Richard Kain, Dublin in the Age of William Butler Yeats and James Joyce (Oklahoma UP 1962; Newton Abbot: David Charles 1972), - extracts.

For longer extracts relating to other Irish writers, see in RICORSO Library, “Criticism”, infra, and also under Joyce in RICORSO Library, “Major Authors”, on relations between the two writers [infra].

Yeats once reflected on the public indignation that might be aroused “if any thoughtful person spoke out all his mind to any crowd.” Certainly he seemed doomed to be in the midst of controversy, whether among theosophical sects or political groups. More than any of his contemporaries he carried within himself the seeds of these disputes, and it is appropriate that he always stood at the center of the stage, regardless of disrespectful Dubliners who remarked that this was “just what you’d expect of Willie.” No matter how highly respected, or bitterly resented, in his many public roles of theatre manager, playwright, publicist, and poet, he was always prey to self-questioning. Few writers convey such a sense of vitality, because few have maintained throughout their lives the personal tension that imparts energy to poetic statement. From his continual inner debates arose one of his most memorable epigrams: “We make out of the quarrels with others, rhetoric, but out of the quarrel with ourselves, poetry.” An expert in both modes, he enjoyed dispute as an Irishman should, and wrote poetry of the highest distinction. Each of his literary styles - romantic, satiric, symbolic, realistic - became a vehicle for exalted utterance. To the end of his life, he continued his philosophic quest. Less than a month before his death he summarized his outlook in another notable pronouncement: “Man can embody truth but he cannot know it.” (p.23.)


The Celtic dream demanded only the most general commitments, and Yeats had no difficulty in echoing the fashionable enthusiasms of the time. Ireland was, in his opinion, a land of literary promise, its literature still young, and on all sides there were “Celtic tradition and Celtic passion crying for singers.” So long as his faith remained untested by experience, it could accommodate pagan as well as Christian themes. Thus he reported in an essay to the Boston Pilot in 1891 that “the doctrines I have just been studying in Pater’s jewelled paragraphs - the Platonic theory of spiritual beings having their abode in all things without and within us, and thus uniting all things” were related to current Irish thought. Alas, he would soon discover that even though all things might be united, a special problem was posed by the Irish.

For the time being it was conveniently simple to accept prevailing political clichés. Even taste could be temporarily blurred, and Yeats let himself praise mediocre poets: “I knew in my heart that the most of them wrote badly, and yet such romance clung about them, such a desire for Irish poetry was in all our minds, that I kept on saying, not only to others but to myself, that most of them wrote well, or all but well.” Yet he was able to forestall [35] the London Irish Literary Society from passing a resolution to the effect that “the time has come- for Ireland to produce a dramatist comparable to Shakespeare. In the midst of his patriotic euphoria he did notice that few could refuse buying “a pepper-pot shaped to suggest a round tower with a wolf-dog at its feet,” and that most writers favored “harp and shamrock and green cover” for their volumes. Forthwith Yeats had his label for such enthusiasts - “Harps and Pepper-Pots.”’ (pp.35-36.)


As a young man, tired of the aestheticism of London, Yeats plunged into politics with an unthinking zest which was amplified by his admiration for the unbelievably beautiful and unattainable Maud Gonne. Intoxicated by the only popular success he ever achieved, he made speeches, wrote letters to newspapers, and toured rural Ireland, finding himself everywhere the center of applause. He later reflected in his autobiography that “It was many years before I understood that I had surrendered myself to the chief temptation of the artist, creation without toil!” His political activity culminated in the presidency of a committee to arrange celebration of the centenary of the 1798 uprising. He had hoped to reconcile factions. Again, he made a bitter self-judgment: “It was no business of mine, and that was precisely why I could not keep out of it.”’

[...; See remarks on John O’Leary, under O’Leary, infra.]

