Who to Be

Colm Tóibín

In his essay on the painter Jack Yeats, which he sent to Beckett in 1938, Thomas McGreevy wrote: ‘During the 20-odd years preceding 1916, Jack Yeats filled a need that had become immediate in Ireland for the first time in 300 years, the need of the people to feel that their own life was being expressed in art.’[*] Beckett was in Paris when he read the essay. He wrote to McGreevy to say that he did ‘not think there is a syllable that needs touching’ in the first 18 pages, and that the rest, ‘though I do not find it quite as self-evident as the beginning, holds together perfectly’. But then he said that ‘the political and social analyses are rather on the long side.’ He admitted his own

chronic inability to understand … a phrase like ‘the Irish people’, or to imagine that it ever gave a fart in its corduroys for any form of art whatsoever, whether before the Union or after, or that it was ever capable of any thought or act other than the rudimentary thoughts and acts belted into it by the priests and by the demagogues in service of the priests, or that it will ever care, if it ever knows, any more than the Bog of Allen will ever care or know, that there was once a painter in Ireland called Jack Butler Yeats.

Like McGreevy, Beckett was fascinated by Jack Yeats; in these letters Yeats the painter is almost alone among living Irish figures of the previous generation whom Beckett mentions with constant respect. In 1930, McGreevy wrote of Beckett to Jack Yeats:

My last year’s colleague … is still in Dublin for a little while. He’s a nice fellow the nephew of Cissie Sinclair [who had been a painter] … It would be a charity to ask him round one afternoon and show him a few pictures and drop all the conversational bombs you have handy without pretending anything. But the luck will be all on his side, he says very little, especially at first, and you might find him not interesting, so don’t do it unless you feel like doing nothing one day. Joyce does like him however, and I’m genuinely fond of him tho’ he’s maddeningly young.

After the visit, McGreevy wrote to Yeats again: ‘Beckett wrote me about his visit to you. I’m glad you liked him. He was completely staggered by the pictures and though he has met many people through me he dismissed them all in his letter in the remark “and to think I owe meeting Jack Yeats and Joyce to you!”’ In February 1935, Yeats, alert to Beckett’s solitary habits, wrote to McGreevy: ‘I tried to get Beckett on the phone one day but he was away. I wanted to arrange a day for him to come here – when there wouldn’t be other visitors as he doesn’t so much like having them about.’ Three months later, Beckett wrote to McGreevy from Dublin:

Yesterday afternoon I had Jack Yeats all to myself … from 3 to past 6, and saw some quite new pictures. He seems to be having a freer period. The one in the Academy –‘Low Tide’ – bought by Meredith for the Municipal is overwhelming … In the end we went out, down to Charlemont House [the Municipal Gallery] to find out about Sunday opening, & then to Jury’s for a drink. He parted as usual with an offer to buy me a Herald. I hope to see him again before I leave, but do not expect ever to have him like that again.

Early the following year Beckett saw the picture Morning in Yeats’s studio; he wanted to buy it, despite his general lack of funds. ‘It’s a long time since I saw a picture I wanted so much,’ he wrote to McGreevy. In May 1936 he told McGreevy that Yeats had ‘brought up the subject of the picture … I since borrowed £10 which he accepted as a first instalment, the remaining £20 to follow God knows when, & have now got the picture. Mother & Frank [Beckett’s brother] can’t resist it much … It is nice to have Morning on one’s wall that is always morning, and a setting out without the coming home.’ Later both men wrote separately to McGreevy to say that they had bumped into one another at a donkey show in Dublin where Beckett had taken his mother, who was, he reported, ‘the picture of misery’. Yeats was making sketches for a painting.

In the early part of his essay on Yeats, which was finally published in 1945, McGreevy touched on something that was crucial to Beckett in his twenties and thirties as he sought to get Ireland out of his system, or tried to find a way of including it in the work he would do without any reference to its mythology, its history, the amusing oddness of its people or the so-called lilt of its language. ‘Jack Yeats’s people,’ McGreevy wrote,

are frequently depicted in the pursuit of pleasure, at the circus or music-hall, at race meetings, or simply in conversation with each other. Yet often the expression on their faces suggests restraint, thoughtfulness, an inner discipline. Outwardly they so obviously belong to a more primitive state of society than has ever been depicted without condescension in Western European painting that their attitude to existence, their human significance, may easily be overlooked … the figures in his pictures are not elegant – their clothes bag about their lean bodies; they are not sensual – their faces are ascetic, thin and careworn; and their expression is thoughtful – they are bemused as much as amused.

