W.B. Yeats: A Life, Volume One: The Apprentice Mage, 1865-1914

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William Butler Yeats has cast his long shadow over the history of both modern poetry and modern Ireland for so long that his preeminence is taken for granted. Now, in the first authorized biography of Yeats to appear in over fifty years, leading Irish historian R.F. Foster travels beyond Yeats's towering image as arguably the century's greatest poet to restore a real sense of Yeats's extraordinary life as Yeats himself experienced it--what he saw, what he did, the passions and the petty squabbles that consumed ...
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Overview


William Butler Yeats has cast his long shadow over the history of both modern poetry and modern Ireland for so long that his preeminence is taken for granted. Now, in the first authorized biography of Yeats to appear in over fifty years, leading Irish historian R.F. Foster travels beyond Yeats's towering image as arguably the century's greatest poet to restore a real sense of Yeats's extraordinary life as Yeats himself experienced it--what he saw, what he did, the passions and the petty squabbles that consumed him, and his alchemical ability to transmute the events of his crowded and contradictory life into enduring art.
In the first volume of this long-awaited biography, Foster covers the poet's first fifty years, bringing new light to bear on Yeats's heroic and often ruthless efforts to invent himself as a poet and public figure. Drawn from a fascinating archive of personal and contemporary documents with the cooperation of surviving members of the Yeats family, it dramatically alters long-held assumptions about the poet's background, his relationship with Maud Gonne and other women, and his roles in the great cultural and political upheavals that transformed Ireland in his lifetime. A rich and entertaining account of Yeats's boyhood days amidst the talented but troubled members of the Yeats and Pollexfen clans provides important insight into the poet's deep and lifelong connection to the Irish landscape, his early, impassioned embrace of the nationalist cause, and his later retreat to the traditions of the once grand Protestant aristocracy. In his own day Yeats attracted enemies and admirers with equal passion, and Foster vividly recreates the friendships, love affairs, and simmering rivalries that swirled about the poet's circles in London, Dublin, and Coole Park. Complementing his meticulous scholarship with a shrewd wit and a novelist's eye for detail, he chronicles the romantic disappointments, financial difficulties, experimentation with hashish and mescal, and the growing preoccupation with the occult that prefaced Yeats's attempt to unite Irish politics with high culture and his creation of an Irish national theater. Here are the poet's memorable encounters with many of the most interesting people of his time, including Oscar Wilde, George Bernard Shaw, Lady Gregory, J.M. Synge, Ezra Pound, James Joyce, and the wildly diverse leaders of the Irish independence movement. And here at last is a full accounting of the complex bond between Yeats and the incomparable Maud Gonne, revealed as an influence eternally recreated 'like the phoenix,' affecting almost everything he did.
Poet, playwright, mystic and revolutionary; lover, confidant, and friend. This brilliant account of the public and private lives of William Butler Yeats illuminates not only the wellspring of his artistic vision, but the modern Irish identity he helped to create. It is essential reading for anyone intrigued by one of the most original and influential voices of the twentieth century.
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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"Rich as Yeats's achievements had been, Mr. Foster says in his final paragraph, what lay ahead would be more astonishing. The old magician, apprentice no longer, has found in Mr. Foster a worthy biographer. He would be relieved to know, as readers of Irish writing have known for some years, that the biographer is himself a fine writer, bearing with grace his knowledge of Irish history, and writing with wit, authority and, when appropriate, considerable eloquence."--New York Times Book Review

"A wonderful work of scholarship. It turns Yeats around, making us see his poems from within his life and helps us to experience them in a way that both revealing and intensely moving."--Washington Times

"The often quite grim youthful experiences, the yearnings, the search for love, the magical evocations of place and time, which we have all known for so long, take on a new and deeper intesnsity as we explore with Mr. Foster their background and their inspiration. This is a great story of Ireland's greatest poet, and it is superbly told."--

"With a shrewd sense of irony, Foster vividly evokes the frustrations of Yeats's apprentice years."--Inside Publishing

"By showing that the explosion of heroic myths can enhance rather than diminish humanity, Roy Foster's book has opened up new visions not just of Yeats but of the Irish culture he did so much to create."--he Economist Review

"In this superb biography, Foster unscrambles destiny and complicates it into life. The most distinguished Irish historian alive, Foster floods his Yeats with historical detail"--James Woods, Slate

"Foster has rightly dubbed his biography a 'thick' history of Yeats's life; it's also a smoothly written one that is politically as well as psychologically astute."--The Nation

"Mr. Foster has a jeweler's eye for the crystallizing moments in Yeats's development."Wall Street Journal

"Foster gives us a considerably more nuanced view of what it means to be a mystic, a holy man, a seer in modern times than Yeats biographers before him. He shows that Yeats was a s much a striver as a seeker--that the poet cannot be understood except as a man on the make, in pursuit of fame, love, and revelation."--Weekly Standard

Atlantic Monthly
A work of huge significance because it is intellectually equal to its subject and intuitively at one with him.
Kim McMullen
Even granting Foster's brilliant command of historical detail, his carefully nuanced perspective on Yeat's aesthetics and ploitics, his resourceful research, the dry restraint of his scholarly humor, nonetheless, the poet has been dead nearly sixty years....And yet ironically, the questions that preoccupied Yeats...remain as current as a headline.
The Kenyon Review
Booknews
The first volume in a new authorized biography of the poet who remains the center of both Irish and Modern poetry as well as a historical focal point for the Irish Nationalist Movement. Foster (Irish history, Oxford U.) is an engaging writer, portraying the nuances of the poet's life from 1865 through 1914 and drawing on previously unpublished letters and documents to bring to light new biographical information about Yeats's love affairs, his involvement in the theatre and in occultism, his political sympathies, and, of course, his association with luminaries such as George Bernard Shaw, Ezra Pound, and James Joyce. Includes illustrations and photographs. Annotation c. by Book News, Inc., Portland, Or.
Irish America Magazine
...[A] compelling work and a must for Yeats devotees...
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780192117359
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press, USA
  • Publication date: 2/28/1997
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 704
  • Product dimensions: 9.56 (w) x 6.56 (h) x 1.71 (d)

Meet the Author

R.F. Foster is Carroll Professor of Irish History, Hertford College, Oxford. His books include Modern Ireland 1600-1972, The Oxford Illustrated History of Ireland, and acclaimed biographies of Charles Stewart Parnell and Lord Randolph Churchill.

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Read an Excerpt



CHAPTER ONE

Chapter I: The Artist's Children Sligo 1865-1881

Children live a fantastic life, in which there is everything except human love and human pity and human regret. They weep, like geniuses, tears upon tears for some dead Orpheus of whom they have dreamt and pass with wondering indifference, like geniuses, among the sorrows of their own household.

Cancelled passage from The Speckled Bird

I

`Everyone's life is a long series of miraculous escapee,' wrote JBY with characteristic insouciance. His own career was certainly a series of determined attempts to avoid entrapment of one sort or another. The clergyman's son, with his romantic good looks, graceful manner and myriad talents, grew up determined to fly by the nets of Irish Protestant respectability. He succeeded in this through a determined culte de moi; in many ways sweet-natured, formidably articulate and relentlessly charming, he was also fundamentally self-centred and prone to storms of petulance. Like many such people, he was a great dilettante; although unlike many, he possessed a real artistic talent. But there was a determined addiction to failure in his character; and he was often inconsistent, even in his brilliantly articulated opinions.

