WB Yeats And His Family Have Lunch
Here’s a sneak peek at the novel I’m working on now, The Pilgrim Soul. It’s the first in a trilogy about love and loss, based around the lives of the poet, WB Yeats, and the mother and daughter he loved, Maud and Iseult Gonne.
The time is Christmas Day, 1893 and WB, or Willie as his family like to call him, is at Christmas lunch with them. In his late twenties, he is still living at home but beginning to make a name for himself as a poet of Ireland, a mystic whose childhood days in his mother’s home county of Sligo inspire lyrical celebrations of mountain and cloud, lake and moon, wind and stars.
Below the extract is one of my favourites of his poems from those early years, for its dreamy imagery and what it tells us about his attachment to sorrow. Were alienation and separation ever more lyrically expressed?
It began harmless enough, with Papa starting a Christmas speech on the state of the family, of how Jack was soon to marry and become a substantial man, with a cheerful kind-hearted wife and an open-handed welcome for his friends. This was a less-than-subtle hint towards what they all know, that Jack’s fiancée is tying up her money so Papa won’t be able to get his hands on any of it.
Papa’s self-serving cheerfulness was already wilting Willie’s spirits, even before he turned his glass on him. “And Willie will be famous and shed a bright light on us all, with sometimes a little money and sometimes not.” Papa drank, deeply and with significance, then sat, signifying the end of the toast. Lolly’s face reddened and his other sister, Lily, reached over to pat her hand, a gesture that only doubled Lolly’s fury. Papa noticed then and hastily stood back up. “And Lolly will have a prosperous school and give away as prizes her eminent brother’s volumes of poetry.” This, naturally, only enraged her the more. At that moment, Maria arrived in and plunked the plate of potatoes on the table.When he reached for one with his fork, his belligerent sister turned her wrath upon him: “You might wait for grace, Willie. You might
wait until Mama is settled.”
He had looked at the potato sitting on the end of his fork, like a head on a spike, and said, “I think to go to Paris”, taking himself by surprise.
“What?” Lolly had replied. “You think to what?”
Her objection was financial, and she launched herself into a great oration about how she would like to go to Paris but there would never be money out of her wages by the time the household expenses were met. That there would never be enough time either, or permission from any of them to just take herself off, wash-day or some other female task would prevent it and so on, and so on. He hardly knew what she said, he was so appalled to see in her again the same detestable excitability from which he suffered himself (she has Mars in square with Saturn while he has Moon in opposition to Mars).
He determined again, as so often before, to exclude this irritability from his writing and speech, to escape it through adoption of a gracious style. Is not one’s art made thus, out of the struggle in one’s soul?
Is not beauty a victory over the self?
Papa tried to rescue him from his belligerent sister, asking about his intentions during the trip, and whether he managed any letters of introduction.
“From York Powell to see Mallarmé, actually. And from Symons to Verlaine.”
Which impressed Papa and surely must impress upon the misguided Lolly the difference between the needs of a poet and those of a kindergarten teacher. But no. Since taking up that Froebel training, the girl has become even more strident. What poor delusiveness is all this “higher education of women”? Men have set up a great mill, called examinations, to destroy the imagination. Why should women go through it? Circumstance does not drive them.
They come out with no repose, no peacefulness, and their minds no longer quiet gardens full of secluded paths, but loud as chaffering market places.
“This trip of yours,” she said. “It has nothing to do with a Miss Maud Gonne, I suppose.”
The eyes of Lily, his kinder sister, closed and Papa interjected again. “Now Lolly.”
“Like a little lapdog.”
He decided to be solicitous: “Are you tired, Lolly?”
“Combined housekeeping and kindergarten anxieties too much for you, perhaps?”
Such elaborate courtesies always incense her. A while ago, when she complained of household tasks, he got up one morning to make her tea before she left for school and the memory of her annoyance amused him for a week. Today his little gibe raised her rant some degrees higher while her face swelled red as a fishmonger’s but he drew no pleasure from his small victory.
She appalled him. In the corner, his mother sat silent, and palely detached, no longer victim to these excitements which she, too, used to suffer. He found himself pushing away from the table, saying, “I am no longer hungry.”
His father told him to sit back down. He kept going.
Lily said in her most plaintive voice, “Please Willie, it is Christmas” but he ran from the room, as if pursued, fleeing all speechifying fathers, damaged mothers, clinging sisters and soon-to-be-married brothers. He repudiates them all. All. In the year that is coming, he tells himself as he reaches his room and slams fast its door behind him, he must leave this house. He must find a independent flat
Now he lies, face into his pillow, impaling himself upon his emotions. He loves! He loves! But five yearning years of hopelessness have reached a crescendo. He is coming to believe he must set it aside, this love that keeps him in unctuous celibacy. Most of his friends have mistresses or, at need, go home with a harlot yet he has never, since childhood, kissed a woman’s lips. Only last evening at Hammersmith Station he saw a woman of the town walking up and down the near-empty platform, and thought to offer himself to her but was held back by the old thought: No. I love the most beautiful woman in the world.
