Details & Cataloguing

Yeats: The Family Collection


William Butler Yeats
1865 - 1939
comprising 129 autograph letters signed, one autograph postcard signed, 2 typed letters signed, and one letter written by his wife George at his instruction during serious illness, A FLOW OF LETTERS THAT DOCUMENTS A KEY RELATIONSHIP IN YEATS’S LIFE OVER A PERIOD OF MORE THAN FORTY YEARS, the letters arranged chronologically in envelopes by Allan Wade as follows: 1894 (2), 1895 (2), 1904 (2), 1912/13 (2), 1916 (1), 1917 (2), 1920 (1), 1921 (4), 1922 (9), 1923 (3), 1924 (6), 1925 (1), 1926 (8), 1927 (11), 1928 (9), 1929 (12), 1930 (5), 1931 (5, and two empty envelopes), 1932 (10), 1933 (18, and an empty envelope), 1934 (10), 1935 (4), 1936 (6); altogether c.353 pages, with 108 autograph envelopes (including three without letters enclosed), 6 August 1894 to 12 November 1936, many with later pencil annotations and dates, probably by Allan Wade, three letters torn with loss

[with:] Olivia Shakespear, 37 autograph letters signed, to W.B. Yeats (“Dear Willy”), mostly from 34 Abingdon Court, Kensington, c.150 pages, 16 November 1923 to 18 July 1935

[also with:] two further letters to Olivia Shakespear, one by “A”, 2 pages, 1 April 1920, the other by her nephew Fred, 2 pages, 22 July 1934; a photograph of W.B. Yeats with George Yeats and Mrs Jean Hall, seated at tea, Algeciras, November 1927

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Catalogue Note

"Speech after long silence; it is right,
All other lovers being estranged or dead,
Unfriendly lamplight hid under its shade,
The curtains drawn upon unfriendly night,
That we descant and yet again descant
Upon the supreme theme of art and song:
Bodily decrepitude is wisdom; young
We loved each other and were ignorant." (W.B. Yeats, 'After Long Silence', on his friendship with Olivia Shakespear)

Yeats’s surviving correspondence with his first lover, the ‘beloved’ of The Wind Among The Reeds, who became in later years one of closest friends: “For more than forty years she has been the centre of my life in London” (to Dorothy Wellesley, 8 October 1938). Olivia Shakespear (1863-1938) was one of the women who – like Maud Gonne, Lady Gregory, and his wife George – were at the heart of Yeats’s life and, in many respects, of his work. She was English (like Maud Gonne and George), the daughter of Major General Henry Tod Tucker, who had served for many years in Bengal. In 1885 Olivia Tucker had married Henry Hope Shakespear, a solicitor from a family which, like her own, had strong connections with India. A daughter, Dorothy, soon followed, but it was not a fulfilling marriage, and the literary world soon began to occupy much of her time.

She met Yeats in April 1894 through her cousin, the poet Lionel Johnson, a fellow member of the Rhymers’ Club, at a dinner for the Yellow Book. Shakespear had by this time begun publishing novels, and the friendship with Yeats that followed from their first meeting began with discussion of literature. Yeats's early surviving letters to Shakespear focus on the treatment of love in her novels  – “I no more complain of your writing of love, than I would complain of a portrait painter keeping to portraits” (12 April 1895) – and her representation of male suitors, such as whether a particularly dull specimen could be better delineated: “Might he not be one of those vigerous [sic] fair haired, boating, or cricket playing young men, who are very positive, & what is called manly, in external activities & energies & wholly passive & plastic in emotional & intellectual things” (6 August 1894). Yeats here seems to be imagining a man as different as possible from himself, and of course these comments came just as the two were edging towards a sexual relationship of their own.  

No letters survive from April 1895, which was probably just before the two consummated their affair, to 1904. The love affair lasted about two years, and ended in no small part because of Yeats’s continuing infatuation with Maud Gonne:

“I had a beautiful friend
And dreamed that the old despair
Would end in love in the end:
She looked in my heart one day
And saw your image there;
She has gone weeping away.” (W.B. Yeats, ‘The Lover Mourns for the Loss of Love, ll. 2-7)

Shakespear and Yeats renewed their friendship in about 1899, and their affair in the years that followed. A single surviving letter from 1904 praises her latest novel The Devotees (“the whole book has a beautiful wisdom & sanity & gentleness”) and his plans to establish what would become the Abbey Theatre (“…it will be hard work…”) and in 1916 he writes lyrically of his plans for Thoor Ballylee (“...If I shall get it I shall plant fruit trees as soon as possible – apple trees for the sake of the blossoms & because it will make me popular with the little boys who will eat my apples in the early mornings...”, 8 November 1916). Over these years their lives had become more entangled in different ways. Yeats and Shakespear renewed their affair once again in 1910. Meanwhile, Shakespear had met the young American poet Ezra Pound soon after his arrival in London, and in May 1909 introduced him to Yeats. Her daughter, Dorothy, was by this time a young woman and Pound soon fell in love with her; Shakespear – estimating correctly that Pound was likely to prove a better poet than husband or son-in-law – did not encourage the relationship, but the two nonetheless married in 1914. Another connection was to prove even more significant to Yeats. In 1911, Olivia’s brother Henry Tudor Tucker married Nelly Hyde-Lees after the death of her alcoholic husband (see lot 75). Hyde-Lees had a grown daughter, Georgie, who soon became an intimate friend of Dorothy Shakespear’s and an enthusiast of the occult experiments that were also an important part of Olivia’s life and Yeats’s. In 1917 Georgie (now known as George) married W.B. Yeats.

