The Collected Letters of W.B. Yeats. Vol. I: 1865-1895 
edited by John Kelly and Eric Domville.
Oxford, 548 pp., £22.50, January 1986, 0 19 812679 4
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Towards the end of his inaugural lecture at the Collège de France, Roland Barthes observed that ‘the myth of the great French writer, the sacred depository of all higher values, has crumbled since the Liberation.’ In Ireland lately there has developed a liberating impulse to desacralise a national institution called YEATS and in a seminal pamphlet, ‘Heroic Styles: The Tradition of an Idea’, the country’s most significant and influential critic, Seamus Deane, has criticised the way in which an acceptance of ‘the mystique of Irish-ness’ can involve readers in the ‘spiritual heroics’ of a Yeats or a Pearse. The result is a belief in ‘the incarnation of the nation in the individual’.

Deane’s essay is crucially important at this time because its criticism of romantic nationalism issues, not from that weary, zero-conservative outlook popularised by the revisionist historians, but from a stringent and essentially hopeful analysis of the present political crisis. Deane insists that we must demystify Yeats’s heroic nationalism and states that: ‘Everything, including our politics and our literature, has to be rewritten – i.e. reread. That will enable new writing, new politics, unblemished by Irishness, but securely Irish.’

Opening John Kelly and Eric Domville’s scrupulous and magnificent edition of Yeats’s letters, I readied myself to take a sling-shot at the great Cuchulain – the impulse dissolved in helpless love, chortles, delight. The old boy, I realised, has managed here his last and finest trick, for he appears in these pages, not as the superb glittering imago, but as pupil and pupa, an earnest, eager, driven young man who is often shy and unsure of himself, short of money, screwed by publishers, and in a desperate rush. Only Yeats could make a dense stack of business letters read with all the blossomy excitement of a bildungsroman. This is typical of his epistolary style:

58 Eardley Crescent
South Kensington

22 March

Dear Miss Tynan

I send you the only forms I can find.

Mr O Leary told Seeley Bryers & Walker to send on 50 to me, but they never came. I dare say you could get some from Mr O Leary. I will write to him about it tonight. I cannot write much now to you – as I am writing in Horne’s office (Horne of the ‘Hobbey Horse’). He may be hear any time – I have been busy these last two days making up material in the British Museum reading room for a story about Father John O Hart.

Horne has just come in and tells me that your poem will be in next ‘Hobby Horse’ –

I was at the Southwick Literary Club last night – Crilly lectured on Miss Fanny Parnell.

I must finish now as I want to talk to Horne.

Your Friend

W B Yeats

I got £2 from ‘United Ireland’ as soon as I get it changed I will send your father the 5/- I borrowed.

This brief letter to the writer Katharine Tynan is a complete fusion of politics, publishing, writing and economics. Vivid and detailed editorial notes illuminate the text, so that John O’Leary (revolutionary), Daniel Crilly (Irish Party Member for North Mayo) and Fanny Parnell (patriotic poet and sister of Charles Stewart) take on an almost fictive existence, like characters in a novel. Herbert Horne and Yeats’s view of him, Yeats’s ‘hushed, musical, eerie’ manner of speaking on that night in Southwark, as well as Crilly’s recent trial on a political charge, all become intensely present, so that a hasty scrawl in a London editor’s office is transformed into a fragment of pure Geist. Yeats has the very engaging gift of being a bad speller (like an Irish Tidd, he is saying, ‘Sir, I Ham a very Bad Hand at Righting’), and the effect of his lovely, rushed distortions – ‘woemen’, ‘immagination’, ‘gorgious’, ‘idia’ – is to make these letters seem to issue, not from the institution of writing, but from the native oral tradition. This is speech (‘He may be hear any time’) which has just happened into writing with the minimum of formality, and as a result you feel the tug of those strong kinship bonds which are so much part of oral culture. The Classical scholar, Eric Havelock, has evoked the oral culture of Ancient Greece as a ‘mnemonic world of imitation, aggregative, redundant, copious, traditionalist, warmly human, participatory’, and Yeats’s letters offer glimpses of that world. They seem to be outside that ‘chirographic control’ whose dominance Walter Ong questions in his stimulating polemic Orality and Literacy. Yeats’s carelessness is compulsive and attractive: he apologises for not rewriting a page which he’s just let ‘get into some salid oil’, he is busy reading a poem ‘in long unrhyming lines – alexindrines I think you call them’. These are snatches of unself-conscious talk and they have all the warm intense presence of urgent speech. It is this oral distinctness which prevents these letters from acquiring or serving a canonical or institutional reality – unlike Pope, Yeats is not writing with one eye on future publication.

