BOOK REVIEW / The years of losing a love and finding a voice: 'The Collected Letters of W B Yeats, Vol III 1901-1904' - ed John Kelly and Ronald Schuchard: OUP, 35 pounds

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W B YEATS spent the late 1890s waiting for the millennium - political, aesthetic and erotic. It failed to arrive, and he spent the early 1900s coming to terms with what would happen next. In the process he reconstructed his life in terms of art, love and politics; during the first years of the new century he began to discover a new style, fell out with old political allies, and heard a new generation knocking at the door. He also developed into a dramatist,

became the moving spirit in Ireland's

new national theatre, and saw his great love marry someone else. This volume of letters provides immeasurably the most authoritative and revealing guide to an era when the fulcrum of his whole life shifted.

The reconsiderations of the early 1900s propelled him away from the detached melancholy of his 1890s voice; his collection of 1899, The Wind Among The Reeds, now looked like a farewell to Celtic mists. The struggles of the new century forced him into confrontations; even before his American friend and patron, John Quinn, had pressed Nietzsche's works on him, he had begun to search out a harder, clearer diction, a voice with more 'salt' in it. His unsuccessful play Where There Is Nothing and a handful of the poems in In The Seven Woods (1903) indicate as much; his instant recognition of the uncompromising genius in Synge's plays confirmed it. And as if this was not enough, these few years also saw his seismic encounter with the young James Joyce, a 20-year-old possessed by 'Ibsenite fury': Richard Ellmann compared their meeting to that between Goethe and Heine. With that preternatural sense of the historical moment he always possessed, Yeats realised the future was to hand, and seized it. He himself was not yet 40.

If there is any better way to observe this process than through these superbly edited letters, I cannot think of it. The intricacy, depth and energy of Yeats's relationships in life and art are forcefully demonstrated, both through the simple but arresting logic of chronology, and in the stream of exacting, subtle, sometimes hilarious editorial commentary. The bombshell of Maud Gonne's marriage in February 1903, for instance, has often been surveyed before; here we see it counterpointed by the difficulties in their relationship already created by different expectations of the theatre movement and opposing notions of political correctness. We also note how quickly Yeats recovers (at least ostensibly) from the blow, writing on her wedding-day that he has just had 'rather a good time' giving a pugnacious lecture at Cardiff.

It was none the less a reversal of all he had expected. His princesse lointaine, apparently dedicated to Celtic mysticism and Irish revolution, suddenly married John MacBride - a red- haired, inarticulate man of action from the Catholic shopkeeping classes of County Mayo. Yeats's pleading letter begging her not to destroy her mystique by lowering herself achieves extra impact in context: 'It was our work to teach a few strong aristocratic spirits that to believe the soul was immortal & that one prospered hereafter if one laid upon oneself an heroic discipline in living & to send them to uplight the nation . . . You & I were chosen to begin this work & just when I come to understand it fully you go from me . . . You possess your influence in Ireland very largely because you come to the people from above. You represent a superior class . . .' There is also an exquisite Tatler photograph of the unlikely MacBride couple with their new baby, all three glowering from behind a table loaded with guns and ammunition. In the aftermath of what Yeats saw as a betrayal, his views of the proper place of theatre in the Irish cultural revolution become tougher; and his correspondence also reflects the growing tension of his political position.

He is still forcefully nationalist; there are superb public letters ridiculing royal visits and he triumphantly describes an encounter at a London dinner-table when a fellow guest querulously asked how England could meet Ireland's desires. 'I said 'Nothing simpler, clear out.' The conversation languished after that for a little . . .' But his unequivocal demand for artistic freedom ran up against a nationalist sense of probity and self-esteem which he thought fossilised. 'One must be able to express oneself freely, and that is precisely what no party of Irishmen, Nationalist or Unionist, Protestant or Catholic, is anxious to permit one.' The lines of the great conflicts over the 'anti-national' nature of Synge's work are drawn early on; this volume also prints Yeats's philippic about 'The National Theatre and Three Sorts of Ignorance', asserting that Anglophobia inhibits 'the imagination of highly-cultivated men, who have begun that experimental digging in the deep pit of themselves, which can alone produce great literature'. He is referring to Synge, but also to himself.

