The Playboy of West 29th Street

Colm Tóibín on John Butler Yeats

It was June 2004 and I was in the Special Collections section of the Union College Library in Schenectady in upstate New York. About an hour earlier, I had heard one of the librarians telling someone on the phone in a half-whisper that someone called Colm Tóibín was in the library looking at the correspondence of John Butler Yeats, which had been transcribed, then typed, then donated to the library by William M. Murphy, John Butler Yeats’s biographer.

And now I looked up from the Yeats letters to find a man looking at me. It struck me immediately who he was. He was William M. Murphy himself, the author of Prodigal Father, the biography, and Family Secrets, a book about the Yeats family. He was the man who had transcribed the very letters I was reading. Murphy’s gaze was guarded. If he came over and found that I was in Schenectady for a few days, with evenings free, he might feel he would have to invite me to his home for supper or a drink. He was trying to ascertain, just by looking, if I was someone who would frighten his dogs, or undo his lawn, or spread false and malicious rumours about him and his family when I got back to Ireland. In order to put him out of his misery, I stood up and walked towards him and thanked him for the great work he had done on the Yeats family and for depositing his papers in the library. And then, as his gaze softened into a look of kindness and ease, he invited me to dinner the following night.

At the table with him and his wife, I discovered that they both had the same charm and good humour as Prodigal Father did. Among the many suggestions he made that evening was that, when I was in Dublin again, I should go and see Michael Yeats, the son of the poet, who might be glad to meet someone who was interested in his grandfather as much as his father – and to spend time with someone who was brought up, as I was, in a Fianna Fáil family (Fianna Fáil being at the time the main political party in Ireland, but also a political movement that was unfashionable, to say the least, and an organisation which very few Yeats scholars knew anything about). So, a few months later, I found myself having lunch with Michael Yeats and his wife, Gráinne, at Cliff House, their home in Dalkey in the suburbs of Dublin. Gráinne, who kept giving me a beady look across the table, was used to people coming to the house looking for something. All I wanted to see, though, were some sketches towards a self-portrait that John Butler Yeats had made in New York towards the end of his life.

John Butler Yeats, self-portrait
John Butler Yeats, self-portrait

After lunch, Michael Yeats motioned me to follow him into the hallway. He opened a long drawer in an old chest and began to rummage until he found, wrapped in tissue paper, some unframed drawings by his grandfather, self-portraits done in old age. As soon as he removed the tissue paper and put the drawings on a table, the face of his grandfather looked out at us, urgent and full of inner energy. The gaze was vivid, piercing, questioning, the gaze of a spirit alert to its own power. For as long as I thought polite, I looked at these drawings, remembering Lady Gregory’s remark that, since John Butler Yeats had so much difficulty finishing paintings, he should be encouraged to do as many drawings as possible, drawings that could be done in one sitting.

As I turned, my eye was caught by an oil painting hanging on the stairwell. For a second, I thought it had to be a reproduction, since as far as I knew the original, which had been owned by the New York collector John Quinn, was in the United States. But the closer I looked, the surer I was that this was the actual self-portrait Yeats had worked on for the last decade of his life. It was commissioned by Quinn in New York in 1911 and worked on between then and the artist’s death in 1922. ‘It is like watching a blessed ghost of a long lost beloved slowly materialising,’ Yeats wrote to Quinn in 1919. ‘I think of nothing else and I dream of it.’ It was painted in Yeats’s little bedroom, also his studio, at the Petitpas boarding house on West 29th Street. In her autobiography, the critic Mary Colum, a friend of the Yeatses and the Joyces, described the iron bed and cheap worn rug, and the easel on which was ‘always erected a portrait at which he tinkered day after day’. John Butler Yeats’s preoccupation with this late self-portrait accounts for its heavily worked surface, as he kept scraping off and reworking what he had done. He spent more than a decade on a single image so that he could all the more capture a sense of spontaneity.

In his preface to Early Memories, John Butler Yeats’s son W.B. Yeats wrote that in his letters his father ‘constantly spoke about this picture as his masterpiece, insisted again and again … that he had found what he had been seeking all his life’. In a letter to a friend in January 1917 John Butler Yeats wrote: ‘Now I mean as soon as possible to finish my portrait, on which I have been working for many years … I want it to be “great” – an immortal work – that’s why I put off finishing it.’ The painting became one of his excuses in old age for not returning to Ireland: he insisted that the self-portrait in progress ‘must not be endangered by a change of light’. Now, in the scarce light of the landing, this painting, still unfinished at the time of the artist’s death, had come home to Ireland. As I stood there, I gazed at his gaze, a gaze even more arresting and engaging than the ones in the drawings. It was like something in motion rather than fixed; it was a portrait of someone who had been lit up by life. It made you want to know who this man was.

