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The Living Stream

Warwick Gould

Editor’s Introduction

Warwick Gould

Texte intégral

Frontispiece: Derry Jeffares beside the Edmund Dulac memorial stone to W. B. Yeats. Roquebrune Cemetery, France, 1986.
Private Collection.

1In early 1937, a schoolboy editor at The High School, Harcourt St., Dublin sought a poem from an old boy for The Erasmian. Yeats obliged with ‘What Then’, recently published in an annual anthology in London, but uncollected. Yeats told the editor that it was ‘one of the few poems he had written lately that might be fit for a school magazine’ (NC 378).

2The Living Stream is the first set of essays in memory of that editor, Alexander Norman Jeffares, and the quoted allusion in its title pays tribute to the tradition of commentary that he founded. Jeffares, a man of enormous energy and practical force, whose life is more fully described in the opening essay by his friend the Scottish writer Christopher Rush, a neighbour in the Fife Ness peninsula where Derry (as he was universally known to those scholars he trained or encouraged) and Jeanne Jeffares lived in their retirement years. It might well be said that one of the principal deployments in his Trinity College, Dublin doctorate (for a contemporary image of its author, see Plate 22) which later became A Commentary on the Poems of W. B. Yeats (1968) is of passages across Yeats’s work to which poems make allusion, or which cast light upon the meanings of poems. In order to see just what Jeffares was on to, it is necessary to go back to 1926, when an aspiring Australian actor and writer met Yeats, as she recalled in 1980 when lecturing to the Library of Congress. Her mother, she said, ‘bore me in the Southern wild’, and brought her up, filled with the poetry of an Ireland the more intense for being utterly remote. Here is how she got there.

  • 1 P. L. Travers, ‘Only Connect’ in Virginia Havilland (ed.) The Openhearted Audience (Washington, Li (...)

‘Hardly W. B. Yeats,’ said father once, when my mother showed him a scrap of mine. And remembering it now I feel bound to agree with him, though at the age of seven it would have been hard even for Yeats to be W.B. Yeats. My father, as you see, perhaps because he was so far away from her, was in love with Cathleen ni Houlihan. Nothing that Ireland did was wrong, nothing that other countries did was completely right. . . . I was drenched in the Celtic twilight before I ever came to it. Indeed I only came to it when it was over and had practically turned into night. I had dreamed of it all my life and although my father was long dead, I had to test what my childhood had taught me. So the first thing I did on arriving in England was to send a piece of writing to A.E. (George Russell), who was then editor of The Irish Statesman. With all the hauteur of youth I deliberately sent no covering letter, just a stamped addressed envelope for return. And sure enough the stamped envelope came back, as I had fully expected it to do, but inside—instead of my manuscript—was a check for three guineas and a letter from A.E. It said ‘If you have any more, please let me see them and if you are ever in Ireland let us meet.’..... Even if I hadn't been already going to Ireland I would have been off on the next train.
That was how I came under the wing of A.E. and got to know Yeats and the gifted people in their circle, all of whom cheerfully licked me into shape like a set of mother cats with a kitten....1

3This was in 1925 when Pamela Travers quickly became the ‘pet and protégée’ first of Russell who published her sub-Yeatsian verses in The Irish Homestead. Back in the West in the late summer of 1926, Travers remembered that her train back to Dublin would pass Lough Gill, so she ‘leapt from the carriage and charged a boatman’ to take her to Innisfree. He assured her that there was no such place.

