Hostile Environments, Parties, and Observation in Woolf’s “The Years”

Scarlet Clark, Southampton University

In the latest essay in the #ModernistMoments series, Scarlet Clark examines the role of auto-ethnography in countering hostile nationalist politics and encouraging collective self-scrutiny. Clark discusses Virginia Woolf’s employment of Mass Observationist theories in The Years (1937) as a literary example of such an invocation.

Virginia Woolf’s The Years (1937) spans the history of one family while focusing with often minute detail on modern English life. Sharing the same journalistic origins as Three Guineas (1938) and Between the Acts (1941), The Years possesses a clear desire to address the public directly, “with more milk skimmed,”[1] and to encourage collective self-scrutiny.

Writers in the late 1930s were working in an increasingly insular Britain. Oswald Mosley, founder of The British Union of Fascists, had reached the peak of fascist frenzy by 1939, continuing his ultra-nationalistic quest against the backdrop of an array of intolerant immigration legislation. The Aliens Act of 1919, the legislation that governed refugees from Nazism in the 1930s, grew ever more hostile with stricter visa requirements and the increased police monitoring of immigrants and refugees. Woolf’s The Years subsequently bears themes of detachment, weariness, and public duty—all of which we keenly recognise today.

The contemporaneous auto-ethnographic impulse provides a backdrop to Woolf’s urge for national self-scrutiny. The Mass Observationist (MO) movement, a Blackheath group formed in 1936, were responding to a late modernist “desperate need for anthropological study of our own situation”. With a library of around 5,000 press cuttings and 1,730 public reports in a single year, MOs recruited the public to observe and document daily life. At first glance, with their impetus to “collaborate in building museums of sound, smell, food, clothes, domestic objects, advertisements, newspapers,”[2] the MOs appear to fall into Jed Etsy’s description of a stagnant imperial modernity whose “island became one large museum” following the fracturing of the British Empire.[3] Madge’s definition of the movement, however, reveals a search for methodologies which resisted totalisation, being an

instrument for collecting facts, not a means for producing a synthetic philosophy […]. The availability of the facts will […] add to the social consciousness of the time […]. It is one part of a general deflection of emphasis from individual to collective effort.[4]

This instrument’s consciousness-raising approach is in part due to the fear that Nazism, the “force of unreason associated with humanity in the mass […] could overwhelm British people.”[5] Both Woolf and the MOs theorised that the most effective ways to guard against this were reason and self-vigilance. Woolf’s Outsider’s Society methodology in Three Guineas encouraged women (and the general public) to maintain “an attitude of complete indifference […] with a firm rooting upon fact”[6] in order to resist the nation: “a country beyond constitutional definition, whose appeal is overwhelmingly emotional.”[7] When approaching nationalism with reason and collected evidence, women become aware of how “little [they have] to thank England for in the past […] or in the present.”[8]

Leena Kore Schröder makes note of Woolf’s own description of her emotional attachment to England and its later use as self-critical ammunition in Three Guineas. Woolf describes the nostalgic English countryside and its alluring qualities preventing exactness of sound and sense: “the sound seems to fall through an elastic, gummy air; which holds it up; which prevents it from being sharp and distinct […]. The rooks cawing is part of the waves breaking.”[9] The root of this description is a self-critical passage in Three Guineas which outlines the careful mediation of indifference and attachment:

[…] if, when reason has had its say, still some obstinate emotion remains, some love of England dropped into a child’s ears by the cawing of rooks in an elm tree, […], this drop of pure, if irrational, emotion she will make serve her to give England first what she desires of peace and freedom for the whole world.[10]

In The Years, the doctor character Peggy personifies this late modernist and auto-ethnographic quandary of how one “combines detachment and sympathy” regarding English politics.[11] Peggy is a social eye, constantly watching and collecting microscopic fragments of conversation, though having clear difficulty in “grasping the sense of specific occurrences and gestures empathetically.”[12] Peggy sees everything with “extreme clearness,” is remote from others, often “drawing herself back against walls” and floors to “take notes of what people say”—most of it “nonsense.”[13] Her crippling self-reflexivity, consequent inability to act instinctively, and refusal to be “inside” contribute to her melancholia.

Peggy’s indifferent observations are an antidote for feeling adrift, of needing to “drug [herself] into a state of comparative insensibility” in order to act. Differently to the co-creation of the auto-ethnographers, she prescribes herself the solitary and self-soothing activity of observation, repeating: “take notes and pain goes. Take notes and the pain goes” (323). Woolf here may well be criticising a detached writing ethic which is beneficial to the self, rather than the public.

In Three Guineas, indifference is figured as a relentless utilisation of critical thought that disrupts habitual, national life. Peggy’s role in The Years, seen most clearly in the “Present Day” party section, is to lay the cornerstone for the total defamiliarisation of ingrained English social custom and post-colonial nostalgia.

In Woolf’s late fiction, the Conradian “horror” of the English home is established in drawing rooms or village greens. Her use of the auto-ethnographic becomes useful in dramatising the nation’s failure to re-stage English identity as “autonomous of colonial heritage.”[14] Woolf’s gaze in The Years is truthful when it shows “we know nothing, even about ourselves” (394), and when Peggy’s ethnographic lens goes on to render familiar customs unfamiliar, she shows anthropology to be inoperative.