John Butler Yeats, the son of a clergyman, was born in 1839. His father had a good income, and had inherited land through the Butler connection on his grandmother’s side. Having attended a couple of boarding schools, he entered Trinity College Dublin, as his father had done. By this time, his parents had moved to Dublin and were living in Sandymount, and as good Anglo-Irish Protestants, they were moving easily in the best Dublin society. As a student, Yeats often joined his parents to dine at the house of Sir William and Lady Wilde, as his son would later dine at the house of Oscar Wilde in London. The lawyer and politician Isaac Butt had been a college classmate of his father’s and remained a close friend, close enough for John Butler Yeats’s father to call his youngest son Isaac Butt Yeats.

Among Yeats’s best friends at school were two brothers from Sligo, Charles and George Pollexfen, whose family owned a shipping and milling business. Yeats, who was charming and open in his manner, found their seriousness beguiling and made a visit to them in Sligo while at Trinity. The town of Sligo, he later wrote, ‘was strange to me and very beautiful in the deepening twilight … Dublin and my uneasy life there and Trinity College, though but a short day’s journey, were obliterated.’ While staying with the Pollexfens, he met their sister Susan, whom he would marry in 1863. Years later, when he tried to explain his decision to marry Susan Pollexfen, Yeats said that her family genius ‘for being dismal’ was, he felt, what he needed. ‘Indeed it was because of this I took to them and married my wife. I thought I would place myself under prison rule and learn all the virtues.’ After Trinity, Yeats studied to become a barrister but spent most of his time with literary friends, including the critic Edward Dowden and the poet John Todhunter. John and Susan named their first child William Butler Yeats. Soon afterwards they had a daughter, Lily. As a law student, John Butler Yeats had begun drawing – and his talent at it, as well as the influence of his literary friends, pulled him away from the law. ‘I meant to succeed,’ he later said of his legal career. ‘My will was in it, that is my conscious will.’ But in his unconscious will, he wanted to become an artist. So, early in 1867, leaving his wife and two young children in Sligo, he set out for London and enrolled at Heatherley’s Art School. His wife’s family, the Pollexfens, the most practical of people, did not approve. Nor did his wife. ‘I don’t think she approved of a single one of my ideas or theories or opinions, to her only foolishness,’ he later wrote. None of this deterred him. ‘The Pollexfens are as solid and powerful as the sea-cliffs,’ he wrote in his unfinished memoirs, ‘but hitherto they are altogether dumb. To give them a voice is like giving a voice to the sea-cliffs. By marriage to a Pollexfen I have given a tongue to the sea-cliffs.’

Since Yeats made no money as an artist and since the tenants on his estate in Kilkenny did not always pay the rent, his growing family, including Lollie, born in 1868, and Jack, born in 1871, lived for long periods in Sligo with the Pollexfens. Between the ages of seven and nine, W.B. Yeats lived with his mother and her family in Ireland, as his father remained impecuniously in London. Yeats’s youngest child, the painter Jack, lived in Sligo with his mother’s family almost continuously between the ages of eight and 16. When Yeats’s family finally joined him in London, they were able to observe the problems their father faced at close quarters. In his Autobiographies, W.B. Yeats remembered as an 11-year-old observing what happened to a painting of a landscape by his father: ‘He began it in spring and painted all through the year, the picture changing with the seasons, and gave it up unfinished when he had painted the snow upon the heath-covered banks. He is never satisfied and can never make himself say that any picture is finished.’ He recalled a stranger in London, on finding out whose son he was, remarking: ‘O, that is the painter who scrapes out every day what he painted the day before.’

In London, Susan Yeats had a series of strokes and became a semi-invalid until her death on 3 January 1900. Since she had believed she was marrying a man who was likely to become a prominent barrister or a judge, and since she disliked living in poverty in London, Yeats had reason to feel guilty about his failure to provide for his wife the life she had imagined. Twelve years after her death the remorse was still with him. ‘Had I had money,’ he wrote to Lily, ‘your mother would never have been ill and would be alive now – that is the thought always with me – and I would have done anything to get it for her – but had not the art.’ Nor did he have the funds. Although he received a windfall from the sale of his land, it served mainly to pay off debts. While their father’s financial circumstances worsened, all four of the Yeats children began to work and make money. From early in their lives, they became determined and industrious. By W.B. Yeats’s 30th birthday, as Murphy writes, ‘he had published or made ready for publication seven books (and American editions of four of them), had seen 173 essays, letters or poems published by 29 different periodicals, and had edited or contributed to 14 other volumes.’ He was quite the contrast to his father: ‘It is this infirmity of will,’ W.B. Yeats wrote to Quinn, ‘which has prevented him from finishing his pictures and ruined his career. He even hates the sign of will in others … The qualities which I thought necessary to success in art or in life seemed to him “egotism” or “selfishness” or “brutality”. I had to escape this family drifting, innocent and helpless.’