The career that was marked out for him was one of the preordained paths for his caste: school in England, Trinity College, Dublin, the Irish Bar. But early on he was determined to deviate. Symbolically, he described himself as having an `incapacity for arithmetic ... a genius for ignoring and denying facts'. Long before he met his wife, the patterns which would infuriate her hadbeen fixed: his refusal to `settle', his mockery of the world of `getting on', his need to be the centre of a sociable circle. And equally early his simultaneous fascination with and repulsion towards her family had been awakened. If it is true that in all human relationships a third person is silently present, that presence in the Yeats marriage was Susan Pollexfen's brother George.

JBY'S obsession with George Pollexfen is important, not least because it was inherited by his eldest son. Both Yeatses needed to fascinate, and George Pollexfen was determined not to be fascinated. `He was a genuine Pollexfen, and regarded affection as something contraband.' Nor, for his part, did he have any interest in fascinating other people. `George looks at you with the face of a horse, which effectively prevents his being a social success.' But what excited JBY about the morose fellow-Irishman he first encountered at his Isle of Man school in 1851 was the original and implicitly poetic nature banked beneath. `That was the light within him that lured our affection.' He told spellbinding stories to the other boys at night; he was, and remained, a devout believer in astrology and occultism. And he remained unmoved by opinions. To JBY, formed by reading Mill, Comte and other positivists, and plagued by opinions, George presented an infuriating conundrum. JBY'S annoyance did not decrease as George retreated into hypochondria and occult investigations, and was exacerbated when his friendship, so earnestly desired, was removed from JBY and extended instead to his eldest son. George and JBY fell out, eventually, over an unpaid debt of 20 [pounds sterling] — a matter in which George's attitude genuinely dumbfounded JBY. `That in his estimate outweighed all my qualities and, as it were, nullified all the claims of friendship which began at school where we were inseparable companions.' Similarly, he found it incredible that George refused him a `loan' when JBY was emigrating to the USA — `to me his school friend who married his sister.' And, a Pollexfen would have added, a man who never paid his debts.

From Atholl Academy JBY proceeded to Trinity College in 1857; never really happy there, he graduated (with an unclassified degree, due to illness) in 1862 and proceeded to read law at the King's Inns. George Pollexfen had returned to Sligo and the family business. And here JBY came to visit in September 1862. The Yeatses themselves had Sligo connections through JBY'S grandfather John, Rector of Drumcliffe; his courtship of George's sister Susan began, and he returned there to marry her on 10 September 1863. Thus Sligo would be the basis of their marriage; both their addresses were given as the Pollexfen home on Union Place, though JBY stayed at the Imperial Hotel. The wedding at St John's, Sligo, was witnessed by JBY's uncle Thomas Yeats and Susan's uncle William Middleton; the bridesmaids were two Yeatses, a Pollexfen, an Armstrong, a Dawson and a Middleton. A story of their honeymoon was retailed long afterwards by their daughter Lily:

It was here [the Railway Hotel, Galway] Papa and Mama came over 60 years ago on their honeymoon. Mama had never stayed in an hotel, and Papa got ill, and she tried to light a fire and failed, and Papa got cross and said it would take a coach and four to wait on her, and then she went out for help and stood on the landing and looked down the great well to the hall, and heard some children on the top floor saying their prayers, and she felt homesick. They had a sitting room and Papa had to go to bed. She sat alone for dinner and they brought her a shoulder of mutton. She cut it once, and then, aghast at the way it opened out, looking as if she had eaten quite a pound of meat, 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, and his illness proved to be Diphtheria!

This not only indicates the kind of stories their mother told her children, as full of artistic and circumstantial detail as any Irish seanchai; it also symbolizes much about the relationship that was to develop. `I became engaged on two or three days acquaintance, and it was not first love or love at all,' wrote JBY over fifty years later to Rosa Butt, `(this really entre nous — I have never confessed it to anyone) — but just destiny.' Elsewhere he complained that he could never talk to his wife: `If I showed her my real thoughts she became quite silent and silent for days, though inwardly furious.'

This may be less surprising to us than to him. Susan Pollexfen Yeats was notably pretty; her eldest son was told later that she had been `the most beautiful woman in Sligo', and her husband's early sketches show a pensive face, large-eyed and delicate. He liked to write of his wife as withdrawn and unsure of herself, but their correspondence before marriage gives a very different impression. It also shows that JBY had a strong intuition of the kind of difficulties that marrying him might involve:

... I love you so much that I would like to share every mood with you. And to have nothing secret from your quick strength and common sense — you are more a man than a woman. Only I hope you won't henpeck me. And make me withdraw from the intimacy of all people who are not acceptable to your ladyship. You are fond of the Exercise of power and authority in which I quite agree & which bodes ill to my freedom. I shall be afraid to ask anybody to the house without first asking your permission and if I do how cross you'll be with your head thrown back. Your utterance short and abrupt, your dress rustling angrily. The storeroom key grating harshly and sharply in the lock. How my spirits will sink. And how uncomfortable the unfortunate guest will be. And what a milksop I'll be thought and what a tyrant you'll be thought and how you'll be dreaded accordingly. How my poor sisters will tremble at your frown and how we shall make common cause together.

But it was not Susan who turned out the tyrant; her husband's facility for a fait accompli outflanked her. Having married a law student with good connections and a solid background in the Protestant clerical establishment, she had no reason to anticipate being carried off to bohemia, and never reconciled herself to the abduction. Sligo remained her emotional base; reticent and occasionally caustic in the Pollexfen mode, she hated what she construed as the pretensions and social frivolity of `artistic' life. Nor did she share the Yeats fascination with how people behaved: like her brother George, she put up barriers. `All the time they were longing for affection,' JBY thought, `and their longing was like a deep unsunned well. And never having learned the language of affection they did not know how to win it. It is a language which, like good manners, must be learned in childhood. I more than once said to my wife that I never saw her show affection to me or to anyone, and yet it was there all the time.'

The Pollexfens' lack of amusement may have been to do with money. At the time of their marriage, the young couple were probably expecting the bride's family to help out. JBY'S father died on 24 November 1862; while his capital was valued at about 10,000 [pounds sterling], it was subject to mortgages and claims, and his eventual estate was registered as `effects under 300 [pounds sterling]. The Registry of Deeds in Dublin records a long list of charges on Yeats property arranged by JBY'S father — some of them involving deals with the Royal Exchange Assurance Company, which his brother-in-law Robert Corbet represented; in 1861 a case was brought against the Reverend Yeats by a creditor who tried to claim the Thomastown lands, but they stayed in the family's hands and were repeatedly remortgaged. His son's only income came from some Dublin house property (sold for 600 [pounds sterling] in early 1877, which was all swallowed by debts), and the farms at Thomastown, which had come down from his Butler great-grandmother. Family lore supposed this income to be 500 [pounds sterling] to 600 [pounds sterling] a year, a good income for an era when a hundred a year could keep hunters and servants. Actually in 1863 it brought in [pounds sterling] 379. 6s. od. net and that declined with agrarian crisis. It was remortgaged before the end of 1867; in 1873 net receipts were 206 [pounds sterling]; in 1874, 72 [pounds sterling]; and by 1880 it was bringing in practically nothing at all. The Corbet relationship, for all the apparent grandeur of `Sandymount Castle', ran more spectacularly into insolvency. Uncle Robert Corbet was a stockbroker and agent for the Royal Exchange Assurance Company, working for the Encumbered Estates Court, which sold off bankrupt estates after the Famine; he should have made a comfortable fortune. But he became embroiled in difficulties, and in 1870 committed suicide by jumping off the Holyhead mailboat. The Corbet-Yeats family history brings together all the emblems signifying the decline of an Ascendancy elite.

