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Not first love or love at all ...
Jack Yeats's Place of birth was of no particular significance to him. The country which eventually he was to call his own only obtained its formal existence when he was fifty years old. He did not grow up with his family, but with his grandparents. He saw his mother infrequently, and learned from an early age to distrust his father. He had the unsettling experience of being treated in totally different ways by his two sisters and his elder brother; the girls were loving and indulgent, Willie was lofty and distant. These youthful experiences gave him a deep commitment to the things of which he had been deprived; he was a family man, proud of his Yeats and Pollexfen origins, kind to his sisters, adoring of his mother, gracious towards his brother, and, when not enraged, guardedly tolerant of his eccentric and unreliable father.
Jack experienced Irish politics in all its manifestations, from staunch unionism to romantic -- even violent -- nationalism. He learned the turbulent history of Ireland by observing political meetings, rallies, demonstrations, violent acts and their aftermath, and political treachery which he came to abhor. He was passionately committed, both culturally and politically, to Ireland, to the country and to its people. And once he had chosen his way, he never faltered. He is the most purposeful artist Ireland has ever known, and he prided himself on this, just as Ireland was to pride itself in him.
His political experience began early. During hisformative years, growing up in Sligo, in the west of Ireland, the dominant Irish political figure was Charles Stewart Parnell and the dominant issue land and the fortunes of the landed classes. Post-Famine expressions of Irish nationalism involved the Roman Catholic Church under the subtle and intelligent leadership of Cardinal Cullen. With educational progress, and perhaps above all with the increased political unity within Irish politics at Westminster, Parnell's leadership had been firmly established. At the time of Jack's birth in 1871 he had placed the subject of Ireland -- perhaps `problem' is a better word -- high on the political agenda of William Ewart Gladstone, who led the Liberal Government at this time.
With some truth, the propensity for an acute and intense interest in politics is seen as peculiarly Irish. This interest has its roots in disaffection; but it was sustained and given life by the constant change and evolution in the political arena, and this was particularly powerful when Jack was young. Land issues, trade, social disparity, poverty, emigration, are never so well understood as they are in a small-town environment. And living with a prosperous Protestant merchant at the centre of Sligo's trade and commerce gave him an instinctive knowledge and understanding quite different from the theoretical and voluble politics rehearsed in the various London homes occupied by the rest of the Yeats family, and dominated by their father's opinionated views. From the beginning, Jack saw a different Ireland, more immediate, more peasant, more human; and it stamped and shaped him, as we shall see.
He was born on 29 August 1871 at 23 Fitzroy Road, in London, just north of Regent's Park, the fifth child of John Butler Yeats and Susan Pollexfen (figs 1-2). He was christened John Butler, and for some time during his infancy he was called Johnnie.
His parents' life together had begun on what seemed a happy and optimistic note. When they met, in the late summer of 1862, Susan was twenty-one. She was good-looking, with fair skin and distinguished by one unusual feature: her large, deep-set eyes were of different colours, one blue, one brown, and had rather heavy lids. She has been described as `extraordinarily pretty' although this is not fully borne out by family photographs of her at the time, nor by John Butler Yeats's early drawings of her (see fig. 3). But she was apparently much sought after, and was described to her son, Willie, as `the most beautiful woman in Sligo'. Before his return to Dublin, John Butler Yeats proposed to Susan Pollexfen while exploring caves at Bundoran. She accepted him, and thus began `one of the most frustrating and fruitful marriages in the history of Ireland'.
The union was, at the very least, unhappy; more truthfully, it was disastrous, disintegrating slowly over a number of years, and with few redeeming moments. Yet out of the difficulties and the poverty into which John Butler Yeats, like some woeful, errant knight, valiantly led his growing family, there emerged brilliance and gifted, rich talent. These qualities were to dominate Ireland's culture in poetry and painting more permanently than those of any other family in the country's history. The Yeats's stamp on Irish life, and on art and letters, thought and self-awareness, has a dynastic quality which is unique. Sad, then, to present an early domestic scene which was never right. At the heart of the trouble was the question mark over the very sincerity of John Butler Yeats's love for his wife, creating a central defect in the marriage. Many years later he wrote to Rosa Butt: `I became engaged on two or three days acquaintance, and it was not first love or love at all (this really entrenous -- I have never confessed to anyone) but just destiny'.