Jack became an independent spirit as soon as he could, marrying at the age of 22; Lily and Lollie found work in design, embroidery and art-teaching in London, before moving to Dublin and setting up the Dun Emer Press, later the Cuala Press, together. By this time, their father was living with them back in Ireland too, after one of his supporters, indignant at the way he had been treated by the Royal Hibernian Academy, decided to mount an exhibition at her own expense of his work and that of the artist Nathaniel Hone. The reviews were good, as was attendance at the show. John Butler Yeats was becoming famous in Dublin, but he was still broke: he stayed on in the city only because he did not have the fare to return to London. But gradually his studio in St Stephen’s Green became a place for people to stop by and talk. If often the conversation was more intense and polished than the work produced, the painter himself did not seem to mind. Among those who came to his studio were Gerard Manley Hopkins and John Millington Synge, whose work he would defend vehemently; he met the young James Joyce, who declared him ‘very loquacious’. If Yeats liked someone, he made a sketch of them or even a portrait. He was not too bothered if they did not pay. ‘I painted for nothing when I could not get the money,’ he said years later. ‘In Dublin money is not easy to be got. No one has any – but nice people with affectionate friends like to be painted … I have always said that if I was dying and anyone came in and asked to be painted, I could put off the dying till the portrait was finished.’ His problem was that if he did not like someone, then he found it difficult to paint them. His work was an act of sympathy. ‘I have always said of myself,’ he wrote, ‘that I can only paint friendship portraits.’ He was invited to stay at Coole Park by Lady Gregory, who wrote to Quinn: ‘I think him the most trying visitor possible in a house. Space and time mean nothing to him, he goes his own way, spoiling portraits as hopefully as he begins them, and always on the verge of a great future.’ At Coole, he left his socks lying about, but was neat, Lady Gregory noted, with his brushes, oils and palette.

He felt guilty that he was still not making enough money to pay for his own board, while his daughters went to work every day. He wrote to his older son remorsefully: ‘If only I could make a little success and a little money and help a little Dun Emer would be all right, and Lily and Lollie would be at ease. In a deeper sense than you can ever guess at, my want of success has made me the evil genius of the family.’ Although Lily and Lollie lived and worked together, they did not much like each other, and Lollie had considerable difficulties with her brother the poet, who wanted to control what the press published. Their father often found himself in the middle of these arguments, taking the view that while W.B. Yeats and Lollie had the morose and difficult manners of the Pollexfens, Lily and Jack had the lightness and easy charm he associated with his own family. During one row over the question of control at the press, he wrote to his son, who had managed in a letter to insult all of his three siblings and infuriate Lollie: ‘Why do you write such offensive letters? There is nothing fine in a haughty and arrogant temper. It is Fred Pollexfen’s characteristic’ – Fred Pollexfen was an uncle of W.B. Yeats’s – ‘and through it he got himself turned out of the family business … I think you ought to write a frank apology.’

By 1907, when John Butler Yeats was 68, his high hopes for success as a painter in Dublin had come to nothing. People still visited his studio to talk rather than have their portrait painted. He arrived home every evening to war between his daughters. His son the poet became increasingly haughty and famous. And perhaps even worse, Jack, whom he barely saw as he was growing up, was slowly becoming a famous painter and illustrator. And added to that, an Italian portrait painter of the very worst kind called Mancini had arrived in Dublin and was painting everybody. Even W.B. Yeats used one of this Italian’s portraits as a frontispiece to one of his books. John Butler Yeats’s friends and supporters raised money to lift his spirits, offering to send him to Italy, where he had never been, but when he discovered that Lily was going to New York for an Irish exhibition he decided that he would use the Italian money to accompany her. He bought a new suit and did two farewell pencil sketches of his old friend Edward Dowden. Since he kept his studio, his paints and brushes neatly stowed, it is unclear if he actually knew what he had in mind as he set out for New York. His moving back to Dublin from London had been done as drift rather than rational decision. So, too, with this.

On 21 December 1907 he sailed from Liverpool to New York. He would never return; he would never see Lollie or Jack again, or his brother Isaac, or most of his old friends. And once Lily left him behind in America, on her return to Dublin on 6 June 1908, he would never see her again either. John Butler Yeats would live until his death in 1922 as a New Yorker, a much loved figure in his adopted city. And since his family and friends were far away and he would need to write to them, he would become one of the best letter writers of the age.

*

One of his son’s great themes as a poet would be the vitality that remains in the spirit as the body ages. Since W.B. Yeats did not witness his father’s slow and inevitable physical decline, but received many letters from the old man filled with optimism and a soaring hunger for life and ideas, the father’s exile was enabling and inspiring for the son’s work. And the father could attempt to influence W.B. Yeats and guide him, as he never had managed before, by writing him serious and intelligent and compelling letters about art and life, about poetry and religion, about his own hopes as artist and his life in the city. The artist, he believed, should not admire life ‘as does the American’, although

he occasionally by good chance may have admired some of it, he recoiled from most of it. If he was to live he must escape from the surface of life, and he found his asylum in his dreams; here was his workshop where he mended life … only in his dreams is a man really himself. Only for his dreams is a man responsible – his actions are what he must do. Actions are a bastard race to which a man has not given his full paternity.

