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A Poet Discouraged - Yeats, 1913
William Butler Yeats, photographed by by George Charles Beresford, July 1911 Photo: © National Portrait Gallery, London

A Poet Discouraged - Yeats, 1913


By Ed Mulhall

In October 1913, W. B. Yeats published privately through his sisters’ Cuala Press 50 copies of Poems Written in Discouragement, 1912-1913.  This book gathered together the poems inspired by the controversy surrounding the proposal by Sir Hugh Lane to establish a modern art gallery in Dublin and the rejection of the plan by Dublin Corporation. The last of these poems 'To a Shade' had just been finished on October 4th, but it was later re-dated to September 29th, perhaps to make it a companion piece to 'September 1913', which had itself been re-titled from its original publication as 'Romance in Ireland' in The Irish Times earlier that month. The September 29th date ends the booklet making it very clearly a document of contemporary commentary. As the critic Nicholas Allen has noted Yeats dated his poems with purpose and almost exactly three years later 'September 25 1916' is the date for the poem 'Easter 1916', which was circulated privately and not published until 1920.

Yeats placed the Lane episode as the third in a sequence of public controversies that had stirred his imagination. The first was Parnell, where there was no reason to justify, as he put it, 'on one side or another, lying accusations forgetful of past service, a frenzy of distraction'. The second was the controversy over the Abbey production of The Playboy of the Western World - 'there were reasons for opposing as for supporting that violent laughing thing, but none for the lies, the unscrupulous rhetoric spread against it in Ireland, and from Ireland to America'.

Robert O'Byrne assesses the controversy caused by Hugh Lane's proposal to establish a modern art gallery in Dublin.

In the Lane controversy, Yeats recognised the argument that a city with much poverty and slums could not afford the cost of the gallery, but he objected to the cultural and political attacks on the principle. He outlined the opposition in a note to the poems: 'One frenzied man compared the pictures to a Troy horse which 'destroyed a city', and innumerable correspondents described Hugh Lane and those who had subscribed many thousands to give Dublin paintings by Corot, Manet, Monet, Degas and Renoir, as 'self-seekers,' 'self-advertisers', 'picture-dealers', 'log-rolling cranks and faddists'.'

In these notes written in 1914 Yeats identified the first serious opposition as coming from the Irish Catholic newspaper and Mr William Martin Murphy 'the organiser of the recent lock-out and Mr Healy's financial supporter in his attack upon Parnell, a man of great influence'. (Tim Healy later Governor-General was Parnell's most acerbic critic in the Parliamentary Party).

Yeats began his involvement in the Lane campaign in a carefully choreographed sequence of publications in The Irish Times, as he outlined to Lady Gregory in December 1912: 'I have finished the poem about the pictures. I think it good. There are about 50 lines. I will send it you when I get it typed. If Masefield, with whom I dine tonight & Pound, who is a sterner critic, like it I will write to Lane and propose my plan, which is to get Hone to arrange publication in Irish Times with editorial comment. My argument is that the Princes of the Renaissance did not wait on public approval before they gave. There is just the unlikely chance the Irish Times comment, if not the poem, may reach Ardilaun. What might seem offensive in a letter or article will not do so in a poem or in the comment on it.'

He sent the poem to Hugh Lane to seek approval for the plan and wrote to the writer and publisher Joseph Hone to arrange publication in The Irish Times. (A copy was also given to poet Ezra Pound for publication in an American review).