The Pollexfens, on the other hand, were apparently rich. The milling and shipping interests had prospered and expanded; grandfather Pollexfen reputedly had 4,000 [pounds sterling] a year. But he gave none of his daughters marriage portions, nor allowances to his unmarried daughters, even though he took over the property they inherited from the Middleton side. George Pollexfen made a good deal of money for his part, according to JBY, through the exertions of an alcoholic clerk possessed by financial genius, called Doyle. Though George was a nominal partner from 1884, in practice the firm was increasingly taken over by Arthur Jackson, who had married Alice Pollexfen. There were subsidiary elements of the business, like the Sligo Steam Navigation Company (founded by Susan's father, William Pollexfen, and his brothern-in-law William Middleton), whose Liverpool office was at one point managed by George (and also employed another brother, Alfred). Both Middleton and Pollexfen were directors of the Sligo Gas, Light & Coke Company, and prominent members of the Butter Market.

Middleton & Pollexfen were a not uncontroversial firm. Bitter battles had to be fought on the Town and Harbour Commission Board (a spectacularly unreformed body), and unfortunately for the public image of the brothers-in-law a fellow-member who opposed them, Alexander Gillmor, was also the proprietor of the Sligo Independent. William Pollexfen failed to be elected to the town council in November 1863, and again in 1867, running on a stout anti-reform platform. The firm's vested commercial interests were thrown against the Board's efforts to reform regulations concerning pilots. Middleton's immortality may be ensured through a mention on the first page of WBY'S Autobiographies, expressing gratitude to his great-uncle for the reflection that `we should not make light of the troubles of children'. But in contemporary local history he emerges as the voice of hard-headed and belligerent business interests, frequently accused of exploitation and monopoly. He was particularly notorious for `the grasping spirit displayed by him in the salvage courts', through whose activities the firm made much of its money — since they owned the only steam-tug in the port. This explains why William Falconer's Shipwreck was the only book WBY remembered upon his grandfather's table, except for the Bible. The Sligo Independent's description of the firm's attitude to rival local interests oddly echoes JBY'S description of the Pollexfens: `uniform bitterness, implacable hostility, and morose discontent'. Later, they were equally unpopular when they blocked the water-run to a local salmon-weir and opposed efforts to reform the harbour administration. They also argued against the preferred scheme for a clean water supply — again, in order to protect family interests. The firm stood `alone in obstruction and opposition', according to the Sligo Independent: `just the old story over again'. Middleton's effrontery, attempted `dictatorship' and nepotism in local affairs dominated the Sligo press in the 1870s; his influence in local elections was exerted on the Tory and Protestant side, though the firm employed Catholics and Protestants equally. William Pollexfen was among those found guilty of bribing voters in 1860: Sligo, until its disenfranchisement in 1870, was supposed to be `the most rotten borough in the kingdom'.

This was the basis on which local prominence was built. Oddly, WBY'S childhood vision saw Pollexfen as a passionate Lear-figure, and Middleton as quiet, civil and withdrawn — images reversed in local lore. To their grandchildren's generation, however, Middleton and Pollexfen stood as the elders of the tribe, respected and feared. Lily Yeats remembered returning to the town after a long English visit, aged seven or eight, and being greeted by blazing tar-barrels all along the road from the station. The family's move from Union Place to Merville, a large house outside the town with extensive outbuildings and a fine view of Ben Bulben, signified an advance in status. But they expected respectability of their relations: and JBY did not conform. In January 1866 he was called to the Bar, but in 1867 he abandoned law and went to art school in London: first Heatherley's, then the Slade. He was already a talented draughtsman, and his sketches of scenes in Dublin's law courts had become celebrated — too celebrated to do his career much good. On the strength of encouragement from a London magazine editor (Tom Hood of Fun) he took a drastic plunge. His first commission did not come until 1871, by which time he had four children and a discontented wife — all of whom spent much of their time with the Pollexfens in Sligo, for reasons of financial necessity.

Under such circumstances the marriage could not prosper. Susan Yeats, increasingly withdrawn and resentful, left her husband in no doubt about her feelings. `At first when Susan insulted me and my friends I used to mind a great deal, but afterwards I did not mind at all. I would say laughingly to her that if she drove me away there would not be a friend left to her.' (Such a fate was, of course, far less of a hardship to a Pollexfen than to a Yeats.) Her withdrawal eventually became depressive: Lily Yeats described her habit of lapsing into sleep. `[Her] illness was mental. She used to fall asleep as a young woman any time she sat quiet for a while or read out to us children. We just rattled her up again, poor woman.' Some local opinion thought that Susan was `always very odd', but JBY too readily stressed the Pollexfen propensity to `depressive mania'. He endlessly categorized and analysed her character, especially when writing after her death to his great love, Rosa Butt, trying to explain the low-key tragedy of Susan's life. Under the circumstances, he needed to be defensive: it is probable that he unduly emphasized his wife's propensity to lash out at him. Similarly, he stressed her hatred of his relentless sociability with like-minded artistic and literary friends.

She always had a poor opinion of her neighbours. This was her puritanism. Of the cleverest people she would always mutter, `They had no sense.' Her ill opinion was most undeviating and impartially unfair. But she never could see any difference between a lord and a labourer. Not that she had any kind of spite against the lord. Simply, distinctions of class did not exist for her, and the labourer she knew a great deal about. She was selfcentred and did not notice any person outside the few people she liked. They were very few.

There were, of course, two sides to this story, and hers is silence. JBY was, he told Rosa Butt, `always chaste ... I was faithful to my dear wife except for that one transitory passion which was to me a source of misery at the time.' Elsewhere he dates this lapse as soon after the marriage, in the 1860s. But there are other forms of infidelity. Susan Yeats, her background dominated by a powerful and taciturn father, entered marriage to be dominated by an equally self-willed, though talkative husband. His letters to her convey exasperation at her anxiety, and her health worries (`You tell me your weight but I don't know in the least whether it was good or bad — as I don't know what your weight was when last weighed.' `All your family's ailments begin in the mind a sort of nightmare takes possession of them and they lose their appetite and get ill.' But she had good reasons to feel uneasy.

From the beginning, it was a peripatetic life. JBY had lived with his widowed mother at 21 Morehampton Road, Dublin, before his marriage; the young couple rented 18 Madeley Terrace, Sandymount, after their wedding, and subsequently (in 1865) I George's Ville (now 5 Sandymount Avenue) near the Corbet home at Sandymount Castle. In late February or early March 1867, with JBY'S decision to leave the Bar and study art in London, they moved to 10 Gloucester Street, Regent's Park; from 1 July 1867 until July 1873 they occupied 23 Fitzroy Road near by. From October 1874 the whole family, reunited after an interim in Sligo, lived at 14 Edith Villas, North End, in Fulham. There were also studios at Newman Street (from October 1868) and subsequently Holland Park Road and Bedford Gardens: all this before the move to 8 Woodstock Road, Bedford Park, in the spring of 1879. Meanwhile there were the long summers in Sligo, often prolonged for the children into autumn. In 1868 they visited with their grandparents until Christmas; in 1872 Susan and her children stayed there for nearly two years, while Fitzroy Road was being given up. From the summer of 1879, a particularly low point for the Yeats family's morale, finances and parental relationship, the youngest child Jack lived with his grandparents for eight years.