‘The chief thing to know and never forget,’ he wrote in another letter, ‘is that art is dreamland and that the moment a poet meddles with ethics and the moral uplift or thinking scientifically, he leaves dreamland, loses all music and ceases to be a poet.’

A collection of passages from John Butler Yeats’s letters appeared in a small book edited by Ezra Pound in 1917. Another small volume, edited by Lennox Robinson, appeared in 1920, and Pound published John Butler Yeats’s Early Memories in 1923. In 1944, Joseph Hone selected a larger edition of the letters, published as J.B. Yeats: Letters to His Son W.B. Yeats and Others. This was reissued in an abridged edition with an introduction by John McGahern in 1999. But, after its initial publication in 1944, it was known in Dublin that an important cache of letters remained in private hands. These were the letters written to Rosa Butt, daughter of Isaac Butt, most of them from Yeats’s exile in New York.

Portrait of Rosa Butt (1900)
Portrait of Rosa Butt (1900)

The National Gallery in Dublin owns the tender and intriguing portrait Yeats painted of Rosa Butt in 1900, after his wife’s death, when they were both 60 or 61 years of age. Rosa Butt has a great distant dignity in the picture. Her face in repose has fluidity as well as a stillness, a sadness but also the suggestion of a rich inner life. Her gaze withholds much but also exudes a sense of ease in the world. She is someone who looks as though she would enjoy company and also be content when alone. There is a freedom in her aspect that one could associate with what Yeats’s son would call ‘custom and ceremony’, a freedom that gives her face and her pose a formidable and ambiguous power. Rosa Butt appears in this portrait as possessing a sensibility the painter admired, but a sensibility which would perhaps contain him. He did not wish to be contained. But there must have been times in the boarding house where he lodged when her poise, the sense of ease and wit and civility which he gave her in this portrait, came to him as a dream of a life he did not have and recognised as oddly, sadly, beyond him.

They agreed to write to each other with total frankness and then burn the other’s letters as soon as they had been read. While Yeats kept his side of that bargain, Rosa did not, though she may have destroyed a few letters that said too much. She saved just over two hundred of them. After her death in 1926, they passed into the keeping of her cousin, the painter Mary Swanzy, who eventually placed them in the Bodleian Library under the strict condition that they not be seen by anyone until 1979. In Family Secrets, his book about the Yeats family, published in 1995, William Murphy’s final chapter, ‘John Butler Yeats and Rosa Butt’, offers a summary of the letters and the relationship between the old painter in exile and the daughter of his father’s friend. Last year, I went back to the Special Collection at Union College in Schenectady to read Murphy’s transcriptions of these letters. By this time, William Murphy had been dead for almost a decade. He had lived until the age of 92. His ghost had joined the other ghosts haunting the halls of Union College, including the ghost of Henry James’s father, who had briefly been a student there, and Henry James’s grandfather, who had helped to fund the college and whose portrait hung in the president’s house.

When her correspondence with Yeats began, Rosa Butt was living in Battersea in London with her two sisters, Amy and Lizzie. Lizzie was a widow who specialised, it seemed, in disapproving of things. She had not taken any pleasure in her own marriage and she certainly took no pleasure in whatever was going on between her sister and John Butler Yeats. Even though their fathers had been lifelong friends, Yeats and Rosa Butt did not meet, it seems, until he was about twenty. ‘When I first saw you,’ he wrote to her years later, ‘you were a woman grown (as well as growing) and I a hobbledehoy.’ He thought her, he wrote, ‘the most beautiful woman’ he had ever seen. In the 1880s, whenever he visited her parents, ‘I used to listen to every word that concerned you.’ It is clear that he saw her a number of times over the next ten years. They began to correspond in the year before his wife’s death, the tone on his side affectionate. On 1 December 1900, when Susan Yeats had been dead for almost a year, he wrote: ‘You must not think I write to anyone as I write to you or have ever done so.’ It is clear that at some point in these next few years something happened between them. In the spring of 1906, when she was on her way to Dublin, he wrote: ‘You must not torture me by treating me as if we were not something more, something much closer, than lovers. In your letters you now treat me as I treat you, that is, as if there is between us an absolute intimacy. And you must do this when we meet … I feel myself to be yours body and soul.’ In a subsequent letter, he suggested marriage to her, even though he had no money and she was timid and felt an obligation to her sisters. After a single meeting with him on her visit to Dublin in 1906, she fled back to London.