Peggy’s auto-ethnographic view of the party from the ground is a challenge to the autocracy of aerial narrative perspective. Her documentation unusually renders the private family home a port of imperial trade and knowledge:

[F]rom her seat on the floor she had a queer view of people’s feet; feet pointing this way, feet pointing that way, patent leather pumps; satin slippers; silk stockings and socks. They danced rhythmically, insistently, to the tune of the fox trot. And what about the cocktail and the sea, he said to me, said he to me—and the tune seemed to repeat over and over again. And voices went on over her head. Odd little gusts of inconsecutive conversation reached her […] down in Norfolk where my brother-in-law had a boat […] oh compete washout I agree […] people talking nonsense at parties. (355)

In this passage, Peggy does not privilege one detail over the other. She remains on the floor, widely noting down all information as it “flies over her head”, unable to see from above the partygoers and fragmentary conversations as a meaningful totality. Noticeable in this passage is the total lack of uniformity (even with the insistence of the fox trot), its dynamism and multiplicity. The Years instructs its reader to, like Peggy, “construct meaning based on indeterminacy, multiplicity, and connections, and to face the possibility that there may be no final pattern.”[15]

Peggy’s on the ground, outsider disengagement allows her to scrutinise her own nation’s chronic national decline without emotional attachment or comforting synthesis. However, she feels the allure of British nationalism after she tunes into the sounds of London and the harsh

suggestion they brought in of other worlds, indifferent to this world, of people toiling, grinding, in the heart of darkness, in the depths of night […]. How can one be ‘happy’ […] in a world bursting with misery […] tyranny; brutality; torture; the fall of civilisation; the end of freedom? (358)

Peggy next asks “why do I notice everything?”, before submitting to failure, forcing “her mind to become blank and lie back, and accept quietly, tolerantly, whatever came” (358).

Queen Alexandra, wife of King Edward VII

Peggy’s passivity is interrupted twice, firstly by group laughter over a dream-like, animalistic drawing of Queen Alexandra during a party game. The picture is created collectively, each body part drawn by a different person. The head resembles the Queen’s, but the body is comprised of different animals. Sensing a shared feat of critical, anti-imperial representation, Peggy attempts to impart her vision, asking others to relieve her of the auto-ethnographic duty which leaves her “feeling like a person whose blood had been sucked” (333). Peggy implores her audience to “look here… she began […]. Look here…,” but her vision “hung before her, the thing she had seen, the thing she had not said” (360-61). Soothing her anxieties, Peggy tells herself that at least she’d tried: “her eyes half shut; it seemed to her that she was on a terrace, in the evening; an owl went up and down, up and down; its white wing showed on the dark of the hedge; and she heard country people singing” (361).

Earlier, Peggy’s patience is interrupted when an elderly patient reminisces about the “fine old days” and the English, a “faded snapshot of […] some country mansion” (324). Peggy’s vision at the party dredges up this comforting nostalgic illusion of rural English insularity, of the white, unthinking movement and slumberous vigilance ‘up and down, up and down’ the dark borders, as the comforting substitution for giving up on endeavours to improve social consciousness.  Nevertheless, her narrative sharpens, losing its “gummy” quality as new feet approach her, beginning once more to “note” conversation and positively resolving to try again, to accept her duty towards difference, and deciding that “you have to pick up the pieces, and make something new, something different, she thought, and joined the foreigner” (362).

Just as the mass observationists emphasised the importance of “collective effort” when re-building a self-critical nation in the context of global xenophobia, Woolf makes clear through these public interruptions that Peggy, originally believing her auto-ethnographic duty towards others to be solitary and draining, realises it must include others to be valuable. Despite her exhaustion, Peggy retains her critical eye, but this time admits hope and shared public responsibility.

A December 2021 “Kill the Bill” protest against the PCSA Act (Steve Eason/Creative Commons)

Just as late modernists were responding to their own hostile environments, an overview of Britain’s immigration and asylum bills today paints a similarly bleak picture. For recent Ukrainian refugees, the emergency British visa process was marked by bureaucratic and logistical hostility, while the new Nationality and Borders Bill now possesses the ability to strip British citizenship without notice. Its details of offshore processing and indefinite detention are set to deepen the criminalisation of asylum seekers and immigrants already in the UK. In addition to these xenophobic administrative processes, the Police, Crime, Sentencing, and Courts Act criminalises the right to protest this oppression.

In the face of such despair, to continue “trying again”, mobilising, and moving towards an anti-fascist Britain feels like an insurmountable task. Virginia Woolf’s Peggy, though feeling this pain and exhaustion, recovers energy in the collective, moving towards the co-creation of a better England. Woolf instructs us to observe what’s happening within, but then to extend our self-observations into active, hopeful directions: picking up the pieces, making something new, and joining the foreigner.


[1] Virginia Woolf, “Saturday 23 November, 1940”, Selected Diaries (London: Vintage, 2008), 495.

[2] Charles Madge, Mass Observation (London: Fredrick Muller, 1937), 35.

[3] Jed Etsy, A Shrinking Island: Modernism and National Culture in England (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004), 44.

[4] Madge, 47.

[5] James Buzard, “Mass-Observation, Modernism, and Auto-ethnography,” Modernism/modernity 4, no.3 (1997): 108.

[6] Virginia Woolf, Three Guineas (London: Vintage, 2000), 205.

[7] Leena Kore Schröder, “‘A Question is Asked which is Never Answered’: Virginia Woolf, Englishness and Antisemitism”, Woolf Studies Annual, 19 (2003): 33.

[8] Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own and Three Guineas (London: Vintage, 2001), 206.

[9] Virginia Woolf, “A Sketch of the Past”, in Moments of Being, ed. Jeanne Schulkind (York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1976): 66.

[10]  Woolf, Three Guineas, 207.

[11] John Marx, The Modernist Novel and the Decline of Empire (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 60.

