and Moore the same age as Lady Gregory. Russell’s mysticism, and his bearded prolixity, led skeptics to suppose he was foolish, but in fact he was clever. His own verse was not first-rate, but neither was it untalented; and he had a sharp eye for ability in others and an unexpected power of criticism. Joyce chose, perhaps on impulse, to call upon Russell at ten o’clock one night early in August. When his knock was not answered, he walked up and down the street until Russell returned. It was then midnight, but, unwilling to give up his idea, Joyce knocked at the door anyway and asked if it was too late to speak to him. ‘It’s never too late,’ Russell courageously replied and brought him in. They sat down and [102] Russell looked at Joyce inquiringly. Since Joyce seemed to experience some difficulty in explaining why he had come, Russell talked for a bit and then asked, ‘Has it emerged yet?’ It had not. Russell’s life was divided, he told Joyce, into the three parts: economics, literature, and mysticism. Was it the economics that interested Joyce? No, it was not that. Joyce finally said shyly what he had prepared as part of his bold offensive in advance, that he thought it possible an avatar might be born in Ireland. [Cf. Earwicker is ‘the vilest bogeyer but most attractionable avatar the world has ever prepared for’ - FW, 042.15-16] He may have been referring to himself, but his implication, as Russell understood it, was that the sight of his host comfortably smoking his pipe in an armchair, had made Joyce think that the avatar was not in front of him. He remained nevertheless for hours, talking. He allowed that Russell had written a lyric or two, but complained that Yeats had gone over to the rabblement. He spoke slightingly of everyone else, too. When pressed by Russell, he read his own poems, but not without first making clear that he didn’t care what Russell’s opinion of them might be. Russell thought they had merit but urged him to get away from traditional and classical forms, concluding (as he afterwards remembered with great amusement), ‘You have not enough chaos in you to make a world.’ [Interview with Monk Gibbon].

They took up Theosophical subjects as well. although Joyce was sceptical of Theosophy as being a recourse for disaffected Protestants. He had remarked to his brother that the Dublin mystics had left the churches only to become latter-day saints. ‘As such they do not compare either for consistence [sic], holiness, or charity with a fifth-rate saint of the Catholic Church.’ [Stanislaus Joyce Dublin Diary; unpubl.] Nevertheless he was genuinely interested in such Theosophical themes as cycles, reincarnation, the succession of gods, and the eternal mother-faith that underlies all transitory religions. Finnegans Wake gathers all these up into a half-’secret doctrine.’ Russell conceived what Joyce called ‘the quaint misconception’ that he had a new recruit for the Hermetic Society, and afterwards, if the evidence of Ulysses can be trusted, told ‘some Yankee interviewer’ that Joyce came to him in the small hours of the morning to ask him about planes of consciousness.’ (Ulysses, Bodley Head Edn., 1962, p.178: ‘A.E. has been telling some yankee interviewer that you came to him in the small hours of the morning to ask him about planes of consciousness. Magennis thinks you must have been pulling A.E.’s leg.’] But if Russell misconceived the motive of Joyce’s visit, so did Joyce’s friends, who thought the young man was merely pulling the older man’s leg. Russell, on several planes of consciousness, was integral in Joyce’s plans. He was full of useful information about Eastern philosophy, and he was a means of access to other writers.

When they at last broke off their conversation. it was arranged that Joyce should come again a few nights later. He had succeeded in making Russell feel uncomfortable, as Russell admitted in a letter to Sarah [103] Purser of August 15: ‘I expect to see my young genius on Monday and will find out more about him. I wouldn’t be his Messiah for a thousand million pounds. He would be always criticising the bad taste of his deity.’ [Denson, ed., Letters of George Russell.] To Thomas Mosher he wrote, ‘There is a young boy named Joyce who may do something. He is proud as Lucifer and writes verses perfect in their technique and sometimes beautiful in quality.’ [March 1903; also in Denson.] Russell spoke to Moore about Joyce, and Moore, it seemed, had read “The Day of the Rabblement” and said it was ‘preposterously clever.’ Then tirelessly, Russell wrote to Lady Gregory and finally signalled Joyce’s advent to Yeats: ‘I want you very much to meet a young fellow named Joyce whom I wrote to Lady Gregory about half-jestingly. He is an extremely clever boy who belongs to your clan more than to mine and still more to himself. But he has all the intellectual equipment - culture and education, which all our other friends here lack, and I think writes amazingly well in prose, though I believe he also writes verse and is engaged in writing a comedy which he expects will occupy him five years or thereabouts as he writes slowly ... I think you would find this youth of twenty-one with his assurance and self-confidence rather interesting.’ [Undated letter; Ellmann, ‘Joyce and Yeats’, in Kenyon Review, XII, Autumn 1950, pp.622-23.] So in a few weeks Russell, as Joyce hoped, had sounded the alarm.

