John Butler Yeats



AS SOON as I begin to think of people whose personalities make me feel I was fortunate in knowing them, there comes before me an old man with gray, lighted eyes and an eager head, who is always ready to talk and to listen. He is John Butler Yeats, the father of the poet.

It was while I was in my twenties in Dublin that I first knew him. I suppose he was in his middle sixties then; anyway, he was a generation beyond the generation who were my elders. He had a studio in town, in Stephen’s Green, and lived with his daughters in a house upon a country road about half an hour’s walk from the studio. It was a house that was beautiful with pictures — his own, his son Jack’s, and others. And there with his daughters, Elizabeth and Lily, and a maid who was an old family retainer, he lived congenially. As the domestic scene comes before me he is in a chair by the fireside, reading aloud some interesting letter he has received, or some striking passage in a book he has taken down, while Lily gives her whole attention to what is being read and Elizabeth at the table makes a design for a bookplate or a Christmas card.

In the studio I visualize him as he peers at a portrait he is painting and steps back, palette in hand, to listen to something said, or to speak in that voice that was so delightful to listen to because it never went flat or ordinary — a voice that must have always spoken about ideas or feelings. But humorous, too. He tells of a talk with an Archbishop of Dublin. It is on the subject of how prelates get to the various sees of England and Ireland. One gets to Canterbury this way, the bishop told him, and to York that way, and to Peterborough this other way. “And how did you get to Dublin?” “Bootlicking, my dear Yeats, bootlicking. ”

Another man would have told the story ironically or sarcastically. But “J.B.” was never ironic, never sarcastic. Just as he was always putting before his eye a little mirror that showed his paintings upside down, so he was always looking for something that revealed an unexpected side of people. Character is always interesting, and a self-seeker who is detached, a dignified person who is humorous about himself, has more than ordinary character. There is relish in J.B.’s face as, after the story, he adds a stroke to the painting before him.

Faith in the primacy of the emotional and impulsive life was the core of what Yeats the father passed on to his son. Like all high faiths, it presented moments of difficulty to the proselyte. The father once cited to his son the example of the seaman on Nelson’s ship, whose hair had turned white during a battle. The example was given at a stage when young W.B. was trying to be heroic and enduring. “What a sensitive temperament!” J.B. exclaimed. “That man should have achieved something.” W.B. confesses that lie was vexed and bewildered: up to the writing of his autobiography he was troubled about this particular witness to the faith.

Bound up with the primacy of the emotional and impulsive life was the primacy of the dramatic among the modes of poetry. All poetry, J.B. conveyed to his son, “must be an idealization of speech, and at some moment of passionate action or somnambulistic reverie.” Meditation on this text brought a poet who had not a notable conception of action or character, or any mastery of ordinary speech, to make himself a dramatic poet, to give his country a theater, and to be the one poet since the Jacobeans who wrote verse that could thrill an audience in the theater.

It was while he was a schoolboy that his father had the most influence on him. At that time J.B. had a studio near where, long afterwards, I used to go to see him — “a large room with a beautiful eighteenth-century mantelpiece.” It was in York Street. There, before he went to his regular studies, his father used to read poetry to the youth who was to become the greatest poet of our time. “ He never read me a passage because of its speculative interest, and indeed did not care at all for poetry where there was generalization or abstraction however impassioned.” Once he read from Coriolanus. “That scene is more vivid than the rest, and it is my father’s voice that I hear and not Irving’s or Benson’s.” The first poetry W.B. shows himself to us as writing is in the form of a play — “ a fable suggested by one of my father’s early designs. ”


MOST men react against their fathers’ ideas, but the only side of his father’s mind that W.B. opposed was J.B.’s irreligiousness. For, strangely in a man opposed to all that was unvital, J.B. had taken over the ideas of Mill, Huxley, and Tyndall: he who believed so thoroughly in human impulse was a determinist and a mechanist in his notion of the universe. W.B. had to create for himself an imaginative belief that included, not only his own version of God, Freedom, and Immortality, but esoteric doctrines and magical practices: nothing could be further from J.B.’s serene and uncritical rationalism than is his son’s summa, A Vision.

The belief in the primacy of the emotional and impulsive life remained to motivate the work of the poet. W.B. records a sentence of his father’s to show how deeply lie had assimilated this doctrine. “All valuable education,” his father once wrote a friend, “was but a stirring up of the emotions, and . . . this did not mean excitability.” “In the completely emotional man,” he went on, “the least awakening of feeling is a harmony in which every chord of every feeling vibrates. Excitement is the feature of an insufficiently emotional nature, the harsh vibrating discourse of but one or two chords.”

