W.B. Yeats (1865-1939)
From Literary Anecdotes About 19th Century Authors Born After 1829

SOMETIMES I told myself very adventurous love-stories with myself for hero, and at other times I planned out a life of lonely austerity, and at other times mixed the ideals and planned a life of lonely austerity mitigated by periodical lapses. I had still the ambition, formed in Sligo in my teens, of living in imitation of Thoreau on Innisfree, a little island in Lough Gill, and when walking through Fleet Street very homesick I heard a little tinkle of water and saw a fountain in a shop-window which balanced a little ball upon its jet, and began to remember lake water. From the sudden remembrance came my poem Innisfree, my first lyric with anything in its rhythm of my own music.

W. B. Yeats, Autobiographies (1970), p. 153.

Yeats never had the remotest idea of taking care of himself. He would go all day without food unless someone remembered it for him, and in the same way would go on eating unless someone checked him. That first winter, a hard one, he would come to see me, — five miles from Dublin, striding along over the snowbound roads, a gaunt young figure, mouthing poetry, swinging his arms and gesticulating as he went. George Russell complained to me the other day that Willie Yeats had said somewhere of him, and printed it, that he used to walk about the streets of Dublin swinging his arms like a flail, unconscious of the alarm and bewilderment of the passers-by. It was Willie's own case. I remember how the big Dublin policemen used to eye him in those days, as though uncertain whether to 'run him in' or not. But, by and by, they used to say, 'Shure, 'tisn't mad he is, nor yet drink taken. 'Tis the poethry that's disturbin' his head,' and leave him alone.

Katharine Tynan, Twenty-five Years: Reminiscences (1913), p. 191.

A new publication, entitled The Savoy, was afoot, with Arthur Symons for literary editor and Beardsley for art-editor. The publisher was a strange and rather depressing person, a north-countryman, known to have been engaged in the sale of disreputable books. To celebrate the first number of the magazine, he invited the contributors to supper in a room at the New Lyric Club. Besides Symons and Beardsley, there were present Yeats, Mr. Rudolf Dircks, myself, and one or two other writers whom I forget. Also there was one lady: the publisher's wife. She had not previously been heard of by anyone. She was a surprise. She was touching — dreadfully touching. It was so evident that she had been brought out from some far suburb for this occasion only. One knew that the dress she wore had been ordered specially; and one felt that it might never be worn again. She was small, buxom, and self-possessed. She did the honours. She dropped little remarks. It did not seem that she was nervous; one only knew that she was nervous. She knew that she did not matter; but she would not give in; she was brave and good. Perhaps, if I had not been so preoccupied by the pity of her, I would have been more susceptible to Yeats's magic. I wished that I, not he, had been placed next to her at the table. I could have helped her more than he. The walls of the little room in which we supped were lined with bamboo instead of wallpaper. 'Quite original, is it not?' she said to Yeats. But Yeats had no reply ready for that; only a courteous, lugubrious murmur. He had been staying in Paris, and was much engrossed in the cult of Diabolism, or Devil-worship, which appeared to have a vogue there. He had made a profound study of it; and he evidently guessed that Beardsley, whom he met now for the first time, was a confirmed worshipper in that line. So to Beardsley he talked, in deep, vibrant tones across the table, of the lore and rites of Diabolism — 'Dyahbolism' he called it, thereby making it sound the more fearful. I dare say that Beardsley, who always seemed to know by instinctive erudition all about everything, knew all about Dyahbolism. Anyhow, I could see that he with that stony commonsense which always came upmost when anyone canvassed the fantastic in him, thought Dyahbolism rather silly. He was too polite not to go on saying at intervals, in his hard, quick voice, 'Oh really? How perfectly entrancing!' and 'Oh really? How perfectly sweet!' But, had I been Yeats, I would have dropped the subject sooner than he did.

