Mythological mediocrity: his early play shows how much Yeats needed Ireland


CULTURE SHOCKWE LIKE TO think that artistic geniuses are born, not made. They emerge from childhood with a phenomenal, inexplicable gift. And sometimes this is true: Rimbaud had done all his poetic work by the age of 19; Keats died at 25 but had already created a body of work that remains radiant. But these iconic figures may be misleading. Often, geniuses have to make themselves the hard way: slowly and gradually.

Boston College has just digitised and put online, in both manuscript and transcript, a very early, previously unpublished play by WB Yeats. Called Love and Death, it was written in 1884, when Yeats was 18. It is fascinating in all sorts of ways, not least because it is not very good. It’s impossible to read it innocently, without knowing that its author will become one of the greatest poets in the English language.

But if you try very hard to strip away that heavy overlay of hindsight you find something quite moving: that “WB Yeats” doesn’t yet exist. The author of Love and Death is a rather gauche boy with flashes of significant talent but without any real hint of originality.

If you had been given the play in 1884, you’d never have bet that the writer would be much more than just another dreamer who dabbled in verse in his youth before settling down as a clergyman or a minor government official.

Love and Death is summarised by Yeats himself in his Reveries over Childhood and Youth as “a long play on a fable suggested by one of my father’s early designs. A king’s daughter loves a god seen in the luminous sky above her garden in childhood, and to be worthy of him and put away mortality, becomes without pity and commits crimes, and at last, having made her way to the throne by murder, awaits his coming among her courtiers. One by one they become chilly and drop dead, for unseen by all but her, her god is in the hall. At last he is at her throne’s foot and she, her mind in the garden once again, dies babbling like a child.”

The play is about as thrilling as it sounds. In a letter to Katherine Tynan, written in 1888, Yeats describes himself as he was four years earlier, when he wrote Love and Death: “I was then living a quite harmonious poetic life. Never thinking out of my depth. Always harmonious, narrow, calm. Taking small interest in people but most ardently moved by the more minute kinds of natural beauty . . . Everything done then was quite passionless. Nothing anywhere has clear outline. Everything is cloud and foam.”

The most telling insight in this self-criticism is the admission that, when he wrote the play, he was “taking small interest in people”. Love and Death is what a drama written by someone uninterested in people feels like.

It is all convoluted narrative, artificial vocabulary and feverish borrowings from Edmund Spenser, Percy Shelley, William Morris and the pre-Raphaelites. Even when it comes alive, it does so in verse that is heavily imitative of the young Yeats’s influences. Only occasionally does the rhythmic control suggest the possibility of a great poet in the making:

I see the company of timid ghosts

At evening also when the sun is low

Each with its finger to its lips goes by

Poor wild unutterable mysteries.

What makes the play fascinating, then, is the double vision of hindsight. When you know what Yeats the genius will do with certain images, there is a frisson in finding them in their crude state, like unrefined nuggets straight from the seam. We can see in Love and Death the remarkable degree to which certain tropes are already in his head, even if he does not yet know what to do with them.

Among them are the two symbolic buildings that will house the imagination of the mature 20th-century Yeats: the country house and the tower. The heroine of Love and Death, Ginevra, is a princess, but she dreams of a home rather like Coole Park:

A house not cold and grey and grim like this

But where the green vine hangs its pointed

leaves . . .

An old world garden where the birdly throng

Doze almost out of memory of song.

And the other building that haunts her imagination is a tower like Thoor Ballylee that Yeats himself will occupy:

A place of pallor of a changeless mist . . .

Forever in the tower whirls the wind

A place of everlasting wind and rain.

These images are embedded in an adolescent fantasy from which they might never have emerged. Juvenilia can be reductive, but reading Love and Death makes you even more conscious of the heroic nature of Yeats’s self-invention. Getting from where he is at 18 to where he would be at 40 is not a process of finding new themes that resonate with his imagination: many of them, not least the intertwining of love and death, are already in his head. It is a process of finding a context in which those images have power.

That context is Ireland, and the final fascination of Love and Death is in seeing how completely absent it is for the 18-year-old Yeats. The only Irish thing in the whole manuscript is the name of the stationer on the inside cover of the notebooks: W Carson, 51 Grafton Street. Without it, no one doing a blind tasting of the play would guess that its author was other than English. All of the influences and cadences are from a purely English tradition.

It was the discovery of Ireland that allowed Yeats to make his fey fantasies and overheated myths connect with politics, with folklore, with something beyond the books he was reading. When he was able to shift from Ginevra to Cuchulainn, he could use the same passion for myth. But now something real was at stake, and his language had to acquire its stringency and danger. Yeats did a lot for Ireland, but when you see how easily he might have amounted to nothing more than a minor pre-Raphaelite, you realise the favour worked both ways.

Love and Death is at loveanddeath;