These four lively essays, based on a series of lectures delivered at the Library of Congress, are arranged chronologically. The opening essay, on Wilde, dwells on the playwright’s formative days at Magdalen College, Oxford, when the seeds of his aesthetic and sexual notoriety were sown. Ellmann identifies the influences upon Wilde and his subject’s ambivalent attitude to them. This familiar story is told succinctly and contains new biographical information and unexpected critical emphases--an appetizer for Ellmann’s forthcoming biography of Wilde, to be published posthumously.
The essay on Yeats deals with a celebrated event in the poet’s old age -- his Steinach operation, or vasectomy, which Yeats believed would rejuvenate him sexually and poetically. The essay’s main focus is, however, on a treatment of Yeats’s theoretical work, A VISION, and on the eschatological content of his later verse. Again, Ellmann makes some original contributions to scholarship.
Sexuality is also the point of departure for the Joyce essay, and it is used as a means of examining the presence of that author’s life in his work. Though perhaps this essay is more of a summary than its predecessors, Ellmann once again displays his enormous sympathy and tolerance for Joyce as well as his exhaustive familiarity with Joyce’s works.
The essay on Beckett, with which FOUR DUBLINERS concludes, is in many respects the least satisfactory, partly because Beckett, as well as being quite a different author from his illustrious predecessors, is also of quite a different temperament and lends himself less to biographical examination. Interestingly, however, Ellmann suggests links between Beckett and the three other Dubliners. Thus, this essay is a fertile source of hints and speculations to which other scholars will undoubtedly continue to be indebted, as they already are to the more substantial works which constitute Ellmann’s magnificent legacy.
Unfortunately, the extremely interesting, and often very rare, photographs which accompany the text are poorly reproduced.