Antonia Mancini, Portrait of Sir Hugh Lane, 1904 (Image: Dublin City Gallery The Hugh Lane)

The poem was published in The Irish Times on January 11th, 1913, with the subtitle 'To a friend who promises a bigger subscription than his first to the Dublin Municipal Gallery if the amount collected proves that there is considerable 'popular demand' for the pictures' (In later publications the dedication to a 'friend' became 'To a Wealthy Man' and the dedication replaced 'The Gift' as the poem’s title). The poem began:

You gave but will not give again
Until enough of Paudeen's pence
By Biddy's halfpennies have lain
To be some sort of evidence

It went on to draw a contrast with the noble patronage of Renaissance Italy and this reluctance, concluding:

Let the Paudeens play at pitch and toss,
Look up in the sun's eye and give
What the exultant heart calls good
That some new day may breed the best
Because you gave, not what they would
But the right twigs for an eagle's nest
('The Gift' - W. B. Yeats, December 1912)

As Roy Foster has put it 'this was poetry as political manifesto' and with its aggressive timing but also its high tone of superiority bound to raise hackles. William Martin Murphy, the publisher of The Irish Independent and employers' leader, attacked it directly in a series of letters to the newspapers on the Lane controversy. Defending the right of ratepayers to have a view, he said he 'would rather see in the City of Dublin one block of sanitary houses at low rents replacing a reeking slum than all the pictures Corot and Degas ever painted'.

Yeats noted that Murphy had replied to his poem 'To a Wealthy Man' from what he had described as Paudeen's point of view 'and Paudeen's point of view it was'. Yeats did not see this attack as being disconnected from the labour dispute: 'As the first avowed reason for opposition, the necessity of the poor got but a few lines, not some many certainly as the objection of various persons to supply Sir Hugh Lane with a 'monument at the city's expense' and as the gallery was supported by Mr James Larkin, the chief labour leader, and important slum workers, I assume that the purpose of this opposition was not exclusively charitable.'

Yeats was in an active political mode at this time. He dined with Asquith the Prime Minister in January and also addressed the Protestant Home Rule Association in London. Throughout the year he kept up the pressure for the Lane gallery with letters to the papers and special Abbey Theatre performances to raise funds for the campaign. (Funds from the Abbey tour of 1912/1913 to the US had kept the campaign alive with notices stating that each player was performing in aid of the gallery). For Yeats the campaign culminated in the publication of another public poem 'Romance in Ireland (on reading much of the correspondence against the Art Gallery) ' in The Irish Times on 8th September 1913:

What need you, being come to sense,
But fumble in the greasy till
And add the halfpence to the pence
And prayer to shivering prayer,until
You have dried the marrow from the bone;
For men were born to pray and save:
Romantic Ireland's dead and gone,
It's with O' Leary in the grave.

Yeats reading the first verse of his poem originally called 'Romance in Ireland', but later renamed 'September 1913'. Recording extracted from Citizens: Lockout 1913-2013 by Athena Media and available in full here.

As he was arranging for the poem to be published he wrote to Lady Gregory admitting that the cause was almost lost: 'It is not so appropriate now as the Corporation are appealing to an hysterical patriotism, to escape I suppose from a position Murphy has made difficult. I had not thought I could feel so bitterly over any public event'.

The central image of September 1913, as the poem would later be titled, the fumbling in the greasy till, had first been used by Yeats in a speech in July at the Court Theatre in London. There he had set out the consequences of the failure of the Lane project: 'If Hugh Lane is defeated hundreds of young men and women all over the country will be discouraged, will choose a poorer idea of what might be. If the intellectual movement is defeated Ireland will for many years become a little huckstering nation, groping for halfpence in a greasy till. It is that or the fulfillment of her better dreams. Roy Foster has said that the image may have been suggested to Yeats by a poem by Thomas MacDonagh in the Irish Review of June 1911: a vision of an Irish village where the people were bent double hoarding 'pence in a till in their little shops'. Whatever the inspiration Yeats didn't complete the image that was in his mind as he wrote to Lady Gregory 'but did not add except in thought: 'by the light of a holy candle'' (Lady Gregory - Hugh Lane p137).

Yeats’s unqualified support for Lane was not supported by Maud Gonne: 'I think Lane is behaving very disgracefully about the picture collection. I don't see that the Dublin Corporation can do more than they have done. Lane has got his knighthood by pretending to give the pictures, now he is taking them back, probably to get some advantage elsewhere - it is almost a swindle & I hope he will be made to feel it, by those society he desires. He seems to me to be violating every code of honour, he is acting as after all one expects a jew picture dealer to do - he has lived and made his money in that world, so I suppose he has adopted their habits of mind and conduct.' 

