“Taking pleasure in the mere handling of the stops”: Yeats meets Joyce in poetry and prose

Adrian Paterson, NUI Galway

In the first of MSI’s Modernist Moments Essay series, Adrian Paterson unpicks the artistic consequences of James Joyce’s famous first meeting with W.B. Yeats. The first part of this 2-part essay marks Yeats’s birthday; the second, Bloomsday.

James Joyce’s first meeting with William Butler Yeats on the streets of Dublin in late 1902 was a bruising encounter. Most modernists know the story: Yeats waxed lyrical about the sterility of town life and the living voice of the “folk imagination”, Joyce asked the elder poet’s age (37 as opposed to 20), opined “generalisations aren’t made by poets – they are made by men of letters”, and with that gift he had of unshakeable self-importance said, almost in pity: “I thought as much. I have met you too late: you are too old.” Fewer, maybe, realise we know this because the story was told against himself by a half-piqued, half-fascinated Yeats in notes he was preparing for a dramatic new book of essays, Ideas of Good and Evil (1903). In fact, as correspondence from this early period reveals, the meeting began a fruitful interaction that continued for the rest of their lives. Yeats’s continuing presence in Ulysses (set on 16 June 1904) thus represents a complex kind of debt being paid to those formative years, anachronistically flavoured by later exchanges. In the hundredth anniversary of the publication of Ulysses (on Joyce’s birthday 2 February 1922), it’s worth remembering some other ghosts at the party – among them WB Yeats, whose death on 28 January 1939 lands his own anniversary the same week, and brought to an end what was an astonishing mutual influence.

James Joyce c.1902

Photographs are hauntings, according to Jacques Derrida in Specters of Marx, and they do bring the dead to life. Of all images from that period, this familiar portrait of the artist as a young man is about the least ghostly. James Joyce, hands in pockets, looking directly at us from beneath a jaunty yachting cap, comes across as the confident critical figure he was. The same attitude he took to his meeting with an increasingly “exasperated and puzzled” Yeats generally served him well. Notwithstanding Stephen Dedalus in Ulysses recording in vowels (“A.E.I.O.U.”) an unpaid debt to the poet George Russell, who commissioned the first stories of Dubliners, Joyce had a habit of extracting help from others while at the same time acknowledging no obvious sense of obligation. By the time they had retired to a café, he told Yeats, who had praised his poems: “I really don’t care whether you like what I am doing or not. […] Indeed I don’t know why I am reading to you.”[1] And apparently at the moment the photograph was taken he was wondering how much he could borrow from the photographer.

John Butler Yeats, Self Portrait (1907)

Asking for money becomes a familiar theme in Joyce’s correspondence. John Butler Yeats, the poet’s father, took less kindly to him than his son, the old painter brandishing his stick at Joyce and his friends after being touched for cash. (To talk about money with artists was mildly insulting to the old painter, who died blithely with barely a penny in New York one hundred years ago). In turning down Joyce’s ropey translations of Hauptmann’s plays for the Abbey, Yeats fils would write “I am very sorry but I cannot help you with money. I did my best to get you work as you know, but that is all I can do for you” (2 Oct 1904).[2] It would suit Joyce to pretend that he was hounded out of Ireland by the establishment writers of the Irish Literary Revival: his verse broadside Gas from a Burner (1912) rudely commemorates “This lovely land that always sent | Her writers and artists to banishment”. So the story goes, he was deep in intractable correspondence with pernicious publishers and printers when he was rescued by the American Ezra Pound, who recognizing his genius for prose, immediately arranged serialisation of his novels.

Pound became thus the great orchestrator of two monumental 1922 modernist events: the publication of The Waste Land and Ulysses. Still, there were others involved, including four women that in the face of legal action bravely sponsored and published Joyce, the subject of Claire Hutton’s forthcoming online exhibition at the Harry Ransom Center. In the shadows was Yeats, who proved a consistent supporter, agitating for a Civil List pension for “this man of genius”, fending off Edmund Gosse’s inquiries about Joyce’s politics, and in the Oireachtas praising the banned Ulysses (though he hadn’t finished it) to baffled Irish Senators, “puzzling” over whether it was “a great work of literature” but staunchly defending its copyright and declaring it the “work of a heroic mind”.

