Thursday 21 March 2019

How Joyce bit the Yeats hand that fed him

James Joyce was a regular critic of the poet, despite profiting from their relationship

PROSE AND POETRY: James Joyce criticised the work of WB Yeats
PROSE AND POETRY: James Joyce criticised the work of WB Yeats
Irish poet William Butler Yeats (1865 - 1939)

Anthony J Jordan

W B Yeats's mentoring of the young James Joyce shows our national poet at his most generous.

One day, Joyce stopped Yeats in the street and introduced himself. Yeats had previously been warned about Joyce by George Russell, who wrote: "The first spectre of a new generation has appeared. His name is Joyce. I have suffered from him and I would like you to suffer."

Yeats invited Joyce to a smoking room off O'Connell Street, where he endured one of the greatest put-downs in literary history. Yeats records that Joyce "began to explain all his objections to everything I had ever done; politics, folklore, historical settings of events and so on. Above all, why had I written about ideas? These things were all the signs of the cooling of the iron, of the fading out of inspiration. . . his own little book of poetry owed nothing to anything but his own mind which was much nearer to God than folklore".

Yeats was exasperated, puzzled and walked up and down expounding that all good art depended on popular tradition. He ended in triumph, as he thought, by referring to the art of Homer, and of Shakespeare and of Chartres Cathedral.

Joyce's reaction was to stand up to leave. As he was going out he asked Yeats, "How old are you?". Yeats said, "37". Joyce said, with a sigh, "I thought as much. I have met you too late. You are too old. I am 20". Despite this, Yeats reported, "A young poet who wrote excellently, but had the worst manners".

He wrote to Joyce, "You have a very delicate talent but I cannot say whether for prose or verse. . . I cannot help you with money. I will do anything for you I can. But I am afraid it will not be a great deal. The chief use I can be will be in introducing you to some other writers who are starting like yourself".

Yeats was as good as his word, and Joyce entered the world of the Irish Literary Revival personages, benefiting with money from Lady Gregory and contacts as he set out for Paris through London.

Yet Joyce rarely said 'thanks'; rather did he bite the hand that fed him. He soon wrote a critical review of Lady Gregory's poems, drawing the comment: "Oh, you inquisitional drunken Jew Jesuit! She gets you a job on the paper and then you go and slate her drivel to Jaysus. Couldn't you do the Yeats touch?"

He wrote from Rome in 1907, "Yeats is a tiresome idiot: he is quite out of touch with the Irish people, to which he appeals as the author of Countess Kathleen. Synge is better; at least he can set them by the ears".

Despite that, he wrote in despair to Yeats in 1912, "I suppose you will have heard of the fate of my book Dubliners. Roberts refused to publish it and finally agreed to sell me the first edition for £30 so that I might publish it myself. Then the printer refused to hand over the 1,000 copies he had printed either to me or to anyone else, and actually broke up the type and burned the whole edition".

The greatest gift Yeats bestowed on Joyce was that of his friend and admirer, the American Ezra Pound. Pound was enthusiastic about Joyce's writings and became an unpaid agent for Joyce and his work.

Pound had the contacts in London and America, and soon Joyce began to have material published in reputable journals and began getting paid. Publishers who had earlier rejected Joyce's work suddenly changed their minds. Dubliners was published in 1914, nine years after it was written.

Pound and Yeats succeeded in getting a substantial grant from the Royal Literary Fund for Joyce. Yeats wrote a reference stating, "I have just heard that James Joyce, an Irish poet and novelist of whose fine talent I can easily satisfy you, is in probably great penury through the war . . . He has five children and a wife. I think Mr Joyce has a most beautiful gift. . . he is the most remarkable new talent in Ireland today. I believe him to be a man of genius".

In 1916, as manoeuvres to get Joyce a State pension from the English king were afoot, Yeats wrote wishing the Allies victory, and saying of Joyce, "He has never had anything to do with Irish politics, extreme or otherwise, and I think he dislikes politics. He always seemed to me to have only literary and philosophic sympathies. I again thank you for what you have done for this man of genius".

Joyce wrote to Yeats in September 1916, "Ezra Pound wrote to me telling me of your kindness in writing a letter of recommendation on my behalf, as a result of which a royal bounty has been granted to me. . . I can never thank you enough for having brought me into relations with your friend Ezra Pound, who is indeed a wonder worker".

Though Yeats never read all of Ulysses, he wrote in praise of it, "Some passages have great beauty, lyric beauty, even in the fashion of my generation, and the whole book incites to philosophy".

In 1932, when Yeats and George Bernard Shaw were setting up the Irish Academy of Letters, Yeats invited Joyce to be a member, writing, "Of course, the first name that seemed essential both to Shaw and myself was your own. . . All the writers here who are likely to form our Council are students of your work".

Joyce replied, "It is now 30 years since you first held out to me your helping hand . . . I hope that the Academy of Letters which you both are founding will have the success it aims at. My case, however, being as it was and probably will be, I see no reason why my name should have arisen at all in connection with such an academy".

When Yeats died in 1939, Joyce sent a wreath to the funeral and confessed to a friend that Yeats was a better writer than he.

Anthony J Jordan's latest book is Arthur Griffith with James Joyce & WB Yeats - Liberating Ireland.

Sunday Independent

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