“W.B. Yeats’ Limberness and Grace”
The Saturday Review, November 9, 1946
How J. B. Yeats came to emigrate to America at the age of sixty-nine, living here continuously the remaining fourteen years of his life, is a diverting story. A number of Dublin friends became solicitous for the old painter to see the great Italian galleries before he died. “Think of it,” exclaimed Sarah Purser, “J. B. has never seen the Florentine galleries or the Vatican!” Urged by her, a few of his friends got together and presented him with a check. But J. B. brushed the Italian galleries aside and bought a ticket for New York. His daughter Lily was going there for a short business visit, so he had company on the voyage out.
Once arrived in America nothing nor nobody could induce him to leave it; he loved it, and no appeals from his family could get him home. New York especially delighted him—the tall buildings, the noisy elevated railways, the pace of life, his new friends, and then, too, the expectancy that never left him of making a fortune. Other Irishmen had made fortunes, so why not he? Then he loved the rivers. In the bleakest weather he would walk from the Hudson to the East River and arrive at the apartment we had then in Beekman Place, at that time a forgotten and dingy part of the city. He would sit drinking tea, looking out on the East River, and talking endlessly but not dominatingly, and always full of plans. In New York he was not quite the same J. B. that he had been in Dublin; there he was the well-known Academician, and his friends were the solid people of the town like the whiskey-distilling Jamesons with their grand house, the judges, and the Trinity College professors. The Yeats family, in fact, seemed to be running the town, culturally anyway. J. B.’s wardrobe was supervised by his daughters so that he always presented a handsome, well-groomed appearance. Here in New York he felt freer to wear anything that was handy, and his occasionally ravelled collars and shirt cuffs, and his much darned woolen gloves mended anew every winter by Mile. Petitpas would have shocked his daughters and his carefully garbed poet son. Here J. B. also felt freer to choose his friends, and much as he loved and admired his family he seemed pleased to be at a distance from all domestic bonds. Then his table in the dining loom at Petitpas’s came to provide him with, a lively audience for his conversation.
Here his talents took a new turn: he began to write both prose and verse and to lecture to submissive and admiring audiences. His prose, as any reader of this collection of his letters can see, was that of a born writer, with a limberness, spontaneity, and grace such as his great poet son never really had, for W. B.’s prose was too often measured. It may be indeed that J. B. took the wrong turn when he became a painter instead of a writer. These letters show not only all the interests of a writer but the training of a writer which unconsciously he had acquired. His comments on literature are, in interest and profundity, away beyond his comments on painting. However, that he was a great portrait painter many experts believe, and certainly his John O’Leary is a magnificent portrait as is his portrait of himself. In literature he was really immersed; he had read everything, and he had the good Dublin training in the classics. What could be more to the point than his advice to his poet son when he first began to write verses? It is here in letter nine. “I tell him prose and verse are alike in one thing—the best is that to which went the hardest thoughts. This also is the secret of originality, also the secret of sincerity.”
J. B. was really a man of the eighteenth century with a coating of the romantic on top, and like the people of the eighteenth century his mind went into letter writing and conversation naturally. His letters give the impression of an enormous leisure as if there was nothing else to do in life except ruminate and to get down for his friends as much rumination as possible. His best prose is in his letter writing, for he always knew the interests of their recipients, his children or his friends, but his essays and his articles were a shot in the dark; he did not know who would be their readers, so they lacked the ease and naturalness of his letters.
For him the ideal life would have been that of a peripatetic philosopher, strolling around plane tree groves with a group of disciples belonging to the arts and advancing the idea that the esthetic was the only good life. Though he never cared for money and had no sense of it, he had great plans for making a fortune—he wasn’t quite sure how, sometimes he thought as a successful portrait painter, sometimes as a successful writer, and at the end of his days, he thought he might make the fortune on a play he was writing. Shortly after coming here he wrote to his son, “If I had a studio and peace of mind for a few weeks I would start a great career here as a portrait painter.” Another time he wrote, “Mrs. Fleming by cards predicted a great good fortune to come suddenly and it has come. Yesterday morning in about three hours I wrote for Knoedler & Co., the great picture dealers, an introduction for their catalogue to the Whistler exhibition, and they were so pleased that they said they would give me $35 for it and when I received my cheque it was for $50 and when I spoke of this they said, ‘yes, because it was so good’.”
All the letters in are not from J. B., some are to him. One from his son W. B. throws cold water on that play of his that he believed would bring him wealth and fame. “It is the least good of all your writings,” wrote the poet, and how squashed J. B. was by that letter! And W. B. goes on to say with that pomposity he never could avoid when writing to people about their plays — which later was to make Sean O’Casey leave the Abbey Theatre—”A play looks easy, but it is full of problems which are almost a part of mathematics.”
After writing an essay or an occasional poem, J. B. would turn to portrait painting again. His last picture was a self-portrait commissioned by John Quinn. “I’m delighted with it,” he wrote Quinn. “When you get it and it is hung on your walls it will have a stark reality that will outweigh all the other portraits, even John’s [Augustus John] portrait of you.” John Quinn had promised to pay whatever he asked for this portrait, and again J. B. felt he was going to make his fortune. With the money, he said, he would return to Ireland with myself and my husband who planned to go in the summer of 1922. “We’ll paint the town red,” he declared gleefully, but alas, he did not live until summer; he died in the early part of ’22, the portrait still unfinished.
In the last letter of his in this collection he tells John Quinn how he was one of ten poets who read the evening before at the MacDowell Club. I had got up a poetry reading for a MacDowell Colony benefit, and had asked J. B. to read a poem that he was very proud of, “Autumn.” He was happy at the prospect, especially at his place in the middle of the program originally meant for Amy Lowell who insisted on being placed last, the place of honor, she said, due to a poet of her standing. Just before the reading started J. B. telephoned in a trembling voice to say he thought he was too tired to come, but I urged him. And this tall old man reading his poem about old age stole the show. But his weariness was real, and a week later he was dead.
There are two introductions to these letters, one a memoir by the editor, Joseph Hone, and a preface by J. B.’s old friend Oliver Elton. This old friend’s comment on J. B. as “anti-English in all his traditions and convictions” seems to me to show some misunderstanding, for J, B. was not as much anti-English as non-English with a total remoteness from English interests and English traditions. His love of America did not prevent his making some very sharp criticisms of Americans; they run through the letters, as well as unfavorable comment on democracy as a way of civilization. But he is always filled with delight at the spectacle of American life. As he said himself, “We love people because of their faults.” And as he details American faults he shows his fondness for them. Even if he had lived ten years longer I doubt if he could ever have taken himself away from America. “The more I see of Americans, the more I admire them,” he writes. “I believe myself they are far ahead of all nations, and will in time produce the greatest poetry and the greatest art.”