[12] Carey Snyder, British Fiction and Cross-Cultural Encounters (Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008), 5.

[13] Virginia Woolf, The Years (London: Vintage Classics, 2016), 323. Subsequent references to this text are in parentheses within the body of the essay.

[14] Simon Gikandi, Maps of Englishness (New York: Columbia University Press, 1996), 4.

[15] Jessica Evans (ed.), The Camerawork Essays: Context and Meaning in Photography (London: Rivers Oram Press, 1997), 76.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Scarlet Clark is a Leverhulme Doctoral Scholar working on the Intelligent Oceans Project at Southampton University. Her research is at the intersection of American law and literature, investigating contemporary Southern literature, counter-archives, and petro-colonialism, with a particular juridical focus on legacy litigation. She also writes and publishes on modernism, Virginia Woolf, and William Faulkner, and has a forthcoming article out in a special edition of The Faulkner Journal, edited by Ahmed Honeini, this Autumn.  

Philip Johnson: Architecture’s “International Style” and Fascist Nationalism

Bill Freind, Rowan University

The designs of modernist architect Philip Johnson are prominent landmarks in many city skylines. However, Johnson was a Nazi sympathiser, and the development of his architectural style is inseparable from his fascist politics. In the latest of the #ModernistMoments series, Bill Freind examines this political-aesthetic instability in Johnson’s career.

On February 9, 1932 the inauspiciously titled “Modern Architecture: International Exhibition” opened at the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in New York. The show was organized by three men: Alfred H. Barr, the 30 year-old director of MOMA; Henry-Russell Hitchcock, 28 and a professor at Wesleyan University in Connecticut; and Philip Johnson who was 25 and who, although he would become one of the most prominent architects of the 20th century, had no formal training in architecture at the time. Hitchcock and Johnson published a book entitled The International Style: Architecture Since 1922 concurrently with the exhibition, although Johnson acknowledged that Hitchcock had written it. Barr lays out the three principles of the style:

 … emphasis upon volume – space enclosed by thin planes or surfaces as opposed to the suggestion of mass and solidity; regularity as opposed to symmetry or kinds of obvious balance; and, lastly, dependence upon the intrinsic elegance of materials, technical perfection, and fine proportions, as opposed to applied ornament.[1]

Le Corbusier’s Villa Besnus, in Vaucresson near Paris (Charles Gerard, 1924)

Intentionally or not, both the exhibition and the book made this architecture both famous and immediately recognizable, laying the groundwork for both the “glass box” skyscraper that would become the default building for global capital and the “midcentury modern” style of houses in the US, despite the fact that Johnson would claim in 1994 that “it seems crystal clear that what Russell wrote was a history of the previous great decade, not a prescription for the next one.”[2] The only explanation for the choice of 1922 as a date comes in a somewhat opaque reference: the style “appeared already plainly by 1922” (49). Hitchcock seems to have in mind works such as Le Corbusier’s Villa Besnus (above right) and Mies Van Der Rohe’s plans for a brick country house (below), which he actually seems to have designed in 1923 or 1924.

Mies Van Der Rohe’s design (Creative Commons)

The book begins in a very strange way: “[s]ince the middle of the eighteenth century there have been recurrent attempts to achieve and to impose a controlling style in architecture such as existed in the earlier epochs of the past.”[3] But who has attempted to “achieve and impose” this “controlling” style? The answer would seem to be time itself: “[t]he nineteenth century failed to create a style of architecture because it was unable to achieve a general discipline of structure and of design in the terms of the day.”[4] By way of contrast, Hitchcock suggests “[t]oday a new single style has come into existence” that “exists throughout the world, is unified and inclusive” and has emerged through “directed evolution.”[5] In other words, the International Style is created by some powerful and unspecified movement of history, which would suggest that to defy it is to defy history itself. The vaguely authoritarian tone of those lines becomes more explicit as the book progresses:

The continued existence of Romantic individualism is not a question of architecture alone. There is a dichotomy of the spirit more profound than any mere style can ever resolve. The case against individualism in architecture lies in the fact that Wright has been almost alone in America in achieving a distinguished architecture; while in Europe, and indeed other parts of the world as well, an increasingly large group of architects work successfully within the discipline of the new style.[6]

This is a truly stunning claim: innovation in the arts comes not from individual creativity but through conformity to a style that, if we are fortunate, somehow emerges from the spirit of the time. Unsurprisingly, this infuriated Frank Lloyd Wright, whom Hitchcock and Johnson had asked to join the exhibition only because he was too prominent to exclude. Wright at first claimed he was withdrawing, then agreed to stay if the museum consented to distribute his essay “Of Thee I Sing.” While Wright’s prose is often unclear or turgid, he clearly recognized a central problem with Hitchcock’s claim:

The community interest in these United States is not communism or communistic as internationalists’ formula for a “style” presents itself. Its language aside, communistic the proposition is. Communistic in communism’s most objectionable phase: the sterility of the individual its end if not its aim [sic] and…in the name of “discipline”![7]

Calling Hitchcock and Johnson “communistic” completely misreads their motivations: while some of the architects in the exhibition, especially Walter Gropius and those affiliated with the Bauhaus, were informed by left-wing politics, Mark Lamster notes the exhibition “all but eliminated any concern for progressive social values”[8] and they placed Gropius and a Bauhaus model in a preliminary gallery. At the same time, Wright was certainly correct that there was a strong authoritarian tendency in Hitchcock and Johnson’s aesthetics, and it’s worth remembering that 1922, the year that marked the beginning of the exhibition, was also the date of Mussolini’s march on Rome, so the emergence of the International Style was matched by the emergence of a hypernationalist, fascist government in Italy. Johnson was less interested in Mussolini than in Hitler, who he first saw in October 1932, eight months after the opening of the exhibition, when he attended a Hitler Youth rally in Potsdam. Johnson said he was caught up in the “febrile excitement” of the rally, and called Hitler a “spellbinder.”[9]