It can still seem unlikely that such different writers shared so much. Len Platt claims “the social and cultural gulf between Joyce and Yeats finds expression in two aesthetics so different as to be radically incompatible”.[3] By contrast Edna Longley stresses their “aesthetic intercourse (and mutual admiration)”.[4] Still, examining the details of their early connection shows what they had in common: a belief in the importance of poetry, and a conviction that literature shouldn’t just repeat, but could renew itself by contact with the spoken word. The consequences in methods often appear very different, but these two convictions repeatedly overlapped in surprising ways – Joyce for instance eventually applying to Dublin’s Wakean citizens Yeats’s view of rural folk that “in speech, in the telling of tales, in all that has to do with the play of imagery, they have an endless abundance” (Ellmann Joyce 107). Fittingly, since Yeats in that first meeting hailed Joyce’s “own beautiful reading”, it all started with the sound of poems.

William Butler Yeats c. 1904

Yeats, it seems, rather relished being attacked by a young man of intelligence from his own country. Shortly afterwards Yeats would meet the Paris-bound Joyce off the boat train in London, brought him his apartment to rest, and asked Joyce to allow him to take him around the city to find him openings at publishers and journals for “writing, book reviews, poems etc”. And so he did, as he reported to Lady Gregory:

Yes I have written to Quinn and I have had Joyce with me for a day. He was unexpectedly amiable and did not knock at the gate with his old Ibsenite fury. I am trying to get him work on the Academy and the Speaker and I have brought him to Arthur Symons. (4 Dec 1902)[5]

“Quinn” is of course the New York lawyer John Quinn, who in buying up the manuscripts of writers like Joyce, Yeats, and Eliot did more than any to sponsor English-language modernism. This connection represents one of Yeats’s abiding gifts to Joyce, but even then he milked his contacts well enough to get Joyce reviewing work and checked up on his progress when he came back through London for Christmas.

Yeats did his best with Parisian contacts, too, telling him to look up Maud Gonne. And by bringing him to Arthur Symons, author of The Symbolist Movement in Literature (dedicated to Yeats, and hailed by TS Eliot as the book that changed everything) he put him in touch with the chief conduit between modern literature in French and English. Joyce, Symons (and Gonne) shared a fascination for the music of Wagner, and Joyce recalled at this meeting Symons playing snatches from his opera Parsifal on the piano. Later Yeats’s friend Thomas Sturge Moore’s Criterion article on Wagner’s and other adaptations of the old Celtic story of Tristram and Iseult which would have a decisive impact on both The Waste Land, which it was published alongside, and the beginnings of Finnegans Wake, which initially took a grotesque operatic rugby-playing Tristan as its hero. Circuitously, then, Joyce’s work would eventually return to the wellspring of folklore on which Yeats insisted.

Actress Florence Farr with a psaltery made by Arnold Dolmetsch to perform Yeats’s (and others’) poems c.1905

At the time, the sounds of music were more important. Joyce had set Yeats’s poems, and used his light tenor to good effect in concert performances of ‘Down By the Salley Gardens’. Through Yeats’s example in having his lyrics performing to a psaltery (a plucked musical instrument) Joyce even conceived the idea that the early music pioneer Arnold Dolmetsch should make him a lute to ply his troubadour trade in “English seaside towns”.

Though Stephen in conversation with Bloom in Ulysses continues to promote the idea, Dolmetsch refused to make the unknown Joyce an instrument, as way beyond his purse. Still an investment in music and sound pattern is a key to all Joyce’s work. According to the critic A. Walton Litz, Joyce was a poet first and last: the punning playful musical prose of Finnegans Wake forming an unusual kind of proof. Joyce’s early poems certainly show his acute sensitivity to sonic effects. In a wary but precisely-worded letter about his poetry Yeats could praise the “charming rhythm” of a new poem’s “second stanza” but note:

Perhaps I will make you angry when I say that it is the poetry of a young man, of a young man who is practicing his instrument, taking pleasure in the mere handling of the stops. (18 Dec 1902)[6]

This was tactful but acute criticism about poems that often imitated Yeats’s own. How to make such sounds have an intimate connection to life was the issue, though Joyce, by now studying medicine and taking notes on Aristotle in Parisian libraries, might at the time have preferred guaranteed publication in the London press. From Paris he wrote acerbically to Lady Gregory:

Mr Yeats […] suggested to the editor of the ‘Academy’ to take verses of mine but the editor of the ‘Academy’ wants columns of ‘really good verse’. When I have any definite news I shall be sure to tell you. […] Paris amuses me very much but I quite understand why there is no poetry in French literature: for to create poetry out of French life is impossible. (21 Dec 1902)[7]

This last is exaggerated for effect – like Symons, and to a degree Yeats himself, Joyce was hugely indebted to the sonic refinements of French poets like Verlaine (and the prose of its editor Édouard Dujardin) from the Revue Wagnérienne. But the question of how to make poetry out of real life was an abiding one.

