Private letters - public view; The Letters of W B Yeats Vol II 1896-1900. Edited by Warwick Gould, Joh n Kelly and Deirdre Toomey (OUP, pounds 35).
A few days ago several hundred letters from George Bernard Shaw to Sir Barry Jackson, the founder of Birmingham Repertory Theatre, were sold to Birmingham Reference Library and were originally the property of Tom English, a former reviewer for The Birmingham Post.
Would Shaw have cared had he known that his letters would be placed under public scrutiny? I doubt it - apparently there are thousands of Shaw's letters extant and I cannot believe that Shaw wrote them without knowing at the back of his mind that one daymany of them would be either printed or exhibited.
Letter writers are prolific, particularly the middle classes of 80 years ago. The correspondence of Virginia Wool for example, runs to six volumes and the novelist EM Forster left 11,000 letters behind when he died. But even these things pale into insignificance when one considers the mountain of letters penned by Horace Walpole, the 18th century dilettante and collector, since his correspondence fills 50 volumes in the Yale edition.
How did they find the time to scribble away? Wool Walpole and Shaw were all compulsive letter writers and they were backed up by a servant class to provide them with the leisure time to do it - so is it all that extraordinary?
Most of us may write five or six letters a week - even that small amount would add up over a lifetime to around 18,000 letters. Yet how many will be preserved? Very few I suspect. Sometimes you will come across a bundle of love letters in a family house or perhaps an album of pretty postcards. Then again, as in my father's case, there will be letters which formed the structure of a business. Things like this, humble and not extraordinary at all, turn up at book fairs or bookshops. But they are dry as dust items and hardly worth the reading.
With WB Yeats in this remarkable volume, letters become something else altogether. Sprightly, droll or (sometimes at least) downright dull, Yeats' letters are above all useful since they serve as the armature upon which these brilliant editors have suspended some of the most remarkable footnotes it has ever been my good fortune to study.
If Yeats took pains to send a note, or an extensive letter, the editors take you into their footnotes and are able to amplify the contents of the letter in a way that is quite extraordinary and to my mind rare. For one thing fine scholarly research whichis shown here so amply has also been made highly readable and is not in the least dry.
A letter of 1896 from Yeats to William Sharp, the poet, who wrote under the feminine nom de plume of Fiona Macleod, is deliciously dotty. Yeats obviously knew Macleod was really a man (and married come to that!). But he writes to Sharp as though "Fiona Macleod" was a separate personality who might turn up for tea one day. Whether Sharp ever went into drag and became the personification of his alter-ego is not known. "Macleod" on her part discusses her other sel Sharp, as though he too were a separate being, and she tells Yeats of a long pencilled note she had which concerned a horoscope dream-figure. The note was "blown off the deck of the small yacht, wherein I and my dear friend and confrere (Sharp) were sailing off Skye, and had been devoured by a voracious gull!"
Not unsurprisingly, we read that Yeats, who was given to meeting fairies in unusual places, tells Sharp in his answering letter of meeting an old man, who "hears the fairies, he says, every night and complains much that their singing keeps him awake".
The footnote extends this pervasive idea of Celtic island magic, and we learn from the footnotes again, that Yeats was working in 1896 on a "strange and mystic novel about the southernmost Island of Aran".
The novel was eventually called The Speckled Bird. And, with perhaps Fiona Macleod's story at the back of his mind, Yeats included gulls in his tale, birds who "rising and falling as they fed, had that unreal look". In my experience, it is rare to find research such as this which is capable of taking us one step closer to Yeats' sublime creativity.
Yeats' infatuation with the Medusa-like Maud Gonne has been well documented. But here, in letters from 1897, we can see the fire which represented Yeats' desire for Gonne beginning to burn more brightly. Gonne herself - a woman I have always suspected ofinnate bitchery - backs off from the urgent protestations of the poet, feigning distress. Her stumbling block, apparently, was concern that she held a disproportionate place in the poet's emotional life.
Yeats takes it well enough and in any case there was always fairyland and mysticism to talk about. Maud Gonne and her clever cousin, May Gonne were heading off to "some place in the west", wrote Yeats, "to see visions".
Occult ideas and Rosicruscianism occupied the thoughts of Yeats and his circle at this time. In October 1899, he writes to Lady Gregory, his friend and benefactor at Coole Park (now sadly demolished) that he is leaving a copy of Fiona Macleod's fairy play, The Shadowy Waters, for her to read.
But not until I've read the extensive footnote which accompanies this letter did I realise that Macleod's The Immortal Hour borrowed heavily from the earlier play. The Immortal Hour, of course, opened famously at Birmingham Repertory Theatre in the 1920sand starred Gwen Ffrangcon-Davies as Etain, and the music was by Rutland Boughton.
So the play, which certainly put Birmingham Rep on the map, was part of Fiona Macleod's project (or Sharp's project) for a Theatre of the Soul. But in the end, the play merely widened the gap between Yeats' brand of Irish mysticism and Macleod's. Sadly -but inevitably - there were quarrels and ileeling with another mystical group The Order of the Golden Dawn, a cult whose mysteries were enhanced by drug taking. Maud Gonne was around, of course.
Letter by letter we can see her private concerns, happiness and artistic quarrels created the fabric of a literary life. As his popularity grew Yeats was forced to accept a public persona as a form of self defence.
The notes , as we have seen, explain all kinds of allusions and set the correspondence in its cultural and political context, thus creating a book that is likely to become indispensable to anyone interested in the development of Irish literature including its drama and poetry.