The Letters of J. B. Yeats. A review of Passages from the Letters of John Butler Yeats. Selected by Ezra Pound
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[ 549 The Letters of J. B. Yeats1 A review of Passages from the Letters of John Butler Yeats Selected by Ezra Pound Dundrum: Cuala Press, 1917. Pp. [iv] + 60. The Egoist, 4 (July 1917) 89-90 If the usual person asks the usual question about the decay of letter-writing, he is met with the usual vague and unsatisfactory answer referring him to telephones, rapid transit, and the rush of modern life. The lack of leisure is deplored; lack of leisure being an excuse for laziness. What lack of leisure really means in modern life is that an able writer like D. H. Lawrence lacks time to write one good novel in ten years, but will find time to write five or ten bad ones in that period;2 that no one has time to write good letters for the pleasure of one friend, but that Mr. S. P. B. Mais has time to write garrulous and hasty epistolary novels for the subscribers to the Times Book Club.3 Mr. J. B. Yeats is a highly civilized man; and he has the kingdom of leisure within him. Leisure for Mr. Yeats means writing well even when not writing for publication: writing with dignity and ease and reserve. And letter-writing for him means the grace and urbanity of the talker and the depth of the solitary; it means a resolute return to a few important issues, not ceaseless loquacity about novelties. Mr. Pound, in one of his most charming prefaces, fears that he has by selection lost the personality of the writer.4 But the personality of Mr. Yeats survives the test. It is a severe test too, which few letter-writers could pass; for none of the selections owes anything to trivial personal gossip or contemporanea ; and though Mr. Yeats deals mostly with eternal things, never obtruding himself into his reflections, he never drops into the dead Epictetian sententiousness.5 Even in selections (for these are selections from letters, not selected letters) he is always the solitary man talking for one listener. Perhaps New York, encircling the writer with loneliness, has done him a service.6 Mr. Yeats could do New York a service, if New York would listen, but America will probably succeed in shutting its ears, as it always can, to what it does not care to hear. There are many criticisms of America, and at thepresenttime,whenthedustofSocialReconstruction,EmpireResources 1917: Journalism 550 ] Development, and other Reform is in our eyes, when England seems drifting toward Americanization, it is well to hear what Mr. Yeats has to say: The philosophical world in America is just now possessed by the theory of service. Man exists to serve is their idea, and it is an idea so easy to understand,andsoamicableandattractive,thatitappealstoaDemocracy that is at once shallow-minded and sentimental. The idea of service recognizes only two types of men: he who would rule and he who would be ruled. I hotly and fiercely contend that there is another type, the man who does not want to rule or to be ruled, and that this is the man who writes the poetry, the other sort doing the rhetoric. [14] No American of those I have met or heard has ever felt the inward and innermost essence of poetry, because it is not among the American opportunities to live the solitary life, they all frequent the highways and high roads. It is implicitly and even explicitly an offence to steal away into by-ways and thickets. [19] The Americans are the most idealistic and imaginative people in the world, and the most prosaic, because, like Wordsworth, the most prosaic of poets, they believe in happiness, and happiness to them as to Wordsworth means mens sana in corpore sano;7 every one efficient in the tasks of modern life, the least heroic of doctrines. [31]8 “In America they make war on solitude” [47], Mr. Yeats says, and solitude to him is the most precious of gifts or curses, because it is indispensable to poetry. “Democracy devours its poets and artists” [9]. Against democracy, Mr. Yeats sets up the ideal–or rather the instinct–of liberty, known to [the] English, unknown to the social French, Germans, and Americans. Ideals and noble theories, he says with profound truth, are “the enemy plucking the unit man . . . out of his sublime solitude to place him in this or that fraternity” [3]. I will write again of the solitary man. First of all, alone among men...


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