BOOK REVIEW / Thumpty thighs and calves' testicles: G J Watson applauds the wit behind a revealing new volume of letters by W B Yeats

The third volume of W B Yeats's Collected Letters (1901 to 1904; Oxford pounds 35) is being published ahead of the second, which will cover 1896-1900. One must begin by saluting a superb feat of editorial scholarship. John Kelly and Ronald Schuchard, two magnificent truffle hounds, have unearthed a wealth of material and organised it into lucidity.

The problems were considerable: Yeats's handwriting is notoriously difficult to read, and his eccentric spelling, here pungently preserved, doesn't make things easier; he rarely dated his letters, so that much patient sleuthing was required to establish chronology. They have also tried to reconstruct or at least cite lost or untraced letters, using other sources such as references in replies, in memoirs and in diaries. A biographical and historical appendix on the chief correspondents and on London and Irish theatrical institutions is a model of clarity, and a beautifully written introductory essay establishes the main topics and pressures bearing on Yeats in these years. The wood is always clearly visible through the trees.

Best of all, however, is the thick underlay of footnotes which not only deepen our sense of Yeats's individuality but bring to life the whole texture of literary and other relations in the period.

We learn of Mrs Clement Shorter's detestation of George Moore the novelist: 'Ye know those big white slugs ye find in the back garden. Well, they're just like George Moore's nose'. Henry Nevinson's diary bears testimony to Maud Gonne's beauty at a lecture in Holborn in 1904: 'She was most lovely - more beautiful even than I remembered - the mops of loose tawny hair, the strong face and frank eyes, the sudden transformation of the smile. In black with open neck showing her splendid throat . . . So tall she is, her voice most beautiful'.

Sturge Moore's diary records a different kind of evening in 1901: 'With Binyon out to have dinner with Yeats, felt quarrelsome and thought Masefield very dull. Yeats' brother had seen an old man bite off the testicles of calves when a boy. He did one after another. It was his trade.'

Here is God's plenty: and the editors, though rightly convinced of Yeats' greatness, allow the untidy hostilities of real life to play over their portrait in a way that is sometimes obscured in formal biography. Another entrancing footnote gives us Joseph Holloway's reaction to a curtain speech of which Yeats himself was proud: 'Yeats was called after both his plays, and held forth at the end of Cathleen ni Houlihan in his usual thumpty-thigh, monotonous, affected, preachy style . . . He generally makes a mess of it when he orates. Kind friends ought to advise him to hold his tongue.'

The letters themselves, while cumulatively an astonishing testimony to Yeats's energy and vision, are individually (with some notable exceptions) functional rather than inspiring. These were busy years for Yeats, and he was especially preoccupied with what he was to call in one of his poems 'theatre business, management of men' (and women: apart from Maud, he was dealing with Annie Horniman, who funded the Abbey theatre, and was also writing regularly to Lady Gregory). He was heavily involved with disputes in his occult society, the Golden Dawn, and with attempting to devise magical rites for a new Celtic order he hoped to found.

Though very committed, he could be engagingly humorous about all this: 'my Alchemist . . . has just made what he hopes is the Elexer (sic) of Life. If the rabbits on whom he he is trying it survive we are all to drink a noggin full - at least all of us whose longevity he feels he could honestly encourage'. There were increasing attacks from Irish nationalists (including Maud) on Yeats's artistic policies, which courageously maintained the superiority of the artist's personal vision over the demands of propaganda. The editors have established that Yeats wrote in 1903 to the Dublin Daily Express under the pseudonym 'Robert Emmet McGowan' to argue the purity of the nationalist viewpoint, with some telling analogies: 'It is impossible to deny that the people of Egypt, now down-trodden under a foreign yoke, are insulted by the play of Antony and Cleopatra . . . Romeo and Juliet, a play which describes the children of Catholic Italy as disobeying and deceiving their parents, is as little deserving of tolerance.'

There was also the first tour of the United States, when between November 1903 and March 1904 he lectured to more than 30 colleges and universities. These splendid editors answer the vital question: he made dollars 3230.40 for the tour. He greatly relished the non-sectarian tolerance of the US; but what strikes the reader is the determined focus on his main project, to establish an Irish National Theatre Society. Even a few hours before a Carnegie Hall lecture, he writes to his sister Lilly back in Ireland: 'you might tell me what the cottage scene Fay made for Colm's play turned out like. Nobody has told me. What colour did they make it and had it a solid look? I asked Fay to have it all painted a dull smoke color. . .'

Although the 1992 publication of the Gonne-Yeats letters has stolen some thunder from this volume, we do have here a transfixing draft of a letter Yeats wrote to Maud in 1903 trying to dissuade her from marriage to John MacBride. It is clear that Yeats's sense of caste was as affronted as his emotions were wounded: 'if you carry out your purpose you will fall into a lower order . . . You represent a superior class . . . you are going to marry one of the people. This weakness . . . is thrusting you down socially . . . take up again the proud solitary haughty life which made (you) seem like one of the golden gods'.

In the midst of all this private and public bustle, Yeats still finds time to be endlessly helpful - to the young (and somewhat surly) James Joyce, to Lady Gregory, to the Fay brothers, and to Thomas MacDonagh, a young poet destined (like MacBride) to be executed in 1916. Indeed, this immersion in the world of business and of telegrams and anger in these years may have been the making of Yeats. Reading one's way through this hugely entertaining volume enables one to appreciate as never before at least something of the process by which Yeats turned himself from the dreaming Celt into one of the great modern poets.

He puts it best himself: 'I have dwelt there (in the country of shadows and hollow images) too long not to dread all that comes of it. We possess nothing but the will & we must never let the children of vague desire breath (sic) upon it nor the waters of sentiment rust the terrible mirror of its blade . . . Let us have no emotion, however abstract, in which there is not an athletic joy.' Energy and joy flood through these letters; and the editors are simultaneously scholarly, tactful and blessedly witty. Yeats could not be better served.

(Photograph omitted)

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