In these years, theatre is dominant; significantly replacing the place previously held in his life by the occult fellowship of the Golden Dawn, and kept firmly in position through the literary workshop atmosphere of Lady Gregory's house, Coole Park - now Yeats's summer home. Their collaboration is reflected not only in the letters he sent to her, but in her influence as his amanuensis. While some of the early plays are effectively joint works, their relationship is becoming that described by Micheal Mac Liammoir, 'high priestess and sacred snake'. Their 'Irish Literary Theatre' dies in 1901; a new combination is to hand, with the Fay brothers, initially under the uneasy patronage of the nationalist society Cumann na nGaedheal. How Yeats and Gregory steer the new ship on to a different course is charted here (and in an exemplary end-note on their relationship); so is Yeats's continued involvement in theatrical experiments among the London avant-garde.

In fact, the letters illuminate his determination to sustain life between two countries; at the very period when his family moved back to Dublin, leaving the Bedford Park Bohemia which had shaped their lives more than is often realised, Yeats himself resists all invitations to return permanently to Ireland. London provides its own entertainments: his fabled rooms at Woburn Buildings, his landlady's saturnine bons mots, the saga of his 'gass stove' (his spelling remains a delight), his casual encounter with Queen Alexandra at a children's party in Stafford House ('I am looking forward to seeing the effect of it on Mrs MacBride; I shall tell her as soon as I can').

His protean ability to keep options open, his resentment about sniping from Dublin hacks, his brilliant orchestration of publicity, come clearly through; often, a book of essays or poems is timed to coincide with the opening of a theatre season, and a newspaper controversy is simultaneously arranged for good measure. His correspondence also records his changing opinions of his own work - the latest play always an object of passionate affection, quickly replaced by ruthless alterations. And throughout runs a stream of advice, readily given and usually well-gauged - whether to an unknown poetry-struck midshipman, or the obtuse occultist W T Horton ('I cannot say any good thing about the verses. I am sorry not to be able to praise them even a little'), or Joyce - to whom Yeats writes a letter of advice that is in its way an account of his own literary apprenticeship:

'Remember what Dr Johnson said about somebody 'let us wait until we find out whether he is a fountain or a cistern'. The work you have actually done is very remarkable for a man of your age who has lived away from the vital intellectual centres . . . However men have started with as good promise as yours and have failed & men have started with less and have succeeded. The qualities that make a man succeed do not shew in his work, often for quite a long time. They are much less qualities of talent than qualities of character - faith (of this you have probably enough), patience, adaptability (without this one learns nothing), and a gift for growing by experience & this is perhaps rarest of all. I will do anything for you I can but I am afraid it will not be a great deal. The chief use I can be . . . will be by introducing you to some other writers who are starting like yourself, one always learns one's business from one's fellow-workers, especially from those who are near enough to one's own age to understand one's own difficulties.'

But this letter is also something more. The footnotes remind us not only that Joyce had allegedly told Yeats he was 'too old' when they first met, but had previously attacked the elder poet's 'treacherous instinct of adaptability' in theatrical matters; thus the advice tendered is also a self-defence, with some mordant commentary on their previous passages of arms. As this indicates, the editorial apparatus is up to the Olympian standard of the previous volume. Letters have been drawn together from dozens of archives and private collections; fragmentary references painstakingly assembled; even a scrap torn vertically is intriguingly presented as it survives. Through the footnotes parade long- forgotten bit-part actresses, American lecture-agents, country priests, retrieved for posterity by heroic detective work, and sketched with an enviably light touch; cognoscenti will be rewarded by not only a disquisition on bed- bugs at Woburn Buildings, but pithy judgements about familiar figures (Kelly and Schuchard remark that John Quinn, maniacally superintending Yeats's under-linen on his American tour, 'could make a mother hen look blase'). Time and again, an encounter described in a letter is glossed by a footnote which produces evidence from another witness, to fill out the picture; thus we hear Yeats sotto voce telling unpoetic and funny stories about Madame Blavatsky, or regaling an astounded Sturge Moore with stories of an old man in Sligo who bit off calves' testicles 'one after another. It was his trade.' And his first American tour in 1903-4 is effectively reconstructed, casting new light on events such as Yeats's celebrated speech about Robert Emmet in Carnegie Hall.

The last sentence, in the last letter, to an influenza-ridden Gregory, is the least characteristic: 'Do not do any work.' Yeats's own standards of work inspire awe; as do his bravery in personal adversity and his commitment to art and fellow artists. In an early letter about occultist controversies he issues a ringing statement: 'whatever we build in the imagination will accomplish itself in our lives.' This engrossing text enables us to see exactly that process in action; it represents an exhilarating achievement on the part of the editors, as well as their subject.

(Photograph omitted)