This is WB Yeats’s account of his first conversation with the young James Joyce–Joyce walked up to him in the street and introduced himself. At the time, at the age of thirty seven, Yeats was one of the great figures of Irish letters, leading a revival of Irish myth and folklore through his poetry and plays. Joyce was more than simply unknown: he had barely written anything.
After inviting him to the smoking room of a restaurant on O’Connell Street, Yeats listened to and praised Joyce’s poems. Then Joyce:
‘…began to explain all his objections to everything I had ever done. Why had I concerned myself with politics, with folklore, with the historical setting of events, and so on? Above all why had I written about ideas, why had I condescended to make generalisations? These things were all the sign of the cooling of the iron, of the fading out of inspiration… his own little book owed nothing to anything but his own mind which was much nearer to God than folklore…
I felt exasperated and puzzled and walked up and down explaining the dependence of all good art on popular tradition. I said, “The artist, when he has lived a long time in his own mind with the example of other artists as deliberate as himself, gets into a world of ideas pure and simple. He becomes very highly individualised and at last by sheer pursuit of perfection becomes sterile. Folk imagination on the other hand creates endless images of which there are no ideas. Its stories ignore the moral law and every other law, they are successions of pictures like those seen by children in the fire. You find a type of these two kinds of invention, the invention of artists and the invention of the folk, in the civilisation that comes from the town and in the forms of life that one finds in the country. In the towns, especially in big towns like London, you don’t find what old writers used to call the people; you find instead a few highly cultivated, highly perfected individual lives, and great multitudes who imitate and cheapen them. You find, too, great capacity for doing all kinds of things, but an impulse towards creation which grows gradually weaker and weaker. In the country, on the other hand, I mean in Ireland and in places where the towns have not been able to call the tune, you find people who are hardly individualised to any great extent. They live through the same round of duty and they think about life and death as their fathers have told them, but in speech, in the telling of tales, in all that has to do with the play of imagery, they have an endless abundance… The whole ugliness of the modern world has come from the towns and their way of thought, and to bring back beauty we must marry the spirit and nature again. When the idea which comes from individual life marries the image that is born from the people, one gets great art, the art of Homer, and of Shakespeare, and of Chartres Cathedral.”
I looked at my young man. I thought, “I have conquered him now,” but I was quite wrong. He merely said, “Generalisations aren’t made by poets; they are made by men of letters. They are no use.”
Presently he got up to go, and, as he was going out, he said, “I am twenty. How old are you?” I told him, but I am afraid I said I was a year younger than I am. He said with a sigh, “I thought as much. I have met you too late. You are too old.”‘
From Richard Ellmann’s great biography, James Joyce.