The vast majority of Yeats’s surviving letters date from the 1920s and 30s. They now had decades of friendship behind them, deep knowledge, trust, and affection for each other, and shared literary and occult interests. Yeats had married into Shakespear’s extended family, whilst Shakespear’s son-in-law was the great Modernist poet who catalysed Yeats’s own extraordinary continuing poetic development. Their sexual relationship was now something upon which Yeats could reflect with an admission of regret at his own tepid behaviour: "'I came upon two early photographs of you yesterday, while going through my file — one from “Literary Year Book”. Who ever had a like profile? — a profile from a Sicilean coin. One looks back at ones youth as to a cup that a madman dying of thirst left half tasted. I wonder if you feel like that" (6 January 1927). This sentiment found issue in the poem 'The Empty Cup', in which "A crazy man that found a cup | When all but dead of thirst, | Hardly dared to wet his mouth", for fear his "beating heart would burst".

In these years Yeats writes freely about most aspects of his life and work. He talks of everything from visiting the Mormons of Salt Lake City during a lecture tour (“...They claim that the miraculous has never ceased among them. They have great wealth, number about 750,000 & now alas pride themselves on never having more than one wife...”, 14 March 1920) to memories of childhood illness triggered by his daughter’s whooping cough (“... I remember nothing of it except a moment of surpassing pride when I whooped in the middle of a large class room at the age of twelve, drew all eyes & was sent home...”, 9 April 1921). He expresses how writing his memoirs (in which he hid his affair with Shakespear under the pseudonym ‘Diana Vernon’) “makes me feel clean, as if I had bathed & put on clean linnen [sic]. It rids me of something & I shall return to poetry with a renewed simplicity” (1 August 1921), and also gives his first impression of Ulysses:

“I am reading the new Joyce – I hate it when I dip here & there but when I read it in the right order I am much impressed. However I have but read thirty pages in that order. It has our Irish cruelty & also our kind of strength & the Martello Tower pages are full of beauty – a cruel playful mind – like a great soft tiger cat.” (8 March 1922)

Inevitably, the turbulence of Irish affairs is a major theme of his letters of the early 1920s. Several letters in the early months of 1922 refer to the mounting tensions over the Anglo-Irish Treaty, and also to the deep pain inflicted on the country by the War of Independence. Coole Park was for Yeats a place of tranquillity and poetic inspiration, but on 23 April 1922 he writes:

“…All we can see from out window is beautiful & quiet & has been so; yet three miles off near Coole, which is close to a main road the black & tans flogged young men & then tied them to their lorries by the heels & dragged them along the road till their bodies were torn to pieces. I wonder will literature be much changed by that most momentous of events, the return of evil…” (23 April 1922)

Writing to Shakespear as the Civil War raged, bringing violence once again to the streets of Dublin, Yeats reassures her that “there has been no fighting in our square for a couple of weeks” (5 January 1923) and that his appointment as a Senator – which made him a potential target for anti-Treaty forces – meant that everyone was terribly polite to him (at least by daylight); a few months later he is able to express his hopes for the Free State in his own idiosyncratic terms: “when news came in of Michael Collins death, one of the ministers recited to the cabinet … the entire Adonais of Shelley” (22 March 1923).

As peace returned to Ireland, Yeats increasingly returned to poetry. His flow of letters to Sheakespear became more regular in the later 1920s through to the mid-1930s, and he writes more often, and more directly, about his own poetry: this is a particularly rewarding and significant shift as these were years of extraordinary poetic achievement. Alongside insightful but whimsical comments (“...both you & I are too old to really enjoy my writings – especially those in prose. I write for boys & girls of twenty for I am always thinking of myself at that age...”, 26 May 1924), he writes of the deepest intentions behind his work in a manner that would only have been possible to someone with a deep understanding of his esoteric beliefs:

“Do you remember that story of Buddha who gave a flower to some one, who in his turn gave another a silent gift & so from man to man for centuries passed on the doctrine of the Zen school? One feels at moments as if one could with a touch convey a vision – that the mystic vision & sexual love use the same means – opposed yet parallel existences.” (25 May 1926)