John Butler Yeats described the Pollexfen family, `gathered in force and [seated] together mostly in one room, and all disliking each other, at any rate alien mutually, in gloomy silence broken only by the sound of your grandmother turning over the leaf of a book, or by the creaking of some one's brace, or by a sigh from George Pollexfen.' His disdainful tone is significant; the young John Butler Yeats was a man of distinguished stock, a landowner, well educated, qualified to practice at the Bar, and well connected with other distinguished Dublin families. Socially, the Yeatses were well above the Pollexfens, who were merchants. In the marriage settlement Susan was promised a widow's jointure of 150 [pounds sterling] a year, with John Butler Yeats's property at Thomastown secured for this purpose. Both from Susan's point of view and that of her parents it was a good match. But their marriage on 10 September 1863 started badly. They went to Galway on their honeymoon and stayed there in the Railway Hotel. She had never been to a hotel before. John Butler Yeats became quite ill, with diphtheria, and Susan tried to light a fire in one of the two rooms they had, but failed.
... and then she went out for help ... and heard some children on the top floor saying their prayers and she felt homesick. She sat alone for dinner and they brought her a shoulder of mutton.... she had not the courage to cut off even one slice, and so took just the vegetables. Next day Papa sent for his mother, who came and took him to Dublin in an invalid carriage.
It would be cruel, and indeed difficult, to suggest that this set the tone for the marriage, yet within it are several critical ingredients which continued throughout their life together including her inability to please him and his innate distrust of her, a distrust of her aptitude, judgment and abilities. Eight years later, at the time of Jack's birth, virtually all the promises of that first encounter, the marriage, honeymoon, and early married life, lay in tatters. And John Butler Yeats had managed to make a mess of everything, his birthright, his career, his domestic arrangements in London, and his relations with his in-laws. Every promise had come to nothing. John Butler Yeats had presented himself as strong-minded, determined, articulate.
At Sligo, I was the social man where it was the individual man that counted. It is a curious fact that entering this sombre house of stern preoccupation with business I for the first time in my life felt myself to be a free man, and that I was invited by the example of everyone around me to be my very self, thereby receiving the most important lesson in my life.
But he did not learn it. He was never really free, unless running away makes one free. He was not strong-minded. He was not determined. And such little freedoms as he did enjoy, or imagined that he enjoyed, were dearly-bought, and spent with a prodigality that was extravagant and irresponsible and largely at the expense of his family.
As a landowner he had proved unequal to the task of administration, and had undermined his most important source of income. When his father died he inherited the Thomastown estate and a house in Dorset Street, Dublin, but promptly passed over their management to his uncle, Robert Corbet. Together, the properties were worth 10,000 [pounds sterling], and yielded an income of 380 [pounds sterling] a year, which, with further earnings, would have sustained the family, and allowed for the development of his career as an artist. But John Butler Yeats ruined their chance of financial security. At the time of the inheritance, there were mortgages against the property of 2,200 [pounds sterling]. The new owner then increased the indebtedness in 1867 to over 3,000 [pounds sterling], imposing on himself twice-yearly interest payments. What was more serious, however, was the fact that Susan's prior right to a widow's jointure had to be waived. Worse was to follow. Corbet himself fell on hard times, gave up his home Sandymount Castle, dismissed his staff, and moved into lodgings in Mount Street. He subsequently committed suicide by jumping off the Dublin-Holyhead mailboat. The duties of managing the Thomastown property passed to Thomas Yeats, another uncle who enjoyed the distinct disadvantage -- for land management purposes -- of being a brilliant mathematician. Shortly afterwards, the duties passed to another relation Matthew Yeats, who was a land agent. The estate, small by Irish standards, was complicated by the fact that no less than seventeen tenants held separate leases to the 345 acres, some of them prompt about paying their dues, others more dilatory. There were, in addition, disputes, one of which, in 1869, led to the shooting and serious wounding of the family bailiff, John Doran. Yeats the free-thinker, the Irish nationalist and friend of Isaac Butt, and a man who was later to become the friend of William Morris, a founder of British socialism, not only had the embarrassment of being an Irish absentee landlord, but of being an unsuccessful one as well.
The family's circumstances had steadily worsened over the eight years before Jack was born. During the time in which Susan had borne her five children, she had set up home in both Dublin and London, making intermittent trips back to her parents in Sligo, not for holidays, but out of need. The first home had been in Sandymount, Dublin. It was there that their eldest child, William Butler, was born in the summer of 1865. At that stage, John Butler Yeats was trying to pursue a career in the city as a lawyer. Their second child, Lily, was born in Sligo. Shortly after this, at the beginning of 1867, their father decided to change to the life of a painter, and moved to London, and to art school there. Lolly, Robert, Jack and Grace were all born in London. Like so many of the decisions in his life, John Butler Yeats acted precipitately in giving up the law. He continued to act in a haphazard way, governed by his emotions, and now, as he was to do many times afterwards when under pressure, he took the easy way out, and deposited his wife and children with her parents in Sligo.