By now however the battle for the Lane pictures was over. On September 19th the Corporation rejected the Gallery proposal. Yeats, who was used to disappointment that summer - he had already seen the opportunity to become Professor of Poetry at Trinity College Dublin pass him by -  was now in Coole Park. There he completed the sequence of poems inspired by the Lane controversy. He had already prepared ideas to use if the campaign failed and he now wrote 'To a Friend whose Work has come to Nothing' and 'Paudeen'.
In the former he said:

Now the truth is out,
Be secret and take defeat
From any brazen throat
('To A Friend whose Work Has Come To Nothing' - W.B. Yeats)

In 'Paudeen' he echoed the central image of 'September 1913':

Indignant at the fumbling wits, the obscure spite
Of our Paudeen in his shop, I stumbled blind
Among the stones and thorn- trees, under morning light;
Until a curlew cried and in a luminous wind
A curlew answered; and I was startled by the thought
That on a lonely height where all are in God's eye,
Things cannot be, confusion of our sound forgot,
A single soul that lacks a sweet crystalline cry.
('Paudeen' - W.B. Yeats)

However, it is the last poem on this theme that is the most direct and the most powerful. In it  Yeats calls up the ghost of Parnell - called 'thin Shade' - to look at the disgrace his city had done.

If you have revisited the town, thin Shade,
Whether to look upon your monument
(I wonder if the builder has been paid)

Then, having thus summoned the ghost of Parnell, a powerful political evocation. he sets the contest clearly between Lane and 'the pack' led by Murphy.  Lane was: 

A man
Of your own passionate serving kind who had brought
In his full hands what, had they only known,
Had given their children's children loftier thoughts

On the other side was 'the pack'.  Here, perhaps influenced by the growing tensions over the Lockout , this poem took direct aim at William Martin Murphy, recalling his support for Tim Healy in his battle against Parnell. In the original version it read:

An old foul mouth that once cried out on you
Herding the pack

It was later published as:

Your enemy, an old foul mouth, had set
The pack upon him

William Martin Murphy, as caricatured in The Lepracaun Cartoon Monthly in 1908. (Image courtesy of Dublin City Public Library)

Joseph Hone, who had assisted Yeats in getting the Irish Times editorial to accompany 'The Gift', was to feel later that Yeats was not altogether fair in his treatment of Murphy: 'Yeats chose to regard Martin Murphy, a man of distinguished character and appearance, to whose energy in industrial enterprise Dublin was under considerable debt, as a representative type and leader of the middle class which had come to rise to power under the shadow of the land league and kindred agitations. This Murphy certainly was not, even though he was ignorant of Art and allowed his newspaper too much latitude in abuse.'

Yeats himself though was in no doubt as to the conclusion of this contest. Having summoned the ghost of Parnell he sent him away:

Go unquiet wanderer
And gather the Glasnevin coverlet
About your head till the dust stops your ear,
The time for you to taste of that salt breath
And listen at the corners has not come;
You had enough of Sorrow before death-
Away, away! You are safer in the tomb.
('To a Shade' - W.B.Yeats)

The sequence having been completed and collected as Poems written in Discouragement, Yeats the public man then entered the Lockout controversy with a letter published in The Irish Worker in November. He had it in mind from September 18th when lying awake in Coole he got the idea for the letter called a 'Challenge to William Murphy'. In it he called for a police inquiry into the intimidation of striking workers and their families and also attacked media coverage of the dispute: 'I do not complain of Dublin's capacity for fanaticism whether in priest or layman, for you cannot have strong feeling without that capacity, but neither those who directed the police nor the editors of our newspapers can plead fanaticism. They are supposed to watch over our civil liberties, and I charge the Dublin Nationalist newspapers with deliberately arousing religious passion to break up the organisation of the workingman, with appealing to mob law day after day, with publishing the names of workingmen and their wives for purposes of intimidation. And I charge the Unionist Press of Dublin and those who directed the police with conniving at this conspiracy.'

