I was not too sure whether I would include this book Letters on Poetry from W. B. Yeats to Dorothy Wellesley (with an introduction by Kathleen Raine) for our Bimonthly theme, Message in a Bottle – when I saw this in our NIE library. The cover was not attractive, for one.
Secondly, it sounded like an academic treatise (and Lordknows i already have my fill of that given my day job), and Thirdly I had no idea who Wellesley was. But this book called out to me for two reasons: (1) Poetry and (2) Yeats. That was enough I suppose.
Not unlike Mary’s earlier post on Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet, this book also celebrates shared ruminations about poetry between two writers – more like a talking-aloud written to a kindred – a stream of consciousness kind of conversation, but always always with the sharp-edged intellect, the desire to disarm, the poetry breathing through the lines.
What this Review is Not. I am neither a Professor of Literature nor would I consider myself an expert on English or Irish poets. A large part of the letter-exchange deal with Yeats and Wellesley’s thoughts about various poets that I have not minutely studied – most of the names I am quite unfamiliar with. The letters were written during the time that Yeats was collecting poems that he would include in his highly controversial (and bestselling) Oxford Book of Modern Verse and his own Last Poems. I do think that a more refined and academic understanding of this book would be obtained by having these two sources as reference and perhaps even Wellesley’s own published collection of poems to refer to – but that would make my life uncharacteristically tedious, and this blogpost so boring it would put tears in one’s eyes. I would rather focus on those passages which moved me and made me long for that song in my soul called poetry. I do not wish for this to be a literature paper – more a collection of passages/epigrams that I thought meaningful, relevant, and resonated with who I am at this point in my life.
Inanities of Daily Living. Much of the earlier correspondence talked about how the two poets were introduced to each other (Lady Ottoline Morrell introduced Yeats to Wellesley after he came across a poem by Dorothy Wellesley entitled “Horses”), arrangements that they made for Yeats to visit Wellesley’s stately home/mansion at Penns in
the Rocks, the world that exists between the medium (or poet) and the poetry – a reality which they both resent. Eventually, the letters moved towards that breathing world that they created together through their letters – a haven that exists for only the two of them riddled with words, playful banters and carefully-measured endearments (as seen in the gradual removal of the title Lady Dorothy and the latter calling our grand poet simply Yeats instead of the highly formal and stiff Mr. Yeats) and vaguely-defined boundaries – always testing the waters but going safely back to shore.
Master-Apprentice Relationship. While Yeats initially sounded like a sage imparting nuggets of truth to a younger poet in his desire perhaps to impress/charm/disarm during his earlier letters to Wellesley, his later correspondences reveal a refreshing candor that is borne out of shared intimacy and a mutual respect afforded to a poet who, while younger and still has much to learn, was considered of like-mind, a kindred, an equal. The Duchess of Wellington, Lady Gerard Wellesley.
Yet despite this, we see Yeats making a great many suggestions to further improve Wellesley’s writing, changing a line here, substituting a word there, inserting a verse or a phrase, but always being true to her intentions as a writer. While Wellesley stood in awe of Yeats’ brilliance, she was able to hold her own – she demurs, concurs as a woman of her time was expected to, but she stood her ground on occasion. She is no girl. In her Comments and Conversations section on p. 46, Wellesley recalled that she would often tell Yeats: “I prefer bad poems written by myself to good poems written by you under my name.” Fair enough (Click here to be taken to a copyrighted picture of Wellesley – I have decided to be deliberately vague in my characterization of Lady Dorothy so you’d take initiative to know her on your own).
It also helped that her world was not simply wrapped in Yeats’ affairs. She was after all a Duchess, a Lady of the House, with regular guests in Penns in the Rocks, children to attend to, a husband to please. On more than one occasion, the two poets despair about this painful paucity of time to simply immerse in their writing. As Wellesley put it:
My head is full of new verse, singing, pounding even in my ears, but practical affairs must be dealt with. Do you think that inspiration can be lost if not born with the first birth-pang? I fear this may be so. But perhaps no inspiration is ever lost, but recurs months, perhaps years later. It seems to me that poetry is begotten of a tune. More and more deeply I feel this, have never really doubted it (pp. 31-32).
Aging, Distinguished, Accomplished Older Man and the Bright, Radiant, Full-of-Promise Younger Woman. There are a lot of innuendos that quite possibly something was going on between the much older and accomplished Yeats and the undeniably attractive, powerful, and influential younger Wellesley. In truth, as I was reading it – I really could not care less. I did not think that it was what mattered in the correspondence. Yes, I felt that there was a certain vibe that connected them, but it’s not unprecedented particularly among minds that crave a wavelength that runs parallel to theirs. In light of how instantly they connected, the beauty of what they shared and how they have undoubtedly enriched each other’s creative lives, all of these innuendos and gossip seem irrelevant really.
