A N. Jeffares, W. B. Yeats: A New Biography (Macmillan 1988)

On FAMILY DIFFERENCE: ‘The Pollexfens themselves were shipowners and mill-owners, prosperous and industrious, who though not on dining terms with the Sligo landowners regarded themselves as socially above their beighbouring Protestant shopkeepers and farmers, unlike their less reserved and easier-going Middleton relatives … John Butler Yeats was very taken with the Pollexfens, they seemed full of suppressed poetry as well as magnetism. But probably he hardly realised at first the full extent of their deeply sombre nature; family life with them was very different from taht of the Yeats [3] [Yeats had a] Middleton cousin, George, living at Rosses Point, down the Garavogue River from Sligo to the sea; a cousin Lucy Middleton had second sight, and the family accepted the supernatural as part of life [8] Lily stayed with Yeats grandmother and aunts in Dublin. [Yeats remembered] with wonder, ‘for I had never known any one that cared for such momentoes, that I longed for a sod of earth from some field I knew, something of Sligo to hold in my hand. It was some old race instinct like that of a savage, for we had been brought up to laught at all display of emotion. yet it was our mother, who would have thought its display a vulgarity, who kept alive that love. She would spend hours listening to stories or telling stories of the pilots and fishing-people of Rosses Point, or of her Sligo girlhood, and it was always assumed between her and us that Sligo was more beautiful than other places.’ (Autobiographies, 31).

Yeats’s Wanderings of Oisin based on Nicholas O’Kearney’s trans. of ‘Battle of Gabhra’, Standish [Hayes] O’Grady’s trans. of ‘The Lament of Oision after the Fenians’, Brian O’Looney’s trans. of Michael Comyn’s ‘The Lay of Oisin in the Land of Youth’, and also David Comyn’s translation of same in Gaelic Union Publications (1880), and John O’Daly’s trans. of ‘The Dialogue of Oisin and St Patrick.’ Jeffares characterises it as a ‘remarkable narrative poem which conveys sadness, weariness and an intense perception of beauty – and does so fluently, sensuously and most evocatively. It was a tour de force for a young man of twenty-three to have created it and to have expressed it with such distinctive force.’ (p.39).

Details of his relations with the Yeats family; notes also Yeats’s controversy with Dowden about Irish literature in Dublin Daily Express [copied in Uncollected Prose, ed. Frayne, 1971), leading to a list of ‘The Thirty Best Irish Books’, which appeared in United Ireland, 16 March 1895 [UP I, 355] (Jeffares, 1988, p.79, and n.5, p.357); account of fracas with Charles Gavan Duffy over Irish Library, involving also T. W. Rolleston [71]; Yeats produced a longer list in four articles for The Bookman, July-Oct. 1895, and published in March 1895 A Book of Irish Verse, in which the prefatory comment: ‘Only a little for English readers, and not at all for Irish peasants but almost wholly for the small beginning of that educated and national public which is our greatest need and perhaps our vainest hope.’ (p.80)

Account of the genesis of ‘Red Hanrahan’s Song about Ireland’, orig. O’Sullivan the Red [i.e., Eoin Rua Ó Suilleabháin].

‘Cuchulain’s Fight with the Sea’ [is] an extensively revised poem largely baded on a west of Ireland source recorded in Myths and Folk-lore of Ireland and on a ninth-century tale in The Yellow Book of Lecan … [narrative paraphrase follows] [see A N Jeffares, 1988, p.67; with variorum eds., National Observer 4 Aug. 1894, and Coll. Poems, 1955.]

ON SELF: Yeats, told Russell that he wanted the love of very few, only his equals and his superiors: ‘The love of the rest would be a bond and an intrusion. These others will in time come to know that I am a fairly strong and capable man and that I have gathered the strong and capable about me, and all who love work better than idle talk will support me. It is a long fight but that is the sport of it.’ (Letter to AE/George Russell, 8 Jan 1906; Wade, Letters, p.446l; Jeffares, 1988, p.152]. On reading Neitzche, with encouragement from Quinn, and also Havelock Ellis’s articles in The Savoy, he told Stephen Gwynn in a letter that what Dublin wanted was some man who knew his own mind, and had an intolerable tongue and a delight in enemies (13 June 1906; Jeffares, 1988, p.153).

Jeffares identifies the third section of ‘The Tower’ as Yeats’s profession of faith: I mock Plotinus’ thought.And cry in Plato’s teeth/Death and life were not/Till man made up the whole/Made lock, stock and barrel/Out of his bitter soul/Compelling it to study/In a learned school/Till the wreck of body/slow decay of blood/Testy delirium//Or dull decrepitude/Or what worse evil come –/The death of friends, or death/Of every brilliant eye/That made a catch in the breath–/Seem but the clouds of the sky/When the horizon fades;/Or a bird sleepy cry/Among the deepening shades.’ [279]

Jeffares commentary on Byzantium stresses that this poem ‘deals in contrasts’, adverting to its climax as a moment of escape from nature, from externality, into a state where ‘all fuel has become flame, where there is nothing but the state itself, nothing to constrain or end it’ [quoting Yeats without source]; and this is a state, Yeats thought, attained in creating or enjoying a work of art, though that is not an attainment of the whole being. [314]

Jeffares discusses Yeats’s songs for the Blueshirts, and details his notes in various printings, indicating degrees of withdrawal from association with the group: writing National Song for the Blueshirts, to be sung to tune of ‘O’Donnell Abu’ [‘three Songs to the Same Tune’, Spectator 23 Feb. 1934]; published notes to the Songs in Chicago Poetry and in Introduction to The King of the Great Clock Tower (April 1934), indicating disillusionment with the movement, and belief that unity of culture would require ‘museum, school, university, learned institution’; educated men are need to preserve society from violence. [315-16]

