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WB Yeats’ love affair with London

WB Yeats’ work may have been inspired by Ireland but, in the latest in his series about eminent Camden Victorians, Neil Titley looks at the writer’s links to the capital

04 January, 2019 — By Neil Titley

WB Yeats, photographed by Alice Boughton in 1903

IT was while walking on a hot dusty day along Fleet Street that a homesick WB Yeats heard the sound of trickling water and was transported in his imagination back to rural Ireland. In a banal twist, the trickle that he heard came from a shop window advertising display involving a table tennis ball balancing on a jet of water. But the result was his best known poem, The Lake Isle of Innisfree.

While it was, of course, Ireland that inspired Yeats (1863-1939), Camden played a large part in his early life. Arguably, the finest poet of the 20th century spent his childhood at 23 Fitzroy Road, Primrose Hill, and some of his adult life at 5 Woburn Walk in Bloomsbury.

It was at the latter address that – aged 33 – he finally discovered the joys of sex. Previously his emotional life had been sucked dry by an unrequited yearning for the Irish nationalist beauty Maud Gonne. Maud’s refusal to marry him thrust Yeats into agonies of passion, but coincidentally gave the world some of the greatest love poetry ever written.

However in 1896, Yeats met a novelist called Mrs Olivia Shakespear and they decided on an affair. During the protracted overture to this event Yeats realised that his unfurnished love nest at Woburn Place needed a double bed. Unromantically he recorded: “Olivia came with me to make the purchase and I remember an embarrassed conversation in the presence of some Tottenham Court Road shop man upon the width of the bed. Every inch increased the expense.”

Yeats was notorious for forgetting his immediate surroundings when in a flight of thought. Soon after this new experience, he was with the scholar John Sparrow one morning in the Mitre Tavern, Oxford, when the lounge full of newspaper readers was startled to hear Yeats’s high voice ringing round the room with the words: “The tragedy of sexual intercourse is the perpetual virginity of the soul.”

Olivia Shakespear

Yeats was also a considerable dramatist who devoted himself to creating a specifically Irish theatre, a battle that he had to fight in the teeth of opposition for more than 30 years. Almost every major new development in Irish drama that he supported produced a literal riot.

In 1899, The Countess Cathleen, co-written by Yeats and Lady Gregory, was attacked by reactionary Catholic elements. The performance was not aided by the arrival of a number of anti-clerics, sent by the future revolutionary leader Arthur Griffiths, with orders to “applaud everything that sounds as if it might be disagreeable to the clergy”. Police finally restored order and the play proceeded.

In 1903, the pair formed the Abbey Theatre in Dublin. It soon became the scene of another riot when JM Synge’s play, The Playboy of the Western World (which questioned Irish rural morality) was produced. Lady Gregory dismissed their opponents, saying that the battle was “between those who use a toothbrush and those who don’t”.

When Sean O’Casey’s play The Plough and the Stars opened in 1926, it was greeted with yet another riot. Yeats strode onstage in a fury and bellowed at his detractors: “You have disgraced yourselves yet again.”

Given the regularity of disorder at his theatre, Yeats developed a fool-proof method of quelling the mob. He would stand silently at the front of the stage, then in measured tones boom out the words: “Charles… Stuart… Parnell!” This inevitably produced a patriotic hush in the house. Then Yeats would proceed with a speech that bore absolutely no reference to Parnell whatsoever.

In tandem with the struggle for Irish independence, Yeats also developed as a political poet. His scorching comment that “the centre cannot hold… The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity” still holds relevance and menace today.

However, his seriousness and his exaggerated sense of his own dignity made him the comic butt of his Dublin contemporaries. The writer George Moore wrote that Yeats’s habitual costume of flowing cape and wide hat made him “resemble a huge umbrella left behind at a picnic” and that “Yeats would order a mutton chop off a waiter in a voice that suggested he was seeking the Holy Grail”.

When Yeats was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1923, Oliver St John Gogarty could not resist spreading an apocryphal story around Dublin. He claimed that Yeats had received the news in a telephone call from an old friend called Smiler.

“Senator Yeats,” said Smiler, “through you and to you a great honour has been paid to our country and to yourself. I have just received a cable from Stockholm telling me that you have won the Nobel Prize for Literature. This is a remarkable day for the Irish nation and for the Hibernian diaspora in many a far-flung land. It is as if the harp of Blind Rafferty had been restrung to herald a…”

Yeats interrupted: “For Jaysus sake, Smiler, pull yourself together. How much?”

Adapted from Neil Titley’s book The Oscar Wilde World of Gossip. For details visit www.wildetheatre.co.uk

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