Yeats, for his part, was just hesitantly starting to include the contemporary world in his poems: ‘In The Seven Woods’ finds it hard to remain plunged in foliage while there is “new commonness / Upon the throne” (Edward VII) and “Tara uprooted” – Yeats wrote to the Irish Times protesting the site’s desecration by British-Israelite zealots trying to dig up the Arc of the Covenant and present it to the allegedly freemason new king (and thereby perhaps found a new Bloomusalem). TS Eliot would later recognise these as the first stirrings of Yeats’s idiosyncratic but unquestionably modernist juxtaposition of personal and political (Tom Paulin calls it “cunning”) which found such consummation in poems from The Tower (1928) such as ‘Meditations in Time of Civil War’ (1922-3). Joyce for the time being left such things out of his poetry, but to the dismay of his early publishers would find it more conducive to make such references to real life places and people (including Edward VII) in new short stories called Dubliners, which played with what Yeats called the “sterility” of town life. This playing involved a conception of orality and memory that still owed something to Yeats’s conception of the folk mind.

Notwithstanding Joyce’s beginning to turn towards prose and Yeats’s admonition that “this kind of work never did anybody any harm”,[8] Joyce all the same grated against the polite discipline of reviewing. Eventually he broke, and conclusively bit the hand that fed him, writing a scathing review of Lady Gregory’s translation of Cuchulain of Muirthemne (again sticking the knife into its folkloric pretensions) for Dublin’s Daily Express that even he admitted was “very severe”. To his brother Stanislaus he confided:

And so help me devil I will write only the things that approve themselves to me and I will write them the best way I can.. […] So damn Russell, damn Yeats, damn Skeffington, damn Darlington, damn editors, damn free-thinkers, damn vegetable verse and double damn vegetable philosophy! (8 Feb 1903)[9]

This defiant statement of independence appears absolute, though the vegetarian Russell would commission Dubliners, and it would be tempered by Yeats’s solicitation to Joyce when hearing of his mother’s illness, which would shortly force his return to Dublin after receiving the brutal telegram “Mother dying come home father”. The irony of the letter is he followed this spirited harangue with a poem ‘I hear an army charging upon the land’ that would cement his connection with Yeats, being the poem Yeats turned up ten years later when Pound was casting about for work for his imagist anthology. Its declamatory style was much noisier (and closer to Yeats’s) than most imagist poems, but after lifting it out of Joyce’s first book Pound happily printed it among them. Judging they had “a few hates in common”, it was thus (thanks be to Yeats) that Pound began his vital correspondence with Joyce.

End of Part 1


[1] Richard Elllmann, James Joyce (New York: Oxford University Press, 1982), 102.

[2] Ellmann, James Joyce, 178.

[3] Len Platt, Joyce and the Anglo-Irish: A Study of Joyce and the Literary Revival (Amsterdam, Atlanta: Rodopi, 1998), 232.

[4] Edna Longley, “‘The Rhythm of Beauty’: Joyce, Yeats and the 1890s,” in Parnell and His Times, ed. Joep Leerssen (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2021), 185.

[5] Allan Wade (ed.), The Letters of W.B. Yeats (London: Rupert Hart-Davis, 1954), 386.

[6] Ellmann, James Joyce, 114.

[7] Richard Ellmann (ed.), Selected Letters of James Joyce (New York: Viking Press, 1975), 11.

[8]  Ellmann, James Joyce, 108.

[9]  Ellmann, Selected Letters, 14.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Dr. Adrian Paterson is Lecturer in English at the National University of Ireland, Galway. He has published widely on eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth century literature from pianos to poems, with a particular interest in the artistic interactions of modernism and Irish literature. Co-editor (with Tom Walker and Charles Armstrong) of the forthcoming Edinburgh Companion to W.B. Yeats and the Arts, and with Christine Reynier two special editions of the E-rea journal on Modernist Non-Fiction, he is director of the Yeats Thoor Ballylee Society and currently President of Modernist Studies Ireland.

1 thought on ““Taking pleasure in the mere handling of the stops”: Yeats meets Joyce in poetry and prose”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s