Once he was installed in New York, Yeats began to write to her about the relations between them not as something that might have been, but rather as something alive, as though they were still young and had all the time in the world. He liked writing openly about his physical passion for her, knowing that she would disapprove of his explicit tone. In 1912, when he was 72, he wrote:

You are bright-eyed and alert, muscled and deliciously plump. You are so comely and so inviting, and so pleasant and plump in the places where you ought to be plump … If I were with you and we were alone I would coax you into good spirits. I would place my hand around your waist – one hand – and the other hand would distractedly find its way, however forbidden, into your bosom. And fighting with me would put you into good spirits and me into bad spirits.

The tone is affectionate, teasing, boyish, speculative. At other times, he wrote to her as a lover who had been accused of inconstancy. In 1908:

I am full of affection and longing for you and it is wrong of you to say I write to anyone as I write to you. To me you are always part and parcel of myself. I would as it were tell you things that I would not tell to myself. Can you understand this? – so that you are more to me than I am to myself.

Or, six days later, as he worried about losing her to someone else: ‘I got a dream which during its progress much depressed me. I dreamed that you were married, and that I asked why you had consented.’

The possibility of his going home remained a constant theme. In February 1908, he wrote: ‘I don’t know yet when I am returning … It is my last chance and if I don’t make something of it I may go home for good.’ The following month, he wrote: ‘I don’t know how I shall ever induce myself to leave New York.’ In January 1909, he was still toying with the idea: ‘I want to go home with a New York success behind me. I don’t want to go home a failure, or even under suspicion of it. It is my last chance and I don’t want to lose it.’ Three days later, he wrote: ‘I want it put on my tombstone that I was successful in America. Here lies J.B. Yeats much liked by his few friends and successful in America aged 98 years.’ Later in the year, he wrote: ‘I must try another winter here. I cannot leave America without a success, a real success, and it is written on the cards. I am convinced that next week I shall succeed. The studio may be the beginning of a new epoch.’ Four months later, in November 1909, he noted that although Lily wanted him home for Christmas he would stay for a while longer: ‘I won’t go home till June. Ah! how I would love to have you in my room where no second bed would be wanted.’ Three months later, he wrote: ‘I think I may come home in May or June – certainly not April – and possibly July.’ But he also believed that New York had rescued him. In November 1915, he wrote: ‘My time in Dublin was awful, and in London also. And I was never well. New York saved my life. That is God’s truth.’ Later that month he wrote: ‘Why do I stay in New York when I expect every winter to be my last I don’t know. I just stay on here, and dread Dublin as if it were a dark room haunted by a ghost.’

He imagined her in the city with him: ‘If you lived here in New York we should be sweethearts. Everyone would know it and everyone would respect the relation. No one would smile, offensively or inoffensively. They would think it natural and therefore right.’ He imagined her as young: ‘I have your secret and know you know that you are a young girl, as young as you ever were, and as capable of caresses – and of receiving them too sometimes.’ ‘I think of you constantly again and again,’ he wrote, ‘put myself to sleep thinking of you, fancying myself married to you, and both of us young, picturing to myself what you would say and do and what we would say to each other … I love you every way. I think I love you best when you are cross.’ And having enclosed a sketch, he wrote: ‘Here you are as I think of you when I fancy myself married to you. You look a little timid. You are just entering the bridal chamber … How nice you look, the big crinoline and the white drawers peeping underneath and the wide-eyed seriousness … I wish so much you would never doubt yourself, or your power over me.’ In 1913 he wrote: ‘Had we married, I’d have enjoyed sometimes making you angry, say the last thing at night your eyebrows black and horizontal, and you standing in your nightgown – and I longing for you. That’s how we would play the game and you would know perfectly well that the front of your nightgown was open.’

Many of the letters are full of tenderness, but at other times the tone was tough. In November 1909, he wrote: ‘As to your father, I never doubted your love … but I still think you hate all his political ideas, to which he gave his life and his genius.’ And: ‘Having to live among stupid people, you have adopted all their stupid imbecilic ideas, and deserted your father’s noble political ideas.’ Some of his letters dealt with their little arguments: ‘I have always known you to have intellect and to be your father’s daughter … and I try to make my letters intellectual, thinking to interest you, and yet you always treat me as if I was insulting you, which is early Victorian with a vengeance. I sometimes try to make them amusing and there also I fail.’ Two months later: ‘You in Dublin among the people you like and who like you but make you hard-hearted towards everything I like, so that I am afraid that I might say something in my letter that may be quite out of tune with your ideas.’

*

Whatever had happened between them in Dublin when they were alone in his studio continued to interest him: ‘I am always so glad you think about the studio. I am always thinking of it, and I know we both love to think of it,’ he wrote in February 1910. And the following month: ‘I wish you would try and shock me … I once had a chance with you and my courage failed, but if ever again I get a chance my courage won’t fail.’ Five days later: ‘Merely to think and dream of kissing you throws all my senses into delirium, like a thirsty man who sees a vision of a lake.’ And then the following month: ‘There are so many things I want to say to you, things that could only be spoken and that I think would only be said between a man and a woman in the sort of intimacy that arises between a man and a woman who love and trust each other.’

