An object can tell us a lot. William Blake maintained that you could see a world in a grain of sand. The programme for the dinner hosted by the Stephen’s Green Club in Dublin on January 16th, 1924 to honour WB Yeats for receiving the Nobel Prize in Literature is a portal to a transformative period of Irish history. On the centenary weekend of the presentation of the poet’s award, on December 10th, 1923, it’s time to take a closer look at the programme for the celebratory dinner.
The eye quickly notes the way the honouree is identified. He is Senator WB Yeats LLD. The letters “LLD” highlight that the poet had entered the privileged precincts of Trinity College Dublin when it awarded him an honorary degree in 1922. More importantly, Yeats’s name is preceded by the title “Senator”. An Irish senator was a new species in January 1924. Its evolution included the Treaty that ended the Anglo-Irish war and created an independent Ireland in July 1921, ratification of the Treaty by the Dáil the following January, the ensuing Civil War in opposition to the Treaty and Yeats’s entry into the new Senate in December 1922. These events congregate around the Nobel Prize, which Yeats saw as “part of Europe’s welcome to the Free State”.
Sensing the plasticity of the historical moment, Yeats remarked to John Quinn, a New York lawyer, shortly after the Stephen’s Green dinner that “Dublin’s social life is becoming interesting, various classes wanting to meet each other, and not knowing how”. The Stephen’s Green Club, of which Yeats had been a member since 1914, was a likely place for such interaction. It was the place referred to in his iconic poem Easter 1916, which tells how the Ireland characterised by “a mocking tale or gibe ... round the fire at the club” had been transformed by the 1916 Rising that led to independence. The poem describes the transformation unforgettably:
In the wake of independence and Civil War, the club that hosted the celebratory dinner was just the place where politicians and artists might work together to found the new society that Yeats posited in a letter to Edmund Dulac the month after the dinner. “The psychological moment has come,” he wrote, “for Dublin is reviving after the Civil War, and self-government is creating a little stir of excitement. People are trying to found a new society. Politicians want to be artistic, and artistic people to meet politicians, and so on.”
Yeats could now reap the benefits he had foreseen when he wrote happily to his friend Lady Gregory two years earlier to say, “We have definitely got 82 Merrion Square.” The letter brims with satisfaction and anticipation: “It is a great house. It puts back my family into some kind of dignity & gives my children a stately home & myself a background for old age.”
The Merrion Square residence, the honorary degree from Trinity and the Stephen’s Green Club came together in a letter to Gregory a month later in which his bright prospects cast a cloud on his relationship to the club that would soon host a dinner in his honour: “TCD has given me an honorary degree ... Effect of Merrion Square I conclude. An honorary degree would have helped my American lectures years ago, but its one advantage now is that I can transfer from the Stephen’s Green to the University Club where there is perhaps more conversation & less bridge.”
The hoped-for high-toned conversation was delayed by the outbreak of the Civil War. Yeats and his wife, George, moved into Merrion Square in September 1922 despite the risk of violence by the anti-Treaty forces, a risk aggravated by Yeats’s acceptance of an appointment to the Senate of the new State. By the time he attended the first meeting, on December 1st, 1922, a sentry at the corner of the square warned Yeats of the danger of shooting; soon a fragment of a bullet hit George Yeats in their stately home. The extent of the turmoil in Dublin and throughout the country is apparent from the fact that, by the end of February 1923, 37 senators’ houses had gone up in flames. Indeed, in December 1922 irregulars occupied the Kildare Street Club, some 14 of whose members were among the 30 senators appointed by the Free State government.
The danger is reflected in Yeats’s evident suggestion to his wife that the family leave Dublin. George’s letter on February 1st, 1923, from Merrion Square to her husband at the Savile Club in London is remarkably steadfast:
“I do feel that things now are at the Climax – and therefore that one should if it is in any way possible, stick it out. If it is, in any way, any use being here at all – that is if it is to be of any use in the future – this is the decisive moment ...
“I am not suggesting that you should come back – except for the Senate – but I do think that a general removal might be a bitter mistake. Anne has slept through everything. That she is a little deaf may be a godsend to her. She is sleeping as she has never ever slept before & curiously enough seems to have lost all sense of fear at strange noises.