In early October 1902, Yeats came to Dublin and Russell, who had told him a year before that a new generation would arise to find them both obvious, announced, ‘The spectre of the new generation has appeared. His name is Joyce. I have suffered from him and I would like you to suffer.’ Yeats submitted, and Russell wrote to Joyce to go to see the poet at the Antient Concert Rooms where he was helping to rehearse Cathleen ni Houlihan and some other plays. But Joyce preferred to meet Yeats more privately and haphazardly on the street, near the National Library. They went from there to a café.

Their meeting has a symbolic significance in modern literature, like the meeting of Heine and Goethe. The defected Protestant confronted the defected Catholic, the landless landlord met the shiftless tenant. Yeats, fresh from, London, made one in a cluster of writers whom Joyce would never know, while Joyce knew the limbs and bowels of a city of which Yeats knew well only the head. The world of the petty bourgeois, which is the world of Ulysses and the world in which Joyce grew up, was for Yeats something to be abjured. Joyce had the same contempt for both the ignorant peasantry and the snobbish aristocracy that Yeats idealized. The two were divided by upbringing and predilection.

At the age of thirty-seven, Yeats had not yet begun to display the deliberate savagery or the worldly beauty of his later poetry. but he had reached a point in his early work from which he knew he must veer sharply. The Wind among the Reeds (1899) and The Shadowy Waters (1900) had been too concerned with beauty, and Yeats needed now to find roughness and spontaneity. For this purpose he had violently turned to writing peasant plays in peasant dialect. To Joyce this interest in the Irish folk on the part of an Anglo-Irishman was patronizing, and on the part of an elaborate artist was self-defeating. Not understanding the complicated dialectic by which Yeats flung himself from unpopular to popular art, he saw only volatility; he had spoken in “The Day of the Rabblement” of Yeats’s ‘floating will,’ and in Finnegans Wake would call him ‘Will-of-the-wisp.’ [FW211] He did not conceal his uncomplimentary, and misguided, views now, but spoke to Yeats ‘with a gentle and engaging smile and presently apologized by saying, "I am not, as you see, treating you with any deference, for after all both you and I will be forgotten."' Modest as Yeats was, such an apology could only ruffle him. He is said to have remarked to his friends. ‘Never have I seen so much pretension with so little to show for it.’ Probably he did make the remark in momentary pique - Dubliners usually make the remarks which are attributed to them - but he was nonetheless impressed by Joyce. The young man was so certain. When Yeats imprudently mentioned the names of Balzac and of Swinburne, Joyce burst out laughing so that everyone in the café turned round to look at him. ‘Who reads Balzac today?’ he exclaimed. Joyce read Yeats some epiphanies on ‘Love and Death and the Soul,’ which Yeats said were ‘very beautiful but immature,’ but Yeats also compared Joyce’s ‘joyous vitality’ to that of William Morris, at which Joyce commented, ‘I don’t have his physique.’ [Interview with Stanislaus Joyce, 1954; cf. My Brother’s Keeper, p.195]

Yeats wrote an account of the interview which suggests how pleased he was with this young, man who talked back to him. He intended to use it as a preface to his book of essays, Ideas of Good and Evil, but changed his mind and put it away among his papers:

