Monday, May 30, 2011

"Then I found you in the form of a large cold cooked chicken" - Yeats's letters to his wife

I've been reading the letters between W.B. Yeats and his wife George in Ann Saddlemeyer's scrupulous and intelligently edited new edition. I wouldn't say there are too many surprises or revelations to be found, but it's a fun book. I found myself skipping the bits about astrology and automatic writing (and there are lots of dinners and colds to be endured) but notwithstanding those, there were gems to be found, e.g. when WBY writes:

"I am a bad lier - & worst of all on the telephone."

"My work goes well & I am well -- except that I cannot spell."

"I thank you for hair brush. It has made me realise, that all my life I have wanted to scratch my head & never have been able to do so hitherto."

He's on the whole far funnier than I'd have imagined.

On a rare somber note, there's a version of his "Last Will & Testament," dated Dec. 21, 1929, which reads in its entirety:

I bequeath whatever I may die possessed of to my wife Bertha, Georgie Yeats, knowing that she will employ it, according to my known wishes, for the benefit of my children.

William Butler Yeats

[witnessed by]

Dorothy Pound

Basil Bunting

Yeats was seriously ill when he wrote this, though he lived another ten years. That wording will bring a tear to the eye of anyone who's got a wife and kids to provide for. Alas, a lawyer drew up a later will for him in 1934 which was, predictably, more detailed.

And there's this, from Rapallo in 1928:

"... Ezra explains his cantos, & reads me Cavalcanti & we argue about it quite amicably. We have twice dined to get variety at another hotel -- almost under our trees -- where he purloins s[c]raps that he may feed a black & two grey cats who wait for him about fifty yards from the hotel. He has been feeding them for quite a considerable time & brags of there fatness."

More evidence of Pound's legendary generosity! (Click here for a swell later pic of Ez and a gang of cats.)

As some reviewers have noticed, George is generally the superior letter-writer. This is her wry account of an incident that took place in July 1930:

"No newses here but for the thrill of our dustbin being stolen yesterday evening from the pavement between the hours of eightthirty and ten. McCoy was most puzzled this morning when he went out to fetch it in and found nothing to fetch, and filled with vehement righteous indignation when I told him that I had observed on returning home last night at 10.15 that it was not there. He insisted on my telephoning to the police at Lad Lane.... I rather felt that anyone who could pinch a large galvanised iron dustbin filled to the brim with rubbish during the combined light of twilight and street lamp deserved to get that dustbin! I hope the lady or gentleman who snaffled that bin will not be discovered; I should dislike extremely to make my first appearance in the Dublin Police Courts on a matter about which I feel so frivolously, in fact I am not sure that if this horrid eventuality occurred I would not turn Republican and refuse to recognise the Courts. Of course it was only from, out of, or because of, the worst kind of moral cowardice that I telephoned to the police; but there was McCoy, so eloquent, -- if this sort of thing was allowed to pass unnoticed ALL the Dustbins on the Square might be stolen, fortunately there was nothing in 'the doctor's' dustbin so he had not put it out yesterday (I refrained from the obvious retort that 'the doctor's' was an antique no one could covet). 'There's a lot of police regulations that are never enforced' says the police at the other end of the telephone 'but there's a regulation that bins shouldnt be put out as early as that.' 'Do you think the police took it' says I. 'O no' says he 'They wouldnt take it. They'd notify.' Then, 'When they take them they generally empty them out on the pavement, did they empty out yours?' 'They did not' says I. 'They must have had a handcart with them' says he. 'Do you mean the Garda would have emptied it out' says I. 'No, the people who take the dustbins' says he; so it is evidently one of the unregistered occupations like the stealing of doormats, washbaskets and umbrellas."

But the thing that tickled me most in the book was discovering that the Yeatses referred to their guest room as... "the strangers' room." I'll be using that one from now on!

The biggest revelation? In 1931, WBY writes to his wife -

"If you are sending pants (which you need not as I shall be in Dublin on Friday) send pjama trowsers also. I have three pjama jackets & one pair of pjama trowsers. Of course I only use the trowsers as a dressing gown but the maids may not know that & be shocked. I merely record this matter that we may not forget.

Yrs affly
WB Yeats

I have an immense wad of your penny stamps."

But the strangest letter - maybe in all of literary correspondence - is this, from October 1937, on the date of their wedding anniversary (!):

"Last night I had a night mare. I was in a crowded house of horrible people who all said you were dead (I have been anxious about your cold). Then I found you in the form of a large cold cooked chicken. I took you up & then bit by bit you came to life. I woke up very content."

Photo: Walter de la Mare; Bertha Georgie Yeats (née Hyde-Lees); William Butler Yeats; unknown woman, by Lady Ottoline Morrell.

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