Friday 9 December 2016

WB Yeats: The bad speller who was 'always forgetting books'

We learned Yeats at school but what did Yeats learn at school? Michelle McDonagh unearths a few surprises at the The High School, Dublin

Michelle McDonagh

Published 02/05/2015 | 02:30

Alan Phelan, archivist and Valerie King, librarian at WB Yeats's alma mater, The High School in Rathgar, Dublin.
Alan Phelan, archivist and Valerie King, librarian at WB Yeats's alma mater, The High School in Rathgar, Dublin.
Grades for WB Yeats in High School, Rathgar's 1882 class marks book.
A mosaic from the High School, Rathgar of Yeats' 'What Then?'

The young William Yeats who would go on to become one of the foremost figures of 20th-century literature was a poor speller and had a habit of forgetting his school books, as his secondary school report cards reveal.

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Yeats entered the Church Of Ireland-run High School in the autumn of 1881 after his family returned to Dublin from London. The school was, at the time, located at Harcourt Street before it moved to its current location in Rathgar.

Alan Phelan, the school's archivist, says the records show that Yeats was mainly interested in natural history during his short time there. He had a difficulty with spelling but his contemporaries noted the quality of his essays when he read them aloud. He received a prize in English in 1883 and seems to have begun writing poetry around that time.

"There have been various other reminiscences written about Yeats by his former school fellows. He was seen as a bit of a showoff and eccentric because he used to stand up in class and read poetry aloud," says Mr Phelan.

The address given on the entry form for the young Yeats was 78 Leeson Street although the family lived in Howth at the time and later in Harold's Cross. In London, Yeats had attended the Godolphin School and he found many differences in The High School which he described in his autobiographies.

"Here, as I soon found, nobody gave any thought to decorum... on the other hand there was no bullying, and I had not thought that boys could work so hard. Cricket and football, the collecting of moths and butterflies, though not forbidden, were discouraged. I did not know, as I used to, the mass of my school-fellows, for we had little in common outside the clasroom."

In his book Faithful to our Trust, The High School, Dublin, W.J.R. Wallace notes that Yeats was placed in Form V under Mr Foster, the senior mathematics master. Yeats was good at mathematics, but he found the 150 lines of Virgil which he was expected to learn each night a heavy burden.

Wallace writes: "Yeats, as we might expect, was not an ideal schoolboy. His main interest at this time was in natural history and he disliked and avoided all work in which he was not interested. His father did not help matters, for he would interfere in his homework, telling the boy that he need not learn his Geography or History tasks, since all the knowledge he needed of these subjects he would pick up from general reading."

The future poet claimed to have fared little better in English literature writing: "I was worst of all at literature, for we read Shakespeare for his grammar exclusively." He felt he was handicapped in writing essays because they "were judged by handwriting and spelling".

However, Wallace points out that one of Yeats's close friends in school John Eglinton recalled Yeats being good at the English essays that were read aloud weekly by the boys.

Eglinton's account is supported by Yeats's reports in English. Although the first at Christmas 1881 said 'fair', those that followed were either 'good' or 'excellent' and in October 1883, he was awarded a prize in English. It was at this time that he seems to have started writing poetry, partly as a result of a school friend, Frederick J. Gregg, later editor of the New York Evening Sun, inviting him to collaborate in writing verse plays.

Opinion among the boys seems to have been divided on this unusual boy who kept himself consciously aloof from most of them, according to the school history. He took no interest in the games played by the boys in the playground and was known to play chess with another student on a portable chessboard on his knee under the desk in Mr Foster's mathematics class.

He also had a habit of bringing live specimens of his natural history studies to school in matchboxes.

He left The High School at Christmas 1883 having remained in the fifth form all his time there. His reports, which have been kept in the archives, chart his erratic progress. Sometimes they read 'classical preparation defective' or 'always forgetting his books', but on other occasions he was awarded a certificate of exemplary conduct.

Wallace writes that although his father wanted him to go to Trinity College, Yeats refused, concealing the real reason that "neither my Classics nor my Mathematics were good enough for any examination". He went instead to the College of Art in Kildare Street.

The school continued to follow the poet's career closely and to record its progress in the school magazine. In 1937, Yeats allowed The Erasmian to publish a hitherto unpublished poem.

What Then?

His chosen comrades thought

at school

He must grow a famous man;

He thought the same and lived

by rule,

All his twenties crammed

with toil:

What then, sang Plato's ghost,

what then?

Everything he wrote was read,

After certain years he won

Sufficient money for his need,

Friends that have been friends indeed:

What then, sang Plato's ghost,

what then?

All his happier dreams came true -

A small old house, wife,

daughter, son,

Grounds where plum and

cabbage grew,

Poets and Wits about him drew:

What then, sang Plato's ghost,

what then?

The work is done, grown old

he thought,

According to my boyish plan;

Let the fools rage, I swerved

in nought,

Something to perfection

brought:

What then, sang Plato's ghost,

what then?

The editor of that edition of the magazine was A. Norman Jeffares, who was to become a foremost scholar on the work of Yeats. In a letter to Jeffares at the time, Yeats said that the poem was "one of the few poems he had written lately that might be fit for a school magazine".

Irish Independent

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