Even so, it is easy to sentimentalise orality, especially when the expatriate is nostalgic for the ‘trembling light’ of Ireland and for the sheer communal crack and pizzazz of the spoken word there. But Yeats knows that power resides in the printed word and so most of these letters deal with publishing matters, literary politics, tactics aimed at making ‘sure of a good review’, and nudging reminders like ‘Freeman (have a friend who does the books on it)’. Yeats’s essential belief that literary publication is what is nowadays termed ‘cultural production’ shows when he complains of being ‘hard up for Banshee and Pooka stories’ – a phrase which identifies natural magic with printed texts and paper currency. The Irish punt, the coinage of Saorstat Eireann whose design Senator Yeats would help to choose, wait in the future, but they were brought into existence partly by Yeats’s consuming desire to bring oral folk tradition onto the printed page.

Yeats knew that in many respects orality is synonymous with powerlessness and failure (Tidd, the Cato Street Conspirator, was executed as were untold thousands of Irish rebels), and in Autobiographies he remembers how Oscar Wilde once remarked to him: ‘we are a nation of brilliant failures, but we are the greatest talkers since the Greeks.’ In one of his open letters to United Ireland he warns that a nation can become ‘thoroughly stupified by oratory’, and here Yeats the nationalist cultural impresario attempts to refine and sophisticate those vehement, polarising simplicities which still to this day bang out from the Irish tradition of public speaking.

The Yeats we hear talking in these letters is a young nation-builder, and it is his relentless dedication to that task which prevents him from appearing to be simply a young man in a hurry, a careerist dipping and dodging through literary London. There are very few revealing personal moments, though occasionally an expatriate wonder breaks through and England is made strange: ‘I wonder any body does any thing at Oxford but dream and remember the place is so beautiful. One almost expects the people to sing instead of speaking. It is all – the colleges I meen – like an Opera.’ Yeats’s saddened alienation gives way the following year to a more confident analysis of the foreignness of England:

This is a most beautiful country, about here – I walked sixteen miles on Sunday – going to the places in Matthew Arnolds poems – the ford in ‘the Scholour Gipsey’ being furthest away & most interesting. How very unlike Ireland the whole place is – like a foreign land (as it is). One underStands (a long S, I notice, has got in here out of the book I am copying) English poetry more from seeing a place like this. I only felt at home once – when I came to a steep lane with a Stream in the middle. The rest one noticed with a foreign eye, picking out the strange and not as in ones own country the familiar things for interest – the fault by the way of all poetry about countries not the writers own. The people, I notice, do not give you ‘a fine day’ or answer yours, as in Ireland.

It would seem that the expatriate experience is one of being enclosed in a private imaginative ghetto, cut off from manners, landscape, the textures and surfaces of English life – a quietly lacerating sense of isolation is present throughout these letters and must partly account for their restless urgency, their utterly unlaidback style.

Yeats was badly treated by various publishers and after being messed about by Kegan Paul he wrote to Katharine Tynan:

I am not very hopeful about the book. Somewhat inarticulate have I been I fear. Some thing I had to say. Dont know that I have said it. All seems confused incoherent inarticulate. Yet this I know I am no idle poetaster. My life has been in my poems. To make them I have broken my life in a morter as it were. I have brayed in it youth and fellowship peace and worldly hopes. I have seen others enjoying while I stood alone with myself – commenting, commenting – a mere dead mirror on which things reflect themselves. I have buried my youth and raised over it a cairn – of clouds. Some day I shall be articulate perhaps. But this book I have no great hopes of – it is all sluggish incoherent. It may make a few friends perhaps among people of my own sort – that is the most. Do what you can for it.

This is an uncharacteristically personal passage which seems, on the one hand, dramatically self-conscious, and on the other, to be an attempt to answer the Kantian question: ‘what am I for?’ Yeats is describing the revolutionary’s sense of being a dead man on leave, of having no personal life, but in doing so he is also engaging in a piece of literary realpolitik: ‘Do what you can for it,’ he concludes. This is the poet as literary strategist and manipulator, issuing a nudging order to the poet whose work he has also promoted.

Early in their friendship Yeats advised Tynan to ‘remember by being as Irish as you can you will be the more origonol and true to your self and in the long run more interesting even to English readers.’ This is another version of the expatriate contradiction – inhabiting two places at the one time – and it demands that the Irish writer should help create a national literature by promoting ‘that wild Celtic blood, the most un-English of all things under heaven’. The products of all that wildness and blood-magic are then consumed by large numbers of English readers. In a further twist of the contradiction, Yeats reveals now and then that he actually hates the English. He is the archetypal chthonic nationalist and this shows in his account of a House of Commons debate where Tim Healy, the nationalist MP for Longford, attacked that pernicious organ, the London Times, for its publication of forged letters in the notorious ‘Parnellism and Crime’ series.

