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Yeats's Mask

Margaret Mills Harper
Warwick Gould


Karen E. Brown, The Yeats Circle, Verbal and Visual Relations in Ireland, 1880–1939 (Farnham: Ashgate, 2011), pp. xiv + 189.

Tom Walker

Texte intégral

1Nineteenth- and twentieth-century Irish cultural history has tended to concentrate on literary matters. Yet in recent years the island’s visual and material culture has started to be given more historical and critical attention. Examples include the landmark histories of Irish museums and exhibitions by Marie Bourke and Fintan Cullen, and a 2011 special issue of the journal Éire-Ireland on ‘Irish Things’ edited by Paige Reynolds, not to mention some of the intersections explored in volumes four and five of The Oxford History of the Irish Book, helped along – one might speculate – by various technological advancements in the documentation, reproduction and circulation of relevant images.

2Amidst what might come to seem like a more general corrective turn in Irish studies, Karen E. Brown’s ambitious interdisciplinary study considers the visual alongside the verbal. It aims to do so through five ‘case studies’ of the interaction between word and image, moving from the Cultural Revival of the fin de siècle through to the supposed ‘breakthrough of Irish Modernism in the 1920s and 1930s’. The output of the Yeats family (father, sons and daughters) in the literary and visual spheres is considered alongside work by other figures in their circle ‘to show how intrinsic this nexus of inter-arts relationship was to the conception of cultural change in this period of Irish history’.

3The book is at its strongest in illuminating the careers and work of lesser-known Yeats family associates. Its second chapter focuses on Evelyn Gleeson, co-founder with Elizabeth and Lily Yeats of the Dun Emer Industries in 1902, fruitfully engaging with the collection of her papers held at Trinity College Dublin to draw out the particular nationalist and feminist imperatives motivating her to set up the arts and crafts enterprise. For instance, a fragment of a fascinating talk that Gleeson seems to have given to the Irish Literary Society in 1907 shows how such efforts to forge a distinctive native ‘artistic industry’ were undertaken with an acute awareness of how Ireland was falling behind similar efforts across much of the rest of Europe.

4Gleeson attempted to think through whether it is possible to ‘revive Gaelic ideas in our material surroundings, – our tables, our chairs, our silver, our inkstand, our various kinds of stuff’, as she pleads to the Gaelic Leaguers present: ‘Cannot one nationalise through the eyes as well as through the ears?’ The resources she marshalled towards undertaking such a revival of Irish ‘stuff’ include the retrieval of a tradition, in going back to the motifs of early Irish Christian art, with its supposed links to Byzantine art (a recurring link made in the period it would seem), as well as the preservation of local handicrafts, such as through the gathering of information as regards the natural dyeing pigments still used by women in the countryside.

5The under-regarded poet, translator, and critic Thomas MacGreevy, who had something of a genius for befriending geniuses, similarly benefits from prolonged attention in the book’s fourth chapter. Again drawing on archival material held at Trinity College Dublin, it outlines the relationship between his poetry and his response to the paintings of Jack Yeats. Brown shows how MacGreevy responds to the visual particularities of Yeats’s canvases, in terms of palette and the organisation of space, both figuratively and upon the page, through his embrace of a set of then-radical ‘modernist’ poetic procedures. But such seemingly aesthetic inter-art encounters overlap with more socio-political and religious concerns too, as MacGreevy, through the filter of his own Republicanism and Catholicism, strives to cast the painter as Ireland’s Goya. Another byway usefully followed in the study’s final chapter is into Jack Yeats’s own literary works. Among a generally baffled contemporaneous critical reception, the account points to the sympathetic and insightful responses of MacGreevy, W. B. Yeats and Samuel Beckett to novels such as Sligo (1930), The Aramanthers (1936) and This Charmed Life (1938). Through attending to their commentary, as well as exploring the Jack Yeats archive at the National Gallery of Ireland, Brown makes (but does not fully unpack) some suggestive links between Yeats’s later paintings, his literary works’ focus on travel and treatment of the image, and the possible wider nature of Irish writing from J. M. Synge through to Beckett.