In May 1910, having written, ‘You are a kettle with the lid open. I … am a kettle with the lid shut,’ he began to dream about the life they could have had:

It is a pity that you and I did not live together, your quick mind and my slow one … I would have taught you philosophy, for which I have a talent and you none, and you would have taught me concrete visible life in all its poetical and humorous details. We would have been great friends and lovers. What nice little admonitions you would have whispered to me from your pillow as we lay together talking far into the night. But this is dangerous ground which I must avoid.

A few months later he wrote: ‘Some time ago Quinn asked me did I ever strip an amorous woman. I answered with a loud “No, never.” “Ah,” he said, “you have missed a great pleasure!” … Your bosom is as soft and round as when you were eighteen, and your spirit, your inner self, is like your bosom.’ And again in October: ‘I love you. I can’t tell you why. I dreamed of you last night, saw you sitting handsomely dressed, with your ankles showing, and the drawers quite visible … So perhaps you see how I love you.’ And in a postscript: ‘I often think of making lots of pictures for your eye, you and I married and young in our bedroom standing together looking at ourselves in the looking glass on the first night and before anything has happened, and then our picture after. Ah! Rosa, Rosa, it makes me tremble to think of you.’

This ebullience and teasing tone can be tempered in other letters as the real world impinges. The previous June he had written starkly: ‘None of my projects have materialised. Some failed utterly.’ And now in October 1910, as there is a possibility that his son will be made a professor at Trinity College: ‘I think if Willie is made a Professor and Lily and Lollie are better off all my resolution will break down and I will go home.’ And there was always the problem of money. On January 27 1911, he wrote to Rosa: ‘I am frightfully behindhand with my money and so have a horrible haunted feeling night and day.’ More than two years later, in April 1913, he wrote: ‘Yesterday, had it been possible I would have taken the first steamer home.’ In November 1914, he wrote: ‘I can tell you that I am sometimes so worried that I have to walk the streets to keep my nerves quiet.’

But in most of his letters to Rosa Butt, John Butler Yeats, the foolish, passionate man, with his excited, passionate fantastical imagination, wrote not about the life he had missed, but about the life he imagined, and he gave that life a sense of lived reality, as though it were not only almost possible, but almost present. He wrote about their imagined marriage as though they were living it in slow detail:

All my life I have longed for the friendship of a clever woman, but you will give almost anything except your intellect … Had we married years ago, we should have fought the question, only sometimes together late at night, my arms around your waist, my dear, you cross and I coaxing, perhaps burying your face in the pillow to escape my kissing you – gradually you would have got quiet and at least passive, and in the morning as you went about the room dressing I would have stolen furtive glances at you to see how you were taking it. And at breakfast we would have been a little formal, your face fixed, and if I stroked your hand you would have pulled it away. Perhaps I would have stroked your breast, and you would have moved, as if to let me know that it was nothing to you what I did, and I’d have felt bad all day, and so would you. After a few days, we’d both get hungry for each other, but neither would give in. But for want of courage, you would think of asking for a separate room, not that you really meant it, but just as a demonstration. Suddenly some[thing] moving, something very delightful would happen, perhaps one of the children would show itself particularly nice and good (and all our children would have been nice, affectionate at any rate).

While we get so much of Yeats, all we have of the recipient of these letters is a photograph of her, a pencil sketch and the portrait in oils. Since Yeats kept his side of the bargain and burned her letters, we do not have her voice except for four words that he repeats in an undated letter. Those words are ‘My dear old lover’. And they suggest that her side of the correspondence was, in its own way, ardent, even if not as open and honest as his side (‘You think the correct thing for a woman, when she writes a letter, is to say nothing and do it over a long letter’). Despite the fact that we only have this single phrase of her own, it is strange how vividly she emerges in the letters he wrote. It is clear that she does not share in his easy lewdness. (‘Not for worlds would you write these words: “bottom” or “thigh”, not would you allude to your breasts.’) And there was nothing impetuous about her. She does not write to say that she is coming to New York on the next steamer or that he must return to Dublin forthwith and marry her.

As he writes not only about how he feels about her, but with news about his life, where he has been and who he has met, with much gossip about Quinn, and reference to ‘free love’ in America, with confessions about how he once and only once strayed during his years of marriage to Susan Pollexfen, she writes back to him time and again, and as she does so we sense, from the ways in which he responds, her kindness, her reticence and her calm intelligence. The idea that she kept the letters also matters. She knew of their value. What Yeats wrote, in all its honesty and wild impracticality and open sexuality, must have brightened up her life, but in the care he took with his letters to her and the amount of emotion in them, there is a sense that her life was more than worthy of such brightening, that she was a rare spirit who did as much justice as she could to her correspondent who responded to her ‘My dear old lover’ with: ‘And we are lovers. And if we meet and when we meet, we shall kiss and be young and then kiss, our bodies and souls meet.’