But the most beautiful woman in the world has abandoned him. Is it that vague desire of hers for some impossible life, some unvarying excitement, like the heroine of his play? Have vague idealisms and impossible hopes blown in to the ruin of near, substantial ambitions? Or has she given up on their Castle of The Heroes, on him? This was the Irish Eleusis he has long dreamed of establishing, a school of poetry and drama that would reunite the radical truths of Christianity with those of a more ancient world. By his writings, and her orations, and what would be produced in this Irish school of theirs, art’s secret symbolical relation to the religious mysteries might be reborn.
Their destiny was to be together, he the poet-priest of a new age, she the human incarnation of female divinity, but she neglects their occult interests and freezes him with business letters. A few nights ago, when dropping into sleep, he saw an image of a thimble, followed by a shapeless white mass that puzzled him. The next day on passing a tobacconist’s he saw it was a lump of meerschaum, not yet made into a pipe and he understood: she was complete; he was not.
That vile old nurse of hers told him that he would never see her again, that she loved another – indeed perhaps two others – in France and that they were to fight a duel for her. He might be inclined to believe her, vile woman that she was, had he not heard around Dublin another of her slanders: that Miss Gonne’s illness of last summer arose from an illegal operation of which he was the father.
Miss Gonne. Maud. Miss Maud Gonne. She is the cause of all his despair but despite what Lolly thinks – what they all think, except perhaps Papa – it is not just for her that he makes this trip to the French capital, though, yes, while there he would endeavour to progress the work on their Castle of the Heroes. In Paris, unlike in London, the pride of the mage can naturally be added to the pride of the artist and in February, the French capital will see a performance of Count Villiers de l’Isle-Adam’s Axel. Five hours of elevated drama where all the characters are symbols and all the events allegories.
He needs to see this play, as a model and validation of his own dramatic work. Only in France would a drama five hours long be tolerated.
Thinking of the Rosicrucian wisdom that inspired Axel’s creator restores his equilibrium a little. Perhaps he would never marry but like Axel’s esoteric lovers, he would love his chosen woman unto death. Thinking about her, her high, almost arrogant carriage, he finds his hand journeying under his leg, towards the forbidden regions. He corrects himself, tucks them into two fists under his chest.
It is a torture to him, this enforced celibacy, for he is not naturally chaste. This continual struggle wears his nerves but he knows of old that giving in to the impulse is worse. In that direction lies ruin, the loathing of self. He turns determinedly, with a great sigh, to lie on his back.
A knock comes to the door, jerking him bolt upright on the bed. It is Maria, the less appealing of their two servants, bearing a tray.
“Miss Lily said you’d better prefer to eat here, Sir.”
His impulse is to wave it away but he knows solicitous Lily would return with it herself. He waves Maria towards the table and she thumps down the tray, thumps across the room and thumps the door closed behind her. This tray of food presents him with a quandary. He has made of poverty a virtue. No matter how rich he becomes in future – and though he is indigent still at almost thirty he knows that one day his writing will make him rich – he also knows he will always walk to his work, and eat little meat, and wear old clothes, for asceticism has become one of his ideals.
So what of this food, here, now? Should he eat it, or in accordance with his protest, leave it? He rises from the bed, crosses to the table, lifts the lid. Ham which arrived anonymously on their doorstep two evenings ago from some tactful friend. The leg of a goose, sent from Sligo. Without such kindnesses, and the income earned by him and the girls, whose work has the virtue of regularity, this household would have disintegrated. Willie never knows whether he considers his father admirable in this, or negligent. Potatoes and buttered swede. Beside the large plate, a smaller one with brandy pudding and a slice of cake.
He pulls up a chair and begins to eat, mindlessly ingesting mouthful after mouthful, without pause, taking no drink. Thinking. He shall ask Miss Gonne to accompany him to Axel and explain to her its importance. “The greatest work you can do for Ireland is to raise our literature,” she has so often urged. “Others can give speeches and attend meetings. You have higher work to do. For the honour of our country, the world must recognise you as one the Great Poets of the century.”
Was this not dew shining through a love decayed by slanderous tongues? Yes, yes, he thinks through his swede and potatoes, he shall go to her in Paris.
THE SAD SHEPHERD
There was a man whom Sorrow named his friend,
And he, of his high comrade Sorrow dreaming,
Went walking with slow steps along the gleaming
And humming sands, where windy surges wend:
And he called loudly to the stars to bend
From their pale thrones and comfort him, but they
Among themselves laugh on and sing alway:
And then the man whom Sorrow named his friend
Cried out, Dim sea, hear my most piteous story!
The sea swept on and cried her old cry still,
Rolling along in dreams from hill to hill;
He fled the persecution of her glory
And, in a far-off, gentle valley stopping,
Cried all his story to the dewdrops glistening,
But naught they heard, for they are always listening,
The dewdrops, for the sound of their own dropping.
And then the man whom Sorrow named his friend
Sought once again the shore, and found a shell
And thought, I will my heavy story tell
Till my own words, re-echoing, shall send
Their sadness through a hollow, pearly heart;
And my own tale again for me shall sing,
And my own whispering words, be comforting:
And lo! my ancient burden may depart.
Then he sang softly nigh the pearly rim;
But the sad dweller by the sea-ways lone
Changed all he sang to inarticulate moan
Among her wildering whorls, forgetting him.