Oxford University Press's
Academic Insights for the Thinking World

The letters of W.B. and George Yeats

By Ann Saddlemyer


It doesn’t seem that long since a friend chastised me for writing a long, newsy, e-mail. ‘It’s not meant to be a letter, you know – it’s just an instant message.’ Yet another friend insists on a genuine hand-written letter; texting or e-mailing simply won’t do. In an earlier age, I can recall when one apologized for typing rather than writing by hand. Condolences could not be sent any other way. Now I cannot even think straight unless it is at the computer, and my handwriting sometimes defies even my interpretation. I comfort myself by remembering that John Millington Synge composed over a thousand pages of drafts of The Playboy of the Western World on his typewriter, a bulky 1900 Blickensdorfer. He had to write home regularly for more ink rolls, not all that different from the rapidity with which my printer demands new cartridges.

But even Synge wrote most of his letters in a spikey, ragged hand with much underlining. His Abbey Theatre colleague Lady Gregory also turned to the typewriter for serious composition, and just as well since, when she resorted to the pen for her letters, most of the words end with an imperious straight line. W. B. Yeats never touched a machine and insisted on a good pen. But he was not only dyslexic, a poor speller and careless about punctuation; in the frenzy of composition, be it poetry or prose, many words were left unfinished and sometimes even perplexing.

The internet promises not only easy reading but encourages a hasty reply and is immediately disposable. Personal letters are often kept, sometimes for decades; even years later there is something alluring about them. Writing a letter takes time and thoughtfulness; it provides a sense of ‘being in touch’, gives a fresh meaning to the word correspondence, and demands some element of formality, if only in salutation and signature. It is also more mysterious, when even the occasional illegibility or misspelling evokes personality. Who are these people, what were they feeling? What did they have to say that was so important to communicate?

No wonder we find reading other people’s letters appealing. Unlike biography, where the invasive author selects events and describes actions for us, editions of personal letters offer fresh insight and active participation in the telling of stories. We see the world through the writer’s eyes, are invited to enjoy the anecdotes while interpreting the irony and watching the self-posturing. At the same time we can observe changes in tone and mood, perhaps even the manipulation of facts from one letter to the next. We might even pick up some salacious and slanderous gossip and experience the frisson of sexual innuendo, or at the very least secrets of love, dedication or illegality. We are, in fact, privileged but helpless eavesdroppers to a correspondence meant to be private.

When the letters cover long-term relationships between two people even more is revealed. Synge – whose letters to Molly Allgood, thanks to an astonishingly efficient postal service, could be read and answered within twelve hours – whined about her inattention, but poured out his feelings on love, writing, and the theatre even when they went unanswered. Synge died at 39, and none of Molly’s letters survive. W. B. Yeats on the other hand, while sending detailed accounts, sometimes two or three a day, gloried in a good story well told, and his wife George responded with witty, observant and vivid reports of her own. From her we are kept alive to the political, social and cultural world of Dublin, living them almost as events occur; at the same time their children, Willy’s siblings, close friends and co-workers are all kept centre stage and her husband’s business affairs dealt with.

Meanwhile, WBY deftly works the corridors of power in London over ‘the Irish problem’, visits various mediums in the U. S. and the UK, attends the dying Lady Gregory at Coole, collaborates with musicians, artists and fellow writers on new theatre projects and excursions into modernism, endlessly revises his poetry and plots new plays, confides (most) of his arrangements with lovers, while at the same time proving his dependence on his perceptive, (largely) understanding and supportive wife. The letters reveal the constantly changing, yet always involved, partnership of two actively engaged minds.

Instant messaging, but on the grand scale.

Ann Saddlemyer has published extensively on Irish and Canadian theatre and edited the plays of J.M. Synge, Lady Gregory, and the letters between the founding Directors of the Abbey Theatre. Her book Becoming George: The Life of Mrs W.B. Yeats was shortlisted for the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for Biography. She has most recently edited W.B. Yeats and George Yeats: The Letters.

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