`You must be a good wife,' JBY wrote to Susan in February 1873, `& heroic & not vex yourself about having to stop in Sligo till June or May. I know Merville is not a very pleasant house but I think it is pleasanter to be there than to be here with no money & not enough servants & a husband unsuccessful (you would perhaps put up with the husband but the anxiety and the work would simply kill you).' Alone in London, JBY could exercise unhampered his genius for demanding and intense friendship. He was stimulated by younger companions at Heatherley's, like John Trivett Nettleship and Edwin Ellis, both as interested in literature as in painting: both would become fixtures in the Yeats circle, resented by Susan Yeats (whom Ellis in turn particularly disliked). They were later joined, from Dublin, by the doctor-turned-poet John Todhunter, lured to London by JBY. From 1869 JBY shared a studio at 74 Newman Street with Ellis. This group of painters and writers, known loosely as `the Brotherhood', provided him with the kind of circle he craved, and in which he shone. And he had begun what would be a life's course of artistic procrastination, permanently plagued by an inability to finish a picture to his liking, whatever the circumstances. As time passed and poverty encroached, the Pollexfen world (which underwrote his family's precarious finances) maddened JBY: his accusations mounted up, wildly and entertainingly. The Pollexfens lived only for bad news; they refused to show affection, on principle; on their excruciating Sundays they sat all over the house in different rooms, refusing either to go out or to run the risk of meeting each other. Much of his Pollexfen obsession was rooted in guilt at being supported by them. Forty years later he still dreamt about his father-in-law, `who asked me how long I expected him to support me. I thought I was staying at Merville. I awoke miserable, and remained so for a long time.' In this uncertain, shifting world, with detached parents and constantly critical finances, the four children of John and Susan Yeats were reared, their only constant point of reference the Pollexfen world of Sligo.

II

One of JBY'S more inexplicable remarks comes in a letter of 1903 to Rosa Butt. `It is often an astonishment to me that I have not a son or daughter of some extraordinary distinction. Had my poor wife a little more intellect she would have been something very remarkable.' By then all four surviving children were in their thirties, and had given ample proof of distinction. Between 1865 and 1871 JBY and Susan had five children (a later child, Jane Grace, was born on 29 August 1875, but died less than a year later of bronchial pneumonia). William Butler was born at George's Ville on 13 June 1865; Susan Mary, always called Lily, on 25 August 1866 at Enniscrone, in Sligo; Elizabeth Corbet, called Lolly, on 11 March 1868, at Fitzroy Road, London; Robert Corbet on 27 March 1870; and John Butler, called Jack, on 29 August 1871. Robert also died in childhood, of croup, at Merville on 3 March 1873. The four who survived grew up as a clan: good-looking, with dark hair and high colouring. (In later years WBY'S friend Edward Martyn rather sourly believed there was a Romany strain in the Yeatses; his English schoolfellows, less romantically, speculated that he was liverish. They were doted upon in Sligo, where they were often deposited; but their young uncles and aunts made harsh remarks, which alarmed WBY as a child and probably reflected a general irritation with the feckless brother-in-law who had condemned Susan to a life of uncertainty. The children were accordingly precocious, talented and knowledgeable about insecurity, both social and psychological. `Grandmother Yeats thought we were such sad children we quite depressed her.' As children their relationships were intense, close and often quarrelsome. The two eldest, WBY and Lily, would make a `pair'. Lily was affectionate, funny, strong-minded, and sustained a deep bond (through many mutual exasperations) with her elder brother: `I always felt so happy and at ease with him.' Deeply attached to her irrepressible father, she could also — occasionally — discipline him. `No one has a chance once Lillie [sic] abuses them. If Lilly [sic] turns on me I always feel ashamed of myself even though I know I am right. The only one who is not afraid of Lilly is Jack, and that is only because he was the youngest and Lilly's unsatisfied maternal heart makes her weak with him.' Her sister Lolly was a less straightforward proposition: angry, talented, handsome and seen by the family as bearer of the hereditary Pollexfen neurosis. JBY dreaded her `losing her wits'; her elder brother remarked, near the end of his life, `My sister Elizabeth and I quarrelled at the edge of the cradle and are keeping it up to the graveyard's edge.'

Eventually, as WBY grew away from the family into adulthood, the two girls left behind were necessarily forced to make common cause: their relationship, and joint artistic ventures, would always be fraught with tension and resentment. Jack, on the other hand, sustained ostensibly sunny relationships all around him. But his sweetness, humour and independence were backed by an odd childlike obduracy. Already slow in school, his childhood was disrupted by his removal for eight years to Sligo, where he was brought up in close proximity to his grandparents. This probably conditioned his artistic developments; it also conferred a certain distance from the rest of the family, particularly his brother. But he would make the best of things, and early on showed his gift for enhancing life. His comparatively stable childhood in Sligo may have contributed to this. JBY liked to quote a frequent reflection of his youngest son's: `I spent seven years looking over the bridge in Sligo, and I'm sorry I didn't spend longer.' His siblings appreciated this gift for transformation too. Lily remembered when she and Lolly arrived first at a particularly hated London house that JBY had rented in Eardley Crescent during 1887 — gloomy, with a dismal back yard. Jack met them at the door. `He then led us to a window at the back. "Now", he said, "look, and as the Americans say when they show Niagara to strangers, "how do you feel?" and so the back garden became to us a joke.'

In London or at Sligo, life for the children followed a fairly standard Victorian regime (rice pudding, boiled mutton, two jam nights a week, plain bread and butter other days. But it was dominated by poverty, except in Sligo — middle-class poverty, which allowed keeping a servant. `We were always paupers,' recalled Lily, `but always had a nurse till Jack, the youngest, was six and then we had Miss Jowitt and a schoolroom. And in Merville we had our nursery. One nurse, Emma, I remember well, an English countrywoman full of country knowledge and ways. She brought up a motherless lamb on the bottle in the Merville nursery and taught us to make cowslip balls.' Martha Jowitt, their Yorkshire governess from 1878 to 1881, was a great favourite, though `a demon of tidiness' by Yeats standards. Later she told Lily and Lolly that `she had laughed more in the three years she was with us than in all the rest of her life'.

But entertainment in the London years of childhood had to be cheap and self-starting, like shadow plays: `Willy was serious about it. We others just romped about.' `We were there for two Jubilees, several Royal weddings, funerals and one coronation, but not having a penny saw nothing but the local decorations.' In any case, the children were taught by their father that entertainment could always be created through observation and rearrangement. `When I was a girl,' Lily recalled,

and went even to the letterbox at the end of the road, Papa expected to hear descriptions, adventures. When I felt lazy and said I had seen and heard nothing, he would say, `Go on now, you saw something, don't be lazy.' Then I used to go ahead and make him laugh. It was not deliberate on his part, he was not training me to observe and recount, he just wanted to hear what I had seen and done, and knew I had eyes and ears and some brains and a tongue.

The traditional Yeats imperatives of disciplined, imaginative, merciless observation and good conversation were imposed by JBY on the household, wherever they were.