In other words, Yeats was attempting to move beyond what McGreevy called ‘mere stereotyped inventions’. There was a melancholy and a mystery at the heart of all the movement and gaiety he depicted. He painted Irish light using colours and textures that belonged to his dreams as much as to the actual landscape or to the palette or systems of previous painters. Nothing in his paintings was idealised simply because it was Irish. He could easily, especially in the years when Beckett knew him, have been a German painter. There was a mixture in him of someone rigorous, watchful and solitary and someone fascinated by swirl, swift movement and pure excitement; his canvases were filled with theatricality and crowds, and also by reverie, by solitary figures lost in bare, windswept places, by tramps and loafers and by the high, haunted, visionary sky. Yeats personally was elusive and reticent, despite his sociability; it was said that he seldom discussed with anyone, or even generally mentioned, anything of emotional importance to him. He had other things to talk about. And this might have been useful to Beckett. Yeats also wrote experimental plays and novels, and it was he who found Beckett a publisher in London for his first novel, Murphy, after it had been rejected by several firms.

Like Yeats and his brother the poet, and the playwrights Shaw, Synge and O’Casey, Beckett was a Dublin Protestant. The fact that he played no part in the development of the Abbey Theatre, and did not write about Ireland directly or suffer from patriotism or indulge in nationalism, and seemed in ways deracinated, a citizen of nowhere, does not mean that Ireland, its light and its landscape, and to some extent its so-called heritage, did not form him, or have a deep effect on him. His Protestantism shows up in some lovely moments, however, such as when he bathes at the Forty Foot in Dublin in 1936 and sees a Father McGrath, ‘red all over with ingrowning semen & exposure’. The footnote remarks drily: ‘It is not known to which Father McGrath SB refers.’ Beckett’s South Dublin Unionist background emerges also in some wonderful moments, such as an attack on the police force of the Free State: ‘There is no animal I loathe more profoundly than a Civic Guard, a symbol of Ireland with his official Gaelic loutish complacency & pot-walloping Schreinlichkeit.’

Beckett’s problem, besides his knowledge of compound German words, was that, as a literary artist, he knew that what his predecessors in Ireland had done with the island’s hidden or invented personality would be of no use to him. What Jack Yeats had done had a greater influence on him than the work of any Irish writer. In 1937, he wrote to his aunt Cissie Sinclair, a kindred spirit, about Yeats’s work as though he was writing about the work he himself would begin creating a decade later:

Watteau put in busts and urns, I suppose to suggest the inorganism of the organic – all his people are mineral in the end, without possibility of being added to or taken from, pure inorganic juxtapositions – but Jack Yeats does not even need to do that. The way he puts down a man’s head & a woman’s head side by side, or face to face, is terrifying, two irreducible singlenesses & the impassable immensity between. I suppose that is what gives the stillness to his pictures, as though the convention were suddenly suspended, the convention & performance of love & hate, joy & pain, giving & being given, taking & being taken. A kind of petrified insight into one’s ultimate hard irreducible inorganic singleness. All handled with the dispassionate acceptance that is beyond tragedy.

In the years after Beckett met Yeats he set about finding further sources of inspiration not in literary texts or traditions but in the study of European paintings. In the decade when most of these letters were written, he was looking at paintings and writing about them with an astonishing intensity and sense of discovery.

In his interest in art, and his efforts to write a poetry filled with radiant or fragmented statement, the language unadorned, personal, sometimes obscure and strangely beautiful, he found a soulmate in Thomas McGreevy. McGreevy, born in Tarbert, County Kerry in 1893 and so 13 years older than Beckett, was an art critic and a poet. His poem ‘Exile’ began:

I knew if you had died that I should grieve
Yet I found my heart wishing you were dead.

This found echoes in an untitled poem by Beckett, written first in French:

I would like my love to die
and the rain to be falling on the graveyard
and on me walking the streets
mourning the first and last to love me.

McGreevy had fought in the First World War, seeing active service at Ypres and the Somme, where he was wounded twice. By the time he met Beckett, he already knew Joyce and his circle in Paris and had met Eliot in London. Besides his short book on Jack Yeats and some poems, a few of them masterpieces of their kind, he wrote books on Eliot and Richard Aldington for the same series as Beckett’s book on Proust, the publication of which he arranged. He later wrote a monograph on Poussin and was director of the National Gallery of Ireland from 1950 to 1963.

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[*] McGreevy was McGreevy until 1943; then he became MacGreevy.