  • 2 Ibid., 11-14

‘Oh, but there is, I assure you. W. B. Yeats wrote about it.’ ‘And who would he be?’ I told him. ‘Ah, I know them, those poets, always stravaging through their minds, inventing outlandish things. We call it Rat Island!’ Rat Island! Well!
So we set out, under grey hovering clouds, with me in the bows and a young priest, who suddenly arose out of the earth, it seemed, joining us in the stern. At last, after a rough passage, there was Innisfree. No hive for the honeybee and no log cabin but of course I hadn't expected them. They were only in the bee-loud glade of Yeats's stravaging mind. But the whole island was covered with rowan trees, wearing their red berries like jewels and the thought suddenly came to me—a most disastrous one, as it turned out— ‘I'll take back some branches to the poet.’ In no time, for the island is diminutive, I had broken off pretty nearly every branch from the rowans and was staggering with them toward the boat. By now a strong wind had sprung up and the rain was falling and the lake was wild. Those Irish loughs beat up into a great sea very quickly. As we embarked, the waves seemed as high as the Statue of Liberty and I wished I'd had more swimming practice. Then I noticed, between one trough and the next, that the priest, pale as paper, was telling his beads with one hand and with the other plucking off my rowan berries and dropping them into the water. ‘Ah, Father,’ said the boatman, pulling stertorously on the oars, ‘it's not the weight of a berry or two that will save us now.’ He gave me a reflective glance and I got the idea, remembering that in times of shipwreck women are notoriously unlucky, that he was planning to throw me overboard, if the worse came to the worst. I wished I had a string of beads! However, perhaps because of the priest's prayers, we came at last safely to shore. I hurried through the rain with my burden and took the next train for Dublin. The other passengers edged away from my streaming garments as though I were some sort of ancient mariner. I should never have started this, I knew, but there is an unfortunate streak of obstinacy in me that would not let me stop. From Dublin station, through curtains of cloud—taxis did not exist for me in those days—I carried the great branches to Yeats's house in Merrion Square and stood there, with my hair like rats' tails, my tattered branches equally ratlike, looking like Birnam come to Dunsinane and wishing I was dead. I prayed, as I rang the bell, that Yeats would not open the door himself, but my prayer went unheard.
For an articulate man to be struck dumb is, you can imagine, rare. But struck dumb he was at the sight of me. In shame, I heard him cry a name into the dark beyond of the house and saw him hurriedly escape upstairs. Then the name came forward in human shape and took me gently, as though I were ill or lost or witless, down to the basement kitchen. There I was warmed and dried and given cocoa; the dreadful branches were taken away. I felt like someone who had died and was now contentedly on the other side, certain that nothing more could happen. In this dreamlike state, I was gathering myself to go—out the back way if possible—never to be seen again. But a maid came bustling kindly in and said—as though to someone still alive!—‘The master will see you now.’ I was horrified. This was the last straw. ‘What for?’ I wanted to know. ‘Ah, then, you'll see. He has his ways.’
And so, up the stairs—or the seven-story mountain—I went and there he was in his room with the blue curtains.
‘My canary has laid an egg!’ he said and joyously led me to the cages by the window. From there we went round the room together, I getting better every minute and he telling me which of his books he liked and how, when he got an idea for a poem. There was long momentous pause, here. He was always the bard, always filling the role of poet, not play-acting but knowing well the role's requirements and giving them their due. He never came into a room, he entered it; walking around his study was a ceremonial peregrination, wonderful to witness. ‘When I get an idea for a poem,’ he went on, oracularly, ‘I take down one of my own books and read it and then I go on from there.’ Moses explaining his tablets couldn't have moved me more. And so, serenely, we came to the end of the pilgrimage and I was just about to bid him good-bye when I noticed on his desk a vase of water and in it one sprig of fruiting rowan. I glanced at him distrustfully. ‘Was he teaching me a lesson?’ I wondered, for at that age one cannot accept to be taught. But he wasn't; I knew it by the look on his face. He would do nothing so banal. He was not trying to enlighten me and so I was enlightened and found a connection in the process. It needed only a sprig, said the lesson. And I learned, also, something about writing. The secret is to say less than you need. You don't want a forest, a leaf will do.
Next day, when I was lunching with A.E., he said to me, ‘Yeats was very touched that you brought him a sprig of rowan from Innisfree.’ So I had to tell him the whole story’2

4Pamela Travers applied this lesson of retreading the grapes, rummaging around in her poems and stories, and shaping the Mary Poppins books out of them. By then she had become a darling of the circle of ‘Poets and Wits’ who drew around Yeats and A.E., Stephens, Colum, O’Faolain, and Gogarty, who bombarded her with love poems and dedicated An Offering of Swans to her.

5Many of those who pay tribute in this volume to this great and pioneering Yeats scholar are themeselves senior scholars. While their essays contain to a greater or a lesser degreee memories of him, for each it is a matter of carrying forward in some particular way the work he had pioneered in his TCD doctorate, the work of commentary. Derry Jeffares seems to have understood the same self-reflexive principle at work in Yeats’s writing, because so much of his pioneering work on what became the Commentary is dependent upon the elaborate structure he built therein for the cross-referencing of Yeats’s poems, letters, prose, and plays. For this reason above all, he showed himself to be truly one of those whom Yeats (following Boehme, as he thought) referred to as his ‘schoolmates’ (E&I xi) one of that inner circle of readers for whom a writer writes. It is fair to say that the better editions of Yeats’s works which have followed down the years can be distinguished from the rest by their annotation’s having grown from such strategies of self-allusion as Yeats himself encouraged.

6This volume joins the last three interlinked special issues of Yeats Annual all of which have had for their broader theme the notion that the impetus for new writing may often be found in the poet’s reading and in the collaborative nature of literary endeavour, matters revealed to scholars by the restoration of contexts to poems increasingly distant from us. The volume has, however, been unconscionably delayed by the illnesses of the Editor and Research Editor, for which delay we apologise to all contributors, and thank them for their patience.

77 December 2012


1 P. L. Travers, ‘Only Connect’ in Virginia Havilland (ed.) The Openhearted Audience (Washington, Library of Congress, 1980), pp. 9-11.

2 Ibid., 11-14

Table des illustrations

Légende Frontispiece: Derry Jeffares beside the Edmund Dulac memorial stone to W. B. Yeats. Roquebrune Cemetery, France, 1986.Private Collection.
Fichier image/jpeg, 82k


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