WB Yeats and ‘The Irish Times’

The poet had a close relationship with this publication throughout his career

 

Before he made his name as a poet WB Yeats was a prolific journalist, contributing to dozens of newspapers, magazines and periodicals on matters of both politics and poetry, although for the budding writer the two were indivisible.

The young idealist may have had loftier aspirations than the industry he later decried as “jeering, tittering, emptiness”, but it was a good and important beginning for him: a way to augment his meagre living and increase his profile for his poetry.

At the start of his writing life Yeats’s most regular outlets were overtly nationalist periodicals, such as Charles Stewart Parnell’s United Ireland and Arthur Griffith’s Sinn Féin publication United Irishman. But Yeats also maintained a close relationship with The Irish Times, and several of its journalists, throughout his long career.

 

More than promising

Yeats made his first appearance in the newspaper as a minor character in the burgeoning Irish Revival, when a review of a 1888 compilation called Poems and Ballads of Young Ireland singled out his poems The Stolen Child and King Goll for their “wild mystic music”. By 1892 Yeats was being named as the heir of Irish poetry: “it is no longer a question of promise but of performance,” a correspondent wrote in a review of his second collection of poetry, The Countess Kathleen and Various Legends and Lyrics.

 

It was also a question of persona, and the correspondent was as bewitched by Yeats’s demeanour – “a head an antique sculptor might have modelled” – as he was by the “wild sweet liquid charm” of his poetry. The mythology of Yeats – the aesthete, the aristocratic artist – was already being spun.

Over the years The Irish Times carried interviews with the poet, reports on his activities with the Irish Literary Society and the Abbey Theatre, and, of course, reviews of his prodigious output.

On occasion the newspaper was the first publisher of what would become some of his best-known poems. These were, invariably, the more political ones: Yeats was well aware of newspapers’ potential to reach an untapped audience and of poetry’s potential to persuade.

 

Gallery controversy

The controversy about plans to establish a municipal gallery in Dublin, for example, which came to a head at the end of 1912, yielded two new poems, both initially published in The Irish Times. The Gift (later retitled To a Wealthy Man) appeared in January 1913. Romance in Ireland (later retitled September 1913) followed in September.

 

In a letter to Lady Gregory Yeats explained the rationale of publishing them in the newspaper: “What might seem offensive in a letter or article will not do so in a poem or in the comment on it.”

But both poems struck a contentious note with readers. As Roy Foster puts it, this was poetry as political manifesto. The letters page teemed with responses, both to the admonishing tone of the poems and the issue of the gallery itself.

One letter, by a self-proclaimed wealthy American, Montagu McNaughton, chided Yeats for his “rhyming appeals to the purse” and offered £100,000 to anyone who would close all the galleries in Ireland. The absurdity of McNaughton’s proposition was not lost on the editors, who, in a note following the letter, revealed that their research suggested the letter was a fiction; they saw fit to print it anyway.

Of course, Yeats made vivid appearances in the artistic controversies at the Abbey Theatre as well. The riot that followed the opening of The Playboy of the Western World, by John Millington Synge, in 1907, and the disturbances after the premiere of The Plough and the Stars, by Seán O’Casey, in 1926 were widely reported and commented on in the letters page.

There were defenders and objectors and, occasionally, measured responses that saw both sides of the battle between nation and stage. Ellen Duncan praised Synge’s play but criticised the theatre’s “policy of non-resistance” in dealing with the protesters, proclaiming herself “astonished that no use was made by management of the able-bodied policemen who lined the walls of the pit.”

When the brouhaha following the production of O’Casey’s play provoked Dublin Literary Society to debate the necessity of a national theatre, The Irish Times printed a report that ran over a page: the fate of the Abbey was a matter of both politics and art.

 

National triumph

According to The Irish Times, Yeats’s award of the Nobel Prize in for Literature, in 1923, was also politically important. The editorial announcing the news deemed Yeats’s success “as a national as well as personal triumph, and it constitutes a fitting sequel to the recent admission of the Free State to the League of Nations”.

 

Bertie Smyllie, who went on to be one of the best-known editors of The Irish Times, called the poet at home with the news. Yeats wrote in Autobiographies, “A journalist called to show me a printed paragraph saying that the Nobel Prize would probably be conferred upon Herr Mann, the distinguished novelist, or upon myself. I did not know that the Swedish Academy had ever heard my name . . . Then some eight days later, between ten and eleven at night, comes the telephone message from The Irish Times saying that the prize had indeed been conferred upon me; some ten minutes after that comes a telegram from the Swedish Ambassador; then journalists come for interviews. At half past twelve my wife and I are alone, and search the cellar for a bottle of wine, but it is empty, and as a celebration is necessary we cook sausages.”

Smyllie was among those who came to congratulate and record Yeats’s reaction, and an article the following day praised the poet’s humility: “He refused to admit that [his lyrics] had been responsible for his election to the Nobel Prize.” Yeats said it was a recognition of the achievements of the Abbey and the cultural nationalist movement.

The article made no mention of Yeats’s first reaction, which Smyllie later recorded: “It was fairly late in the evening, getting on to eleven o’clock I suppose, and I rang him up at his house, hoping that he didn’t know the news. I said, ‘Mr Yeats, I’ve got very good news for you, a very great honour has been conferred upon you,’ and I was rather enthusiastic and gushing at the time, and I said, ‘this is a great honour not only for you but for the country,’ and I could tell that he was getting slightly impatient to know what it was all about, so I said, ‘you’ve been awarded the Nobel Prize, a very great honour to you and a very great honour to Ireland . . .and to my amazement the only question he asked was, ‘how much?, Smyllie, how much is it?’”

There was no comment from Yeats in the two-page spread marking his 70th birthday, in 1935. The tone of celebration, defence and gentle criticism by literary figures showed how the artistic and national ideals that Yeats was instrumental in shaping had faltered as the new Free State evolved.

Denis Johnston reminded readers that “pioneers of course are the first to be forgotten, particularly if the weapons they have forged are as successful in the hands of their successors as those of Mr Yeats”.

He praised Yeats’s commitment to art as exemplary of his mettle: “If he does not like a play he will turn it down, even if in so doing it involves a newspaper correspondence with furious bricklayers.”

Perhaps Johnston also meant to rib the letter-writers who complained so vehemently during the squabbles that Yeats had sparked and contributed to over the years.

 

Master of prose

When Yeats died, in France in 1939, The Irish Times saw no need for such criticism; commentary included a description of him as “a man renowned in the world of letters, who, while justly placed among the foremost poets of our time, is a no less able master of prose”.

 

In life so it was in death, and even the poet’s passing did not unfold without controversy. When he was buried in France, contrary to his wishes, The Irish Times reported on the affair with an exclusive publication of Yeats’s late verse Under Ben Bulben, the closing lines of which were later cut for the epitaph on his gravestone, when his remains were repatriated, in 1948:

Cast a cold eye
On life, on death.
Horseman, pass by!

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