The agitations of these years flash through the autobiography with kaleidoscopic brilliance and brevity - a meeting organized by the laborer James Connolly, later to be executed in the 1916 Rising; gatherings of Italian and French sympathizers; crowds smashing windows. It was a tumultuous time, and far removed from occult or poetic pursuits. Then Yeats dropped politics. Estrangement from Maud Gonne was a factor, as well as the new-found patronage and hospitality of Lady Gregory, and his interest in establishing an Irish theatre. In her memoirs, A Servant of the Queen (1938) Maud Gonne MacBride watches with amusement the rivalry between the two supporters of the theatre - Miss Horniman with the money, Lady Gregory with the brains. Yeats could not fail to contrast the generous enthusiasm of his patrons with the bigotry of patriotic clubs. (pp.104-05.)

AE was suggested for the Senate, but he refused. In the circumstances he was probably wiser than Yeats, who saw the causes he espoused invariably meet with defeat. Yeats failed in his major effort, his defense of the right of divorce, although no one can deny that his remarks on the subject (in the debate of June 11, 1925) were tactless and offensive, vaunting as he did the superiority of the Protestant Irish tradition and pointing to the domestic morality of three prominent heroes, the “Three Statues” of the epigrammatic poem, Parnell, Nelson, and O’Connell. His two most important committee projects, the Irish Manuscript Commission and a Federation of the Arts, were shelved. He was unable to regain the Hugh Lane pictures. His six-year Senate term expired before the act to establish censorship came up for debate in 1929. He made known his position, and, had he served a second term, he would again have been defeated. The older he grew, the more unruly he became. Swift was in his mind, as well as the aristocratic thinkers of the eighteenth century. He showed interest in a semi-Fascist group, the Blueshirts, and wrote for them marching songs which cannot be sung and cannot be marched to. He played the irresponsible beggar, delighting in improprieties, hinting that church and state are the mob howling at the door. Even though he could write in the Spectator in 1932 that “there have been few [145] mistakes,” and that “no London Parliament could have found the time or the knowledge for that transformation” of Ireland, and could pen verses of “Remorse for Intemperate Speech,” he continued to delight in being intemperate. just one year before he died he projected a periodical which he described to his friend Dorothy Wellesley as “an amusing thing to do - I shall curse my enemies” who will then “hit back and that will give me the joy of answering them.” Only one number of On the Boiler appeared, posthumously. In it he adopted the role of the mad old ship’s carpenter who delivered his harangues from a boiler on the Sligo quays. He attacked vulgarity wherever he saw it, or thought he saw it, and advocated a government by the elite. He went down fighting to the last, and that should win the respect of any Irishman.

Seldom has a nation found such an eloquent voice.[...] (pp.145-46.)


[...] In the midst of his diverse activcites, Yeats always held before himself the idea: “Hammer your thoughts into unity.” For European culture he had the same goal, hoping that Ireland might show the way by turning from the “bragging rhetoric and gregarious humour” of earlier days to the ideal represented by parnell, “solitary and proud”. Certainly Yeats’s own career gained strength through its [173] unified development, in which speeches and essays document plays and poems, and youthful concerns mature and burgeon, rising from the personal domain to the national, and finally to the universal plane. One of his favorite images of organic growth was the tree. In accounting for the literary failure of his father’s friend John Todhunter, Yeats detected a lack of passion and the absence of harmonious growth: “If he had liked anything strongly he might have been a famous man, for a few years later he was to write, under some casual patriotic impulse, certain excellent verses now in all Irish anthologies; but with him every book was a new planting, and not a new bud on an old bough.”

In a poetic career, it is almost impossible to overcome the handicap of early success. Anthologies, from Tottel’s Miscellany of 1557, have been memorials to minor talents. Yeats, happily, was one of the few exceptions, a man who triumphed over success. He started as a minor poet not unlike Todhunter. “The Lake Isle of Innisfree,- those lines that he might willingly have let die, so weary he was of being tied to them, could well be described as “certain excellent verses now in all Irish anthologies.” But from this slender stalk, what a deeply rooted and fully laden tree!