Philip Johnson in 1933 (Carl Van Vechten, via Wikimedia Commons)

A little more than a year later, in December 1933, Johnson would resign his position at MOMA to create with his friend Alan Blackburn the National Party, an organization that, according to an article in the New York Herald Tribune, was “distinguished from all other political aggregations, juntas, parties or groups, past and present, by a complete lack of a platform.”[10] Despite the sarcastic tone, that was an accurate assessment, as Johnson emphasized action over policy or even thought: “[a]ll you need is faith, courage, and loyalty. If you have them, you’ll get things done…. Beyond that nothing is needed, not even consistency. The only necessary consistency is consistency of feeling.”[11] Although the party lacked a coherent political ideology, it was predicated on an inchoate, irrationalist authoritarianism – which of course is true of many people drawn to fascism. The party’s slogan, “the need is for one party,” was simultaneously vacuous and revealing: as with the Roman fasces that served as the model for fascism, unity is predicated on the both transcendental and largely undefined myth of the nation, and this mystical “need” echoes the authoritarian tendencies in Hitchcock’s celebration of the dominant architectural styles that he and Johnson celebrated.[12]

Searching for a suitable authoritarian, Blackburn and Johnson first decided to offer their services to Huey Long, the populist Senator from Louisiana. Unsurprisingly, Long and his advisors recognized that Johnson and Blackburn were powerless dilletantes and declined their services. (It’s worth noting the irony of Johnson endorsing Long’s Share Our Wealth program, since Johnson’s personal fortune was about half a million dollars at that time.) After Long was assassinated in 1935, the pair turned their attention to Father Charles Coughlin, the demagogic and anti-Semitic Roman Catholic priest whose radio broadcasts made him one of the most powerful political figures in the US. When Coughlin addressed a crowd of 80,000 at Chicago’s Riverview Park, he did so on a huge platform that Johnson had designed — and that he had modeled after the stand he had seen at Hitler’s 1932 Potsdam rally.

Johnson drifted through a variety of short-lived political allegiances, but his commitment to Nazi Germany never wavered. He met with Nazi officials in New York and Washington D.C., and his biographer Mark Lamster suggests he may have been “exchanging information on the activities, politics, and membership of American fascist circles and discussing the means by which the Germans might disseminate their propaganda.”[13] William Shirer, the American journalist who later wrote The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, suspected Johnson was a Nazi spy, and by September 1940 Johnson was the subject of at least five FBI case files.[14]

While any number of artists in the twentieth century endorsed anti-Semitism and various forms of authoritarian politics, Johnson’s unambiguous support for Nazi Germany is particularly egregious, and yet he never received the attention directed at, for example, Ezra Pound. In part, that was due to Johnson’s talents with spin, hype, and public relations: discussing his racist, fascist past, he offered tepid apologies, deflections, and hand-waving. For instance, he suggested his enthusiasm for National Socialism stemmed from the sight of “all those blond boys in black leather.”[15] His proposal to the Berlin Government to rebuild the area around the Friedrichstrasse is an appallingly masterful demonstration of his ability to downplay his Nazi past: in the first paragraph of his pitch, he glibly asserts “[p]olitics interest me only in so far [sic] as it fosters or impedes the production of architectural beauty. For example, I loathe Hitler but love Friedrich Wilhelm IV: bad client, good client.”[16] I want to emphasise the audacity of that claim: in a proposal to the Berlin government to rebuild a section of the city never fully reconstructed after being bombed in World War II, Johnson simultaneously offers a sly wink and nod to his Nazi past, while absurdly claiming that to him Hitler was merely a “bad client.”

550 Madison Avenue (David Shankbone, via Wikimedia Commons)

Nonetheless, that deflection was successful and Johnson was awarded the contract to build the American Business Center, also known as Philip Johnson Haus, adjacent to the former site of Checkpoint Charlie in Berlin. Perhaps the Berlin government felt that Johnson’s claims weren’t wholly inaccurate: by the late 1970s, Johnson had abandoned the sleek modernism of Mies van der Rohe for a slick postmodernism that glibly appropriated and juxtaposed historically incongruous styles, as demonstrated by his building at 550 Madison Avenue in Manhattan (right), known first as the AT&T Building and later the Sony Tower.

While that building was widely reviled, it was praised by Albert Speer, Hitler’s architect, who said it was “more in the spirit of his own work than anything he had seen by an American architect since 1945.”[17] Johnson apparently returned the compliment, since the American Business Center includes a ceiling based on Speer’s design for the Reich Chancellery in 1939 – another sly and appalling reference to his Nazi past. In that gesture, Johnson reduced the atrocities of the Third Reich to little more than decorative touches in a monument to the triumph of global capitalism that is literally situated in the location where both National Socialism and European Communism were defeated.

That’s an important and telling detail. While Johnson’s life and career might seem to be marked by aesthetic and political inconsistency, one thing remains consistent: his desire for a power that can transcend borders to shape, direct, and control the masses. That first emerges in his valorization of a “controlling style” in architecture and is made more explicit in his full-throated support for National Socialism. When those were exhausted or defeated, Johnson refashioned himself as, in his words, “a whore” who is “paid very well for building high-rise buildings.”[18] Johnson’s authoritarianism merely shifted to unquestioning support for global capitalism.