But it must have been difficult for the young W.B. to get forward in his formal education while his father was near enough to interfere. “He should have taken me away from school,” says the poet in his Autobiographies. “He would have taught me nothing but Greek and Latin, and I would now be a properly educated man, and would not have to look in useless longing at books that have been, through the poor mechanism of translation, the builders of my soul, nor face authority with the timidity born of excuse and evasion. ” He adds that for him evasion and excuse were in the event as wise as the house-building instinct of the beaver.

But what were schoolmasters to do when a theme brought home by the student stirred his father to scorn and rage? One was: “Men may rise on stepping stones of their dead selves to higher things.” J.B., when his son disclosed it, walked up and down a room saying, “This is the way boys are made insincere and false to themselves. Ideals make the blood thin, and take the human nature out of people.” He told him not to write on such a theme, but on “To thine own self be true, And it must follow, as the night the day. Thou canst not then be false to any man.” One cannot but have sympathy with the Dublin schoolmaster who said to W.B., “I am going to give you an imposition because I cannot get at your father to give him one.”

What his father instilled into the schoolboy comes out in the work of the mature poet. Often I heard W.B. declare that no woman coidd love a man who lived dutifully, and that Penelope’s faithfulness to Odysseus was a woman’s tribute to a man who left home and went wandering. In his Autobiographies he lets us hear his father say, “Imagine how the right sort of woman would despise a dutiful husband.” It seems to me that W.B. in all his career as a dramatist tried to embody this impulse-loving, duty-denying, institution-hating type of man. That is why, I am sure, he wrote play after play about the reckless Cuchulain. In The Only Jealousy of Emer the chorus shows us: —

That amorous man,
That amorous, violent man, renowned Cuchulain.

In The Green Helmet the same hero says to his wife: —

Alive I have been far off in all lands under sun, And been no faithful man; but when my story is done My fame shall spring up and laugh, and set you high above all.

In On Baile’s Strand he has Cuchulain turn from the policy of Conchubar, his over-king, calling to his friends: —

Nestlings of a high nest, Hawks that have followed me into the air And looked upon the sun, we’ll out of this And sail upon the wind once more. This king Would have me take an oath to do his will, And having listened to his tune from morning, I will no more of it. Run to the stable And set the horses to the chariot-pole,

And send a messenger to the harp-players. We’ll find a level place among the woods, And dance awhile.

And in the little poem “The Scholars” he lets schoolmasters and all dutiful men know what he thinks of them: —

All shuffle there; all cough in ink; All wear the carpet with their shoes; All think what other people think; All know the man their neighbour knows. Lord, what would they say Did their Catullus walk that way?

It pleased J.B. to believe that his own people were an instinctive people, and I once backed up this belief of his by quoting from a letter of John Keats. The Scots, the young poet wrote, were better educated than the Irish, but the Irish would go further because they were more instinctive.

J.B. added to Keats’s generalization. The Scots could never have in themselves that sort of isolation that English or Irish people could feel. There was no loneliness in Scottish art. Every picture by a Scottish artist gave one a sense of the painter standing by and saying, “Hoots, mon, you maun lik’ it!” Like every judgment J.B. made, one finds a real understanding in it. The writings of Stevenson, Barrie (in his stories), John Davidson, Burns even, have, I have since felt, a strong sense of an audience.


Is IT not affection, I say to myself, that makes John Butler Yeats so memorable to me? Well, let affection enter into the account. “We like people,” he said to me once, “in inverse ratio to their instinct of self-preservation.” The great liking so many had for J.B. shows how rare was the character in which, not foolishly, the instinct of self-preservation was minimized.

In those Dublin days I spent hours in bis studio, or, meeting him on his way from it, walked home with him. He was a consoling person for a rather idle young fellow to be with: the life that had no reverie in it seemed to him the most deadly sort of idleness. He used to repeat what his son Jack said: “I spent seven years looking over a bridge in Sligo, and I’m sorry I didn’t spend longer.”

In those days I had a belief in force and discipline, or perhaps I only thought I had. Anyway, the men I liked to praise were the men of will and action.

“ No, no,”he would say, “ not strong will, but strong desires.”He would speak of the slight impression Shakespeare made on his contemporaries, and would put it down to Shakespeare’s being a receptive, changeable (not inconsistent) man: the tensions of will, the straightness of direction that causes an individuality to be remarked, could not have been in him.

It seems to me now that the Shakespearean plays that he most often talked about were Timon of Athens and Coriolanus. Timon built his everlasting mansion out of self-will. But there was the other side to him, the side that knew so little about self-preservation. J.B. would repeat: —

No villanous bounty yet hath passed my heart; Unwisely, not ignobly, have I given.