I had been looking over the proof sheets of this book one day in Dublin lately and thinking whether I should send it to the Dublin papers for review or not. I thought that I would not, for they would find nothing in it but a wicked theology, which I had probably never intended, and it may he found all the review on a single sentence. I was wondering how long I should be thought a preacher of reckless opinions and a disturber who carries in his hand the irresponsible torch of vain youth. I went out into the street and there a young man came up to me and introduced himself. He told me he had written a book of prose essays or poems, and spoke to me of a common friend.
 Yes, I recollected his name, for he had been to my friend who leads an even more reckless rebellion than I do, and had kept him up to the grey hours of the morning discussing philosophy. I asked him to come with me to the smoking room of a restaurant in O’Connell Street, and read me a beautiful though immature and eccentric harmony of little prose descriptions and meditations. He had thrown over metrical form, he said, that he might get a form so fluent that it would respond to the motions of the spirit. I praised his work but he said, ‘I really don’t care whether you like what I am doing or not. It won’t make the least difference to me. Indeed I don’t know why I am reading to you.’
 Then, putting down his book, he began to explain all his objections to everything I had ever done. Why had I concerned myself with politics, with folklore, with the historical setting of events, and so on? Above all why had I written about ideas, why had I condescended to make generalizations? These things were all the sign of the cooling of the iron, of the fading out of inspiration. I had been puzzled, but now I was confident again. He is from the Royal University, I thought, and he thinks that everything has been settled by Thomas Aquinas, so we need not trouble about it. I have met so many like him. He would probably review my book in the newspapers if I sent it there. But the next moment he spoke of a friend of mine [Oscar Wilde] who after a wild life had turned Catholic on his deathbed. He said that he hoped his conversion was not sincere. He did not like to think that he had been untrue to himself at the end. No, I had not understood him yet.
 I had been doing some little plays for our Irish theatre, and had founded them all on emotions or stories that I had got out of folklore. He objected to these particularly and told me that I was deteriorating. I had told him that I had written these plays quite easily and he said that made it quite certain; his own little book owed nothing to anything but his own mind which was much nearer to God than folklore.
 I took up the book and pointing to a thought said, ‘You got that from somebody else who got it from the folk.’ I felt exasperated and puzzled and walked up and down explaining the dependence of all good art on popular tradition. I said, ‘The artist, when he has lived for a long time in his own mind with the example of other artists as deliberate as himself, gets into a world of ideas pure and simple. He becomes very highly individualized and at last by sheer pursuit of perfection becomes sterile. Folk imagination on the other hand creates endless images of which there are no ideas. Its stories ignore the moral law and every other law, they are successions of pictures like those seen by children in the fire. You find a type of these two kinds of invention, the invention of artists and the invention of the folk, in the civilization that comes from town and in the forms of life that one finds in the country. In the towns, especially in big towns like London, you don’t find what old writers used to call the people; you find instead a few highly cultivated, highly perfected individual lives, and great multitudes who imitate them and cheapen them. You find, too, great capacity for doing all kinds of things, but an impulse towards creation which grows gradually weaker and weaker. In the country, on the other hand, I mean in Ireland and in places where the towns have not been able to call the time, you find people who are hardly individualized to any great extent. They live through the same round of duty and they think about life and death as their fathers have told them, but in speech, in the telling of tales, in all that has to do with the play of imagery, they have an endless abundance. I have collected hundreds of stories and have had hundreds of stories collected for me, and if one leaves out certain set forms of tale not one story is like another. Everything seems possible to them, and because they can never be surprised, they imagine the most surprising things. The folk life, the country life, is nature with her abundance, but the art life, the town life, is the spirit which is sterile when it is not married to nature. The whole ugliness of the modern world has come from the spread of the towns and their ways of thought, and to bring back beauty we must marry the spirit and nature again. When the idea which comes from individual life marries the image that is horn from the people, one gets great art, the art of Homer [note], and of Shakespeare, and of Chartres Cathedral.’
 I looked at my young man. I thought, ‘I have conquered him now,’ but I was quite wrong. He merely said, ‘Generalizations aren’t made by poets; they are made by men of letters. They are no use.’
 Presently he got up to go, and, as he was going out, he said, ‘I am twenty. How old are you? I told him, but I am afraid I said I was a year younger than I am. He said with a sigh, ‘I thought as much. I have met you too late. You are too old.’
 And now I am still undecided as to whether I shall send this book to the Irish papers for review. The younger generation is knocking at my door as well as theirs. [Also quoted by Ellmann from unpub. papers in The Identity of Yeats, 1955, pp.86-89.]