At the other end of the table, Arthur Symons was talking of some foreign city, carrying in his waistcoat-pocket, as it were, the genius loci, anon to be embalmed in Pateresque prose. I forget whether this time it was Rome or Seville or Moscow or what; but I remember that the hostess said she had never been there. I liked Symons feigning some surprise at this, and for saying that she really ought to go. Presently I heard him saying he thought the nomadic life was the best of all lives for an artist. Yeats, in a pause of his own music, heard this too, and seemed a little pained by it. Shaking back the lock from his brow, he turned to Symons and declared that an artist worked best among his own folk and in the land of his fathers. Symons seemed rather daunted, but he stuck to his point. He argued that new sights and sounds and odours braced the whole intelligence of a man and quickened his powers of creation. Yeats, gently but firmly, would have none of this. His own arguments may not have been better than Symons's; but, in voice and manner and countenance, Symons was no match for him at all. And it was with an humane impulse that the hostess interposed.

'Mr. Symons', she said, 'is like myself. He likes a little change.'

This bathos was so sharp that it was like an actual and visible chasm: one could have sworn to a glimpse of Symons's heels, a faint cry, a thud. Yeats stood for an instant on the brink, stroking his chin enigmatically, and then turned to resume the dropped thread of Diabolism. I could not help wishing that he, not poor Symons, had been the victim. He would somehow have fallen on his feet; and his voice, issuing uninterruptedly from the depth of the chasm, would have been as impressive as ever.

Sir Max Beerbohm, 'First Meetings with W. B. Yeats', The Listener, 6 January 1955;
reprinted in Mainly on the Air (1957 edn.), pp. 98-100.

I NEVER believed that WB [Yeats] knew anything much about philosophy, though he talked a great deal about it, but he invented a philosophy of his own, which was rather amusing. One very interesting and amusing thing occurred when he was expounding this highly esoteric theory of his one night up in the Arts Club. And among those present was a little man called Cruise O'Brien, a very brilliant journalist, and one of the very few people who could be rude with impunity to WB. WB gave him, as he very often gave me, a fool's pardon. This night, at any rate, he was expounding this philosophy of his which was connected in some queer way with the phases of the moon; he was telling us all about the twenty phases of the moon and he had equated every phase against some historical figure. He said, 'Number one — the highest phase — is perfect beauty.' With a respectful silence for a few seconds we all listened, and then he said, 'Number two was Helen of Troy — the nearest approximation to perfect beauty.' And he went right round the twenty-eight, or rather twenty-seven, phases and finally he came to the last and then he said that the lowest form of all is Thomas Carlyle and all Scotsmen. This shook us all a little bit and Cruise O'Brien spoke, up at once.

'WB,' he said — he'd a very mincing voice, 'have you ever read a word of Carlyle? You say Carlyle is the lowest form. Oh come! Have you ever read a word of Carlyle?' —
'Carlyle, Cruise, was a dolt,' said WB —
'But I insist, WB, did you ever read one single word of Carlyle?' —
'Carlyle, I tell, was a dolt.' —
'Yes, but you haven't read him.' —
'No, I have not read him; my wife, George, has read him and she tells me he's a dolt.'

That was the end of the philosophical treatise for the night.

Irish Literary Portraits, p. 17 (related by Bertie Smyllie).

I [Fallon] ENCOURAGED Yeats to speak about Mrs. Pat Campbell, who had played in his Deirdre. He described her as having 'an ego like a raging tooth', and spoke of her habit of 'throwing tantrums' at rehearsals. On one occasion after a particulary wild 'tantrum' she walked to the footlights and peered out at Yeats, who was pacing up and down the stalls of the Abbey Theatre.

'I'd give anything to know what you're thinking,' shouted Mrs. Pat.
'I'm thinking', replied Yeats, 'of the master of a wayside Indian railway-station who sent a message to his Company's headquarters saying: "Tigress on the line: wire instructions."

Gabriel Fallon, Sean O'Casey: The Man I Knew (1965), p. 86.

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