Susan loved Sligo intensely, and hated London. She felt morose and dispirited there. By the time Jack was born, his mother had witnessed her husband's uncertain pursuit of two prospective careers, neither of which had been realised. After four years at art school, John Butler Yeats's crucial decision in favour of art had a distinctly unfulfilled look to it. He undoubtedly regarded painting as a way of life; though not as a career or a profession. Though talented as a draughtsman, and competent in the use of paint, he seemed perversely disinterested in applying himself to his immediate responsibilities of providing for his young family and wife, whose health was already in decline. Without a permanent job, even his few and intermittent commissions were treated in an illogical and self-indulgent way. Having signally failed to make a career for himself, either as a lawyer or as an artist, he was faced with five children under seven, no regular source of income, and the self-imposed need to keep up appearances among fellow-artists. They probably mattered more to him at the time than anyone else.
He was asking for, and accepting, money from Susan's father; the circumstances were humiliating. In February 1871, for example, while Susan was pregnant with Jack, William Pollexfen wrote:
Your note of the 3 to hand Enclosed you have a check for twenty pounds which will be as good as cash to your Butcher if you give it to him. Glad to learn your picture is well hung, this time, that it's thought a good deal of ... The weather has quite changed here, from the Eastward, now from the Westward and quite warm. Family quite well at Merville, give my love to all yours. Remaining yours William Pollexfen.
Jack's birth, six months later, coincided with this low point in the Yeats family fortunes. His mother left London when he was a month old and returned to Sligo with her young family, giving Jack his first experience of the sea. It was a long journey, involving a train to Liverpool and a sea voyage around the northern coast of Ireland to Sligo. That she made it so soon after he was born suggests a serious deterioration in her relationship with her husband. The departure presaged a virtual breach between them, a physical separation which lasted, on and off, for five years; more seriously, the emotional separation was effectively permanent.
The extent to which Susan had been made to suffer by him during her first eight years of marriage can be gauged, immediately and dramatically, from an examination of John Butler Yeats drawings of his wife (figs 3-4). There is something impressively striking, even luscious, in the young wife of 1867, mother of two children, alert and confident, her carriage upright, her large brave eyes open in optimism upon the world which seemed then to lie invitingly at the feet of the young family. If we turn then to the drawing John Butler Yeats did of her on 13 February 1870, just six weeks before the birth of her fourth child, Robert Corbet Yeats, and a year and a half before Jack's birth, we see an unhappy transformation. In the intervening period she had suffered much, including damage to her eyesight. Her blue eye had developed a cataract when Willie was still only a few months old. She was seen by the famous oculist of the day and a friend of the Yeats family, Sir William Wilde. He believed the cataract was too delicate to operate on. He told her: `You are married so just leave it alone.' Then he added as an afterthought: `And ask your husband when Thomas Yeats is going to send me that fishing rod he promised me.' The 1870 drawing, clearly shows the damaged eye. But it shows much more besides. The expression is withdrawn and the eyes look inward. A handkerchief is held over the mouth, and the chubby-cheeked Lily, in the foreground, appears to have drained from her mother all her vitality and energy. This sad transformation must have weighed heavily on her family as they witnessed it during each successive visit to the family home in Sligo.
After one such visit, in the late summer of 1871, Susan and the family returned to the Fitzroy Road house (fig. 5). It was the beginning of probably the worst year in her life. She was deeply affected, both mentally and physically, by the stress of poverty. She was also worn down by childbearing. She was unable to deal with her husband. She could not persuade him of the seriousness of his responsibilities. She could not cope with the burdens which fell upon her. She could not please him. The self-styled rational man did not act according to reason; and his wife could not reason. In a penetrating phrase, her eldest son describes `my Sligo-born mother whose actions were unreasoning and habitual like the seasons'.
It is not clear how practical she was, though it is certain she did not deserve quite such a poor opinion from her husband, who claimed: `Susan could not have boiled an egg', and that he never left the house -- which he did all the time, with scant regard for the consequences -- without `wondering what would happen in his absence'. In all those years nothing untoward did happen. Her upbringing had not given her any domestic training or talents to suit her to an impoverished life. She had been conditioned to the smooth management of a large house in Sligo. She was also imaginative, if at the same time melancholy.
The relationship contained many explosive ingredients, among them John Butler Yeats's distrust of his wife's capacities in the home. But the growing disaffection was rooted in more fundamental differences. These went far beyond his failures to make money. The spiritual dimension of their lives caused problems too. Religion played an important part in Susan's life, and she wanted her children brought up in the Protestant faith. John Butler Yeats, despite being the son and grandson of clergymen, and knowing how much it would mean to his wife, refused to allow this. For him the Christian faith was no more than myth and fable, and he imposed this `free-thinking' in a doctrinaire way on his wife and children.
