An Irishman Who Started Something

Being a Sketch of William Butler Yeats:

HUGH S. EAYRS October 1 1914

An Irishman Who Started Something

Being a Sketch of William Butler Yeats:

HUGH S. EAYRS October 1 1914

An Irishman Who Started Something

Being a Sketch of William Butler Yeats:


IN an address to a Toronto audience some time ago, Herbert Casson said that Irishmen had always been the sparking plugs of world-movements. He wasn’t above admitting—though an Irishman himself—that sometimes the sparking plugs sparked spasmodically, and then flickered out, but he contended that the movements they started went on burning, and were not consumed, even though the wood was piled on the fire by others than the man who started the flames. The emotional, quick, and temperamental Celt who soars to the heights of optimism, and descends to the depths of pessimism on the slightest provocation, is about the most enthusiastic type of human that we know. Consequently he goes into a thing like a bull goes for a five-bar gate, and doesn’t wait to consider whether he can complete the task he has set himself.


But, since the exception proves the rule, you may look round and pick out exceptions. Lord Kitchener, Sir Thomas Shaughnessy and Superman Shaw are cases in point. They are matter-of-fact and stolid, and unexcitable; so they “get there.” William Butler Yeats is at once a typical, and an unusual Celt. He has started something, and he is helping it along, yet in the one thing he started he has failed conspicuously. I refer to the movement for making an Irish literature, and an Irish drama, which shall be at once the pride, and the heritage of every Irish man and woman, from the peasant U) the millionaires of Sackville street.

Consider William Butler Yates. He is an odd looking fellow. Tall and thin and angular, he has a near-cadaverous face, the outstanding features of which, are a mouth cynical and at the same time sensitive and eyes drooping a little, as if he would tell you, that while you are seeing without perceiving, he is doing both. His hair—a dense black, lightened fringewise by a touch of grey—overhangs a long forehead, and provides something for its owner to trifle with ever and anon as he speaks to you, or harangues a crowd in a lecture theatre. Mr. Yeats is fifty years old but he has a touch of the fire and vim of youth which creeps out at intervals and which, accompanied by a flash of deep, dark eyes changes him to a modern Perseus—a man with a message.

Yeats is a man of peculiar habits. He is perhaps the most faithful representative of a type which was Victorian, but isn’t at all in accord with the primness and smartness of 1914. Fifty years ago, an artist or a literary man must be a bundle of idiosyncrasies. He couldn’t be complete without a shock of hair reminiscent of a mop, habitually soiled linen and a flowing tie which was a cross between a

shroud and a table-centre. And, of course, a velvet coat, preferably minus the buttons. Indeed the buttons must be a minus quantity. He must have a room, beg pardon, a “study,” and there, in a dim religious light, with a decanter somewhere at hand, he was to turn out illegible copy on all sorts of odds and ends of paper. There are not many literary men or artists who subscribe to that idea to-day. Even Mr. Shaw is nearly immaculate in his dress! But Yeats is still outwardly mid-Victorian, though it would be unfair to hint that he is affectedly so. It just happens. And to tell the truth he looks outrageous in evening dress.

Raymond Blaithwaite tells how, and where, he found him, when he wanted an interview for his paper. He says that somewhere in the neighborhood of St. Paneras Station in London, he discovered the house where Yeats lived. Up two flights of stairs he discovered the room. Inside the room, in a corner, with a dingy candle (which was in accord with the rest of the room) stuck

on the table, he discovered William Butler Yeats, poet of life “as-it-is,” more or less successful dramatist, unquestioned genius, and generally Bohemian, scribbling away for dear life, and no decanter at hand !

The best word to sum up this strange Irishman is a word which became fashionable — oh yes, there is a fashion in words — in England some three or four years ago. Mr. Yeats is weird. Much of a mystic, more of an idealist, he is yet most of all a meticulous realist, and supersuperlatively, he is a seer. If you could get him to talk and express his views on a subject everybody has been expressing views about, ever since anybody ever had views to express—say a definition of beauty—you would be struck by the strangely dilated and other-worldly look which creeps into his eyes, and lights up his face, with a light that certainly never was on land or sea. It flashes through your mind that here is a man whose friends are not the friends you know; whose habitual confreres are fays and faeries, and curious creations of folk-lore, infinitely fantastic, and yet with a deal of fact that furnishes all sorts of analogies and parables which might make good rules to live and work by. There is only one other man I know who is at all like him in this regard, and that is his brilliant fellow-countryman, James Stephens. But to return to Yeats, and his definition of beauty. He puts his fingers together and sticks his jaw forward and tells you that beauty can never be produced in art without some ecstasy born of a struggle, either from some ‘morbidity” in a man’s soul, or some stress of circumstances outside of himself. Mr. Yeats told that to a club of literary men in Toronto. I don’t think many of them could elucidate to anyone else just what it means—although they all knew themselves.