[1] Hitchcock, Henry-Russell and Philip Johnson, The International Style: Architecture Since 1922 (New York: Norton, 1966) 29.

[2] Hitchcock, 16.

[3] Hitchcock, 34.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Hitchcock, 35-36.

[6] Hitchcock, 43.

[7] Wright, Frank Lloyd, “Of Thee I Sing” in The Collected Writings of Frank Lloyd Wright, Volume 3 (New York: Rizzoli International Publications, 1993) 114, ellipsis in original.

[8] Lamster, Mark, The Man in the Glass House: Philip Johnson, Architect of the Modern Century (New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2018) 103.

[9] Lamster, 114.

[10] “Two Quit Modern Art Museum for Sur-Realist Political Venture,” New York Herald Tribune, December 18, 1934, 1.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Johnson and Blackburn were drawn to the writings of Lawrence Dennis, who, although largely forgotten now, was perhaps the most prominent voice of American fascism. A former child preacher who had subsequently attended Exeter and Harvard, Dennis was also a Black man who was passing as White.          

[13] Lamster, 165.

[14] Lamster, 182.

[15] Schulze, Franz, Philip Johnson: Life and Work (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996) 110. 

[16] Johnson, Philip, “Berlin Alternative” in Philip Johnson: Recent Work (London: Academy Editions, 1996) 43.

[17] Lamster, 366.

[18] The Charlottesville Tapes, commentary by Jacquelin Robertson (New York: Rizzoli International Publications, 1982) 19.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Bill Freind is Professor in the Department of English at Rowan University. He is the author of American Field Couches (BlazeVox Books, 2008) and the editor of the collection Chrysanthemums and Scuba Divers: The Writings of Araki Yasusada (Shearsman Books, 2011). He has published articles in Poetics Today, the Journal of Modern Literature, Paideuma and other journals. He is at work on a manuscript entitled Advertising the Avant-Garde: Mass Communication and Innovative Art.

“People like that don’t expect sacrifices from us”: Katherine Mansfield’s echoes in the Covid-19 era

Emma Marns, University of Essex

In the latest in the #ModernistMoments series, Emma Marns examines the significance of Katherine Mansfield’s work for the present day and the role wealth plays in how we celebrate and grieve.

Katherine Mansfield came from an educated and socially prominent family in New Zealand; her father was knighted in 1923. Growing weary of the stuffiness of her family’s wealth – much as T.S. Eliot did in his native America at a similar time – Mansfield distanced herself from this lifestyle and its expectations through London living, broken relationships and divorce, lesbian affairs, a pregnancy out of wedlock and critical illness.

Katherine Mansfield

Her fiction presents a sympathetic and sensitive vision of poverty and suppressed people. In “The Life of Ma Parker”, tragedy is abundant in the life of a poor working woman; on occasion, such as in “How Pearl Button Was Kidnapped” (first published more than a decade prior) readers receive an insight into her perspective on the position of Māori people in New Zealand as well.

Mansfield was merely months away from her death when she published possibly her most famous and celebrated collection of short stories, The Garden Party and Other Stories in 1922. The collection’s titular tale “The Garden Party” concerns the death of a poor workman on the day a wealthy family have planned an extravagant garden party, and the “artistic” daughter of the family who becomes concerned at the appropriateness of continuing with festivities in light of the recent tragedy. Exactly a century later, the word “party” is charged with anger and resentment and disunity. Political parties in the UK and Ireland are at each other’s throats as stories emerge in the press about drunken parties – at very inappropriate times in the light of so many personal tragedies during the Covid-19 emergency – being hosted by the very people responsible for making such gatherings illegal.

Mansfield’s Laura Sheridan would have a good deal to say about that. Laura, the protagonist of “The Garden Party”, is the only one in the family troubled over the death of Mr Scott (a workman who lives in one of several shabby cottages near the Sheridans’ family estate) for reasons beyond merely that his death is inconvenient for them as they’re having a party that day. Laura is horrified at the inappropriateness of continuing with the festivities within earshot of the grieving community – a concern shared by no one else. The absolute disdain for the poor from the family’s affluent point of view is palpable:

[…] the little cottages were in a lane to themselves at the very bottom of a steep rise that led up to the house… True, they were far too near. They were the greatest possible eyesore, and they had no right to be in that neighbourhood at all. They were little mean dwellings painted a chocolate brown. In the garden patches were nothing but cabbage stalks, sick hens and tomato cans. The very smoke coming out of their chimneys was poverty-stricken. Little rags and shreds of smoke, so unlike the great silvery plumes that uncurled from the Sheridans’ chimneys. Washer-women lived in the lane and sweeps and a cobbler… Children swarmed. When the Sheridans were little they were forbidden to set foot there because of the revolting language and what they might catch. But since they were grown up, Laura and Laurie on their prowls sometimes walked through. It was disgusting and sordid. They came out with a shudder. [1]

The Sheridan house literally towers over and looks down on the homes of the people they rely on for support and sustenance, but who seemingly have “no right” to exist. The story is set in Wellington, though could easily be read the same as if the estate was in the leafy suburbs of London high society. Even the two households’ waste products have a class divide; the Sheridan’s smoke is somehow of better quality, and more aesthetically acceptable, than the poor smoke.

In modern times where the gap between rich and poor is becoming more and more pronounced, a whole century on from tales of Her Ladyship on the hill and the poor washerwomen below, it certainly seems that the war on poor described here has never really ended. As it was then, it is still now the case that working – and working hard – isn’t enough to avoid a life of poverty.