On the three key issues of faith, art and politics, John and Susan Yeats were at odds. She did not understand his art nor his artistic friends. He could not accept her faith, and sought to deprive his children of it. Politically, John Butler Yeats was a free-thinker; he espoused a demonstrative form of nationalism, derived from his friend, Isaac Butt, and augmented intellectually by his own vigorous faculty for reasoning and arguing. Susan, on the other hand, was conservative; she came from a more cautious and conventional background in which mercantile objectives went hand-in-hand with support for the political establishment.
So Susan returned to London with a sinking heart, and settled to face the daunting task of bringing up her five children, while her husband tried to roar on down the road of art. Combined with his studies, he embarked uncertainly on a painter's career. Given that he was thirty-two years old at the time of Jack's birth, and had four other children, it was late enough to be approaching so momentous a decision without greater conviction. He relied on his own good intentions and, as we have mentioned, they were largely unsupported either by concrete achievement or adequate financial resources. Gifted, fluent, clear in expressing his liberal, nationalist opinions, he used none of his talents effectively. The best that can be asserted is that his nationalism, his instinctive talent for art, and his good manners, were all inherited by his son, Jack. But too much talk and argument, too much speculation and philosophising, far too much dithering over commissions and an unrealistic fastidiousness about taking work as an illustrator, meant that he earned no money.
Established Irish artists working in London, among them John Henry Foley, the sculptor, and Richard Doyle, the fantasy artist, gave him help, encouragement and advice. Among fellow-students John Trivett Nettleship and Edwin J. Ellis were close friends, and to a slightly lesser extent George Wilson, a Scot. None of them achieved any great success. Willie claimed that Ellis had a natural gift for poetry, which he found `moving'; and he was astonished at the painter's ability to `cast something just said into a dozen lines of musical verse, without apparently ceasing to talk'. But he was not interested in him as a painter; too late for Pre-Raphaelitism, too early for the French painters, he `showed no influence but that of Leighton'. Together, the four artists constituted `The Brotherhood', and their passionate devotion to ideas, and the belief that all the arts were interdependent, gave them inexhaustible material for endless and high-flown debate.
Ellis was the closest friend of all (fig. 6), but uncongenial to Susan, who really hated him. As a fellow-artist he declared art was a common bond: `It is our wife,' he told John Butler Yeats in a letter; `Were we to lose it, nothing would make up for the loss'. This veneration of art implicitly strengthened the friendship between the two men, further excluding Susan. And it was a telling metaphor, insulting to the threadbare domesticity into which he so rudely and so regularly intruded. John Butler Yeats, however, accepted this view and leaned more heavily on Ellis as his friend. According to a letter from John Todhunter to Edward Dowden, Yeats, `told me that marriage was a fatal mistake and that I should spend it hereafter in sackcloth & ashes Friendship is only thing worth living for'. Ellis visited the house often, was rude to Susan, often ignoring her completely, or using terms about art and literature which were obscure, pompous and almost explicitly disdainful of her more ordinary interests and knowledge. In another letter, Todhunter wrote: `His [Ellis's] manners are to me disgusting, although Yeats insists on it that he is a perfect gentleman. I don't wonder at all at poor little Mrs Yeats's hatred of him -- he has not only estranged her husband from her, but he quietly ... ignores her existence'. The children were the silent and largely uncomprehending witnesses to the frequent distress.
It was a time of `wearing anxiety', John Butler Yeats told Susan, `injuring our characters as well as our physical strength'. And their unhappiness no doubt had a subconscious impact on the children. Worse was to follow: by the time Jack was approaching his first birthday a decision had been made, in principle, that Susan, with all the children, would go home to Sligo, and that no plans would be made for the usual autumn return to London. John Butler Yeats would remain alone, to grapple with his art and philosophise with his friends.
Thus it was, with Jack not yet a year old, that the five children and their mother again left London, on 23 July 1872, and took the train for Liverpool. Charles Pollexfen, the eldest son, was in charge of the Liverpool offices of their father's steamship service, the Sligo Steamship Navigation Company. He welcomed Susan and her family who were given special treatment on the voyage round the north-west coast of Ulster and into the Atlantic. Everyone, the shipping staff at the quayside, the crew on board, and the familiar faces, when they docked in Sligo, indulged them and the journey was like a welcome home. The children were William Pollexfen's first grandchildren, and William Butler Yeats recalls the special pleasures of that summer voyage:
When I arrived at the Clarence Basin, Liverpool, on my way to Sligo for my holidays I was among Sligo people ... I came and went once or twice in every year ... I waited for this voyage always with excitement and boasted to other boys about it ... while I remember stories ... and the look of the great cliffs of Donegal and Tory Island men coming alongside with lobsters, talking Irish and, if it was night, blowing on a burning sod to draw our attention.