He was an unVictorian father. `Working and caring for children makes me anxious and careful of them, but amusing them makes me fond of them,' he wrote to his wife when they were apart. `The first week I was here every perambulator passing along the pavement used to make me start fancying it was the children and several times in the night I woke up thinking I heard them crying.' From the beginning JBY devoted a special and intense attention to his eldest son. William Butler, named for his paternal grandfather, the Rector of Tullylish, was a healthy child, delivered at 10.40 p.m. on 13 June 1865. The family was resident in I George's Ville, a medium-sized house near the suburban Corbet `castle'. The doctor, Thomas Beatty (a Corbet relation), `looked at the baby and said "fine os frontal and so strong you could leave him out all night on the window sill and it could do him no harm".' JBY (still, for the purpose of the birth certificate, a `law student') was surprised to find himself powerfully possessive about the child. `I think your birth was the first great event in my life,' he wrote to WBY fifty-four years later, when his first grandchild was born. `I was as surprised as if I had seen a house built up in the nighttime by magic. I developed an instantaneous [ ] for the professional nurse. I could not bear to see you lying on her knees. I was for the first time — I suppose — pure animal. I never felt like that afterwards at the birth of the others.' Something of this is conveyed in a sketch he made of WBY as a baby, and in the close observation he devoted to the child, whom he identified from the outset as an original. `All little children when they begin to think and talk are like strangers suddenly arrived in our dusty old world, and come from another planet which, though like ours, is by no means identical — hence a certain quaintness in what they say or do. If this quaintness lasts into adult life and continues on to the end, they are men of genius.'

The child grew up lanky, untidy, slightly myopic and painfully thin; he was possibly tubercular. At least one medical friend always suspected so, and later X-rays showed much scar tissue and healed-up spots, which may date from a major but undefined illness when he was four or five years old. Psychologically, he developed marked characteristics which would stay with him in later life — notably a hatred of being ridiculed and (according to his father) an irritatingly deliberate vagueness. `Willie's sensitiveness to being laughed at is with him an old story. When he was a baby boy, if you laughed at him he would cry oh! so sorrowfully, not with anger but in sorrow that it was pitiful to see.' JBY wrote obsessively about him, not only in after years to journalists but at the time in a letter to his wife, subsequently much quoted.

I am continually anxious about Willy — he is almost never out of my thoughts.

I believe him to be intensely affectionate but from shyness, sensitiveness and nervousness very difficult to win and yet he is worth winning. I should of course like to see him made do what was right but he will only develop by kindness and affection and gentleness. Bobby is robust and hardy and does not mind rebuffs — but Willy is sensitive, intellectual and emotional — very easily rebuffed and continually afraid of being rebuffed — so that with him one has to use great sensitiveness — sensitiveness which is so rare in Merville. Above all keep him from that termagant Agnes who is by no means as indulgent to other people's whims and oddities as she has been to her own. Bobby being very active in nature will always resent a rebuff — and so a rebuff will do him no harm — but Willy is only made timid and unhappy and he would in time lose frankness.

I think he was greatly disimproved by Merville — he was coming on again from being so much with his mother and away from his Grandfather and dictatorial young Aunts.

From his resemblance to Elizabeth he derives his nervous sensitiveness.

I wish greatly Willy could be made more robust — by riding or other means — not by going to school. I was very sorry he could not have the pony more but perhaps he might ride that donkey of which he used to tell me ... Tell Willy not to forget me.

JBY'S ideas on education were not typical for his time, with his dislike of boarding-school, flogging and other accepted educational practices. As an under-employed artist, living at home, he saw far more of his children than was normal for the time; when the Sligo summers stopped, and they were strong-willed adolescents, this proximity would lead to much tension. In their early youth it meant that he concerned himself closely with shaping their minds. In his unpublished memoirs he reverts again and again to the efforts he made at imparting knowledge to his eldest son: `he was a joy to anyone who would tell him things out of ancient philosophy or modern science'. There is a retrospective flavour about this; and while JBY'S conversation was first class, it may be doubted if his dilettante genius was best adapted to instructing the young. He did see his son as a potential ally against what he conceived to be the confining trivia of domesticity, since WBY `was an exasperation in everyday matters over which the women preside'. The development of his son's mind was a preoccupation, at least in retrospect; notably the boy's liking for an appealing or resonant phrase, which, once heard, he would repeat over and over again. Though he had chosen to be a painter, JBY'S friends were writers; he read widely and critically, and all his life nurtured literary ambitions of his own, though they were most nearly achieved in his marvellously assertive and entertaining letters. The father also claimed to have dictated his son's interests by reading aloud Balzac's Le Peau de chagrin in the summer of 1874, and David Copperfield, Old Mortality and The Antiquary in the summer of 1879, on a family holiday at Branscombe in Devon.

This last episode (possibly enabled, like the move to Woodstock Road, by a small legacy from JBY'S mother was often and warmly remembered by the family, probably because of its uniqueness. Here and elsewhere, reading aloud from Scott and Macaulay figured largely, particularly The Lays of Ancient Rome and The Lay of the Last Minstrel. WBY recalled that the reading that interested him most as a boy was `Scott first, and then Macaulay'; and, instructed to amuse his own children a half-century later, he turned automatically to the Last Minstrel, rather to their surprise. In 1872 JBY tried to teach his son, then living with his grandparents in Sligo and being taught erratically by Eliza Armstrong (no relation), who had been his mother's bridesmaid. He also claimed to have taught his son geography and chemistry, on a sketching holiday at Burnham Beeches when he was eleven; WBY would later describe him as `a tyrant' of a teacher, but insufficiently so. A Sligo neighbour thought JBY was cruel to his son, pushing him around the room. As JBY remembered it, the whole family tried to teach him to read, and became convinced he would never master it; all his life WBY would admit his blindness to grammar, spelling and the appearance of `my lines upon paper'. Dyslexia has been retrospectively alleged, but is not borne out by the ease and fluency with which WBY devoured books when he finally learnt to read. During that long sojourn in Sligo, from 1870 to 1874, he had lessons from a much loved nursemaid, Ellie Connolly; later he received coaching in spelling and dictation from Esther Merrick, a neighbour who lived in the Sexton's house by St John's, and who read him quantities of verse. `We always said she made a poet out of Willy.'

III

What stability there was in the children's life was rooted in Sligo, lyrically conjured up years later by Jack.

I remember a small town where no one ever spoke the truth but all thought it. It was a seaport town, like all the best towns. But there was a lake very near to it. The cold brown bosom of the fresh water, and the blue steel verdigris green corsage of the salt water, and between the two the town ... The weather in this town was ever of the bland and sweet, and the air always smelling sweet. It should have been a rainy place, for it was in a cup of hills. But a rock island, a mountain island, in the sea, off the mouth of the bay before the town, collected all the heavier clouds and caused them to break and run foaming down the mountain side all among the green trees and the moss-covered rocks.

Far from this watery paradise, the Thomastown farms in Kildare remained; and JBY and his children occasionally went there to shoot, staying with the bailiff, John Doran. But the land was remortgaged as early as 1857 for 850 [pounds sterling], and again in 1868 for 300 [pounds sterling]. The seventeen tenants paid less and less rent. One particular malefactor, Mrs Flanagan, inspired the name of a doll regularly abused by the Yeats children in bouts of primitive magic, since her defection was the constant excuse for their being denied a treat. But Sligo provided security — of more kinds than one, as JBY indicated in a wistful letter from London in April 1870 to his friend John Todhunter.