At the peak of his success as a “Celtic” poet, Yeats realized the necessity of giving up the facile lyricism he had perfected. He wrote a letter of apology to AE in 1904, excusing some tactless comments he had made on the poems in the latter’s New Songs. If he had been less than fair, he candidly admitted, it was because he saw in them “an exaggeration of sentiment and sentimental beauty which I have come to think unmanly,” and which he had been striving to overcome in his own work. His postscript concludes with the triumphant assertion, “Let us have no emotions, however abstract, in which there is not an athletic joy.”

Style was one means of escaping facility. Yeats noted that the work of Douglas Hyde suffered because he never realized the necessity of writing English like a learned language. Synge’s famous preface to his own The Playboy of the Western World urged that “in a good play every speech should be as fully flavored as nut or apple.” In Trieste, Joyce was at the same time recasting the manuscript of Stephen Hero to transform it from an episodic autobiography to the classically unified novel, A Portrait of the Artist as a Youing Man. Yeats was often attacked for his revisions. In the 1908 collected edition of his works he answered his critics in an epigram. Its concluding line, “It is myself that I remake,” sums up his self-conscious artistry.

In the library scene of Joyce’s Ulysses, Stephen Dedalus discusses the art of Shakespeare and the mysteries of artistic creation. At one point he pontificates, “The man of genius makes no mistakes,” for “his errors are volitional and are the portals of discovery.” In his urgency to test anew each of his intuitions, Yeats gave the impression of having rejected positions which were only temporarily abandoned. Throughout his career he retained an almost unprecedented creative vitality. At intervals of a decade or so he displayed a phoenixlike power of imaginative renewal. Many times he revised and tightened his earlier work in preparation for another rebirth. Noting this phenomenon, he wrote to Mrs. Shakespear in February, 1934: “It is curious how one’s life falls into definite sections. In [175] 1897 a new scene was set, new actors appeared.” The theatrical metaphors were appropriate, for Yeats was constantly aware of the division of his own personal drama into unified acts. This awareness accounts not only for the painstaking unity of each volume of poems but for the retention of publication dates in the collected work.

Thus nothing is lost in the Yeats canon. The frequently observed shifts of emphasis resemble the emergence and subsidence of a floating object. The passionate dances of the sages in the poem “Byzantium,” a vision of the sixtyfive-year-old poet, are prefigured in a ritual described thirty-five years before. In the esoteric tale of “Rosa Alchemica” initiates, robed in scarlet, trace in a mystic dance the pattern of the mosaic rose on the ceiling of their shrine. A companion story with cabalistic implications, “The Tables of the Law,” contains a discussion of Byzantine motifs “that suggest an imagination absorbed in the contemplation of Eternity.” The recluse and hermetic student Owen Aherne discusses the prophetic book by joachim of Flora which predicts an era in which children of the Holy Spirit will create “that supreme art which is to win us from life and gather us into eternity.” This is the theme, and these are the very words of the magnificent poem “Sailing to Byzantium.”

Few sought so strenuously to plan their careers. With sensibility exercised by meditation, and mind stored with poetic tradition, Yeats centered his writing on basic themes, returning to them again and again with increasing power. With equal care he planned each volume as an artistic unit, arranging poems so as to link them by theme, mood, or image. [176]

Ancient symbolism gave strength to Yeats’s poetry. At once clear and evocative, heron or winding stair or golden bird need no scholarly gloss for the imaginative reader. If mankind did not “remember or half remember impossible things,” he once said, “what Aran fisher-girl would sing?” In his meditations on the Anima Mundi (1917), or memory of humanity, Yeats rooted poetic and religious symbols in the beliefs and hopes of mankind. The concept of the racial unconscious postulated by Carl Jung finds little, corroboration from anthropologists; tradition may result from environment rather than from inherited traits; nonetheless, the imaginations of men have turned in varied places and times to such natural symbols as mountain and sea, horse and bird, wifid and cloud, to reflect their emotions. Yeats found that symbols enabled him to escape isolation “amid the obscure impressions of the senses.” The amazing fact is that even his occult poetry is sharply etched. The authority is felt even though the meaning may not be entirely clear.