It is perhaps not surprising that the seamen, when once they saw Willie's father travelling with his family, would say, `There is John Yeats and we shall have a storm.' He was considered unlucky, though whether by instinct or reputation is not known. Two photographs show that he too bore the marks of an unhappy marriage. The first is of him in 1863, with dundreary whiskers but no beard, solid, self-confident, good-looking and certainly determined in his expression. The second, from about 1875, shows him bearded, with the hairline just beginning to recede, and with a sad and pensive look in his face; the brow is beginning to be furrowed with doubt, and the eyes are sad and without sparkle (fig. 7).
Even more compelling evidence is a letter he wrote to Susan from Fitzroy Street not long after her departure with the children in July 1872. He was a prince among letter-writers as we shall see, sending a fluid, magical flow of literally hundreds of thousands of words to friends and children through a long life. This letter, however, is quite the opposite: a halting and embarrassed mixture of homily and news, uncertain and self-doubting, with just occasional touches of his wise concern.
I hope you continue reading to the children; working and caring for children makes one anxious and careful of them, but amusing them makes one fond of them. Tell me constantly of the children. Ellis and Nettleship had their pictures rejected by the New British Ex, in Bond St. to which they sent them after they had been refused by the Dudley. I hope you let Isabella know these little bits of artistic gossip and such-like. Ask her to write to me. Your affectionate husband -- J.B. Yeats.
P.S. I am glad you are doing nothing. If you could be got to do this oftener -- particularly when you have a cold beginning you would now be a strong woman ...
Closer to that Christmas, John Butler Yeats wrote an even more poignant letter to his wife.
I do not at all wonder at your mother thinking I have no common sense -- I fancy she cant understand my reading so much or occupying myself with ideas -- she of course cannot know that these are the materials with which I work. I know that years back I have night and day thought of nothing else except how and when I can get a competency -- time only can tell whether I am on the right track -- I cannot say when I shall (have) enough for you to come to London ... I shall be more worth your liking when we next live together --
On this second trip, for Jack, to the west of Ireland, the family stayed for a period of two years and four months. Those early years instilled in him a powerful debt to a part of Ireland `at its Westernmost and finest ... in a deep broad country, with a magnificent sea-coast, and Mountains stooping to the beaches, and lakes and bogs and Inland Towns; and a fine sea port.'
In the case of Sligo, the remarkable beauty of the place was reinforced by the comfort, welcome and affection within the Pollexfen home. Merville `was a pleasant house to come to, up under haunted trees ... an old house in that old town. And every night the dining-room, and the passages near it, are suffused with a sweet and comforting smell which permeates no passages now. It is the smell of Whiskey Punch.'
All the children loved Sligo. Willie in his fifties, passing by the drinking fountain in Holland Park, had a moment of Proustian recall when he remembered himself and Lily standing in the same place and speaking together of their longing for Sligo and their hatred of London.
I know we were both very close to tears and remember with wonder, for I had never known any one that cared for such mementoes, that I longed for a sod of earth from some field I knew, something of Sligo to hold in my hand. It was some old race instinct like that of a savage, for we had been brought up to laugh at all display of emotion.
There are other memories, comic or fearful by turn, but rich and abiding, told and retold by his sister and his brother, clearly recounted first by his mother, or by one or other of the many family members who surrounded the children during the Sligo visits. Over all these people looms the figure of Jack's grandfather, the man who dominated his life then and for years to come, William Pollexfen.
Each of the children had a different view of this man. Willie was fearful, Lily respectful, Lolly amused. But Jack regarded him, from the start, with an instinctive and fearless understanding. He was too young to be intimidated by the myths; from the outset, he treated his grandfather as a companion. Of all the children he was the only one to talk with his grandfather, to go about with him, and, in a childlike way, to direct and control him. Pollexfen became Jack's replacement father for the crucial early years of his life. The association was powerful and pervasive.
William Pollexfen was a powerfully built man (fig. 11). Though neither stout, nor particularly tall, at 5' 9", he was physically formidable, and widely respected and feared for his physical courage and intrepid spirit. His complexion was fresh, his eyes very blue, and, when the Yeats children knew him, his hair and beard were white. `He held himself very upright and walked stiffly, creaking a little as he went; he always looked the sea captain.' His clothes, according to Lily, were generally grey. He wore shoes made to his own design by a Sligo shoemaker called Andie May; they were pumps with no laces or buttons, but with `a little gusset of elastic'. May used to visit the house and make William Pollexfen stand on a sheet of white paper, `nervously' drawing round his foot with a pencil. In summer his granddaughter remembers that he liked to wear a buff linen waistcoat. She writes that `he never went to a shop. The tailors came in the same way, and measured him up for his clothes.'
He was indisputably the head of the house, although he was neither oppressive nor unfair. Lily, who endeavoured to present an objective portrait of her grandparents in her memoir, writes `Grandpapa Pollexfen was liked, admired and avoided, he never talked to anyone, he grumbled, complained and ejaculated all day long, the past and the future had no interest for him at all, he was in such a state of irritation with the present moment that he could think of nothing else.'