That Yeats took Joyce’s remarks in good part is borne out by the fact that he invited the young man to write a play for the new theatre; Joyce promised to do so in five years. Yeats kept the poems and epiphanies to read more closely, and then wrote Joyce a long and complimentary letter which, like Archer’s about A Brilliant Career, suggests how strong and immediate an impression Joyce’s work and character generated. A part of Yeats’s letter has survived:

but I cannot say more than this. Remember what Dr. Johnson said about somebody let us wait until we find out whether he is a fountain or a cistern.’ The work which you have actually done is very remarkable for a man of your age who has lived away from the vital intellectual centres. Your technique in verse is much better than the technique of any young Dublin man I have met during my time. It might have been the work of a young man who had lived in an Oxford literary set. However men have started with as good promise as yours and have failed and men have started with less and have succeeded. The qualities that make a man succeed do not show in his verse, often, for quite a long time. They are much less qualities of talent than qualities of character-faith (of this you have probably enough), patience, adaptability (without this one learns nothing), and a gift for growing by experience and this is perhaps rarest of all.
  I will do anything for you I can but I am afraid that it will not be a great deal. The chief use I can be, though probably you will not believe this, will be by introducing you to some other writers who are starting like yourself, one always learns one’s business from one’s fellow-workers, especially from those who are near enough one’s own age to understand one’s difficulties. / Yours sincerely / W B Yeats [My Brother’s Keeper, pp.208-09; Slocum Collection, i.e., 2 letters.]

Through Yeats and Russell, Joyce went on next to Lady Gregory, who was fascinated by his way of reading his poems, and largely overlooked his bad manners. She invited him, with Yeats and Yeats’s father, to dine with her at the Nassau Hotel on November 4. [See Yeats’s note to Joyce relaying the invitation, Slocum Coll.] The members of the Irish literary movement were doing their best for Joyce, but all were to discover that he was not a man to be helped with impunity.

In October Joyce began the medical course for which he had registered the previous spring. [...; &c.]


Notes
p.105 (n.1). In a review of Ibsen’s Catilina, published on March 21, 1903, Joyce seems to be referring to this conversation again: ‘But meanwhile a young generation which which has cast away belief and thrown precision after it, for which Balzac is a great intellect and every sampler who chooses to wander amid his own shapeless bells and heavens a Dante without the unfortunate prejudices of Dante will he troubled by this pre[occupation [of Ibsen’s] and out very conscience will denounce a mood so calm, so ironical.’ The ‘young generation’ here appears to be Yeats, with a dash of George Russell.

p.105 (n.2). The reliability of Yeats’s account has been questioned. In later life it is true that both he and Joyce denied that Joyce had said, ‘You are too old for me to help you.’ But Joyce, in looking over the proofs of Gorman’s biography, had this to say: ‘The story as constantly retailed in the press is another story of Dublin public house gossip. J.J. at this time had an immense admiration for Yeats as a poet and though he did say the words or something to the effect attributed to him they were [105] never said in the tone of contempt which is implied in the story.’ [Gorman papers.] Yeats said much the same thing to L. A. G. Strong. He also wrote down in his Autobiographies another remark made by joyce at their first meeting: ‘A young poet, who wrote excellently but had the worst manners, was to say a few years later, “You do not talk like a poet, you talk like a man of letters.”’ In an unpublished manuscript entitled ‘Some Characters of the Irish Literary Movement,’ George Russell gives an account from memory of the meeting of Joyce and Yeats:

'When Yeats returned to Dublin the famous poet and the unknown youth met. Yeats asked joyce to read him some of his poems. “I do so since you ask me,” said Joyce, “but I attach no more importance to your opinion than to anybody one meets in the street.” Yeats made him some compliments on the verses, which were charming. But Joyce waived [sic] aside the praise. “It is likely both you and I will soon be forgotten.” He then questioned Yeats about some of his later poetry. Yeats began an elaborate and subtle explanation the essence of which was that in youth he thought everything should be perfectly beautiful but now he thought one might do many things by way of experiment. “Ah”, said the boy, “that shows how rapidly you are deteriorating.” He parted from Yeats with a last shaft, “We have met too late. You are too old for me to have any effect on you.”’ [Information of Alan Denson.]

p.107: At this time Joyce had no interest in Homer. He told Padraic Colum that the Greek epics were before Europe, and outside the tradition of European culture. The Divine Comedy was Europe’s epic, he said. [Information from Colum.] He distrusted Plato, as Herbert Gorman says, and described Hellenism in an early notebook as “European appendicitis.’ [Gorman, pp.96, 138.]

 

[ back ]

[ top ]