The rose and the tower are good examples of Yeats’s poetic practice. Both emblems are traditional, having literary as well as historic associations - the rose with beauty, purity, and spirituality; the tower, as Yeats said, with “mysterious wisdom won by toil,” as well as with nobility, ancient Ireland, and the poet’s own fortified house in County Galway. Yeats used these and other equally public symbols as motifs in many poems. The rose provided a title for an early collection, The Secret Rose (1897), a book whose occult character is suggested by the elaborate gold design on the cover. An intricate tree of life, growing from a skeleton, branches into cabalistic roses. It blossoms [177] into the faces of a man and a woman who kiss and clasp hands above a central cross. The designs of later volumes were less complex but designed with equal care.

A major portal of discovery was that of the fine arts. All readers can recall the procession of Magi, knights, dragons, dolphins, as well as numerous references to mosaic, portrait, altarpiece, and landscape. Yeats himself gave up painting after two years of training, but he never ceased to furnish his imagination with visual motifs, many of them discovered by Professor T. W. Henn and described in The Lonely Tower (1950). Two of his father’s subjects, hunchback and laughing beggar, provided vehicles for poetry and prophecy. Like the fools in Shakespeare’s plays, these vagrants, granted immunity from criticism, voice an irresponsible defiance that Yeats was hesitant to utter in his own person. In his interpretation of human destiny, A Vision (1926) [sic; US edn.], hunchback, saint, and fool again appear. They represent the three final phases of the twenty-eight character types described. Yeats’s late’ earthy ballads may derive their coarse and sardonic energy from the vigorous woodcuts and paintings of his brother Jack, which portray the activities of tinkers and carnival roustabouts.

The classic masterpieces of European art were intimately known by Yeats. He utilized such episodes as Leda and the Swan or Oedipus and the Sphinx, the Annuciation or the Adoration of the Magi. In his theory of history he found ancient sculpture and Byzantine mosaics evidence of waxing and waning subjectively. At one time he projected a lecture tour for which he prepared a file of slides including designs by Williarn Blake, Samuel Palmer, and Edward Calvert.

The artists Edmund Dulac and T. Sturge Moore were [178] congenial co-workers. Dulac created costumes and masks for the private performance of Yeats’s At the Hawk’s Well in London (1916). For A Vision, Dulac designed a woodcut representing the great wheel of the moon’s phases, and one of a prancing unicorn, as well as a portrait of the fictitious medieval scholar Giraldus. Moore was a closer friend. Not only an artist, he was a poet who anticipated two Yeats poems, with a translation in 1893 of Ronsard’s “When You Are Old” and two treatments of the Leda story in 1914, “To Leda” and “The Home of Helen.” His woodcuts of candle, eagle, and unicorn descending from the stars were often used in the volumes published by the Yeats sisters at the Cuala Press. In his correspondence with Moore, Yeats spoke freely of his mystical views, noting that his basic symbols were sun and moon, mask and hawk, tower and tree. His work, he said, was “not drama but the ritual of a lost faith.” (pp.173-79.)


“Under Ben Bulben” is a magnificent utterance, consolidating the poet's position in the national ethos, and setting the epigraph on a half-century of achievement. It recapitulates the heroic themes of former works. The ancient sages reappear, together with the legendary horsemen and the mythic superhuman women. The aging poet faces death With stoic faith in the continuity of the great cycles of destiny. Strong though gravediggers be, they can only [183] “thrust their buried men / Back in the human mind again.” Death itself may be but one more form of that life-giving ecstasy of violence, that tragic joy in which all great deeds are achieved. Throughout the sweep of the historical process the task of the artist remains the same, to “bring the soul of man to God.” In this task the Irish poet is especially privileged, heir to a unique destiny and spokesman of a culture which for centuries has received the contributions of lord and laborer, saint and scholar. Thus, amid the vast concourses of history, two things remain steadfast: the spiritual goal of art and the tradition of the nation. And so, too, Yeats can return to his inheritance, his body in the churchyard of his grandfather's church at Drumcliff, the legend-haunted mass of Ben Bulben on the horizon, an ancient Irish cross near by, and on the stone an epitaph reminiscent of Swift's noble words, bidding the passer-by imitate the nobility of the dead hero.

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