R. F. Foster, W . B. Yeats: A Life - I: “The Apprentice Mage” (OUP 1997), “National Dramas 1901-1902” [Chap. 10] - 275ff. [extracts].

[For remarks on the dating of the Joyce/Yeats meeting here and in Richard Ellmann's life of Joyce (1959 & Edns.), see under James Joyce > Notes > W. B. Yeats - as attached.

[...] Dun Emer was one proof of cultural self-confidence taking root in the cynical world of the Irish metropolis in 1902. Another was provided by the brief irruption into WBY’s circle of the man who would immortalize that metropolis, in that era: the youthful James Joyce.

In August Russell written excitedly to WBY about ‘an extremely clever boy who belongs to your class more than to mine and still more to himself. But he has all the intellectual equipment, culture and education which all our other friends lack.’ He wrote even more ecstatically to Gregory; Joyce had presented himself at the Russells’ house (haranguing him about avatars, a sure way to Russell’s heart), and they had spent a hectic summer night of talk. Russell was no well know for his undiscriminating adoption of young hopefuls, and WBY had learnt to be wary about swans who invariably turned [275] out to be geese. But both he and Gregory rapidly saw that this was some, thing different, and the attention they paid the twenty-year-old student waa, remarkable. So, in its way, was the lack of attention he paid them.

Joyce had already made his mark with a clear-sighted attack on the Irish Literary Theatre in “The Day of the Rabblement”, but he passionately admire WBY’s literary achievement: he could recite “The Adoration of the Magi” off by heart and the mesmeric beauty of certain poems (notably “Who Goes with Fergus?” from The Countess Cathleen) remained canonical for him [A. Walton Litz, ‘“Love’s Bitter Mystery”: Joyce and Yeats’, in Yeats Annual, 7, 1990, pp.91-89]. After glamorous but slightly scandalous career at the Royal University, he was following a haphazard course as a medical student. In October Russell told him that WBY would be in Dublin the following month and would like meet him (he had already dined at the Nassau Hotel on 4 November with Gregory and JBY). There was accordingly a rendezvous outside the Nation Library, followed by an awkward encounter in an O’Connell Street café. It was an intense occasion, much recapitulated and mythologized; Ellmann compared it to the meeting between Goethe and Heine, a symbolic conjunction in the history of world literature. More immediately apparent was mutual suspicion between an established Irish Protestant aesthete and a Jesuit-educated Catholic Dubliner with a preternaturally mordant eye for social pretensions. Soon afterwards WBY wrote (but never published) a slightly fictionalized account of their meeting. ‘He asked me “Why did I make speeches? Why did I concern myself with politics? Why had I given certain of my stories and poems a historical setting?” . all these things were a sign that the iron was getting cold.’ Joyce’s own affiliations and energies were strange to him; WBY realized that he was dealing with a new force, something that could not be predicted. His version betrays the wistful tone of a man nearing forty, confronted by the ruthlessness of youthful genius. ‘Presently he 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 a sigh, I thought as much. I have met you too late. You are too old.”’ Joyce in later years denied this, but at a stage of life when good manners meant to him than they did in 1902.’ Their disagreement was inevitable. One of the points WBY recalled making to Joyce involved a defence of folklore against the ‘sterility’ of urban culture, Great Memory against individual consciousness. Joyce’s lofty and laconic reply rankled enough for WBY to repeat it more than once. ‘Generalizations aren’t made by poets; they are made by men letters. They are no use.’

Still, he showed WBY some of his ‘Epiphanies’ and verses, which intrigued the older poet. After their meeting WBY sent Joyce an important letter from London: in it he subtly reproved Joyce for condemning WBY’s ‘treacherous instinct for adaptability’ in his critique of the Irish Literary Theatre, [276] asserted his own authority as an established literary figure with a base in England, and hinted at his autobiography.

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 very 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 & men have started with less and have succeeded. The qualities that make a man succeed do not shew in his work, 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 & 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 own difficulties. (CL, iii 249-50.)

WBY lived up to this; Joyce was not the only apprentice writer who received thoughtful letters of advice from him at this time. Nor did his help stop there. On 2 December, forewarned by Gregory, he met Joyce off the Irish Mail at six in the morning, gave him breakfast, brought him to the review editors of the Academy and the Speaker, and finally to Arthur Symons’s flat [see note]. Joyce went on to Paris that evening, to stay at WBY’S old haunt the Hôtel Corneille, armed with the address of Maud Gonne (which he did not follow up, a loss to literary history). WBY sent him several long letters, showing that he milked what contacts he could on Joyce’s behalf, and entertained the young man again en route back to Dublin on 23 December. But Joyce’s failure to approach Gonne was emblematic. His interests, his paths, his art would all diverge from WBY’s, despite his half-resentful admiration of the early poetry. At the end of his life Joyce admitted that he lacked ‘pure imagination’, which WBY pre-eminently possessed: ‘no surrealist poet can equal it’. (Ellmann, James Joyce, 1982, pp.660-61 [1965 Edn. p.673, n.].) But in 1902 he was, as he would famously put it, flying by the nets of an enveloping national culture, just as WBY was trying to fashion such a phenomenon. Proof that WBY was jolted by the opinions of this merciless young prodigy lies in the preface he wrote for his essays Ideas of Good and Evil, but suppressed. He related his initial worries about the ‘reckless opinions’ of the essays, and his anticipation of being thought a ‘disturber who carries in his hand the irresponsible torch of vain youth’. And then he met Joyce, whose relentless questioning exasperated and puzzled him’, who told him his work was ‘deteriorating’, and that he was, in the end, ‘too old’. Approaching forty, this rang like a knell. [277] A year later, reissuing the stories The Tables of the Law, he added a note to the preface. ‘I do not think I should have reprinted them had I not met a young man in Ireland the other day who liked them very much and nothing else at all that I have written.’ (CL, iii, 456.)

Additional material

A young National University student, James Joyce, reacted more decisively [to Diarmuid and Grania]: in a superb polemic, “The Day of the Rabblement”, he announced that offensive parochialism had taken over the Irish Literary Theatre. (Vol. I, 1997, p.253.)

Note [n.94] On the strength of this one meeting Symons became an ardent admirer, and wrote to Elkin Mathews powering pressing the claims of Joyce’s poems on 9 Oct. 1906. ‘He is not in the Celtic movement; and though Yeats admires his ability he is rather against him because Joyce has attacked the movement.’ (Symons papers, Princeton.) This became Chamber Music; Symons kept up the pressure, reviewing the volume the following May. (Vol. I, 1997, p.585.)

Foster also remarks that Yeats was impressed by the astonishing maturity of Dubliners (p.493) and that the influence of Joyce’s Portrait may be traced in the child’s-eye impressionism of his opening passages in Reveries Over Childhood (Vol. II, 1997, p.526.)

Joyce, characteristically, admired the “colossal conception” [of A Vision, 1925], only regretting that “Yeats did not put all this into a creative work”. See note: Eugene Jolas’s recollection, given in Ellmann, James Joyce, 1982 Rev. Edn., 596n. [1st Edn. 608, n.]. Foster adds: ‘Parodies of AV would recur in Finnegans Wake.’ (Vol. II, 2003, p.717.)

 

[ back ]

[ top ]