The worry of living over here beyond our income with the chance of some day being left moneyless is fearful to me and wife — destroying health & spirits & happiness and retarding greatly artistic progress — in Sligo I could live within my means and there are many pictures I could paint there — Since this cold and cough and blood spitting I've been thinking about going to Sligo if I could manage to get the house [Fitzroy Road] off my hands — what do you think? ... I would there take a small house live within my income and do my work. I would have John Dowden [then a curate in Sligo] for my companion, an occasional sight of you, Edward Dowden and the great family the Pollexfens to give me home love and warmth.

But, he concluded, `it is after all only a castle in the air'. Certainly, his relationship with the Pollexfens was fantasized in this picture, with heavy irony. For his children, however, the castle in the air bore some semblance to reality. Most of 1870 to 1874 was spent with their grandparents. The summers there, the romantic journeys by steamer from Liverpool Basin to Sligo Harbour, the large house with its bedrooms over the stableyard and the view of the mountains, were all touched with magic. Lily described Merville with the acute memory of old age for long-ago childhood:

In our day it was a solid house, big rooms — about 14 bedrooms, stone kitchen offices & a glorious laundry smelling of soap full of white steam & a clean coke fire with rows of irons heating at it. Our grandmother's store-room like a village shop — a place with windows and fireplace — shelves & drawers & a delicious smell of coffee — the house was of blue grey limestone — the local stone — 60 acres of land round it — a very fine view of Ben Bulben from the front of the house.

Sligo gave the Yeats children confirmation of something their father continually adverted to: the superiority of the Irish ethos not only in scenery and climate but in manners, conversation, artistic sensibility and gentlemanly behaviour. This compensated for distance both from London's bohemia and from the Dublin bourgeois world. For the children, the magical quality of Sligo was enhanced by the family's romantic shipping tradition — colourfully illustrated by the Merville gardens, dotted with ships' figureheads.

They ran a fleet of fast sailing vessels between Sligo — Portugal and Spain. What they traded in I don't know. Salt was, I think, the cargo they brought back from Portugal. In our day these gay little ships' lives were over, and they as old black hulls were used as lighters and clustered round the great corn steamers from America and the Black Sea, yellow corn being poured into them with a delicious rushing sound as the steamers lay out in the deep water anchorage at the Rosses Point. Uncle George used to name them for us and tell of his one adventure when as a young man he had gone in `The Baccaloo' [recte `Bacalieu'] to Portugal.

In time the sailing ships were replaced by steamers, and the Ballysodare and Sligo mills were bought, and when we were children the firm was big and rich and proud.

It is the world Jack Yeats drew upon for his art, and it formed the imagination of all his siblings too. Years later, Jack's painting of Rosses Point as Memory Harbour still filled WBY with `disquiet and excitement ... houses and anchored ship and distant lighthouse all set together as in some old map'.

The particular social level of Sligo society occupied by the Pollexfens deserves attention: the provincial Protestant bourgeoisie, with connections through the Middletons to `squireen' Ireland. They subscribed to the local Protestant charities (though Elizabeth Pollexfen had, unusually, been educated at the convent and retained friends among the nuns). But while their wives attended the meetings of the Sligo Protestant Orphans' Society, they were not on the committee, which was dominated by aristocratic names like Gore-Booth, Wynne and Cooper. Middleton and Pollexfen were not members of the Sligo Board of Guardians, nor the Grand Jury, nor were they even on the `long list' of those eligible to be called to the latter body until William Pollexfen joined it in 1869. In a word, they were not `county' — in a Society where such things were closely noted. Sligo class distinctions were mordantly explored by the local press, recording how the social claims of `the mercantile class' were ignored, and mulling over issues like the composition of the Royal Agricultural Society Committee, where `the county or aristocratic element do things much in the same manner as their forefathers did when Geroge the Third was king and, notwithstanding the shock of time, the idiocy of the class appears to be much the same as in the days of the Plantagenets'. The Pollexfens' well-connected son-in-law also noted this bitterly. `One reason why I am so incensed against class distinctions is because these very small gentry round Sligo always excluded the Pollexfens from their friendship. Because they were engaged in business they were not fit company.'

Nonetheless, the move from Union Place to Merville was socially important. The Pollexfen houses were substantial dwellings: George's `Thornhill', a gloomy square block on the Strandhill Road west of Sligo; `Rathedmond', where Susan Pollexfen's parents moved before their deaths in 1892, `a good house spoiled by the railway'; the haunted `Elsinore' at Rosses Point, set low by the sea and lived in during the summer by Henry Middleton, their mother's first cousin. (Dark and eccentric, the family later assumed he was the model for WBY'S John Sherman.) But these were not `Big Houses' in the Anglo-Irish sense. And Rosses Point, where the Pollexfens and Middletons built summer villas, had been bought as recently as 1867 by William Middleton from the Cooper family as a land speculation: he paid just under 9,000 [pounds sterling]. By 1879 it was a favoured summer resort, with a Middleton & Pollexfen steamer taking bathers out there from the town. Middleton was building villas, and a hotel had been established. To the young WBY, however, this was not the poetic reality of Sligo. Rather, it featured glimpses of `grey country houses' over walls and among trees, their names a litany (the Wynnes' Hazelwood, the Gore-Booths' Lissadell, the Coopers' Markree), their life a world apart from haphazard London and bourgeois Merville. When the youthful Jack went to Lissadell for a cricket match, he referred to it as a day `all among the nobs-oh'. His more precocious brother noted that the Merville avenue was not long enough for social significance. If the intensity of the memory is Proustian, so is the sense of social and psychological apartness.

In another way too the Sligo world was apart: for both family and servants at Merville were, like many mid-Victorian households, preoccupied with the supernatural. The 1832 cholera epidemic had affected Sligo more than any other Irish town, and a Middleton great-grandfather had died with his four-year-old daughter Mary; they were `seen after death walking hand in hand in the garden ... a pet dog saw them also and ran to meet them'. The Merville servants `knew so intimately angels, saints, banshees, and fairies. Our English nurse and English servant in London knew none of these but knew a great deal too much of murders and suicides'. Once more, Irish sensitivity contrasted with English vulgarity. WBY'S own early memories featured prescient visions, ghost stories and haunted houses out at Rosses Point: a cousin, Lucy Middleton, was credited with special powers and engaged in experiments with him. The background to all this should be remembered: the context of childhood. The Yeatses were the only children in this family fiefdom until the arrival of their cousin Geraldine Orr, ten years younger than WBY. Everyone in Sligo, it seemed to them, talked of fairies, and so they did — to children. In some ways, WBY required them to project this approach into later life as well.

Family relationships took the Pollexfen form: dinner (at four in the afternoon) was dominated by fear of Grandfather Pollexfen, who stopped his habitual grumbling and glared in silence at the children if they helped themselves to sugar: `a sigh of relief went up all through Merville when he went to bed'. The young WBY did not respond well to the sardonic Pollexfen manner: JBY worried that his son's aunts, especially the neurotic Agnes, persecuted him for his vagueness and untidiness. When the children's father visited Sligo in the summer of 1873, there was a good deal of tension. For one thing, he refused to go to church; WBY temporarily followed his example until he found it meant reading lessons instead. Not all memories of Merville were happy ones. It was there too that little Robert Yeats died of croup, aged three. Lily and WBY woke to hear their mother cry `My little son, my little son' and horses' hoofs galloping for the doctor. After the death, the children sat drawing pictures of the ships along Sligo quay, with flags at half-mast. Susan Yeats, who thought she heard the banshee cry before her child died, was probably precipitated by the loss into the depression from which she never really returned.