“It seems strange to me that I have no feeling of fear over the future, but this very lack of anxiety increases my belief that there is no need for fear, for if I do not fear for you when you are my whole world, surely my instinct is right?”
George’s instinct was right. A ceasefire was negotiated on May 24th, 1923. Yeats had remained a Dubliner – a fit recipient of a Nobel Prize in Literature that would welcome the new Irish State to Europe. He was announced as the winner on November 14th, 1923. After receiving the award in Stockholm in December, he wrote an essay about the experience of receiving the award as the celebratory Stephen’s Green Club dinner approached. The sentiment engendered by this magnanimous occasion seemed to augur the atmosphere conducive to social interaction across “various classes wanting to meet each other, and not knowing how”, as Yeats said in his previously quoted letter of January 29th, 1924, to John Quinn. Surprisingly, the next sentence in Yeats’s letter conveys this dark thought:
“Last night, however, I was at a very melancholy attempt of this sort, a club ostensibly for conversation where the guests were selected for the worth of their characters or for their near relationship to this person or that other. Carrying on conversation was like shaking a sack of wet sand. I break-fasted in bed this morning to recover.”
It is unwelcome news that the Holy Grail of sparkling conversation was still beyond reach. But what kind of news is it that the club where conversing was like shaking a sack of wet sand was likely not the Stephen’s Green but the Kildare? Shortly after the dinner in his honour, Yeats resigned from the Stephen’s Green and joined the Kildare. The Stephen’s Green dinner took place on January 16th, the letter to Quinn was written on January 29th, and by April 30th Yeats was writing to Gregory on Kildare Street letterhead. Significantly, the club to which Yeats switched his allegiance was not the University Club, where he had expected better conversation, but the Kildare Street Club, whose different ethos was reflected in a Trinity don’s opposition to a merger of the clubs on the ground that it is “an age-old adage that land and learning do not mix”.
Why this abrupt departure from the club that had nourished him while he wrote some of the great poetry on which the award of the Nobel was based and had warmly celebrated its fellow member for his accomplishment? Lady Gregory’s journals contain Yeats’s offhand but revealing explanation for the switch:
“I asked Yeats how he likes Kildare St Club, and he quotes what he had already said, that he had gone there ‘because he was told the conversation was better than in the Stephen’s Green Club’. He does not find it better, ‘but the complexions are better’.”
The more appealing complexions were politically tinged. The Stephen’s Green Club historian Cornelius F Smith recounts that Yeats resigned in disgust at the burning of great houses by the anti-Treaty irregulars. The Stephen’s Green Club menu is again instructive. Its identification of Yeats as a senator reminds us that his closest associates in the Senate were members of Kildare Street. They included Andrew Jameson, who proposed him for Kildare membership and from whom he had sought advice as to how to invest the Nobel money. In his WB Yeats: A Life, the historian Roy Foster characterises the Jameson group as “representatives of land, money, and the remnants of Ascendancy”.
Yeats’s forsaking the Stephen’s Green for the Kildare diminished the possibility of communication across class and faction for which he had hoped. Terence Brown notes in The Life of WB Yeats that “Yeats’s identification with this [Ascendancy] group, though he did not always vote with them on specific issues, certainly made his position ambiguous to say the least, in the broad church of nationalist Ireland, now giving some credence to sectarianism”.
An incident involving Yeats’s muse Maud Gonne illustrates the ramifications of his switching membership from the Stephen’s Green Club to the Kildare. After he proudly took Gonne to lunch at the Kildare in the hope of reconciling their opposing views about the Civil War, she gave what her son-in-law Francis Stuart called an “ironic account” of the occasion that reflected her antipathy to the very aspects of the club that Yeats found attractive – an Ascendancy figure’s portrait on the wall and an introduction to an Anglo-Irish peer. Yeats got the message. When inviting Gonne’s daughter, Iseult, to dine at the Kildare, he confided that he never took her mother there. “With her,” he wrote, “it must be Jammets. The cooking is fortunately as good in one place as the other.”