Three volumes of this fine edition of The Collected Letters of W. B. Yeats have now appeared, and not only do we now know much more about Yeats from his letters but from the skilful annotation, the appendices and the introductions. The introduction to this volume is a tour de force of biographical and critical expertise. It guides the reader through the complex and varied experiences of a crowded, hectic period in the poet's life: four years of intense activity and emotional turmoil.
At the age of 30, Yeats left the family home in Bedford Park in October 1895, sharing rooms with Arthur Symons in the Temple. One of his sisters wrote to the other, remarking, "W. B. says he can live on ten shillings a week, let him try." The practical detailed research in this volume shows the precarious nature of Yeats's finances, working out his weekly expenses. What is remarkable is how much he managed to do on so little, for he did not earn more than a Pounds 150 a year in his thirties and, as he remarked in Autobiographies, until he was nearly 50 his writing "never brought me more than two hundred a year, and most often less, and I am not by nature economical".
The prospect of earning better fees from contributions to the Savoy, launched in 1896, must have encouraged him to move to two rooms in 18 Woburn Buildings in February 1896. This move enabled him to enter into his affair with Mrs Shakespear, a cultivated, unhappily married woman. It was his first sexual experience and it lasted but a year. A poem, "The Lover Mourns for the Loss of Love", records the waning of his desire and her sad realisation that Maud Gonne still preoccupied him: She looked in my heart one day And saw your image was there; She has gone weeping away.
He had first met Maud Gonne in 1889 and fallen in love with her then, though deciding not to speak of his love to her, wondering what sort of wife she would make for a poor student. However, he did propose to her in 1891, and on many occasions after that, to be offered friendship but nothing more. She was tall and beautiful, independent and very well-to-do, revolutionary in her support of Irish nationalism. He poured out poems to her, romantic, beautiful, defeatist; he hoped to convince her that his work for the revival of Irish literature was as necessary for Ireland's independence as that of the nationalist political movements.
He tried to involve her in his mystical projects. Since 1890 a member of the Order of the Golden Dawn, a society dedicated to studying Rosicrucianism and ritual magic, Yeats occupied himself in trying to create a Celtic mystical order that would influence the collective Irish mind subconsciously and make it heroic. Along with other friends, she helped him in creating rituals for the proposed order. He and she shared a dream of establishing a "Castle of Heroes" in an abandoned house, a folly on an island in Lough Key in Co. Roscommon.
The editors suggest convincingly that the counterbalance to this notional castle, this part of Yeats's messianism, was his experience of the reality of ordered life at Coole Park, Lady Gregory's house in Co. Galway. He had met her briefly in 1894 and 1896, and he spent the first of his long annual summer visits there in 1897. His friendship with her became a pivot in his life. (When she was seriously ill in 1909, he recorded in his unpublished Memoirs that she had been "mother, friend, sister and brother", that the thought of losing her was "like a conflagration in the rafters").
Lady Gregory gave him a civilised milieu in which he could recoup his physical strength, work and relax. She helped him to collect folklore, which he thought the true foundation of literature, especially in Homer and Shakespeare. She gave him an entree to London (and some Dublin) drawing-rooms, and, of course, she joined enthusiastically in the creation of the Irish Literary Theatre, out of which came the Abbey Theatre. She encouraged him; she lent him money; she sent him hampers of food; and she helped to make his rooms in Woburn buildings more comfortable. What is remarkable about these four years of Yeats's life is the sheer amount of work of all kinds that he got through. In addition to his mystical projects, his work on the proposed Celtic Order of Mysteries, and his dramatic battles to save the Order of the Golden Dawn (from MacGregor Mathers's neglect and Aleister Crowley's attempt at seizing the order's premises by force) and then to reform it, there was his intense activity in bringing an Irish theatre into existence. This involved him in finding guarantors and suitable venues, lobbying MPs to amend the Dublin Theatre Patent, writing and rewriting plays, coping with temperamental producers, actors and actresses.
He had begun to play an active part in politics in 1896, joining in the plans to celebrate the centenary of the 1798 rebellion. This brought him into contact with the vicious infighting of the different nationalist and revolutionary committees, and gave him the chastening experience of seeing the results of violence when a riot erupted in Dublin as a result of demonstrations against Queen Victoria's jubilee. He tried to create an Irish Convention that would avoid the endemic feuding and unite all sections of Irish opinion, a scheme as dream-like as the plans for a Celtic Order of Mysteries.
Primarily he was a poet. His Poems of 1895 had established him as a leading one. The new lyrics he wrote subsequently, after appearing in various journals, were collected in The Wind among the Reeds in 1899, the culmination of his esoteric and Celtic symbolism. During this period he began and spent much time on The Speckled Bird, a novel he never completed. He did, however, finish The Shadowy Waters, an often-revised verse play. He wrote stories collected as The Secret Rose (1897) and the elaborate fiction of The Tables of the Law and The Adoration of the Magi.
There were long essays, articles and reviews to bring in money as well as defend his belief in the "old celtic things" that he set against modern materialism and triviality. There were lectures to write and speeches to deliver - in view of Yeats's later changed interest in Burke, the College Historical Society of Trinity College, Dublin (at a meeting of which Yeats took the chair in May 1899) could have been annotated not as "venerable" but as founded in 1770 and having its origins in Edmund Burke's club of 1747. There was the great debate about "the Literary Movement in Ireland"; and there was a vast amount of reading, the more impressive when we realise how bad his eyesight was. There was, too, a great deal of social life; he met most of the major literary figures of his time, and entertained on Monday evenings in Woburn Buildings.
Though there was so much activity, intended, much of it, to prove him a man of action, this was a period of uncertainty in Yeats's life. There was a sense of an impending apocalypse, an imminent revelation. But he became uncertain about his ultimate aims (later, life seemed to him "a preparation for something that never happens") and was experiencing some extreme frustration, which came to a head between 1897 and 1900. He had offered Maud Gonne his poetic devotion, but in 1898 she told him about her relationship, which she was now ending, with the French politician and journalist Lucien Millevoye, by whom she had had two children. Yeats had dismissed rumours about this affair as politically inspired slander, but now he was shattered by her revelations. Somehow they remained close friends; she told him she could never marry. His love became "the bitterer and the harder".
Looking back at 1900, he later wrote that it was when everybody got down off their stilts. He himself abandoned the elaborate, allusive symbolism of his poetry, the mannered, ornate style of his stories and essays, and his propagandising for Celticism. He now strove for the idiom of daily speech and his poetry, stripped of its decoration, began to acquire the strength and authority that was to make him the 20th century's most powerful and evocative poet. As the editors remark, he was to learn that life and history are a ceaseless struggle, that we begin to live when we conceive life as tragedy.
The editors have given us a skilled biography of four very crowded years in Yeats's life. The chronology puts the impressive quantity of factual details in order, the introduction offers a masterly interpretation, a guide to what was happening in Yeats's inner and outer life, and the notes, brilliantly compressed, provide subtle, often wryly witty explanations of the references in the letters. Their annotations, based upon enviably deep knowledge and skilled detective ability in research, make the letters themselves infinitely more rewarding, indeed indispensable, for all readers and students of Yeats - and of human nature too.
A. Norman Jeffares is emeritus professor of English studies, University of Stirling.
The Collected Letters of W. B. Yeats: Volume Two, 1896-1900
Editor - Warwick Gould, John Kelly and Deirdre Toomey
ISBN - 0 19 812682 4
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Price - £40.00
Pages - 790