The Collected Letters of W. B. Yeats
This is the first of a many-volumed collection of the letters of William Butler Yeats, perhaps the most unreservedly acclaimed modern poet in the English language. Almost half the letters in this superbly edited volume have not been previously published. Although there are some letters from his boyhood, the great bulk of them span the years 1887 to 1895 when Yeats was in his twenties and working passionately for the cause of Irish literature and his own career as a poet and man of letters.
These early letters are filled with business—the business of recovering and encouraging Irish literature and, at the same time, forwarding his own career. As such, they are not deeply reflective or self-conscious but filled with the ambition and enthusiasm of a young poet with great plans. Many of the letters are perfunctory in the sense that they merely seek or communicate information.
Interspersed throughout the letters, however, are references to the great concerns of Yeats’s youth and entire life. Chief among those is his concern to engender in the Irish people an appreciation for their cultural past and an enthusiasm for a new Irish literature in the present. These letters are full of what came to be known broadly as the Irish Literary Revival, a diverse movement whose aims are fairly summarized in a letter Yeats wrote to a Dublin newspaper in 1895:Our “movement” . . . has denounced rhetoric with. . . passionate vehemence. . . . It has exposed sentimentality and flaccid technique. . . but, at the same time, it has persuaded Irish men and women to read what is excellent in past and present Irish literature, and it has added to that literature books of folk-lore, books of history, books of fiction, and books of verse. . . . Nor is it a self-conscious endeavour to make a literature, but the spontaneous expression of an impulse which has been gathering power for decades.
The Irish Literary Revival was the cultural counterpart of a growing Irish political nationalism. Yeats repeatedly calls in these letters for an Irish literature that is not slavishly imitative of English forms, but that grows out of and celebrates the “wild Celtic blood, the most un-English of all things under heaven.”
Yeats’s letters attest the difficulty of the task he set for himself. He describes Ireland as a land which loves language yet does not read. It had little of the literary infrastructure—libraries, publishers, books (especially genuinely Irish ones), literary organizations—necessary to preserve, much less continue to create, a national culture. Standing squarely in the way of solving these problems was the ever-present political squabbling of Ireland and what many saw as a pervasive spiritual and intellectual lethargy.
Nevertheless, Yeats threw himself into the fray with energy and optimism. Included in this collection are letters to other Irish writers, such as the poet Katharine Tynan, encouraging them to explore their Irishness in producing the literature their country needs. Yeats frequently sought help in his own efforts to collect and publish Irish folklore and legends. There are repeated letters to newspapers and publishers pushing specific projects and the Irish Literary Revival as a whole, and Yeats does not avoid public and private battle with those whom he thinks stand in the way.
One can sense Yeats growing weary and somewhat less optimistic in this crusade in his later twenties. He more or less gave up on his initial hope that the peasant masses would embrace the movement and began to concentrate instead on persuading the intellectual and artistic elite to become the backbone of the effort. He admits that the standard of Irish life has forced many with talent to seek fame and fortune abroad, but he takes heart in the example of Walt Whitman that writers who are initially ignored or reviled at home may one day be recognized as the voice of their people.
As a young man Yeats clearly saw his work for the Irish Literary Revival as his most...
(The entire section is 1,722 words.)