He was a successful merchant surrounded by a grown family, and reliant on his wife for the smooth running of their large house which was central to Sligo's mercantile society. To the breakfast table came the patriarch, dressed for the day's many challenges. He struck off the top of his egg as though it were the head of a prisoner being executed, and it flew away across the room. `Where the top of the egg went to was not his business. It might hit a grandchild or the ceiling. He never looked.' The children tried to seat themselves on the same side of the table as their grandfather in order not to be noticed, since he noticed everything, yet there is no evidence of any retribution. William Pollexfen was a rational individual, a practical man, and intensely hard-working.
Until he was over eighty he remained very vigorous, happiest when out on the quayside, in his ships, or with his men. His wife still did the housekeeping, and attended to all his wants herself, preparing his linen, ensuring that his cufflinks and collar studs were in the right place (see fig. 12). Lily was later called on to write letters on their behalf, and did so from her grandmother's dictation. But her grandfather, sitting on the sofa, would interrupt, saying crossly, `That will do now, you have said enough'. Sometimes, when his irritability was excessive, or when he overstepped some unwritten, unspoken mark of tolerance, his wife Elizabeth would look nervous and blink her eyes. Then he would look at her, give a short laugh, and be quiet. She seems to have had a tranquillising effect on him. He would sit with her while she read to him, often from the Bible, which was constantly beside her, with a marker in the page on which the 109th Psalm appeared, as a warning against ever reading it, `until tired out he went to bed. Coming over to Grandmama he took off a little silk skull cap he wore -- kissed her like a good child, and went to his own room. And a great peace fell on us all.'
William Pollexfen was brave and successful, even in ways heroic. He had lived a life of adventure at sea before settling in Sligo. He had a great scar round one thumb which, it was claimed, had come from a `flensing' hook, used to cut open a whale's body and take off skin. It was assumed that there must have been a fight, but no one dared ask him. On his right hand he wore a large ring containing a red cartouche. One day on the quays in Sligo he lost his temper, and struck out at a man who fell. The ring cut the man, and he was brought up to the house and compensated in some way, though he kept repeating, `The Master never meant it at all, it was his big ring.' This of course invested the ring with compelling properties for the grandchildren, and Lily recounts staring at it in church. William Pollexfen and his wife were devout members of the Church of Ireland. He was also a Freemason. He took pride in what was then St John's Church, and is now the cathedral. And he was a vestryman. Lily recalls once in church, during very disturbed times, `a revolver just showing out of his side pocket'.
Willie also had many recollections:
the jar of water from the Jordan for the baptising of his children and Chinese pictures upon rice-paper and ivory walking-stick from India that came to me after his death. He had great physical strength and had the reputation of never ordering a man to do anything he would not do himself ... He had a violent temper and kept a hatchet at his bedside for burglars and would knock a man down instead of going to law, and I once saw him hunt a group of men with a horsewhip. He had no relation for he was an only child and, being solitary and silent, he had few friends. He corresponded with Campbell of Islay who had befriended him and his crew after a shipwreck, and Captain Webb, the first man who had swum the Channel and who was drowned swimming the Niagara Rapids, had been a mate in his employ and a close friend ... Yet for all my admiration and alarm, neither I nor any one else thought it wrong to outwit his violence or his rigour; and his lack of suspicion and a certain helplessness made that easy while it stirred our affection.
William Pollexfen was born in March 1811 at Berry Head, in Devon. He ran away to sea in 1823, at the age of twelve. `I went to sea through the hawse hole' was how he expressed it, and he seems to have voyaged widely for a period of ten years before moving to Sligo. He was the only child of Anthony Pollexfen and Mary Stephens. In the mid-eighteenth century the family, which had a tradition of antagonism to Court and Crown, became nonconformist. 'Charles Pollexfen (Anthony Pollexfen's cousin) was an evangelising Wesleyan minister, and happened to be stationed on circuit in the Channel Islands, when his fifteen-year-old daughter in 1813 accepted the hand of the Sligo merchant William Middleton.' In any history involving the Yeatses, the Middleton name, famous in Sligo over the last two centuries, is of great importance, and for Jack in particular. They were his family. Both his Pollexfen and Middleton ancestors brought with them an association with the sea, piracy and nautical adventure. This was to play a large part in his imagination, inspiring innumerable early drawings, watercolours, and his plays for children. Though not as dominant in the family story as the Pollexfens, William Middleton, his great-grandfather on his grandmother's side, and his family are responsible for the founding of the family fortune and for the connection which led to Pollexfen's initial and momentous arrival in Sligo. For William Pollexfen's arrival in Sligo, in 1832, was no accident. He came to the town because of his kinsfolk there, the Middletons.