Jeffares recounts Yeats’’s friendship with Margot Ruddock (Collins) in 1934, then 27, and implies by citing verses that Yeats had a sexual affair with her in London. ‘Let me be loved as though still young/Or let me fancy that it’s true,/When my brief final years are gone/You shall have time to turn away/And cram those open eyes with day.’ In A Sweet Dancer, ed. McHugh (1972). Yeats’s friendship with Ethel Mannin from Dec. 1934 was ‘less interesting’ [324]

Though he could assert that only the wasteful virtues earn the sun, he was not at all wasteful in his correspondence, often using the same enecdotes or ideas or phrases in several letters to different receipients [331]

”Lapis Lazuli” based on oriental carving that Harry de Vere Clifton gave him for his seventieth birthday. [332] Jeffares assays the theme of ‘tragic joy’ expressed in this poem, quoting extensively from A General Introduction to My Work’, wher Yeats wrote that ‘The heroes of Shakespeare convey to us through their looks, or through the metaphorical patterns of their speech, the sudden enlargement of their vision, their ecstasy at the approach of death … The supernatural is present, cold winds low across our hands, upon our faces, the thermometer falls, and because of that cold wer are hated by journalists and groundlings.’ In the ensuing lines, he gives an account of the reasons why an Abbey actress ought not to have wept at fall of curtain, referring to Lady Gregory, who said in his hearing when rejecting a play, ‘Tragedy must be a joy to the man who dies’. He returns to his theme: ‘… the rhythm is old and familiar, imagination must dance, must be carred beyond feeling into the aboriginal ice. Is ice the correct word? I once boasted, copying the phrase letter of my father’s, that I would write a poem ‘cold and passionate as the dawn’. (Essays and Introductions, p.522.

Jeffares reports that he wrote from High School to Yeats as ed. of The Erasmian, the magazine, and was answered that Yeats did not write poems suitable for a school magazine, but later thought better and submitted ‘What Then?’ [335]

Jeffares cites the story in Joseph Hone’s biography (p.459), according to which Yeats advised the Indians and Moslems, through Prof. Bose who was visiting Riversdale, to be at one another in arms: ‘Conflict, more conflict!’, while flourishing Sato’s Japanese sword. [344]

Jeffares quotes the following and refers to it as an a paraphrase of the powerful, cryptic poem ‘The Statues’:

Quotes: ‘There are moments when I am certain that art must once again accept those Greek proportions which carry into plastic art th Pythagorean numbers, those faces which are divine because all there is is empty and measured. Europe was not born when Greek galleys defeated the Persian hordes at Salamis, but when the Doric studios sent out those broad-backed marble statues against the multiform vague, expressive Asiatic Sea they gave to the sexual instinct of Europe its gaol, its fixed type.’ (From On the Boiler)

Jeffares quotes with some approbation Donald Torchiana’s estimate of Yeats’s theme, as evinced in Purgatory: ‘Eighteenth-century excellence fallen on evil days. A ruined house, ruined family and ruined trees suggest individual, familial and national failures.’ (W. B. Yeats and Georgian Ireland, 1966, p.363).

In discussing ‘Man and Echo’, Jeffares remarks that the “cannot know” response to death is for Yeats ‘great honest, a stripping down to essential emotional truth.

Quotes Yeats: occasionally telling people that one should believe whatever had been believed in all countries and periods, and only reject any part of it after much evidence, instead of starting all over afresh and only believing what one could prove (A 78)

‘Almost infallible Church of poetic tradition, of a fardel of stories, and of personages, and of emotions, inseparable form their first ecpression, passed on from generation to generation by poets and painters with shome help from philosophers and theologians … I even created a dogma: ‘Because those imaginary people are created out of the deepest instinct of man to be his measure and his norm, whatever I can imagine those mouths speaking may be the nearest I can go to truth.’ (A 116)

The Island of the Statues: An Arcadian Play

Of The Stolen Child, Yeats wrote: The places mentioned are round about Sligo. Further Rosses is a very noted fairy locality. There is here a little point of rocks where, if anyone falls asleep, there is danger of their waking silly, the fairies having carried off their souls.

Writing to Katharine Tynan, during revision of his poems: ‘almost all a flight into fairyland from the real world … The Chorus to the Stolen chidl sums it up –that is not the poetry of insight and knowledge nut of longing and complaint – the cry of the heart against necessity. I hope some day to alter that and write poetry of insight and knowledge. (L 63).

Bibl., George Mills Harper, W B Yeats and W T Horton: The record of an Occult Friendship (1980).

‘Who Goes with Fergus?’ added to The Rose section of Poems (1912). [comes from Countess Cathleen, a lyric in the second scene]

‘I planned a mystical Order … and for ten years to come my most impassioned thought was a vain attempt to find philosophy and to create ritual for that Order. I had an unshakable conviction, arising how or whenc I cannot trell, that invisible gates would opene as they opened for Blake. (A 253; quotes from stanza 2 of ‘To the Rose upon the Rood of Time’])

I still had the ambition, formed in Sligo in my teens, of living in imitation of Thoreau on Innisfree, a little Island in Lough Gill (A 153)

Yeats’s account of the Playboy Riot: ‘On the second performance of the Playboy of the Western World, about forty men who sat in the middle of the pit succeeded in making the play entirely inaudible. Some of them brought tin trumpets, and the noise began immediately upon the rise of the curtain. For days articles in the Press called for the withdrawal of the play, but we played for the seven nights we had announced; and before the week’s end opinion had turned in our favour. There were, however, nightly disturbances and a good deal of rioting in the surrounding streets. On the last night of the play there were, I believe, five hundred police keeping order in the theatre and in its neighbourhood. (Explorations, p.226)

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