From Chapter One - Forced to Choose: Yeats the man



Yeats was notoriously absent-minded, once downing an entire packet of opiate cough sweets and sleeping for thirty hours. Another time he was told during a Dublin rainstorm that his raincoat was inside out: he swiftly turned it wet side in.  He could eat without noticing his food and, one evening at his club, on seeing ‘a clean glass & port & no plate before me’ had to ask whether he had in fact eaten anything.  No one was sure, so he ate a meal anyway.  More embarrassingly, there is an anecdote about Yeats holding forth at dinner about the qualities (or lack of them) in Eliot’s poetry and turning to his neighbour for an opinion only to see a place-card being held up with the name ‘T.S.Eliot’ on it.  He had an appalling memory for names (speaking publicly of Mussolini as Missolonghi) and a very inaccurate memory for quotations.  ‘Yeats nearly always misquotes,’ writes Kathleen Raine, an authority on Blake, ‘but far from proving that he did not therefore know Blake as well as the quoters of chapter and verse, it proves that he knew him so well that he trusted his memory...Blake did not quote accurately either, and for the same reason. Both poets wrote from the fullness of their thought, and not from books of reference.’ 

For all his cultivated vagueness, WB – as he was called by his family – did get things done.  For example, the edition of Blake Kathleen Raine is referring to he worked on with Edwin Ellis for four years, one of several such major projects he undertook when he was relatively inexperienced.  He believed in precision and thoroughness, which could become obsession.  He told Lady Gregory that he had not left a single poem uncompleted since he was seventeen.  He was an inveterate reviser, always searching for clarity.  He was a great organiser, too, never put off by defeat (something he inherited from the Pollexfens). His work for the Abbey Theatre impressed those who saw it, although he drove some of the actors to despair in his search for perfection. The world of the theatre suited him: aloof though he could be, he liked company and was a good ‘networker’.  At a young age, he ‘belonged both to the withdrawn, esoteric world of Mohini Chatterjee and to the abrasive public domain of the Contemporary Club’(Coote).  Subsequently, he formed clubs and societies on both sides of the Irish Sea and joined many more, ranging from the Society for Psychical Research to the Rhymers’ Club, those ‘Companions of the Cheshire Cheese...’ He also served on a variety of committees when he was a Senator.

Even at the height of his fame, he remained very careful with money, only too aware of his improvident father’s difficulties.  When funds ran short, he would organise a lecture tour of America (assisted by the invaluable John Quinn). On hearing that he had been awarded the Nobel Prize, his instinctive response was to ask the journalist who told him: ‘How much, Smyllie, how much is it?’ – and then went out to buy a new stair carpet.  He would talk about his most mystical publications in terms of what they cost. ‘It’s horribly expensive, £3.3.0...’ he wrote of A Vision.  When he found himself responsible for commissioning the new coinage for the Free State, he was in his element, although there were the inevitable quips about adding ‘ha’pence to the pence’.

The interest in magic began early and he told John O’Leary it was ‘the centre of all that I do’.  He was convinced that fairies existed because he had seen and heard them in the presence of witnesses in the 1890’s; the same was true of spirits. It was as natural for his sister Lily to note that George Pollexfen’s death was ‘heralded by a banshee shriek outside the window’ as it was for Yeats and his wife to hear the choir singing at the funeral of Kevin O’Higgins the night before he was assassinated. He attracted the uncanny, as when his Oxford home filled with the smell of Indian incense just as the topic of India was being discussed. He fearlessly informed Bertrand Russell that he could conjure the perfume of roses by simply rubbing his hands. He was always ready to test these experiences, if not with quite the rigour demanded by the Society for Psychical Research, yet he came up with a detailed ‘ghost theory’. He himself acknowledged that only one in a thousand mediums communicates anything other than ‘subconscious experience’ Like a much later admirer, Ted Hughes, Yeats would consult astrological charts to guide him at key moments in his life – such as marriage proposals to Maud Gonne and the birth of his children or the direction his writing should take. But the passion for spiritualism which fed his poetry also helped contribute to his reputation for silliness. Seamus Heaney has commented on: ‘the Yeats whom Maud Gonne called ‘Silly Willie’ and whom W.H.Auden also called ‘silly’ in his 1939 elegy’. But Heaney (who has had his fair share of hostile press attention) admires and understands Yeats’s courage, his ‘protectiveness of his imaginative springs’.

There is no doubt about Yeats’s eccentricities, from the way he would hurl himself along the pavement to the way he would toss old tea-leaves out of his window in Merrion Square.  There are stories about him becoming glued to fly-paper, of swallowing his hair with his spaghetti – but carrying on talking, talking...  The garrulousness was not something he could help, and at the height of his fame influential fans would try and worm their way into his company just to be lectured, but there was certainly an element of ‘pose’, or of ‘mask’ in everything he did. Who else but W.B.Yeats would have toured the country reciting his works to the accompaniment of the psaltery?  Whether he laughed at his own follies is not clear, although there is increasing self-mockery in his later poetry and in the 1880’s he had been prepared to poke fun at the serious business of Theosophy: ‘A sad accident happened at Madame Blavatsky’s lately, I hear.  A big materialist sat on the astral double of a poor young Indian. It was sitting on the sofa and he was too material to be able to see it.  Certainly a sad accident.’ There are not many such examples of the light-hearted Yeats in his published work.