There is a curious silence in Ireland about the imminent sell-off by Sotheby's of a weighty collection of Yeats papers. The catalogue from Sotheby's tells us the auction house is "honoured to present Yeats: The Family Collection, in which will be offered a treasure trove of works – many never seen before – that come directly from the Yeats family".
The collection comprises paintings, drawings, prints, letters, furniture and other personal items relating to the painter John Butler Yeats and four of his children: William, Jack, Lily and Lolly, and William's daughter Anne. The sale, Sotheby concludes, "is a testament to the family's extraordinary talent and their influence upon Irish culture and beyond since the turn of the twentieth century".
Is the sale also testament to the indifference shown about heritage material of such importance leaving the State via an export licence granted by the Government? One wonders what WB, his widow George and son Michael would have made of it all. The material comes from the Dalkey house of Michael who died in 2007, and his wife Gráinne who died in 2013; their three surviving children inherited it.
In 1958 and 1964 George presented a large collection of original Yeats manuscripts to the National Library of Ireland (NLI). Michael also cared greatly for the literary legacy for which he was responsible; he insisted that scholars had unrestricted access to his father's papers and often waived copyright fees. He donated 1,000 items of his father's writings to the library in 1985 and more in 2000, and later donated Yeats's personal library to the same institution, comprising some 2,500 volumes, having rejected a seven-figure offer from a potential buyer.
There is no more appropriate place for the Yeats papers than the NLI. It was one of his favourite haunts from the 1890s onwards. He wrote a letter from the library as a young poet and described himself “just sitting here in futile reverie listening to my own mind”. The brilliance and impact of that mind were recognised in the awarding of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1923. When WT Cosgrave, the president of the executive council of the Irish Free State, congratulated him, Yeats replied that he thought the award was given to him, not just for his own work, but was “a part of Europe’s welcome to the Free State, and I am very happy that it should be so”.
As well as being a generous and gracious reply, this indicated how comfortable Yeats was being identified with the new political establishment in Ireland. A year previously, he had accepted with enthusiasm an invitation to become a senator and while serving, he frequently addressed cultural matters. He was very vocal about the valuable Hugh Lane collection of paintings held by the National Gallery in London which he insisted belonged in Ireland. He also headed the Senate's Irish manuscript committee to promote research in Gaelic language, music, folklore and ancient poetry.
In the dying days of the civil war he said: “The greater portion of my own writings have been founded upon the old literature of Ireland. I have had to read it in translations, but it has been the chief illumination of my imagination all my life.” It was a time, he said, when “we have to build up the idealism of Ireland”. This could be done partly, he believed, through protecting and promoting Irish heritage. He also spoke about the importance of cultural institutions and their welfare, including the National Museum.
The Yeats family has been exceptionally generous over decades in making donations of Yeats material, meaning the NLI holds what is regarded as one of the most significant literary archives in the English-speaking world.
A new phase began more recently with a dual approach of tax relief donation and sale. Last year, the family donated Yeats’s Nobel Prize medal, valued at €1.5 million which qualified for tax relief at 80 per cent of its value, while earlier this year the family sold a collection of Yeats manuscripts to the NLI for €500,000.
The State’s cultural institutions were given the “first right of refusal” on the collection to be auctioned this month but the State declined to purchase most of the material, presumably for budgetary reasons and because much Yeats material already exists in these cultural institutions.
All the more reason to lament that the collection has not been donated. The material has a combined valuation of just over €2 million but could realise a lot more. Of great interest will be a hefty collection of correspondence between Yeats and his life-long friend, English writer Olivia Shakespear. According to Sotheby's, this correspondence "in which Yeats writes about his beliefs, passions and poetic development, is of the highest importance to literary history and is an exceptional rarity on the open market". It is a great pity such rarity looks like becoming the norm.