In “The Life of Ma Parker”, the eponymous long-time widow and mother to seven dead children (and five estranged) is in such a situation. She arrives at work having buried her only grandson Lennie the day before. She is a housekeeper for a “literary gentleman” (GP 96) who merrily describes her to friends as the “hag” (97) he gets in once a week after he’s dirtied everything he owns. Yet Ma Parker is arguably a woman of considerably more sense and substance, capable of functioning practically in the world despite the enormous challenges of widowhood and poverty.

In the cases of both the Sheridans and the gentleman in question, there are references to the working classes as being a separate, incomprehensible community; in “The Garden Party” Laura’s mother confidently claims that “people like that don’t expect sacrifices from us” (GP 51) while accusing Laura of being “absurd” and spoiling the fun, and also when encouraging Laura to take spare arum lilies with her, justifies it with “People of that class are so impressed by arum lilies” (53) – as if the very recently bereaved would be sufficiently distracted from their grief by the quality of a flower.

Mansfield presents the Sheridan family as confident in their belief that they aren’t being disrespectful at all – in their opinion they are simply displaying great stoicism in a time of tragedy, a quality bestowed only on the refined classes such as themselves.  This can be read throughout these stories in fact. Ma Parker is desperate to find somewhere to finally give in to her grief that she has carried for decades but can find nowhere. Do the rich cry noisily in their mansions away from the prying eyes of others?

Mansfield in 1912

It is suggested that extremities of emotion are presented as the quality the working classes have in place of stoicism. In “How Pearl Button Was Kidnapped” (1912), the most enviable and attractive quality of the Māori women is their outward displays of happiness. The reader meets the eponymous Pearl, a young white girl who, while playing outside her parents’ home, is encouraged by some Māori women to follow them to their settlement. Pearl sees the ocean for the first time and is infatuated by various aspects of their lifestyle: their colourful clothes, happy demeanour, and exotic fruits. The story concludes with her “rescue” by white policemen, “Little men in blue coats”.[2]

What sets Laura Sheridan apart from the rest of her family – and, indeed, Pearl Button from hers – is a feeling of unexpected but nevertheless powerful resonance with the “other” community. For Laura, it is the poor people in the cottage dwellings; for Pearl Button it is the Māori women themselves. Whilst the poor and the Māori are similarly portrayed as wrongdoers by those with colonial and financial power in the stories, their behaviours presented as barbarous in contrast to refined, both daughters feel at home in their presence. Both see the lives of the other as inviting and intriguing, abundant with freedoms they themselves do not have.

Laura and Pearl both meet the edge of their world in their encounters – for Laura, it is death; for Pearl, it is the sea. However, it does not matter how strongly Laura and Pearl resonate with alternative lifestyles – their upbringing ultimately betrays them both. It is interesting that in both stories it is a case of dress: Pearl lifts her abundant skirts to sit on her petticoat, “as she had been taught”,[3] to avoid ruining her frock in the dust; Laura, after a day of being complemented on her spectacular hat, feels compelled to apologise for it once inside the confines of the Scott household. It seems not only that the poor are denied the social mobility to climb the ladder, so to speak, but also that the nature of upper-class life is rigid and constricting in both directions.

100 years later, British readers of Mansfield in particular may identify a staggering similarity between some of her characters’ contempt for the poor and what can be seen in 21st century news. The children of the poor in The Garden Party are a “swarm”; wealthy UK Conservative politician and then-Prime Minister David Cameron had to be reminded in 2015 that “we are discussing people, not insects” when he described refugees seeking solace in the UK in the same way.[4]

Laura was worried that having a band in the garden following the death of a local workman would be unseemly to his faceless and socially insignificant wife. Ma Parker’s employer thinks he ought to say something helpful when hearing of Lennie’s death, “…because these people set such store by funerals” (GP 96). It hardly occurs to him that there is a great deal of difference between hosting a funeral and merely burying a person: Ma Parker could never afford an actual funeral, and if he knew her better, he’d know there was barely more than herself to attend it.

In “The Garden Party,” Laura’s concerns for the deceased are met with prejudiced scorn from her sister, who says, “You won’t bring a drunken workman back to life by being sentimental.” Laura then retorts with fury, “Drunk! Who said he was drunk?” (GP 50). The ignorant and baseless assumption that the dead workman was responsible for his own death by being a drunk echoes horrifically in the words of (now former) UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson – in his previous career as a “literary gentleman” – who described the poorest twenty percent of society as “…chavs, losers, burglars and drug addicts” in an article for The Telegraph.[5] If drinking heavily is indeed the benchmark by which the poor are judged, what are the partygoers in Parliament?

Elwell’s “The Wedding Dress” (1911)

Infamously, there was outrage early in 2022 after reports emerged that the United Kingdom’s decision-makers were partying, fighting and vomiting until 4am on the day of Prince Philip, The Duke of Edinburgh’s funeral. The then-94-year-old Queen, a widow after 70 years of marriage, sat alone at the funeral just a few hours later in the very image of stoicism. The resulting outrage from this episode in history serves to prove Laura’s mother in “The Garden Party” wrong – people do expect sacrifices from their like, after all.

Looking at British life in terms of traditional Christian rite, one might say the big moments are birth, baptism, marriage and death – all of which were previously non-negotiable moments of the human experience. The Covid-19 pandemic restrictions altered, if not robbed, some of these life-affirming moments – fathers banned from hospitals as their children were born, weddings made illegal, the Ma Parkers of the modern day unable to hold their dying spouses and children, funerals reduced to six persons (if that) who could not legally comfort each other. Even Prince Philip’s lavish state military funeral that had been planned for decades was scaled back. This seemed on the surface, at least, to suggest Covid affected all equally, regardless of social standing. It is noticeable, however, that when the relative grandeur of the funeral increases with accelerated wealth (as in this case, a Royal funeral), the outrage over the government garden parties appeared to be greater from some sections of the commentariat.

