John Singer Sargent, Portrait of W. B. Yeats, 1908. Pencil, 9 x 6 in. Private collection.
The Young W.B. Yeats
In the first section of his autobiography, Reveries over Childhood and Youth (1915), W.B. Yeats describes his childhood as one of loneliness, insecurity, scholastic struggle and financial instability – an inauspicious start for the sensitive young writer. His father, John B. Yeats, was a painter, deemed eccentric and irresponsible by the Pollexfens, the Protestant gentry family into which he had married. He was indeed financially careless, moving the family frequently between London, Dublin and Sligo, the latter being W.B. Yeats's home for much of his childhood. Sligo proved a source of inspiration for the young poet, who was drawn to Irish myth and folklore and found in the Western landscape a rich imaginative stimulus. But it would be several years before Ireland featured in his work as setting or subject, owing largely to his father's influence.
Recognizing that his son was far less sociable and confident than he was, J.B. Yeats took over W.B.'s education in adolescence, introducing the young Yeats to the Romantic poets. Yeats recalls his father reading dramatic poetry to him in an attempt to refine his sense of style and form. He writes:
He never read me a passage because of its speculative interest, and indeed did not care at all for poetry where there was generalization or abstraction however impassioned. […] All must be an idealization of speech, and at some moment of passionate action or somnambulistic reverie. I remember his saying that all contemplative men were in a conspiracy to overrate their state of life, and that all writers were of them, excepting the great poets. 1
J.B. Yeats hoped to foster in his son an appreciation of beauty and its expression in poetry – to refine his artistic sensibilities via an understanding of Romantic poetry. The early verse drama betrays Yeats's devotion to the Romantic tradition and to Percy Bysshe Shelley, in particular. Before he had turned twenty, Yeats had written a series of sketches and fragments "in imitation of Shelley and of Edmund Spenser, play after play – for my father exalted dramatic poetry above all other kinds – and I invented fantastic and incoherent plots." 2 Although these early pieces were, by his admission, derivative and lacking skill, they mark Yeats's first attempts to define his style, even if it was one he would later reject.
Jack B. Yeats, Returning from the Bathe, Mid-Day, 1948. Oil on canvas, 61.5 x 91.8 cm. Crawford Art Gallery, Cork.
J.B. Yeats's influence extended beyond literature, too. His father's financial uncertainty precipitated Yeats's many moves as a child, his mother's emotional withdrawal, and his parents' marital estrangement. Beyond this, Yeats mentioned on more than one occasion his father's dominant personality, and the challenge he faced in adolescence of asserting his own identity in the face of this powerful intellectual presence. W.B. sought to distinguish himself in part by refuting his father's religious skepticism and embracing nationalism. J.B. Yeats had revolted against Victorian values, compelling his son to adopt a conservative, counter-revolutionary stance. His father's rationalism and positivism in fact provided a counterpoint to the dreamy, ethereal themes in much of W.B. Yeats's early work. And it was not until his twenties that the young poet turned to Ireland and Irish nationalism as subjects for his writing. When he did, Yeats borrowed some of the same imagery, language and dramatic tensions that originated in his juvenilia, confirming its significance to his entire body of work.
Indeed, Yeats's early influences – his father's intellect, his cultural development in Dublin and London, his time spent in Sligo, even the "miseries" that spurred his escape into imagination – were crucial to his development as a poet and dramatist. Despite his claim to "remember little of childhood but its pain," W.B.'s early plays suggest a mind that not only retained the varied stimuli of his youth but also synthesized them in innovative and memorable ways.