Elizabeth Pollexfen, Susan's grandmother was no more than a `child wife', when she married William Middleton and she brought her five-year old brother with her to the far Atlantic coast of Ireland. This strange act, blessed it seems by her parents, had tragic consequences, for the boy died not long after. Lily reports that her great-grandmother `had not the courage to break it to her people, history says, for years, but I hardly think that can be true'.
In Sligo William Middleton became prominent not only in commercial affairs, but also in charitable works. He played a brave part in the cholera epidemic which more than decimated the town population, in the great European epidemic of the disease in 1832. This work, to which he dedicated all his efforts, had tragic conclusions. Coming home one evening he found a victim dying by the roadside, and carried the person home. He contracted the disease himself, and died, leaving his young wife of only thirty seven years, and her young children.
When he heard of William Middleton's death, William Pollexfen went to Sligo, in his own ship, called The Dasher, to see if he could help his cousin. She accepted the offer of help, and he remained for the rest of his life in Sligo. Five years later he married his cousin's eldest daughter, also Elizabeth, and he and his brother-in-law, who was then a boy, ran the business.
William and Elizabeth Pollexfen had a family of twelve children. Jack's mother, Susan, was the third child, and the eldest daughter. She was born in 1841. Her two elder brothers, Charles and George, were at school with John Butler Yeats. It was this association which led to their meeting, and then to marriage. There were nine other Pollexfen children, one of whom, William, died at the age of two, in 1846, his name then being used for the next child, born the following year.
Lily, in her charming memoir of her maternal grandparents, and of other Middleton and Pollexfen connections, writes of the transfer of power which took place in the early years of the nineteenth century, and of the fruits of this which played so great a part on their childhood days in Sligo, and on later memories. `The great magnates who controlled the milling industry, the late Abram Martin, Culbertson and Madden, passed out one by one.' William Middleton became a central figure amongst the tightly managed business community, and himself 'emerged into the limelight', side-by-side with his brother-in-law, William Pollexfen.
There was a dark side to Sligo port business during the Famine, when ships left with human cargo. Among these vessels were the infamous `coffin ships', chartered as part of the process of land clearance. These were often inadequate hulks, unsuited to the ocean journeys they had to make, and catering badly for the destitute people on board them. Some were doomed, and known to be so by their masters, who took the passage money, and then, when the ships met bad weather, abandoned them and their living cargo, often battened below decks, taking to sea in a cutter which held only the crew. William Butler Yeats recalls an old naval officer singing a ballad about a coffin ship leaving Sligo after the famine. `When she was moved from the berth she had lain in, an unknown dead man's body had floated up, a very evil omen; and my grandfather, who was Lloyd's agent, had condemned her, but she slipped out in the night.' Jack remembered the story also, but recorded it in a different way, years later, when he made the fate of emigrants aboard a `coffinship' the main theme in his play for miniature theatre, The Treasure of the Garden.
And Willie tells another, quite different story, instructive of Pollexfen's character and his courage:
Once too I was driving with my grandmother a little after dark close to the Channel that runs for some five miles from Sligo to the sea, and my grandmother showed me the red light of an outward-bound steamer and told me that my grandfather was on board, and that night in my sleep I screamed out and described the steamer's wreck. The next morning my grandfather arrived on a blind horse found for him by grateful passengers. He had, as I remember the story, been asleep when the captain aroused him to say they were going on the rocks. He said, `Have you tried sail on her?' and judging from some answer that the captain was demoralised took over the command and, when the ship could not be saved, got the crew and passenger into the boats. His own boat was upset and he saved himself and some others by swimming; some women had drifted ashore, buoyed up by their crinolines. `I was not so much afraid of the sea as of that terrible man with his oar,' was the comment of a schoolmaster who was among the survivors. Eight men were, however, drowned and my grandfather suffered from that memory at intervals all his life, and if asked to read family prayers never read anything but the shipwreck of St Paul.
When William Pollexfen returned for dinner at the old-fashioned hour of four o'clock each afternoon, he brought with him his partner and brother-in-law, William Middleton. Middleton was a bachelor and spent the early evening with his sister's family before going out to Rosses Point. He was a sympathetic man, and had inherited some of his father's boundless compassion. By mid-century Sligo was set fair on the road to becoming Ireland's busiest west coast trading port, which Thomas Carlyle described as the Liverpool of the west of Ireland. The Middleton-Pollexfen partnership had recognised the importance of shipping.