Given the combined wealth of the Cabinet who orchestrated the parties this outrage is less a case of rich vs. poor, but rich vs. other rich. As George Orwell said, all are made equal, though some are more equal than others. Katherine Mansfield’s stories – “The Garden Party” and “Ma Parker” especially – demonstrate that death is not the great leveller that it is meant to be, and that the experience and perception of grief is, like most other things, socioeconomically influenced.  A century on from The Garden Party’s debut, it doesn’t appear lessons have been learned or much progress has been made in ending the cycles of poverty that stretch across the world from Wellington to London and everywhere in between. For some of us, life and death are not “simply marvellous” (GP 56), but depend entirely on what side of the lane we were born on.


[1] Mansfield, Katherine The Garden Party and Other Stories (Independent: The Blue Toucan, 2021), 49-50. Subsequent references to this collection are in parentheses within the text.

[2] Katherine Mansfield, Katherine Mansfield’s Selected Stories, ed. Vincent O’Sullivan ( New York, London: W. W. Norton, 2006), 39.

[3] Mansfield, Selected Stories, 38.

[4] BBC News “David Cameron criticised over migrant ‘swarm’ language,” BBC News, 30 July 2015, .

[5] Boris Johnson, “The poor are being robbed in Labour’s class war,” The Telegraph, 8 December 2005,

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Emma Marns has a BA Hons in English Literature from The University of East Anglia and an M.Phil. in Irish Writing from Trinity College Dublin. After a career as a sports journalist she now works at the prestigious drama conservatoire East 15 Acting School at The University of Essex, and recently presented on “Exile, Loss and Sterility in Motherless Ireland” at the Caliban’s Mirror: Wilde and Joyce research symposium in Dublin. 

PART 2: “Taking pleasure in the mere handling of the stops”: Yeats meets Joyce in poetry and prose

Adrian Paterson, NUI Galway

In the second of MSI’s Modernist Moments Essay series, Adrian Paterson unpicks the artistic consequences of James Joyce’s famous first meeting with W.B. Yeats. This is the second of two parts in this essay: the first can be read here.

Despite his determination to “damn Russell, damn Yeats, damn Skeffington […] damn editors!”, Joyce’s 1902 meeting with Yeats continued to resonate long after the event. It was certainly impressive enough to mention (with a typical familiar half-disclaimer in parentheses) in a letter to his mother. From Paris Joyce asserted:

My book of songs will published in the spring of 1907. My first comedy about five years later. My “Esthetic” about five years later again. (This must interest you!) Yeats (who is impressionable) said he knew me only a little time and in that time I had roared laughing at the mention of Balzac, Swinburne &c. I have more than once upset a whole French café by laughing (20 March 1903).[1]

That plea for the reassurance of her interest betrays a need rarely publicly displayed. But this passage forms an oddly neat summary of his aesthetic, and a pretty accurate prophecy.

James Joyce, Chamber Music (frontispiece, 1907)

Because in the event Joyce was just about right. Thanks to the continued ministrations of Yeats’s friend Arthur Symons, Joyce’s “book of songs” became a volume called Chamber Music published in London in 1907 by Elkin Mathews. His play Exiles was not meant as a comedy but is, according to Hugh Kenner in Dublin’s Joyce, “Joyce’s explication of Chamber Music. It contains four lyrical single-minded people unaware that their every gesture corresponds to the jerking of great parodying shadows on the wall beyond”.[2] If this is a little unfair on the play (which was turned down by Yeats’s Abbey Theatre) it speaks to a strained quality in Chamber Music’s sequence, the persona’s determination to be (as Joyce wrote of himself to Lady Gregory) “alone and friendless”. These plangent love lyrics are not parodies, and yet without the music they do so much to advertise they can be hard to pin down.

There’s nothing, for instance, in the decorous framing of the poems or musical frontispiece of Mathew’s art-house printing to suggest that a poem like ‘My love is in a light attire’, set in a recognisably Yeatsian landscape, has anything but an innocent interpretation:

            My love is in a light attire
            Among the apple-trees,
            Where the gay winds do most desire
            To run in companies.

            There, where the gay winds stay to woo
            The young leaves as they pass,
            My love goes slowly, bending to
            Her shadow on the grass;

            And where the sky’s a pale blue cup
            Over the laughing land,
            My love goes lightly, holding up
            Her dress with dainty hand.

Still, insinuations in Ulysses about the music of chamber pots have provoked critics such as William York Tindall to discover here, as he says, the presence of “micturition” (just so “my love goes”). We know from Stephen Hero Joyce had a habit of humming bits of French songs to suggest (even when there wasn’t) there was something scurrilous about the bits omitted. Laughter appears in the poem – but of what kind? And is the poem only interested in lyric patterns, taking pleasure in “the mere handling of the stops”? Holding up its skirts, is it discreetly delicately suggestive – or about to break out into ribald song? If the poems were actually spoken or sung tone of voice might tell us. Otherwise, we are stuck. Ulysses’ anachronistic Chamber Music jokes surely don’t accurately reflect their author’s private view, but they replay in comic mode the disclaimers about any reaction to his poems he made to Yeats. Given Joyce’s half-disclaiming of these poems (unless set to music, in line with Yeats’s strictures), and printed as they are with large amounts of inscrutable white space around them, these intricate, self-involved, musical exercises face the reader with a blank expression, inscrutable to interpretation, tone forever undetermined.