But his principal target was the police: 'There had been tumults every night at every Dublin railway station, and I can only assume that the police authorities wished those tumults to continue. I want to know why the mob at North Wall and elsewhere were permitted to drag children from their parents' arms, and by what right one woman was compelled to open her box and show a marriage certificate; I want to know by what right the police have refused to accept charges against rioters; I want to know who has ordered the abrogation of the most elementary rights of the citizens, and why authorities who are bound to protect every man in doing that which he has a legal right to do - even though they have to call upon all the forces of the Crown - have permitted the Ancient Order of Hibernians to besiege Dublin taking possession of the railway stations like a foreign army. Prime Ministers have fallen, and ministers of State have been impeached for less than this. I demand that the coming Police Inquiry shall be so widened that we may ­get to the bottom of a conspiracy, whose like has not been seen in any English-speaking town during living memory. Intriguers have met together somewhere behind the scenes that they might turn the religion of Him who thought it hard for a rich man to enter into the Kingdom of Heaven into an oppression of the poor.'  

Police baton charge strikers on sackville Street on 31 August 1913. Yeats was scathing in his criticism of police behaviour during the Lock-out. (Image courtesy of Dublin City Public Library)

This intervention was praised by George Russell who had been critical of Yeats's lack of involvement in these civil rights issues before.

A couple of days later Yeats was to meet Hugh Lane in London and look to the future. In his account of the meeting, dictated to Ezra Pound and sent to Lady Gregory on the 4th of November, he was hopeful for a future for the Gallery project under a Home Rule Government but also gave hints of the confusion that was to follow over Lane's intentions when he was to die in the sinking of the Lusitania .

"I saw Lane last night. He says you may write to your subscribers that we hope to carry through the gallery project after the change in the Irish government though we have been defeated for the moment through passing conditions of political & economic strife. At first he said that you could write that the collection would be left together, but afterwards said: 'no, that statement might get back to Dublin'... He will make a completely new collection for Dublin. He says he is tired of the old one, and knows much more now. He needed no urging, and is, I really think, as determined about Ireland as we are ourselves... He has remade his will. He had left everything to the modern gallery, but has now left his money to the Irish national gallery, and his pictures to England. 

For Yeats as the year ended there was one last sting from the Lane controversy. In a serialisation of the latest volume of Hail and Farewell, George Moore took aim at Yeats and Lady Gregory. His acerbic description of the poet in full flight had a topical satiric force: '(we) could hardly believe our ears when, instead of talking to us, as he used to do about the old stories come down from generation to generation he began to thunder like Ben Tillet against the middle classes, stamping his feet, working himself into a great temper, and all because the middle classes did not dip into their hands and give Lane the money he wanted for the exhibition.. and we asked ourselves why Willie Yeats should feel himself called upon to denounce his own class.. ".

While Lady Gregory took to lawyers to seek amendments of Moore's text, Yeats took to verse and in an introductory piece to his new collection, Responsibilities (1914) issued a challenge to Moore, to Ireland and to himself.

First, addressing his ancestors:

Pardon, old fathers, if you still remain
Somewhere in earshot of the story's end

Then tracing his heritage of merchants, scholars, soldiers of the Butler clan at the Boyne battle and down to the silent and fierce old man who stirred him to say 'only the wasteful virtues earn the sun'. He concluded:

Pardon that for a barren passion's sake,
Although I have come close on forty-nine
I have no child, I have nothing but a book,
Nothing but that to prove your blood and mine
(W.B. Yeats - 'Responsibilities')

The poem was dated January 1914.

Ed Mulhall is a former Managing Director of RTÉ News & Current Affairs and is Editorial Advisor to Century Ireland


Century Ireland

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