Not unusually for the times, the children were as close to the servants as to the family. Reading Kate O'Brien's novel The Ante-Room in old age, Lily was struck by the similarity between its depiction of late nineteenth-century Irish bourgeois provincial life and her own Merville childhood, `although there the atmosphere was very Protestant. But we lived much among the servants and men in the stable and gardens and got a good deal of the Catholic side, and Grandmama was very tolerant in all things'. Ellie Connolly, until she emigrated to America, took a great interest in WBY, and was endlessly patient with him. Johnny Healy, the stable boy, was another intimate: WBY and Lily picked up his accent, to the pleasure of their father's London friends, and the two boys read Orange doggerel-poetry together in the hay-loft, creating in WBY'S mind a continuing fantasy of commanding a ship's company of young athletes and of dying fighting the Fenians. Outside the walls of Merville, there were relations who provided additional excitements.

There was the glamour of George Pollexfen's horses, racing under his colours of primrose and violet: the children went to Lissadell races with four horses and postilions, nosegays of primroses and violets pinned to their coats. The scene they viewed is preserved in a contemporary description which also makes some critical innuendoes about Middleton & Pollexfen, and surveys the topography of what would one day be commercialized as `Yeats country'.

As a spectator dragged himself away — especially a youthful one — from the contemplation of the fair beauties in the cars and in the carriages — on horseback and walking — the eye had much to gaze upon in the surrounding beauties of the picturesque scenery that surrounded him on all sides ... Immediately in his front — taking the line parallel with the starting ground for the first race — was to be seen `the beautiful city of Sligo', which could be plainly seen with the unaided eye as it lay quietly in the distance, enjoying a repose caused by the desertion of a large proportion of its adult population. No one would suppose by looking at it that anything like an agitation could ever happen in it, or that persons would be found rude enough to disturb the solitude and repose by opposition to its improvement! To the right and to the left of it, behind and before it, nature seemed bountiful of its gifts. Knocknarea stood boldly to the westward of it, like a huge breakwater raised to prevent an inroad of old Neptune; its various slopes and undulations looking `green far away', and presenting a pretty foreground to the more distant mountains that behind it looked blue in the horizon. The proud Atlantic rolled at its base and from thence, across to Rosses Point, lay Sligo Bay, where the dark blue sea calmly reflected the rays of a mild sun. The neat little sea-side village of Rosses Point appeared on this occasion to the best advantage. Its light house and whitewashed cottages, with the well tilled lands adjoining, gave it a look of peace and comfort, with which we hope soon to see elegance combined, as we know of no place more favourably situated for the purpose of being made a fashionable sea-side resort. We are confident that its new and enterprising proprietor, William Middleton Esq., will take advantage of its highly picturesque situation by making it what it ought to be, the Brighton of the West. The view inland from the Point was exceedingly bold and picturesque — in the distance the woods that surround the handsome residence of our worthy county member, Sir Robert Gore-Booth, Bart, through whose kindness and liberality we are enabled to enjoy each year these sports. Rising from Lissadell, the village of Drumcliffe was to be seen, and its church, and ancient cross was plainly discernible. Behind the many great slopes of land surrounding Drumcliffe, Benbulben raised its mighty overhanging cliffs, and stretched back its slopes like an enormous monster that lay down to sleep. Looking more inward, the hill of Glencar came into view, whose slopes meeting those of Benbulben form a picturesque valley from whence Sligo, it is to be hoped, will be supplied with that desideration which it so much needs — `pure water'. Gazing more inland, the eye rests on the spot wherein lay `our own Lough Gill' beyond which the mountains gracefully rise, and are lost in the distance by interminable folds.

There were Yeats connections in the area too: an independent farming `Aunt Mickey' (Mary, sister of their grandfather William Butler Yeats) lived with one manservant, treasured small pieces of silver, and preserved the traditions and memories of Drumcliffe. At church on Sunday the handsome family were noted: `the Yeats children are worth getting wet to see'. WBY's Autobiographies stressed the respectability and rootedness of his family background in Sligo: possessive love of the landscape conferred a claim on the land, free of politics and suffused with a sense of belonging. In 1891 he wrote that William Allingham `will always, however, be best loved by those who, like the present writer, have spent their childhood in some small western seaboard town and who remember how it was for years the centre of their world, and how its enclosing mountains and its quiet rivers became a portion of their life for ever'. By then, the links with the Pollexfen world were loosening and his own life was set on a path which would distance him from that enveloping background. But the sense of a lost Eden remained. `No one will ever see Sligo as we saw it,' he told his sister shortly before his death. This vanished dream stood for more than the lost domain of childhood: it was the world of the Protestant Irish bourgeoisie, integrated into the life of their native place, still (in the 1870s) calmly conscious of a social and economic ascendancy which appeared theirs by right.

But if Sligo seemed the eternal moment, the farms at Thomastown, with their seventeen bickering tenants, recalcitrant income and occasional violent incidents, represented a closer augury of the future. In 1879 the rents received amounted to barely 50 [pounds sterling]. That very year the dislocations of Land War, economic decline and the rise of militant nationalism were about to change the Yeats family world beyond recognition.

IV

`Here you are somebody. There you will be nobody at all.' This cutting remark from a Pollexfen aunt, inevitably Agnes, summed up for WBY the difference between Sligo and London. For JBY'S family, London was the background of reality. Their poverty there, the long walks in the dusty streets, painfully missing Sligo, are recalled evocatively in his son's Autobiographies; sailing model boats in Kensington's Round Pond was poignantly different from the real seafaring world of Sligo quays. There were intervals out of town: in the autumn of 1876, leaving his family in Sligo, JBY rented lodgings at Farnham Common, near Slough, in order to paint landscape at Burnham Beeches. There he imported his eleven-year-old eldest son, reading to him aloud, educating him erratically in geography and chemistry, and allowing him free range for his natural-history explorations in the surrounding countryside. WBY'S first known letter, from Farnham, breathless and semi-literate, recounts adventures with frogs and lizards, as well as his father reading Redgauntlet.