I also love the fact that they shared their unfinished poetry to each other as
well as quote other poems that moved their beings. An example of this would be Turner’s poem which Yeats cited to Wellesley (recall that this was the time before computers, they were either typing on an ancient typewriter or using ink on expensive paper). Yeats related that this stray poem of Turner “rends my heart“:
‘But when a man is old, married & in despair Has slept with the bodies of many women; Then if he meet a woman whose loveliness Is young & yet troubled with power. Terrible is the agony of an old man The agony of incommunicable power Holding its potency that is like a rocket that is full of stars.’ (p. 65)
Yeats and the East. Throughout the letter exchange, Yeats made references about doing a translation on the Upanishads in collaboration with Purohit Swami (whom he deeply respected and spoke fondly about).
Swami is said to be one of the great yogis who came to Europe from India and Yeats frequently mentioned in his letters to Wellesley that he always looked forward to quiet moments with Swami:
I am counting every moment until Nov. 29 when my boat sails. The very fact that I am going with a man whose mind I touch on only one point, means peace. I can live in my own mind and write poetry; can go into a dream and stay there.
Yeats also spoke about his intimate knowledge of Tagore’s poems (another one of my absolute favorites), and some of his thoughts about the “East” and his understanding of what their knowledge consists of. Recall that he is a fierce nationalist and was also honored the Nobel Peace Prize in 1923 (a profile of Yeats can be found here along with a historical timeline of his life)
…someone has sent me a present of a great piece carved by some Chinese sculptor into the semblance of a mountain with temple, trees, paths, and an ascetic and pupil about to climb the mountain. Ascetic, pupil, hard stone, eternal theme of the sensual east. The heroic cry in the midst of despair. But no, I am wrong, the east has its solutions always and therefore knows nothing of tragedy. It is we, not the east, that must raise the heroic cry (p. 8)
Words that Inspire – the Search for Poetry that Pulsates with Inner
Joy and Being. Here are some of Yeats’ sagelike wisdom as he effortlessly inspired Wellesley in her writing – I think it applies to all struggling (or even accomplished) poets:
As you go on writing and thinking your ideas will arrange themselves. They will arrange themselves as sand strewn upon stretched parchment does – as I have read somewhere – in response to a musical note. To me the supreme aim is an act of faith and reason to make one rejoice in the midst of tragedy. An impossible aim; yet I think it true that nothing can injure us. (p. 12)
Yeats also spoke about music in writing and in perfecting one’s style in writing poetry:
… all that you need I think to perfect your style is to watch yourself to prevent any departure from the formula. ‘Music, the natural words in the natural order’. Through that formula we go back to the people. Music will keep out temporary ideas, for music is the nation’s clothing of what is ancient & deathless. I do not mean of course what musicians call the music of words – that is all corpse factory, humanity melted down & poured out of a bottle. (pp. 126-127)
As Wellesley shared her exhaustion with daily living and its many demands, Yeats imparts the wisdom of obtaining full rest and what it does to one’s soul:
You are young as poets count age and will be better for meditation and rest. Rest is a great instructor, for it brings the soul back to itself. We sink down into our own soul and take root again.
End notes. In the last letter included in the book, Yeats’ last line was: “I do nothing but write verse” to which Wellesley capped the collection of correspondence as “Yeats murmuring poetry to the last gasp: so die, so perhaps should die, the truly great.”
Somehow, this book reminded me of something ancient and hidden in the core of my being. While I work as an academic, yes, with facts and figures, hard lines and charts, system and schedule prefiguring in my existence – there is continually that need for poetry that breathes life into me and yes, feeds my soul. On occasion, it could be just the fresh smell of air at dusk, the sight of huge gnarled trees, the sound of the leaves rustling in the quiet chill of morning air, or music that fills me. I have set this part of me aside with a knowing snide, a mid-30s smirk, a cocked eyebrow of indifference – a “been there, said that, done this before” kind of attitude. The innocuous (and occasionally even boring) exchange of letters on poetry by William Butler Yeats and Dorothy Wellesley revitalized the artist in me that celebrates beauty, laughter, and verse – in silent prayer.
Here is a short movie excerpt from the film Nixon where one of Yeats’ most famous poems, The Second Coming was recited by Richard Helms, Director of the CIA played by Sam Waterson to Richard Nixon played by Anthony Hopkins. Enjoy.