As they grew into their seventies, he worried about himself and about Rosa. In April 1913, when he was 74, he wrote: ‘I know of course that the sands are running low and that presently I shall begin to notice that my memory is beginning to fade.’ And in October: ‘All last night I had vivid and broken dreams about you. I cannot remember them except that they were very miserable. I often woke and then bitterly reproached myself that I had not for a moment anticipated that you could be sick.’ In January 1915, he wrote: ‘At my age months count as much as they do when we are children.’ But always he would soon recover from his melancholy and return to his old self again: ‘Do you think I would have fallen in love with you if there was not plenty of Venus? It was Venus herself that decorated you with the breasts in which I take such delight.’ Two months later, he wrote to her again about her breasts: ‘I would like to make a portrait of them with the little pink nipples.’ And then a month later, he wrote once more about what would have happened had they married:

Alas! that we did not marry! You would have made a man of me, and I would have made you the woman that you are and that you do not know you are … I often in imagination look back and see you with my baby at your breast, both of us watching it, and yet – and yet – I think that perhaps our children would have been unhappy, at any rate in living in Britain.

He worried sometimes that he was losing her. In May 1914 he wrote: ‘Is it my fault or is it yours that you have lost interest in me and my letters?’ A month later, he wrote:

Had we married and lived together, our mutual unlikeness would have made us perfectly interesting to each other. I fancy you love Religion while I hate it, because of all its sins and wickedness. I am a radical socialist anarchist Home Ruler, everything you abhor, so I sometimes think it would be best to let this correspondence drop. If I go home this year we shall meet and have many talks and then start again to write to each other.

And again in October he questioned the point of their correspondence, becoming almost rude to her: ‘But you can be dull beyond words, and you give me no thanks for my efforts to write amusing letters … I am disposed to think and believe that I bore you to death and the correspondence is only a bother to you.’

*

Although Rosa’s father, Isaac, had been the one to place the words ‘Home Rule’ at the centre of the debate between Ireland and England, Rosa herself was, it seems, not a Home Ruler. As the political atmosphere in Ireland heated up in the second decade of the 20th century, Yeats had much to say to her about politics and the changing life of Dublin. In January 1913, he wrote to her: ‘Ireland is progressing, beginning to take an interest in intellectual things, in poetry and art, but all this is to you nothing. You are about as interested in ideas as if you were a nun, or a priest.’ The following year, he suggested that if her father was still ‘a young man and growing up, how happy he would be! – for Dublin is in the grip of the young poets – how happy and free!’ In January 1916, he wrote about Ireland again: ‘I have always said that I am for Home Rule in order to rescue Irish Protestants from greed and vulgarity, but though you are Isaac Butt’s daughter, there is no use talking to you about Home Rule – alas! I think Irish Protestants are the meanest people on earth and have always thought so.’ In the immediate aftermath of the 1916 Rebellion, he wrote to her: ‘It was a folly but a heroic folly.’ And two months later: ‘These events in Ireland because of the executions are now the most important and the most blessed in Irish history. You don’t know how often I wished for your father. What he needed all his life was a great crisis, which while leaving everyone else bewildered would have found in him the statesman.’ In January 1917, he sent her an astute comment about the American response to the Rising: ‘The execution of the 15 by Sir J. Maxwell seems to Americans something so out of date, and to be out of date is a crime in America. Ireland stands very high with everyone. Her repute grows daily.’ And the following day he wrote again with more news about Ireland: ‘A wonderful Irish novel has just appeared, called A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by Joyce.’

In 1916 and 1917, it is clear that his letters were not receiving a sufficient response from her. But his tone remained fond, if often hectoring. ‘I wish you and I had a talk. I am always in vision seeing you and me sitting together under a shading tree in your park while I tell you some of what I hear in America and I hear your mocking and humorous laughter.’ And in an undated letter from the same period: ‘I can’t understand why all your life you have put up with so many tiresome people.’ And in March 1917: ‘I wish I had married [you] years ago. Had I done so you would now be more cheerful, or I would have become as low-spirited as you are. I think I could have rescued you from some of your depressing friends.’

In stray comments, he disparaged Rosa’s sister Lizzie and blamed her on one occasion for Rosa’s failure to write. When Lizzie became ill, we catch a glimpse of Yeats at his most impossible, with his suggestion that Rosa send her sister away: ‘Among strangers she would be perfectly well. Invalids of her kind should be kept among strangers.’ This reminded him of his daughter and his wife:

She [Lollie] gets [along] perfectly well among strangers, as long as they remain strangers. If she knew them too well, she hates them. Lollie’s mother was the same … I used to wonder what was the matter with her and why she hated so many people and said such vitriolic things … At first when Susan insulted me and my friends I used to mind a great deal, but afterwards I did not mind at all. She was perfectly convinced that she herself was always right and everybody else was wrong.