But Coriolanus was completely the tragedy of the self-willed man. And J.B. saw in the Romans that excess of will which he regarded as destructive. Once he talked of one of those heroes of Tacitus’s who open their veins rather than let the Caesar of the time humble them. “Self-love,” he said sadly. To him the worst of idolatries, idolatry of self, was in this setting up of their will, and he would blame people for their “willfulness” more than for anything else. Rhetoric was a vice in literature because it expressed the will rather than the feelings, or the feelings controlled by the will. He would have no arguments in literature. The writer convinced the reader by a spontaneity that carried a lovely flow of words: —

In a field by the river my love and I did stand, And on my leaning shoulder she laid her snow-white hand.

He would say these lines of his son’s as if they held the deepest wisdom. And he would repeat, with his head held up, his voice lingering on every syllable: —

And on my leaning shoulder she laid her snow-white hand.

When he was not before his easel, he was sketching faces in his sketchbook, talking as he used his pencil. For his portraits he got twenty pounds or a hundred dollars, not a bad price as money went in those days in Dublin. But I cannot believe he painted as many as twelve in a year; he liked to work on a portrait over and over, and Dublin people had an idea that at a certain stage the portrait had to be carried away from him. Indeed he had a tendency to paint as the painter in Balzac’s The Unknown Masterpiece painted — until the subject became blurred on the canvas.

I remember his saying as a compliment to his son’s rewriting of poems and plays: “Always be ready to throw it into the melting pot.” But how clearly and finely he has painted the leaders of a generation in Ireland! There, in the Modern Gallery in Dublin, among others, are his “John Synge,” his “Michael Davitt,” his “Standish O’Grady.” Clearly and finely and with affection. “Her geese are all swans,” he said to me about a New York hostess, He said it smilingly, and I knew that what he liked about her was the transforming power of her affection.

J.B. never turned geese into swans because, for one reason, he never painted geese. I have seen a letter of his to a mutual friend, in which he tells of staying with a great family in the south of Ireland. “ When I painted that portrait I was only two years an artist, and as I told him, I was ashamed to take his father’s money. When I left them, they all begged me to come and see them in London, and were the most friendly people I ever met — but I never went near them. I had my own way to make and they would have been only a hindrance. Had I not been married I could easily have become a social parasite and painted flimsy fashionable portraits of pretty women. How pleased my own relatives would have been!”


I STARTED this portrait of the portrait painter because young people who were in their infancy when he died come to me for information about him. They have read some letters of his, perhaps, or have come on some reference to him in a memoir, or have been told about him by someone who was in his circle in New York. They want to know about a life that gave out so much illumination. J.B. seems to these young people to be a man out of a lost world, a wonderful survival.

Something he said comes back to me. It must have been in the later part of our acquaintanceship, when we were both in New York. I tell him about a friend of mine, a French poet who, when he was in India, was given an elephant by Lord Curzon, with the consequence that, riding along, he was able to look into the houses in the villages. What I say is like a stone dropped into a pool. The ripples run along in his mind. He is amused and thoughtful. “Fancy a country where you have to have an elephant as an aid in knowing the domestic life of the people!”

What you tell him is worth his meditating on, and he gives it back to you with a new significance. But you should look in through windows and doors because people are interesting, and if in India it was necessary to have an elephant to do that, that added to the interestingness of the people of India. To be on the lookout for what was interesting in people was to have an understanding of one’s business in the world. Once when I showed him an unfinished poem I was writing he said, “You must finish it because it is a window in the lives of the people in the middle of Ireland.”

Interestingness was everything. Before my time murders coming out of some complication of passion and interest had been committed in the west of Ireland, in Mayo or Galway. The families involved were, as many of the families in that part of the country, Joyces. I remember J.B.’s speaking of the crimes and mentioning that a London paper had written that people of that name in Ireland were of English descent. One would have thought that, as a patriotic Irishman, J.B. would have been willing to have a stigma taken over by another race. Not at all. He was annoyed. The murders revealed an intensity of feeling that he would like to associate with his own people.

But turning from his eagerness of response, from his feeling for interestingness in people, I should say that the master quality, the one that gave meaning to and included all the others that made J.B.’s characteristic, was disinterestedness. I don’t mean that he had no interest in turning his powers towards money, fame, and security. Like all people who have little money, he was always happy when he got some. When he met his famous son in New York J.B. wrote to his daughter: “I noticed in him a subtle change, a something assured, a quiet importance. Importance is too strong a word, but I think he is in funds. . . . It would be for me a proud moment when I see a Yeats with money and I am quite sure it won’t spoil him. We don’t spoil that way.”