William Middleton had standing in the town of Sligo; but rapidly enough William Pollexfen's drive and ambition, backed by great physical strength and powerful courage, made him the dominant partner. It was he who ran the enterprise, day-to-day, and planned its development. When he joined both the family and the firm, they were running a fleet of fast sailing vessels between Sligo, Portugal and Spain. The cargoes were mixed. Grain was brought in for the mills in Sligo. Salt was brought from Portugal. Sheep, cattle, wool were exported. William's eldest son, George, used to name the vessels for Lily, and would recall for her his one adventure, a voyage to Portugal aboard the Bacalieu. As the sailing vessels were replaced by steam they were turned into lighters. The ocean-going steamers were too large to negotiate the five-mile channel into Sligo port from Rosses Point, and lay out in the deep-water anchorages in Sligo Bay while their cargoes of wheat were unloaded onto the old sailing ships. `In our day these gay little ships' lives were over, and they, as old black hulls ... clustered round the great corn steamers from America and the Black Sea, the yellow corn being poured into them with a delightful rushing sound.'
As well as managing the family fleet, William Pollexfen was also responsible for buying the Ballysodare and Sligo Mills. By the time the Yeats children were born, the firm was big, its owners rich and proud men. Without question, the presiding genius was William Pollexfen himself. Murphy says of him: `His lack of interest in education was matched only by his desire to accumulate worldly goods and to raise his family in station.' Where the alleged lack of interest in education came from, in a man who sent two sons to the same Atholl Academy on the Isle of Man to which John Butler Yeats was sent, it is difficult to say. As to the desire to raise his family in social standing, William Pollexfen would have pleaded guilty, and the court of Victorian virtue would have exonerated him from all blame. That court would also have admired -- and perhaps envied -- the fine house with sixty acres, the large, well-dressed and well-cared for family, the extensive business, the servants, horses, carriages, and many other `worldy goods'.
The huge figure of William Pollexfen was to occupy a central position in Jack's life from his infancy until he went to art school, in 1887, at the age of sixteen. His wife Elizabeth played an equally important role (fig. 12). When William Pollexfen first met her, in 1832, she was the eldest of the Middleton children. She was born in Wine Street in a comfortable house which afterwards became the offices for the firm. She went to school in Sligo, but studied music and painting at the convent. She lived through the cholera epidemic in 1832, and hers is the moving account of her father at that time, who said that enough people were caring for the souls of the sick and dying, he would attend to their bodies and worldly affairs. He nursed them, made their wills, put up a notice in the town urging people not to be afraid, but to have courage. And it was when the epidemic was almost over that he succumbed to the disease. At the time of his death a little daughter, Mary, who was four years old, also died. `There is a story that he and she were seen after death walking hand in hand in the garden and that a pet dog saw them also and ran to meet them.'
Elizabeth Middleton had a sister, Agnes, and two brothers, William and John. There were several other children, but they died young. Great aunt Agnes, and the two great uncles, were all part of Jack's childhood. His grandmother was a small, handsome woman, only 5' 4" in height, and while still young he towered over her -- and his grandfather.
She dressed very daintily. She wore black silk dresses generally, a cap, collar and cuffs of real lace, a quilted black satin petticoat, cream coloured stockings and thin black shoes. Out of doors she wore a long black silk jacket and a wide bonnet. She loved the garden, and spent much time there. She would put on a sunbonnet of flowered silk over her cap, and would make little plantations of carnation cuttings by dividing the violet sections and rooting them herself. `She also grew a strange plant with big shiny leaves out of which she had big brews of ointment made which she gave away to all who came for it. People came miles for it. The plant had been sent to her from America. It was just called "the healing plant".'
( Continues ... )
|Chapter One Origins||1|
|Chapter Two Early Life in Sligo||17|
|Chapter Three Art School in London 1887-1889||29|
|Chapter Four Bedford Park -- the 1890s||45|
|Chapter Five Work and Marriage 1891-1897||57|
|Chapter Six Devon and the First London Shows 1897-1899||68|
|Chapter Seven Miniature Theatre 1900-1901||81|
|Chapter Eight The Broadsheets and John Masefield 1901-1903||100|
|Chapter Nine Ireland and the United States 1904-1905||116|
|Chapter Ten John M. Synge 1905-1909||132|
|Chapter Eleven Last Days in England 1909-1910||152|
|Chapter Twelve The Broadsides 1910-1915||166|
|Chapter Thirteen Nervous Breakdown 1915-1918||185|
|Chapter Fourteen A Dublin Man 1919-1922||202|
|Chapter Fifteen Modernism and the Issue of Style 1923-1930||217|
|Chapter Sixteen Career as a Writer 1931-1935||238|
|Chapter Seventeen `Lives' 1936-1938||258|
|Chapter Eighteen Death of William Butler Yeats 1939||272|
|Chapter Nineteen The Outbreak of War 1940-1942||293|
|Chapter Twenty Painter Triumphant 1943-1945||307|
|Chapter Twenty-One Death forOnly One 1945-1947||322|
|Chapter Twenty-Two Last Years 1948-1957||337|
|Note on Illustrations and Photographic Credits||403|