In August 1917, he made clear how much he wanted Rosa’s praise, as though he were the subject of his son’s poem ‘Her Praise’, which would appear in The Wild Swans at Coole two years later: ‘I don’t think you have studied my character. I like to be praised, and I would rather be praised by you than by anyone else in this world. Yet you never praise me.’ But no matter what he wanted from Rosa, the memories of his marriage continued to haunt him:

I became engaged after two or three days’ acquaintance, and it was not from love or love at all (this is really entre nous I have never confessed it to anyone) but just destiny. The Pollexfen family revolted me and at the same time greatly attracted me, and have never lost that attraction … And they have no native originality, a way of being themselves, thus refreshing the dreary mind … I used to enjoy hearing my poor wife talk of other people. She was always wrong, but her mistakes were more interesting than other peoples’ right judgment.

Despite his constant talk about it, he still had not finished the self-portrait. On Christmas Eve 1918 he wrote:

My programme at present is to finish the portrait of myself for Quinn, then write a lot more memoirs, and finish an article for the North American Review, and then come home – to my sweetheart and my family … My portrait looks well. One day since my illness (the day before yesterday) I almost finished the hands and put a life and authority in it such as I have never reached any time before.

It surely did not escape Rosa’s attention that he had now been working on the self-portrait for seven years. The idea of his coming home to his sweetheart had to be tempered not only with the knowledge that such previous promises had come to nothing, but with the fact that they were both now almost eighty years old.

As pressure mounted on him to return to Dublin, he wrote on 9 March 1919, a week before his 80th birthday: ‘Had I stayed in Dublin I should have died years ago … Coming here saved my life. I have been afraid to go back.’ When Quinn offered to pay for a nurse to accompany him, he writes: ‘I told him I would as soon travel with an orang-utan.’ In March the following year, after a visit from his son and his daughter-in-law, he wrote: ‘I told Willie and George that if I went home I would have to bid farewell to painting and be just an old man in his second childhood.’ In November, he wrote that ‘The people at home are making great effort to bring me home.’ The following March, two days after his 81st birthday, he wrote: ‘Willie finds that he cannot keep me here.’ (Quinn and W.B. Yeats had been supporting him financially for many years.) And then in November: ‘I propose sailing Dec 3rd but may stay longer … Some unknown rich person through a friend has offered to finance me if I wish it, and I may accept the generosity. The portrait is my magnum opus, and I can’t desert it.’

*

As his son’s fame grew, and his own work seemed to have come to nothing, John Butler Yeats was given further reason to shudder when in 1921, the last year of his life, his son W.B. Yeats wrote a short section of autobiography called Four Years, serialised in the Dial and then published in book form by Cuala Press, overseen by Lollie. The four years in question were years of family poverty in London, when Yeats the poet was still living in his father’s house. He described returning from a visit to Oxford to his ‘enraged family’. The implication was that they were enraged by his father’s indolence and inadequacies. His father wrote to him:

Why ‘enraged family’? I remember when you came back from Oxford how glad I was to see you and hear your account of your visit … As to Lily and Lollie, they were too busy to be ‘enraged’ about anything. Lily working all day at the Morrises and Lollie dashing about giving lectures on picture painting and earning close on three hundred pounds a year … while both gave all their earnings to the house. And besides all this work, of course, they did the housekeeping and had to contrive things and see to things for their invalid mother … They paid the penalty of having a father who did not earn enough … I am sure that ‘enraged family’ was a slip of the pen.

To Lollie, he wrote: ‘We must submit and pay the penalty for knowing a poet … I am quite sure Willie has no malice against us, but just wants to tell histories … I don’t really now complain of his contempt, but it should not be revived in his book for the benefit of his glory.’

The next day, 30 June 1921, with all this on his mind, he composed his most eloquent attack on his son’s work:

When is your poetry at its best? I challenge all the critics if it is not when its wild spirit of your imagination is wedded to concrete fact. Had you stayed with me and not left me for Lady Gregory, and her friends and associations, you would have loved and adored concrete life for which as I know you have a real affection. What would have resulted? Realistic and poetical plays – poetry in closest and most intimate union with the positive realities and complexities of life. And that is the world that waits, so far in vain, its poet.

He went on:

Am I talking wildly? Am I senile? I don’t think so, for I would have said the same any time these twenty or thirty years. The best thing in life is the game of life, and some day a poet will find this out. I hope you will be that poet. It is easier to write poetry that is far away from life, but it is infinitely more exciting to write the poetry of life – and it is what the whole world is crying out for as pants the hart for the water brook.

As William Murphy wrote in his biography, ‘Willie received the resentments as a Pollexfen. When he returned the Cuala proofs to Lollie, he suggested that she change the word “enraged” to “troubled”, but added: “Do not make it if it upsets the type too much.” It was all very well to mollify the old man if no inconvenience were involved, but not otherwise.’ John Butler Yeats died the following year, at the age of 82; Rosa died in 1926. It would be another fifty years before the first solo exhibition of his work was put on.