June 15


James Joyce meets WB Yeats

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.


Culture versus folk, poetry, town versus country

You may also like

  • That is a wonderful story – thank you so much for sharing it.

    I am in the midst of re-reading Ulysses and have been profoundly struck by Joyce’s antipathy to abstraction, which is even evident in the internal conflicts of the peripatetic Dedalus. As someone who suffers from the “philosopher’s disease” myself, I’ve rather taken it as a direct challenge to my way of being.

    You couldn’t find a clearer statement of Joyce’s thoughts on the matter than this little story – very helpful.

    On my re-reading, it’s clear to me that my initial attempt to come to terms with Ulysses philosophically has been an approach that he explicitly rejects. But surely there is irony in his use of classical material to conceptually frame this story – irony, or a joke.

  • It’s just another way Joyce had of “keeping the critics guessing for the next three hundred years.”

  • Reblogged this on BurlesquePress and commented:
    Burlesque Press regular contributor Daniel Wallace wrote this post last year over on his blog, The Incompetent Writer. We thought you might find it interesting! I mean its got Joyce, its got Yeats, its got ageism and its filled with foreboding. Its also really fun for anyone who is interested in either of those authors, or becoming a writer themselves.

    And also, check out The Incompetent Writer blog. You might be surprised by how exceedingly ahem, competent it is 🙂

  • {"email":"Email address invalid","url":"Website address invalid","required":"Required field missing"}

    Get writing today: join my free course

    All you need is an email address: work at your own pace as you write a new short story.