This points to an important ambiguity that Joyce’s fiction was able to exploit and extend by, for example, blurring how seriously we are meant to take the verse compositions or aesthetics of Stephen Dedalus (and A Portrait of The Artist As A Young Man maps pretty well onto Joyce’s promise of an ‘esthetic’). In A Portrait, for instance, Stephen’s conventional-sounding villanelle can be framed by his more sensual erotic thoughts, dry religion anticipating wet dream without quite losing its lyric poise.

This was not an unprecedented technique. Dante’s Vita Nuova describes incidents from the poet’s life, discloses the sonnets that came from them, and follows this with their line-by-line elaboration, in threefold translation. The gap between each iteration is hardly ironic, but nonetheless a fertile counterpoint starts to open up. Even here though Yeats had some priority. The Secret Rose and Stories from Red Hanrahan featured prose interspersed with his own verse, often passed off as folk song, providing anachronistic layers of authorship and supposed orality shrouded in the productive implacability of the printed page. Like Shakespeare’s too, his plays featured sung lyrics to counter the action. Most extraordinarily, the elaborate frame narrativesand mad whirling gyres of philosophy in Yeats’s A Vision were structured around major poems like ‘Leda and the Swan’ interpolated from other 1920s publications. And this was a book Joyce studied seriously, judging by how much its Viconian cycles of history appear in Finnegans Wake.

The technique was serious, then, although part of its freedom and scope was to allow in the kind of laughter that might upset a whole French café. Sometimes considered both poetically and musically conservative, Joyce’s use of poetry and music for narrative purposes in careful prose turned out to be revolutionary. In a sense then the rest of Joyce’s career was spent in filling the blank pages of Chamber Music. This discovery, which allowed songs, colour, and interior commentary to combine in macaronic, multi-authored, soundscaped discourse, what Mikhail Bakhtin would call the “polylogic” language characteristic of the novel, is in its own way as important as the “mythical method” TS Eliot hailed as Joyce’s great achievement, that semi-ironic layering of mythology for which the classically-named Ulysses became famous. 

James Joyce, Ulysses (1922)

So when Yeats’s ‘Who Goes With Fergus’ arrives in the opening pages of Ulysses, an interesting kind of debt is being honoured. We first hear the poem droned out of the tower’s echoing stairwell by the jester Buck Mulligan, his over-mournful intonation needling Stephen Dedalus’s brooding over his mother’s death:

            And no more turn aside and brood
            Upon love’s bitter mystery
            For Fergus rules the brazen cars.

As words from the rest of the lyric start to infect the accompanying interior monologue, an aural memory of “twining stresses” and “a hand plucking the harpstrings” shows Stephen is replaying its performance to music (the actress Florence Farr playing the male bard Aleel) in Yeats’s The Countess Cathleen (1899) a play Stephen had recalled attending in A Portrait. As, fastened to its seaside surroundings, the intertextuality gets more intricate, with “wavewhite wedded words shimmering on the dim tide”, the psychology gets more interesting. That Mulligan is modelled on Oliver St John Gogarty, Joyce’s former companion and by 1922 Yeats’s friend and fellow senator, rather suggests Joyce wished to indicate who was the true disciple; or more privately, perhaps, note the poet’s contrasting kindness about his mother. (After remarking on his mother’s illness Joyce had added with bitter stoicism “O these things don’t matter”, though it was obvious to Yeats, who had a couple of years before lost his own mother, that they did). In this vein finally Stephen reclaims the poem as a kind of painful comfort for himself, remembering his playing and singing it to his mother as she lay dying. The swells and falls of Joyce’s own musical setting, although unconvincing reconstructions exist of the melody, can only really be gauged by the description:

‘Fergus’ song: I sang it alone in the house, holding down the long dark chords. Her door was open: she wanted to hear my music. (U 9)

Of course the door is closed to any reader who might want to actually hear this music. This poignant moment of reverie thus reveals how much you gain, and perhaps how much you lose, by replaying poetry and music in prose. Yeats had wrestled with this in books and lyrics ever since his first meeting with Joyce, though his answers often took him in different directions. What happens here adds up to more than just the author’s own Victorian piano-song, or a Dublin crossed-dressed stage performance, Stephen’s seaside poetic reverie or the mocking intonation of what started as a printed, folklorically-infused lyric, though memories and replayings of all these and more combine in a nuanced musical fusion. By placing this multi-layered poetic and folkloric tribute so early in the book, Joyce, who had much of Yeats’s verse and some of his prose by heart, was briefly disclosing the complex but sincere debt of one artist in words to another. Their unsettling 1902 meeting had in fact changed everything, and would be remembered in Finnegans Wake’s (Celtic) twilight meeting of birds over the Liffey estuary “in the twitterlitter between Druidia and the Deepsleep Sea”: “I have met with you, bird, too late, or if not, too worm and early” FW 37:17,13). Through the careful handling of poetry’s organ stops in prose, and by experimenting with the living voices of actual people speaking, singing, and remembering, could be found a new Bloomusic of modernism.


[1] Richard Ellmann (ed.), Selected Letters of James Joyce (New York: Viking Press, 1975), 19.

[2] Hugh Kenner, Dublin’s Joyce (London: Chatto & Windon, 1955), 96.

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.

PART 1: “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. (Read Part Two here).

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”.[5] 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)[6]

“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)[7]

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)[8]

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”,[9] 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)[10]

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] Ellmann, James Joyce, 107.

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

[7] Ellmann, James Joyce, 114.

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

[9]  Ellmann, James Joyce, 108.

[10]  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.