The work of William Butler Yeats has been the founding of the Irish national theatre and the Irish national drama. He and J. M. Synge—whose poem “Dierdre” is.probably the finest poetic drama since Shakespeare—and Lady Gregory, got together and talked over the scheme of giving Irish people their own theatre in which Irish plays, written by Irish men and women, about everyday Ireland, past and present, should be acted by Irish players. Yeats went over to Paris and discovered J. M. Synge in a garret there, pretty well down and out. He brought him back to Ireland and pressed him into service. All three enthusiasts started

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writing plays, and started producing them. It was a dreary business. To begin with, they had little money. They hired a hall and found themselves after a few weeks up against the stone wall of “No Cash.” Yet if the movement was to go on and flourish a deal of advertising was necessary. Lady Gregory in telling of those early days of struggle tells how she and Mr. Yeats went to the newspapers in Dublin and begged the editors to insert their theatre advertising, frankly admitting that it could not be paid for then. Meanwhile the movement seemed to be making little headway. The people scarcely bothered. True there was a band of devotees who had enthusiasm galore, but you can’t run a theatre on the enthusiasm of a few and make money on it. To hear Mr. Yeats discuss the real fight that he and his co-workers had to popularize the movement is an experience. All sorts of tricks were resorted to, so that the faith of such as came might be strengthened. Many a night Lady Gregory and her friends would leave the stage door and come into the theatre at the front time after time to induce such as stood idly curious outside, to go in and see what was happening. One would have thought that it would have been an easy thing to recall to Irishmen their heritage in a Celtic twilight—to use the phrase of Mr. Holbrook Jackson. But somehow Irishmen didn’t want to remember that their ancestors had delighted in a faery land of imagery.

For years the insular spirit persisted in looking askance at the revival with which Yeat’s name became connected. Difference of religion and a clannishness according to whether the “kicker” lived in the north or south seemed inseparable from the production of many of the plays, and when J. M. Synge’s “Playboy of thé Western World” was given, mob tyranny was rampant. Somehow, though it would ■

not be safe to aver that an Irishman is necessarily a particularly religious sort of being, theological differences have always been with him a prime consideration. “Do you know Shaun?” says Pat to Mike. “Know Shaun?”-—this with an obvious exclamation mark—“Why he’s a Catholic!” responds the Protestant Mike. And so, the Irish players found themselves considerably hampered by the unfortunate habit that the people had of staying day and night within reach of a shillaleigh which they might lay about fellow-countrymen with anything but a fellow-feeling, because they hadn’t a fellow-faith.

As a corollary to this fanatical opposition, which sprang from religious differences, there was just as strong an opposition because of political bickering. Obviously since the plays dealt with Ireland they were bound to deal with Home Rule and Unionism. This again caused ructions. But Mr. Yeats had one thing clearly in his mind. He realized what Irishmen have never properly grasped themselves; that while they mightn’t care a hoot whether they had a National Parliament they did very much want a National Soul. Too long Irish literature, a distinct and definite thing from English literature, had been relegated to a semilimbo. It was confined to a few; it ought to be the property of the many. Yeats was determined that art such as the Irish possessed should no longer be the pride • of the cultured few. He contended that it could be introduced into everybody’s everyday life. Yeats burned with a mission. He was an evangelist whose evangel was a revolution in the Spirit of the commonest and the highest alike. He called out in clarion voice that Ireland was forgetting a glorious past instead of weaving it into a half-hearted present. His slogan might well have been ‘Wake up Ireland, wake up to your splendid heritage of treasure in literature; and, waking up, live the better for the discovery of your literary possessions.”

For example—when the Irish players were in an Eastern Canadian city recently they were entertained by the Arts and Letters Club. One of the men in the company volunteered to sing two or three songs. He said that he had no music because it wasn’t in print. But what he sung both words and music was a treasure well worth preserving. Yet the only way in which this song was preserved was handing it down verbally from generation to generation. Yeats knew that Ireland had a literature of her own which was individual and comparable to the literature of England. He sought to re-disi cover it, and he and his colleagues worked to put it in keepable form as drama in j prose and poetry. How far his movement has gone is well known. Success, delayed for years came at last and the Abbey 1 Theatre in Dublin and touring companies j sent out by the Abbey Theatre Company ¡ are the results. Ireland has been awakend—in a literary sense at least—to a pride in its individuality and nationality, j and the man behind the gun is William Butler Yeats.

Yet ironically enough Mr. Yeats though the man behind was never the gun itself. His was never the personal achievement

—at any rate along the lines he pioneered. He has given to Ireland a poetic drama; he has added greatly to the store of English lyric poetry, but he has not succeeded in touching the hearts of the common people. I have seen the audience wildly yelling and gavotting up and down the aisle of the Abbey Theatre in Dublin because Mr. Synge’s “Playboy of the Western World” had “got them going”—to use a colloquialism. Synge wrote plays which so affected the people that a police patrol was necessary. Lady Gregory’s works were so powerful that they evoked all sorts of demonstration. But Yeats, whose whole energies have been laden with a desire to awaken the heart of the lowest, has only appealed to the intellectually aristocratic. In one or two of his plays “The Common Chord” or “Kathleen ni Hoolihan,” he has neared the desired haven, but he never lodged his craft safely therein. “The Land of Heart’s Desire,” “Shadowy Waters,” “On Baile’s Strand,” and others are poem-plays which have never been equalled since Shakespeare. As a writer of poetic drama, Mr. Yeats has excelled even Stephen Phillips and John Galsworthy and others of the Georgian poets. But in that which he most passionately desired, he has failed Just as Moses never entered the Promisee Land, though he guided the people thither so Mr. Yeats, whose passion was that his every compatriot might revel in a glorious literature, was never able to accomplish that result directly.

Ireland owes him a tremendous debt The Irish National Theatre is the out ward result of his labors; the striking again of the common chord in the heart! of a thousand thousand was the hiddei result of his inspiration and direction And it is as much worth while to find ! soul for a nation as it is to drill soldier with dummy rifles, or drive the final spik and link up a transcontinental.