Most great authors were once ragged young writers, short on money, long on doubts, desperate to bolster their confidence. That struggle was especially harsh for the
Irish poet and playwright William Butler Yeats (1865-1939). The first volume of Yeats’s Collected Letters, gracefully edited by Oxford professor of English John Kelly, plunges its readers into the backbiting world of literary London and lays bare the cool ambitions of the novice poet. While Yeats had boundless faith in his own gifts, most of his contemporaries saw him as just another hustler. “I didn’t imagine,” an angry professor observed during a literary dispute, “that any person of brains & education is likely to be influenced by Willy Yeats’s opinion.” His letters suggest that for Yeats, his Irish identity was a conscious decision, an act of political and spiritual will. A painter’s son, he spent a boyhood divided among London, Dublin and the west of Ireland. The majority of the letters—written mostly to his fellow writers and Irish nationalists— date from between 1887and 1892, when he again lived in London, which he described as “a detestable cauldron of a place.” Yeats associated Ireland, particularly its Celtic west, with “mystic tradition” and “a lofty extravagance of
invention.” Mythologizing rural Ireland as a counterforce to London, he complained that freelance journalism in the city was a “whirlpool of insincerity from which no man returns.” Still, in London he made contact with many other writers, including Oscar Wilde and George Bernard Shaw, and became part of a community of poets. In fact, he needed London as much as he needed a Celtic refuge from it.
To a Canadian, part of the fascination of Yeats’s letters is the similarity between the questions that preoccupied the poet in the 1890s and the issues that obsess many of Canada’s writers now. Yeats was a cultural nationalist: “The cradles of the greatest writers,” he declared, “are rocked among the scenes they are to celebrate.” He saw Ireland as trapped between the twin millstones of America and Britain—but, unlike his friend Douglas Hyde, Yeats had no desire to revert to the Gaelic language. He argued that Irish creativity could flourish in the language of its competitors.
For the most part, the volume reveals a public, pugnacious Yeats, ever ready to scribble a furious letter to a host of editors. His poetry at the time was shy and dreamy, dominated by wistful longing for what he called the “sleep/Men have named beauty.” Yet the man who composed such gentle lyrics had a strong intellect and a fierce will. In later years his poetry would become a sharper reflection of its creator. Perhaps because he lived with his parents until he was 30, perhaps because few of his letters to his great love, Maud Gonne, still survive, an odd remoteness hangs over the young Yeats.
The quality that, along with his nationalism, emerges most strikingly from his early letters is his interest in the occult. On a visit back to the far west of Ireland, Yeats even describes a “magical adventure” in which he claims to have conjured up a host of leprechauns from a seaside cave. His belief in paranormal experience, like his poetry, was a defence against materialism. As he once told his friend Kathleen Tynan, “a poem should be a law to itself, as plants and beasts are.” Yeats—a sorcerer and dreamer who was also a shrewd career-builder—was great enough in spirit to create poems that are laws unto themselves and an inspiration to those who love the English language.
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