Stolen WB Yeats letters rediscovered at Princeton University

‘I am desperately hard up and owe about £20,’ Yeats wrote in plea to publisher to be paid

WB  Yeats: The Princeton letters date from 1903 to 1913. Photograph: George Grantham Bain Collection/Library of Congress.

WB Yeats: The Princeton letters date from 1903 to 1913. Photograph: George Grantham Bain Collection/Library of Congress.

 

A collection of unpublished letters written by WB Yeats that was stolen in the 1970s and returned “anonymously” has been identified at Princeton University.

John Kelly, who has spent decades tracking down thousands of Yeats’s letters, discovered the collection as he was concluding research for the latest volume of his work on the Irish Noble laureate poet and dramatist.

Kelly was browsing the catalogue of Princeton University Library, where he had pored over Yeats’s holdings some years earlier, when he spotted a file of 17 letters to the poet’s publisher he had not seen before.

He discovered from the librarian it had been stolen in the 1970s, disappearing without trace until it turned up recently, delivered anonymously in a brown package.

Libraries often list donors of books or manuscripts. The Princeton file said: “A gift of anonymous, return of a 1970s theft.”

Kelly, the general editor of the Collected Letters of WB Yeats, recalled feeling disconcerted that he could have missed an entire collection of significant letters. “Upon inquiry, it turned out that the letters, then in a binder, had been stolen ... and only recently and anonymously returned,” he said.

“It is not known whether the anonymous restorer was the original thief. That would seem plausible, but the Princeton catalogue ambiguously and perhaps magnanimously lists the letters as ‘a gift of anonymous’.”

His latest volume of letters cover the years 1908 to 1910, a period of uncertainty in the life of one of the greatest English-language poets of the 20th century, who received the Nobel prize in literature in 1923 “for his always inspired poetry”.

The letters were previously unpublished and recovered “in the nick of time”, Kelly said, for inclusion in the fifth of a 12-volume publication for Oxford University Press.

The 17 letters were written to his publisher, Arthur Bullen, and publishing assistant, Edith Lister, when they were working on Yeats’s collected works. Yeats hoped it would establish his reputation as a major poet, “justifiably, as it turned out”, Kelly said.

Despite their mutual admiration, Yeats was angered by Bullen’s lax approach to business, Kelly said: “There were a number of eruptions ... The first came when Bullen disclosed that he was going to print at twice the speed Yeats was expecting, so leaving him insufficient time for all the revisions and rewritings he wanted to do ... One of the reasons the quarrels between poet and publisher did not lead to a permanent breach was the tact and intelligence of ... Lister.”

He added: “A number of the letters in the stolen Princeton collection were to her and show how much Yeats relied on her quiet efficiency. She, like Bullen, was an admiring and sensitive reader of Yeats.”

The Princeton letters date from 1903 to 1913. Passages reflect his desperate pleas to be paid for his work. “I am desperately hard up and owe about £20,” one said.

Another letter refers to a dispute over whether four portraits of Yeats should be grouped together in the collected works, as Yeats thought they had agreed, before discovering Bullen wanted them scattered throughout the edition.

Yeats wrote to Lister: “I am sorry I wrote so harshly to Mr Bullen. But his own letter to me was provocation enough. He arranges things with me (as he did the length of time the printing was to take), we get everything quite precise, and then he writes to me accusing me ... who am simply doing what we agreed upon, of springing something upon him, or of breaking some arrangement.

“He forgets things and I see now that when he and I make any plan, we must set it down in writing ... I am so busy now with every moment of my time marked out that a little thing, even a small change of plans, puts all astray.”

Asked what Yeats would have thought of the letters’ theft and recovery, Kelly said: “He would have been perhaps irritated at first, and then quite amused.” – Agencies, Guardian Service

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