6Yet this book’s overall authority is undermined by prevailing problems of reference. Most seriously of all, the first and third chapters consider W. B. Yeats’s involvement in the preparation of cover designs and illustrations for his ‘Secret Rose’ stories, first in The Secret Rose (1897) by Althea Gyles and his father, then in the later edition of the Stories of Red Hanrahan and The Secret Rose (1927), by Norah McGuinness, while seemingly being unaware of the fact that an entire appendix is devoted to this matter in Warwick Gould, Phillip L. Marcus and Michael J. Sidnell’s second revised and enlarged edition of The Secret Rose, Stories by W. B. Yeats: A Variorum Edition (1992). This appendix quotes extensively from the correspondence between Yeats, McGuinness and Frederick Macmillan in relation to the 1927 edition, refuting Brown’s claim that these letters are ‘unpublished’ and only ‘recently made available in the National Library of Ireland’. Indeed, her study’s discussion of this correspondence, McGuinness’s illustrations and the influence of the particular images of Byzantine art which Yeats showed her unwittingly retraces some ground previously covered by Robert S. Nelson’s account of Yeats and Byzantium in Hagia Sophia, 1850–1950: Holy Wisdom Modern Monument (2004), an authority again not cited in this book. The notes to the variorum edition also question Brown’s assumption that Althea Gyles was a member of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, pointing to Gyles’s absence from any extant membership lists – which strongly suggests that Yeats’s writing and instructions were the primary sources for her symbolism.

7Seemingly not consulted too in these and other regards were Gould and Deirdre Toomey’s edition of Mythologies (2005), volume two of The Collected Letters of W. B. Yeats (1997), as well as the later letters in the InteLex Electronic Edition, and Ann Saddlemyer’s edition of The Collected Letters of John Middleton Synge (1983–1984). Thus Brown mistakenly claims that a response from Synge does not exist to Elizabeth Yeats’s suggestion of a Jack Yeats drawing as a possible frontispiece to his Poems and Translations (1909); the study also errs in claiming that Yeats travelled to Italy in 1924, rather than 1925.

8Such errors and a lack of reference to standard scholarly editions do not inspire confidence and the treatment of many matters is sometimes rather thin. The first chapter, for instance, offers a very basic outline of W. B. Yeats’s links to Pre-Raphaelite fraternité des arts practices, which adds little to Elizabeth Bergmann Loizeaux’s earlier Yeats and the Visual Arts (1986) – a somewhat dated account by now in view of the intervening flood of relevant published material. Important figures such as Charles Ricketts and Charles Shannon or periodicals such as The Dome and The Savoy are named, but their impact is not explored or assessed in any detail. Moreover, the stress placed on Yeats’s ‘striving for synthesis between the arts’ offers very little sense of the fluctuations and developments that occurred in the poet’s aesthetic thinking throughout the 1890s and 1900s, as he furthered his self-education, and engaged in various cultural projects and political controversies. Even the in many ways admirable chapter on MacGreevy neither engages with his extensive writings for The Connoisseur and The Studio, nor mentions his important friendship with George and W. B. Yeats, who in 1925 wrote letters introducing him as an expert on painting to, among others, T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, and surely of considerable importance when placing him within the Yeats circle.

9The overall historical and theoretical framing of the book is also problematic. This is particularly the case in relation to the thorny issue of Modernism and the modern, terms which the book often invokes without ever quite untangling. Brown offers a rather tidy sense of Modernism breaking into Ireland in the 1920s and 1930s, as well as a seeming conflation of it with painterly abstraction. This leaves her study struggling to think through the place of a mimetic primitivism in the earlier work of Synge and the Yeats brothers. There are also several unconvincing attempts to analyse contemporaneous critical debates as regards the traditional versus the modern in Irish poetry of the 1930s. These passages struggle to gain a suitable critical distance from the pronouncements made in Beckett’s essay ‘Recent Irish Poetry’ (1934), to place figures such as Frank O’Connor or John Lyle Donaghy, or to understand the nature of the role played by the Cuala Press in the period – a confusion reflected in the mistaken inclusion among Cuala’s authors of Austin Clarke, a figure antipathetic to both W. B. Yeats and Beckett.

10From a more theoretical perspective, the study leans heavily and almost exclusively on the ideas of W. J. T. Mitchell, clearly a key thinker in the field of word-image relations, but one whose (not unassailable) ideas Brown struggles to build on rather than merely demonstrate in the course of her analysis. This book’s highlighting of the importance of inter-arts relationships to this period’s cultural history is welcome and broadly sound, it presents much interesting and unusual material, and it does make several original discoveries. But against such strengths, its severe problems must also be acknowledged. Those who seek to follow the avenues for further research and critical debate it undoubtedly opens up will have to do so with much scholarly care.




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