A more conventional encounter with education was shortly to follow. On 26 January 1877, aged eleven and a half, WBY started at the Godolphin School, Hammersmith, an old-fashioned and not very distinguished foundation, with a traditional curriculum devoting much time to Latin and `Arithmetick', and rather less to geography, history and French; science was one period a week. Family lore preserved his prowess at science; he was `deep in chemistry', according to Lily, and his father recorded that when aged thirteen he won a prize for scientific knowledge, competing against eighteen-year-olds `whose subject it was, while his knowledge was simply the result of private reading'. Other achievements, according to his father, included a facility for classics. Though he despised Latin and Greek `under the influence of Huxley', he had a brilliant success translating Catullus into English verse for a visiting examiner. His first school report, which survives, gives a less high-flown impression. In a class of thirty-one boys he was sixth in classics, twenty-seventh in mathematics, eighteenth in modern languages and nineteenth in English. His general work was `only fair. Perhaps better in Latin than in any other subject. Very poor in spelling.' His writing difficulties obviously held him back. The next two terms saw some modest improvement but nothing spectacular (`Mathematics: still very backward, progress very slow'). Absences were complained of, and black marks accumulated for idleness. In the Lent term of 1878 he was bottom, or next to it, in every subject. He had improved by the summer of 1878 (`seems to like Latin') but was bottom of the class in mathematics and `very indifferent' in modern languages. The next year, after a long break in Sligo, things were even worse: in a class of thirteen boys he was twelfth in classics, twelfth in modern languages, and bottom of the class in maths and English. By Christmas 1878 his placing had drifted up to twentieth out of thirty-one, with his best work in Latin. His form master, W. G. Harris, generally reported favourably on his behaviour (`Very good boy. Tries to do as well as he can'), but the theme of `idleness' recurred: though JBY wrote to the headmaster three years later and `told him you were not naturally at all idle but had a dislike to dull task work. In fact your will wants a little being hardened.' As WBY himself recalled it, `I spent longer than most schoolboys preparing for the next day's work and yet learnt nothing, and would always have been at the bottom of my class but for one or two subjects that I hardly had to learn at all'; he put it down to `psychological weakness' rather than to `poetic temperament'. However, his friends were at the top of the class because `then, as now, I hated fools'. And he was fascinated by biology and zoology, or what was then called `natural history'. The story his wife heard long afterwards took a typically off-beat form: `He decided to eat his way through the animal kingdom — but couldn't get beyond the sea gun.'

Outside the classroom a similarly eccentric quality attached to him, as well as the inescapable taint of the shabby-genteel. He remembered his induction into playground cruelty, insults about Irishness, and saying the wrong thing without knowing why: tutored by his father, he `did not think English people intelligent or well-behaved unless they were artists'. At thirteen he won a cup for running the mile, but did so by `ambling along, looking behind to see where his great friend was — and the Mothers standing about saying "look at that boy. Did you ever see any boy so thin? I would like to have the feeding of him."' The great friend was Charles Cyril Veasey, a son of Hammersmith neighbours, who had entered Godolphin at the same time: Veasey fought battles on behalf of the unpugilistic WBY, and tried to teach him how to box. Though the Yeatses `with difficulty paid for Willy to have dinner at school', he tended to go home with Veasey, and wait for him in the garden, sometimes joining the family for pudding through the window. They were not happy years. A certain conventionality was sustained (WBY was confirmed by the Lord Bishop of London at Christ Church, Ealing, on 13 June 1880); but, as he later remembered his childhood, he was indoctrinated with the consciousness that he was an artist's son who necessarily held different opinions from the norm, and `must take some work as the whole end of my life'. He was elaborately kind to another boy because he knew there was a disgrace in the family; later he discovered that the boy's father's shame consisted in making `certain popular statues, many of which are now in public places'.

In the spring of 1879 the family moved to yet another address: 8 Woodstock Road, in the district still called Hammersmith, but rapidly identified as the artists' colony of Bedford Park . Though this was a temporary sojourn, JBY came as near to putting down roots as he could: the conscious aestheticism of the architecture, the artistic neighbours, `the newness of everything' delighted both children and father. In WBY'S memories of this period, nearly everything is `peacock-blue', and Pre-Raphaelitism rules. But 1880 was a particularly low point for the Yeatses: money was scarcer than ever, JBY'S debts to his friends accumulated, and the lease on Woodstock Road was due to run out in mid-1881. JBY became possessed with the idea that portrait commissions would arrive more easily in Dublin: the little work that had been commissioned had come largely from Irish sources. He spent more and more time in Dublin, occupying his friend Edward Dowden's rooms in Trinity College for some tense weeks in the spring of 1880, and finally in February 1881 taking lodgings at 90 Lower Gardiner Street as well as studios at 44 York Street, and subsequently at 7 St Stephen's Green. The family stayed in Bedford Park for the moment; but WBY left Godolphin School that summer. The whole family moved to Dublin, taking lodgings in Leeson Street and then moving for the winter to Howth, a fishing village outside the city. Here they first occupied Balscadden Cottage, by the courtesy of friends (probably the Jameson family). They then rented another `horrible little' Howth house, called Island View, where they stayed for two years. The poverty remained but circumstances were happier, particularly for Susan Yeats, who felt at home by the sea and liked to exchange stories with the local people. JBY managed to escape to convivial company, including the fabled parties given in Howth by Lord Justice FitzGibbon for Lord Randolph Churchill, Father Healy of Little Bray, and other stars of the Dublin social firmament. WBY began to attend the High School, Dublin, a long-established, no-nonsense Protestant establishment on Harcourt Street, travelling in by train from Howth and breakfasting with his father in the St Stephen's Green studio — where he also lunched, for economy's sake, on tea, bread and butter.

He was now fifteen. Much in his life had been miserable, and his later memories of his youth shocked some of his family by what they saw as embittered distortion: `I remember little of childhood but its pain.' There was certainly more tension and barely repressed anger than JBY could allow himself to remember; but a reflection in his unpublished memoirs stirs an uneasy echo. `If it is deeply enquired into, I think it will be recognised that the foundation of the artistic nature is affectionateness which, denied its satisfaction, as it always is, in real life, turns to the invention of art and p oetry.' He was probably thinking, as usual, principally of himself; but the inclusion of `poetry' hints that the theory is also applied to his eldest son. WBY himself later remarked that he was constrained in his published memories of this period by the fact that his father was still alive: `he could not do his father justice by doing him injustice'. `I could not tell little things about him that would have made him clearer.' He was influenced, almost overshadowed, by JBY'S love of intensity. But `I developed late. For a long time I had trouble in selecting the ideas that belonged to me.'

None the less, it was about this time — between fifteen and sixteen — that he began writing. Lily remembered him composing poems at Howth; and a friend at High School, Frederick Gregg, `first tempted Willie' away from science by asking him when they were schoolboys to join with him in writing a verse play. At this point his father (watching him as closely as ever) believed WBY discovered in himself the ability to write verse by the ream. `But an artist must have facility and then not use it. He knew that. He has never made use of it.'

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Table of Contents

List of illustrations
Sources of illustrations
Acknowledgements
Foreword
Family Trees
Introduction
Prologue: Yeatses and Pollexfens 1
1 The Artist's Children: Sligo 1865-1881 6
2 Explorations: Dublin 1881-1887 28
3 Two Years: Bedford Park 1887-1889 59
4 Secret Societies 1889-1891 89
5 The Battles of the Books 1891-1898 112
6 Lands of Heart's Desire 1894-1898 135
7 Waiting for the Millennium 1896-1898 162
8 Shadowy Waters 1898-1900 201
9 Occult Politics 1900-1901 225
10 National Dramas 1901-1902 257
11 The Taste of Salt 1902-1903 282
12 From America to Abbey Street 1903-1904 304
13 Delighting in Enemies 1905-1906 330
14 Synge and the Ireland of His Time 1907-1909 359
15 Severances 1909-1910 402
16 True and False Irelands 1910-1911 433
17 Ghosts 1911-1913 453
18 Memory Harbour 1913-1914 492
APP 'THE Poet Yeats Talks Drama With Ashton Stevens', from the San Francisco Examiner, 30 January 1904 533
Abbreviations 539
Notes 542
Index 626
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