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THE CREATION OF A LITERARY INDUSTRY ANN SADDLEMYER Accursed who brings to light of day The writings I have cast away! But blessed he that stirs them not And lest the kind worm take the lot!1 When the Irish poet William Butler Yeats—then forty-three—sent this quatrain to his bibliographer in 1908, he had another thirty years of creativity ahead of him, to say nothing of an enthusiastic revisionary activity that must have daunted his publishers. (Once, when faced with a new batch of proofs, he exclaimed, “Six months of rewriting—what happiness !”2) Did he know that fifty years after that first slim bibliography (not even one hundred pages) was published his own writings would have required a further edition (now out of date) at least five times the size3 or that today numerous national and international societies and summer schools—to say nothing of the ubiquitous Web, chat, and e-mail sites— would be devoted to his work, “New Age” study groups poring over the seven volumes devoted to his occult studies, while research libraries of the world groan under a rapidly expanding collection of criticism perhaps surpassed in weight only by the Bible and Shakespeare? In addition, teams of scholars are devoted to the ongoing series of manuscript transcriptions and collected letters volumes, while biographies appear by the score (three in THE CREATION OF A LITERARY INDUSTRY 34 1 Published in Allan Wade, A Bibliography of the Writings of William Butler Yeats (Stratford-on-Avon: Shakespeare Head Press, 1908), [7]. 2 To Olivia Shakespear, 27 December 1930—The Letters of W.B. Yeats, ed. Allan Wade (London: Macmillan, 1953), 780. 3 A Bibliography of the Writings of W.B. Yeats, 3rd ed. Rev. and ed. by Russell K. Alspach (London: Rupert Hart-Davis, 1968) is being extensively revised by Colin Smythe. the past few years alone), the most impressive of which—hailed by another Nobel laureate as a “mighty argosy of scholarship”—in 640 pages only reaches Yeats’s fiftieth year.4 But as his wife once remarked, Yeats always had a remarkable sense of how an event would look to posterity. So perhaps it was not hubristic that his curse on literary excavators should echo an earlier famous quatrain, that engraved on another William’s gravestone: Good friend for Jesus sake forbeare To digg the dust encloased heare Blest be the man that spares these stones And curst be he that moves my bones5 Even during his lifetime, Yeats’s work and activities garnered considerable publicity—if not financial stability. Once, his widow recalled, he had to ask for character witnesses to persuade the authorities that his tax declarations were honest; finally convinced, the officials apologized, saying that they hadn’t imagined that anyone whose name appeared so often in the papers could have such a small income. When he married, at age fiftytwo , his annual income had never exceeded £250 (£150 of which was a pension from the Royal Literary fund awarded when he was thirty-five), and though he was the first of Ireland’s four Nobel laureates for literature Yeats never became rich, or even what we would today consider “well off.” Famous, however, yes—in 1915 he refused a knighthood on nationalist grounds; in 1920 Vanity Fair nominated him for the Hall of Fame as “the greatest poet writing English today”; in 1922 he was nominated to the Irish Senate; honorary degrees were showered upon him; at his death in 1939 there were elaborate memorial services in London and Dublin; when World War II ended, the Irish government sent a corvette to France to carry his body back in state for re-burial in Ireland. Sixty years after his death the “Yeats Industry” continues to flourish, with no signs of abating. As one critic once commented, “That temporary decline of public interest which usually follows the death of a great literary figure has not taken place in regard to the poet Yeats.”6 In exploring the process by which THE CREATION OF A LITERARY INDUSTRY 35 4 Seamus Heaney, “All Ireland’s Bard,” Atlantic Monthly, November 1997, a review of R.F. Foster, W.B Yeats: A Life volume...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1550-5162
Print ISSN
0013-2683
Pages
pp. 34-47
Launched on MUSE
2017-08-31
Open Access
No
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