On this day…18 December

On 18 December 1902 Yeats wrote to Joyce about his poetry.

In his letter, Yeats not only gave a short critique of one of Joyce’s poems but also gave Joyce advice about how he might get started into writing and publishing prose, and therefore how he might make some money.

Joyce had met Yeats in London at the beginning of December en route to Paris where he intended to study medicine. His medical studies had fallen through as soon as he discovered he would have to pay the fees for the course in advance. Joyce had intended to subsist on the money he earned teaching English, and had already found a few pupils. He had also started writing reviews, some of which had been published in the Dublin Daily Express.

It seems that Joyce had read some of his poems to Yeats (probably ones later included in Chamber Music), and had sent a copy of at least one of them to him. While in London, Yeats had brought Joyce to the offices of the Speaker magazine to introduce him to the editor. The editor was not there at the time and Yeats had visited again several times in vain.

In his letter of 18 December 1902 Yeats explained that he still hadn’t got to see the editor of the Speaker and that he thought there was no point in offering Joyce’s poetry to the Academy as the editor there had no interest in poetry. Yeats went on to say that the poem Joyce had sent him (perhaps ‘All day I hear the noise of waters,’ later Chamber Music xxxv) had a charming rhythm in the second stanza but that it was not one of his best lyrics as the thought in it was a little thin. ‘Perhaps I will make you angry when I say that it is the poetry of a young man,’ wrote Yeats, ‘of a young man who is practicing his instrument, taking pleasure in the mere handling of the stops.’

In a very perceptive analysis, Yeats went on to note that the poem fitted well along with the others in the sequence, ‘getting a certain richness from the general impression of all taken together and from your own beautiful reading.’ Separated from the others, he thought, it would only please a reader who already knew Joyce’s work, but in itself would do nothing to draw attention to that work. Other poems, Yeats felt, had ‘more subject, more magical phrases, more passion.’

For the time being, Yeats suggested that Joyce write some essays, ‘Impressions of books, or better still, of artistic events about you in Paris, bringing your own point of view in as much as possible…’ These essays could be sent to the Academy for publication, and later to the Speaker as well.

As a parting piece of advice, Yeats reminded Joyce that ‘It is always a little troublesome getting one’s first start in literature; but after the first start, one can make a pittance if one is industrious, without a great deal of trouble.’


Sources & Further Reading:

Joyce, James: Letters of James Joyce, vol. II edited by Richard Ellmann, London: Faber & Faber, 1966.