Healy, Yeats tells Tynan,

made a rugged passionate speech the most human thing I heard, I missed Dillon however. Altogether I was delighted with Healey the others on both sides were sophisticated and cultivated in him there was good earth power ... I hear that Burne Johnes is a furious Home Ruler says he would be a Dynamiter if an Irishman.

It is a short leap of the tongue from earth power to Home Rule to dynamite, and the editors note that two years before Yeats wrote this letter the Fenians had attempted to blow up the Houses of Parliament. It makes me wonder what Yeats and Burne Jones would have said had they seen Norman Tebbit under the ruins of the Grand Hotel.

For Yeats, ‘good earth power’ is the force which inspires what he terms ‘sound national doctrine’. That doctrinal force is to be felt in political speeches and is to be inculcated by printed texts (notably by a history of Fenianism in a publishing series he wanted to promote). Yeats is concerned to produce and propagate a culture, and his correspondence bulges with accounts of publishing battles and subterfuges. Though he admires what is of the earth, natural, ‘Irish’, he knows that culture is neither organic nor natural – it is synthetic and artificial, rooted in economics, power, ideology. Yeats’s nationalist ideology is sometimes feverish and emotional – as when he is introduced to William Sharp and hates ‘his red British face of flaccid contentment’ – though he is capable of tolerantly describing his Oxford landlady as ‘a good woman with a pale ungenial English face’. As his devoted editors point out, Yeats identified with the radical nationalist tradition – Tone, Emmet, Mitchel – and drew back from the constitutional nationalism of O’Connell. For all the youthful trepidation these letters manifest (‘I am afraid I have bothered you ... I fear you are busy and these questions are a trouble’), the tight core of separatist pride reveals itself when he breaks off from a discussion of publishing business to tell Ellen O’Leary, his mentor John O’Leary’s sister:

I was at a big ‘Home Rule’ party at a Mrs Hancoks Saturday. Mrs Gladstone was there and made a speach, a very short one, likewise Stransfield, Justin Macarthy, & Lord Aberdeen made speeches long or short. All these good English Home Rule people how they do patronise Ireland and the Irish. As if we were some sort of deserving poor for whom bazars and such like should be got up. Yet they are really in earnest on this Home Rule question I find.

John O’Leary was President of the Supreme Council of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, the radical republican organisation to which Yeats belonged and which was to lead the 1916 uprising, nine years after O’Leary’s death. As the editors note, O’Leary exerted ‘one of the most powerful influences’ on the young Yeats because of his role in the struggle for Irish independence (O’Leary was sentenced to hard labour for conspiracy in 1865).

Although many critics have presented Yeats as an agonised liberal humanist, his remoteness from that softer ideology is evidenced by his reaction to the murder in 1889 of Dr P.H. Cronin, an alleged British spy: ‘He seems to have been a great rascal. It was really a very becoming thing to remove him – if he be dead and the man found at Chicago be not someone else. A spy has no rights.’ This deliberate and pitiless statement, made in a letter to Katharine Tynan, is immediately followed by a characteristic disclaimer: ‘There! you will be angry with me for all these dreadful sentiments. I may think the other way to morrow.’ And though Yeats placed his imagination on the line, writing always under intense pressure in a great opinionated melt like a uranium rod in a reactor, there is no evidence that he ever moved from visceral nationalism to a pacific gentleness. His public tolerance was strategic and his ideological rejection of Irish Unionism did not lead him to reject Unionists as people or to scorn their traditions (he had, after all, first discovered ‘the pleasure of rhyme’ by reading Orange songs in his grandfather’s hayloft). He tried to awaken Dublin Unionists to new Irish books and lectured the Sligo Orangemen on fairy lore: ‘I found that the comic tales delighted them but that the poetry of fairy lore was quite lost on them. They held it Catholic superstition I suppose.’

Much of Unionist culture is hostile to art and the underground life of the imagination, but by distinguishing between the politics of the partisan (i.e. an exclusion of Unionists by terming them ‘West Britons’) and the politics of the patriot Yeats was able to argue for an inclusive idea of Irish nationhood. In an open letter to United Ireland (14 May 1892), he remarked: ‘Ireland is between the upper and the nether millstone – between the influence of America and the influence of England, and which of the two is denationalising us most rapidly it is hard to say. Whether we have still to face a long period of struggle, or have come to the land of promise at last, we need all our central fire, all our nationality.’ Reading these sentences, I wrap the New Ireland Forum Report round me once again and feel coul. If it’s now impossible to be warmed by the central fire of inspired nationalism, what other form of heating is there?

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