On 28 January 1939 WB Yeats died.
WB Yeats had been one of Joyce’s earliest supporters. Yeats was already well-established as a literary figure in Dublin and London in October 1902 when he and Joyce met for the first time at the National Library. At the end of that first meeting Joyce asked Yeats how old he was. Yeats shaved a few years off his actual age of 39 but Joyce replied: “I thought as much. I have met you too late. You are too old.” For Yeats, this was an indication that the younger generation was knocking at the door. But it was also an indication of Joyce’s youthful arrogance: he assumed that it was Yeats who needed help, not him!
Joyce happily accepted Yeats’ help whenever he could. On his trips to Paris in 1902 and 1903 he passed through London, meeting Yeats who fed him and introduced him to other writers and editors. It was Yeats who prompted Ezra Pound to get in touch with Joyce, and Yeats supported the applications for Joyce for grant from the Royal Literary Fund in 1915 and for a Civil List pension in 1916. Yeats also invited Joyce to join the Irish Academy but Joyce declined the invite.
Yeats read parts of Ulysses in the Little Review and declared it “a mad book,” but reading more, he changed his opinion: “I have made a terrible mistake,” he told LAG Strong, “it is perhaps a work of genius… It is an entirely new thing – neither what the eye sees nor the ear hears, but what the rambling mind thinks and imagines from moment to moment. He has certainly surpassed in intensity any novelist of our time.” Yeats bought a copy of the first edition of Ulysses but it’s clear that he never quite finished reading it.
Yeats failed to get an official invitation for Joyce to come to the Tailteann celebrations in 1924, but he praised Joyce in his speech at the award ceremony: “We feel…that it is our duty to say that Mr James Joyce’s book, though as obscene as Rabelais, and therefore forbidden by law in England and the United States, is more indubitably a work of genius than any prose written by an Irishman since the death of Synge.”
It was George Russell in 1902 who recommended Joyce to Yeats with the words: “I have suffered from him and I would like you to suffer.” But Yeats didn’t suffer Joyce lightly. He rejected Joyce’s translations of Hauptmann’s plays, telling Joyce “you are not a very good German scholar,” and wouldn’t allow production of an Italian translation of The Countess Cathleen that Joyce worked on with Nicolò Vidacovich.
In the late 1930s Yeats was trying to establish an Irish Academy and invited Joyce to join. Joyce, declining the invitation, wrote to Yeats: “It is now thirty years since you first held out to me your helping hand,” a gracious acknowledgement by Joyce of Yeats’ help. According to Ellmann, Joyce was moved by the news of Yeats’ death and “conceded to a friend that Yeats was a greater writer than he, a tribute he paid to no other contemporary.”
Ellmann, Richard: James Joyce – New and Revised Edition, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982.
Foster, Roy: WB Yeats – A Life – vol. II: The Arch-Poet 1915-1939, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003.