He congratulated me on good notices a play of mine had had, though plays that meant more to him did not have a good reception, “As O’Connell said, ‘The verdict is the thing.’” After all, an author is addressing a jury, and if we have won our case, we have won our case. Then, too, it was proper that art should have a public appeal. He was happy that his son was writing for the theater, for, as he wrote to him, “Democratic Art is the sort which unites a whole audience. Is not an Oratorio democratic? And the great religious services?" J.B.’s disinterestedness was in the fact that he had values, and that as long as the world permitted him to do so he would regard these values, and let all other things take care of themselves. His values were in everything that made not only for the dignity but for the interestingness of man —art, reflective thought, humor.

And so I come round to his feeling for interestingness in people. I remember how cross he used to be with ladies in New York who would say of a friend he had asked about, “She is a very lovely woman,” but would or could not find anything more to say for her. The ladies who gave such conventional commendation could not believe that to J.B. such nullity, if it could be, was deplorable. What he wanted to hear about was some fault or virtue that made the lady someone he would want to paint or talk to or think about. Left to himself he could find the distinguishing quality. For instance, the lady who seemed to be a kindly gawk, and nothing more, had an intuition about medicine and became interesting when she talked about it. “She could have become a doctor,” J.B. pronounced; and after he had told me that, I could recognize something firm and informed behind her vagaries of manner and conversation.

His eager response to every phase of interestingness in people, together with his fine cultivation, made J.B. a great conversationalist, and this in Dublin at a period in which there were wonderful conversationalists — Dr. Mahaffy, W. B. Yeats, Stephen McKenna, Sarah Purser. J.B.’s was really conversation — that is, a giving and taking of ideas. He did not try for effects that would be remembered; he did not make epigrams that one could retail. But in his conversation, so responsive to others’ ideas, there was often a revelation. Once, coming from the apartment in New York of that man of law who was such an aid to J.B., I remarked, “John Quinn said interesting things.” “Yes,” J.B. replied, “but like all lawyers he exhausts the subject.” A volume on conversation could say no more than that. A conversationalist must never exhaust the subject.


WHEN he left for the United States it was expected that his visit would be only for a few months and that we should see him back in Dublin before he was much older. But the years went by a nd he stayed on in New York. He lived the last twelve years of his life there, and it was then that a second friendship with him blossomed. He felt he ought to go back to his family, but he put off his return from year to year. He loved everything American, but above everything else he loved the intellectual humility of Americans. To be willing to listen, to be ready to learn, seemed to him a great national virtue. A circle formed about him in Petipas’s, the boardinghouse in West Twenty-ninth Street where he lived. His never ceasing interest in art, in thought, in human character, and his love for all these kept him unaged decades after other men are aged, and aged because they have exhausted some subject.

At seventy-eight or eighty he wrote a poem, “Autumn,” which was published in a magazine run by young poets. He read it later at a public gathering of poets, and it was grand to see the old man come on the platform, and with surety and yet with some wistfulness repeat the poem that was a sort of valedictory. Just, before this I spent an evening with him in Petipas’s. He told me about a “Dialogue in Heaven” that he was going to write: it was between Thackeray and Becky Sharp, and Becky would show that it was she and not silly Amelia Osborne that he had loved all the time, for it was she he had been happy in revealing; it was she who had interested, who had fascinated him, and what did his judgment matter?

He died a week or two after the reading I have mentioned. “See if there is a letter from my daughter,” he said to a visitor. “Don’t you think I should hear from her today?” And then, “Be sure you look at the maid as you go down; she is a Spanish girl, and I think you’ll see that she is lovely.” So he died. He had remembered judges of the Supreme Court in Ireland who were his friends—“all with great incomes and carriages and property.” “Am I not entitled to think myself the successful man among them?” he wrote to his daughter. “At any rate I am inclined to think that any one of them would have bartered away all his honors for my length of days — even if they did not have my brilliant offspring, yourself included.”

Today we hear great but perhaps solemn voices telling us that the dignity of man has to be guarded. Indeed it has to be. But I see an old man with lifted head smilingly indicate that the interestingness of man has also to be guarded. Behold him on the stage of the Abbey Theatre coming to defend J. M. Synge, who had been denounced by the Dublin newspapers for treating Irish peasants as idealizers of a parricide. “Ireland is a land of saints,” he says, and the excited and, in some cases, fanatical people in the auditorium wonder if he is an ally against the dramatist and the dramatist’s friends. He puts his hand to his mouth and whispers, “Plaster saints!” He says it as if he were revealing a family secret that, in a gathering of the family, could be smiled at. It was not the eloquent speeches the audiences carried away with them, but the memory of the old man, smiling and with a wistful look, who made a joke of a selfrighteousness that is always a lack of self-knowledge.