On the white strand

Denis Donoghue

  • The Selected Writings of Jack B. Yeats edited by Robin Skelton
    Deutsch, 246 pp, £12.99, March 1991, ISBN 0 233 98646 4

Jack Yeats’s paintings are much admired and, it appears, universally loved. I recall a large show of them a few years ago at the National Gallery in Dublin. I have rarely seen people looking at paintings with such evident pleasure. Admittedly, the show was in Dublin, and Yeats is deemed to be Ireland’s greatest painter, so those who stood before the choice paintings were prejudiced in their favour. Besides, the Ireland that appears in those paintings is long gone, and while few of us cry out for its recovery, we are touched by its residual signs. Most of the famous paintings were done between the turn of the century and, say, 1950: these include Memory Harbour, The County of Mayo, The Priest, The Cake Cart at the Races, A Daughter of the Circus, Clonskea, The Liffey, Swim, In the Tram, The Bar, The Donkey Show, A Fair Day, Mayo, Islandbridge Regatta, Crossing the Metal Bridge, The Quiet Man and The Harvest Moon. A favourite of mine is an earlier work, a watercolour, Not Pretty but Useful, of a boxer sitting in his corner.

I can’t say anything especially wise about these paintings. It is clear that Yeats has been to school with Goya, and that a few of the paintings are parasitic upon the masters they acknowledge. The Bar, for instance, doesn’t stand free of its obvious source, Manet’s Un Bar aux Folies Bergères. But to move from one of these paintings to another in a large room is to be convinced of their integrity. Yeats started in a small way, turning out drawings for illustrated magazines in London. He worked in this capacity for the Vegetarian, the Daily Graphic, Ariel, Paddock Life and Judy. Menial tasks, no doubt, but they trained his eye for appearances, physical properties and types. The illustrator of The Rivals retained more than his draughtsmanship when he painted The Priest perhaps fifteen years later.

Jack B. Yeats was born on 29 August 1871, son of John Butler Yeats and Susan Yeats, at 23 Fitzroy Road, London. His brother, William Butler Yeats, was then six years old. John Butler Yeats was a portrait painter in search of commissions. Finding few, he thought it better to have his young son brought up, for the most part, by his grandparents in Sligo. Jack spent far more time in the West of Ireland than Willie did, though in speaking of Yeats’s Sligo we mean the poet rather than the painter. Jack returned to his parents when he was about sixteen, and started on a meagre career as an artist. He married in 1894, and in 1897 he and wife went to live in Devon. But he always thought of going back to Ireland, and in 1910 he went first to Greystones, then to Dublin, and stayed there for the rest of his life.

Jack Yeats had ambitions as a writer, too. He wrote miniature plays, starting with James Flaunty, or the Terror of the Western Seas in 1901. And novels, of which The Amaranthers (1936) is the best. But it is hard to see how Robin Skelton’s claim for JBY as a writer could be sustained. When the whole of his writing becomes available, Skelton says, ‘he will be recognised as being one of the most original and important of 20th-century writers and as towering a figure in literature as he is in painting.’ Towards that end, Skelton has brought out The Collected Plays of Jack B. Yeats (1971) and the present selection, well-chosen from Sligo (1930), Sailing Sailing Swiftly (1933), The Amaranthers, The Charmed Life (1938), And To You Also (1944), The Careless Flower (1947) and In Sand (1964). Ah Well (1942) and And To You Also were reprinted in 1974, presumably in response to Hilary Pyle’s Jack B. Yeats; A Biography (1970). So a decent amount of the literary work is coming into view.

In On the Boiler WBY said of The Charmed Life and of its author: ‘He does not care that few will read it, still fewer recognise its genius; it is his book, his Faust, his pursuit of all that through its unpredictable, unarrangeable reality least resembles knowledge. His style fits his purpose, for every sentence has its own taste, tint and smell’. It is not clear what WBY meant, apart from to encourage his brother. It is true that modern Irish fiction includes a number a books that resemble The Amaranthers: loose, digressive narratives, always fanciful, often fantastic. I am thinking of James Stephens’s The Crock of Gold, Eimar O’Duffy’s King Goshawk and the Birds, Brinsley MacNamara’s The Various Lives of Marcus Igoe and Flann O’Brien’s At Swim Two Birds. Skelton claims that The Amaranthers anticipates many of Flann O’Brien’s methods and some of T.H. White’s in The Elephant and the Kangaroo. But Jack Yeats lacks their narrative verve. He has, instead, a gift of the gab. It is not enough. His most elaborate digressions, as in Sligo, are merely garrulous, they don’t put under strain the narrative they seem chiefly to thwart. WBY’s remark, which I’ve quoted from On the Boiler, would have cogent bearing upon Jack Yeats’s fiction if the digressions apprehended ‘unpredictable, unarrangeable reality’ and if somewhere else, perhaps in the official story, the claims of knowledge were at last respected. We could then think of him in useful association with his friend J.M. Synge, another writer who tried to come upon unarrangeable reality before it met the several official determinations to arrange it. In 1905 Jack Yeats visited Inishmore with Synge and, two years later, provided illustrations for his The Aran Islands, Synge’s tribute to a form of life that had not yet been brought under rule. But in The Amaranthers, what passes for unarrangeable reality and the wild forces that denote it is merely anything-and-everything that occurs to Yeats’s gab. Instead of tension between reality and knowledge, we have merely the story, such as it is, and whimsical digressions from it.

A fair instance of Yeats’s good and bad is a paragraph of The Amaranthers, part of Skelton’s choice. James Gilfoyle has come back to Dublin:

He stood and looked up the river, the same sun time as when he first stood there, and he felt there, fanned out within the reach of a long arm, stood all the round towers, the green hills, the mountains, the monuments, the little lakes, the little colleens by the lakes, the sea bays, the sea islands, the lake islands, the fiddles, the dancing floors, the shamrocks of the fields, the leaping salmon in the rivers. A warm sea of fancies loved, lapped so close that he could dabble the fingers of the hands of his long arms in the little waves breaking among the infant sedges. He could have taken a train away into that heaving place of his own heart, but he wavered.

The sentences ask to be compared to ‘The Lake Isle of Innisfree’ and to WBY’s later poems, but the comparison defeats them. The redundancy, the self-caressing repetition – ‘the little lakes, the little colleens by the lakes’ – show that the lyrical surge is to be released from any obstacle, any knowledge. When we come to ‘that heaving place of his own heart’, we know that the claim of knowledge has been set aside. When James goes into a cinema, he hears a man’s voice: ‘And he heard a man’s voice, rich with indiscriminate charity, cry of love. Himself knowing well the love he sings is of the Ocean which ever rises in a mist to condense into rain and rivulets, to tumble round its course back again. So it swims ever unchanged.’ This is a typical passage. A well-established comparison is invoked between the ocean and love, but the terms of the comparison are not allowed to assert themselves. The value in the case – endless love – is released from the exigency of a complete comparison which might curb its extravagance. The comparison is retained so long as it works in favour of the oceanic surge, and then dropped in favour of the hyperbole upon which it ‘swims ever unchanged’. There is no acknowledgment, as there is in WBY’s poems, that everything changes; that man is in love and loves what vanishes.

In Sand seems to me Jack Yeats’s best work in literature. It is clear that Yeats’s histrionic imagination played for several years upon a motif first given in Sligo, that of a girl ‘drawing with a stick or a shell on the white strand’. Every change of tide erases the drawing or the legend. This may appear a small beginning for a play, but it is enough to sustain, especially in the two last scenes of In Sand, a powerful allegory of order and chaos; of knowledge and the trouble it has to contend with.