His poetic triumph of the late 1920s was the collection The Tower, and Yeats gives insightful comments on the passions that fed into it (“...Re-reading The Tower I was astonished at its bitterness, and long to live out of Ireland that I may find some new vintage. Yet that bitterness gave the book its power and it is the best book I have written...”, 25 April 1928), as he does a few years later on The Winding Stair (“...Sexual abstinence fed their fire – I was ill yet full of desire...”, 17 August 1933), and on his new poetic direction of the mid-30s: “I have finished with self-expression & if I write more verse it will be impersonal” (24 October 1933). His letters include invaluable chance comments, such as that Crazy Jane “is more or less founded upon an old woman who lives in a little cottage near Gort” (22 November 1931). He also often incorporates early versions of new poems and fragments into more than a dozen of his letters, including ‘The Wild Wicked Old Man’ (24 September 1926), ‘The Nineteenth Century and After’ (2 March 1929), ‘The King of the Great Clock Tower’ (11 November 1933) and, supremely, ‘After Long Silence’ (16 December 1929), the exquisite lyric quoted above, which Yeats goes on to suggest was inspired by his memories of "those autumn evenings when I was on my way to Rapallo". 

Of course Yeats’s letters range far beyond his own work. He writes of the wider world of literature, from his reading of D.H. Lawrence during his final American lecture tour, to his dislike of Lord Alfred Douglas, to his gloom as he girded himself for an attempt on Orlando, “which I shall probably find faint of pulse & dislike” (8 July 1932). He writes admiringly of Joyce, but it is the novels of Lawrence that particularly excite him, as in his comments on Lady Chatterley’s Lover:

 “...Its description of the sexual act is more detailed than in [Frank] Harris the language is sometimes that of cabmen & yet the book is all fire. Those two lovers, the gamekeeper & his employers wife, each separated from their class by their love, and by fate, are poignant in their loneliness, & the coarse language of the one, accepted by both becomes a forlorn poetry uniting their solitudes, something ancient, humble & terrible...” (22 May 1933)

His disillusion at Irish political life is evident, although rarely dwelt upon, except in the aftermath of the assassination of Kevin O’Higgins in July 1927. In a series of letters from the summer of 1933 he speaks of his brief dalliance with the Fascist Blue-Shirts, which elicit from him a number of sub-Nietzschean comments: “History is very simple – the rule of the many, then the rule of the few, day & night, night & day every where in small disturbed nations day & night race” (13 July 1933). He also writes of his health, the Irish Academy of Letters, the Swami, his receptiveness to natural beauty (as when he finds the “country all white with the May flower”, 7 June 1922), his financing of the Cuala Press, supernatural visions, and his belief in the power of irrational forces (“...Europe belongs to Dante & the Witches not to Newton...”, 9 March 1933). He does not write directly about the various lovers that he took during his final decade, but his later letters are increasingly peppered with racy sexual anecdotes.

Nearly forty letters by Olivia Shakespear to Yeats from the mid-20s to the mid-30s survive and are also included here. These letters begin in late 1923 with congratulations on winning the Nobel Prize. Her tone is – perhaps unsurprisingly – far more prosaic that Yeats’s, and her comments on his poetry are often somewhat guarded: “Leda seems to have a peculiar charm for you – personally, I’m so terrified of swans, that the idea horrifies me” (14 April 1929). She claims that “I can hardly read contemporary poetry - the great Eliot leaves me cold – only yours & occasionally Ezra’s…” (14 February 1926) but nonetheless talks of her social encounters with Eliot, Wyndham Lewis, and many others, and is always well-informed of their latest publications. She writes of visits to the theatre and to the Swami’s lectures, reading about Gandhi, John Quinn’s sale of his manuscripts, and of her growing collection of inscribed works by Yeats: “…I am very glad to have your new poems, to add to my valuable collection. Ezra once told me the most valuable possession I have is those autographed first editions of your poems. I said ‘You can sell them when I’m dead’…” (8 October 1932).

The letters between Yeats and Shakespear fall away in the later 1930s, and there are no letters here from the final two years of Shakespear’s life. She died on 3 October 1938, and in the immediate aftermath of her death Ezra Pound returned to Yeats his letters to Shakespear. It is thought that Yeats destroyed some of these letters, which may explain the few surviving letters from the first two decades of their relationship. The present collection comprises all the known letters by Yeats to Shakespear except for two early letters (dated 11 July 1895 and 20 May 1900) that were long-since separated from the main series, and three brief notes written in the last twelve months of Shakespear’s life. It should also be noted that Yeats was not always either consistent or accurate in his dating of letters. These letters were arranged into chronological order by Allan Wade, who often added his dating of individual letters in pencil either on the envelope or the letter itself. Further work on the dating of the letters has been undertaken by the editors of the Collected Letters, and it is the Collected Letters dating that is followed here. One letter fragment is dated by the Collected Letters to c. 24 November 1913, and is housed accordingly, but is in an envelope with a postmark of substantially later date (“8 JAN 2[.]”). This letter may, however, not be in its original envelope.


Yeats: The Family Collection