small room with a threadbare carpet and dingy furniture: iron bedstead,
table, small bookcase, and a chair. A self-portrait sits on
an easel. The elderly artist John Butler Yeats is leafing through
the pages of a sketchbook.
John Butler Yeats:
I’ll never forget the first evening of my arrival in
Sligo to stay with my friend George Pollexfen. He and I were walking
on the sandhills high above the sea at Rosses Point. He talked
endlessly—what about I don’t remember now—and he several
times sang one of Moore’s Melodies he had lately heard in
me, if all those endearing young charms
I gaze on so fondly today
to change by tomorrow and fleet in my arms
faery gifts fading away...
met George at school in the Isle of Man—Atholl Academy. He
was a melancholy fellow, not very popular with the other boys,
but he had an inner magnetism which fascinated me. I was obsessed
with him, possibly because he was so different from myself.
We lost touch when I went to Trinity College in Dublin but
as soon as I graduated I decided to spend some prize money—ten
pounds—on a visit to Sligo to see him.
place was strange to me and very beautiful in the deepening twilight,
seductive even. A little way from us, and far down from
where we talked, the Atlantic kept up its ceaseless tumult, foaming
around the rocks at a spot called Dead Man’s Point.
of Trinity College and Dublin and my uneasy life there
were obliterated, and I was again with my schoolfriend, the
man self-centred and morose but on that evening so companionable.
I stayed with George for two weeks and before I
left for Dublin I proposed to his sister Susan—I was always an impetuous
man. It was a surprise to me as much as to the girl, a sort
of stumble in the dark as it were, and it led to one of the most fruitful
and most frustrating marriages in history.
was slight of build and pale of skin, extraordinarily beautiful,
with an inner magnetism that reminded me of George.
From Dublin, where I was studying for the Bar, I wrote letters
declaring my undying love, and always a promise of thesweet
nectar we would sip when we were locked in each other’s arms:
wouldst still be adored as this moment thou art
thy loveliness fade as it will...
didn’t see her again for about a year, and when I next arrived at the
Pollexfen home, she gave me a cold and ceremonious kiss in the
hallway. But when we were alone our kisses were as our love was—hot
and passionate—and that night I lay awake thinking of
Susan, thinking of her as if in a kind of happy dream. What a comfort
she’ll be to me when we’re married, I thought, what a source
of comfort and tranquility. I wasn’t the first bridegroom to
make a poor prophet.
my father died unexpectedly a year later, I inherited farms
at Thomastown, County Kildare—nearly 600 acres. To have
a son-in-law who was a landowner appealed to the Pollexfens,
a merchant family on its way up in the world, so Susan
and I were married in the family church in the heart of Sligo
town. We settled in Dublin, where our first son was born, named
William Butler after my father. He was a fine, healthy baby;
the doctor who delivered him said you could leave him out
on a window sill all night and it wouldn’t do him any harm.
never had much time for children but I found myself inordinately
fond of Willie; I hated to see any stranger, even the nurse,
touching him. It’s a feeling I’ve had for him ever since—protective,
months later, I gave the Auditor’s Address at the King’s Inns Debating
Society on the subject of Truth and the Law. It was tumultuously
received and a successful career was forecast, the culmination
of which must be elevation to Her Majesty’s Bench—that’s
what they said—and perhaps a knighthood—Sir John
Butler Yeats—the road to fame and fortune was laid out before
me. But I had a dream—I wanted to become an artist.
the age of twenty-eight and against the wishes of my wife, I gave
up law and moved with the family, two children by this time,
to London to become a painter. It’s a decision I’ve never regretted—although
I regret not making any money out of it.
painted many pictures, sketched many people, but I’ve never
made any money—which is entirely my own fault. I
chose to study at Heatherley’s Art School where they specialised
in portrait painting. I grew a beard, and with my sallow
complexion and bohemian hat I was taken for an Italian.
formed friendships with other artists, Nettleship, Ellis, Wilson, all
literary men who believed in the union of the arts and worshipped
at the shrines of Blake and Rossetti. I loved London. When
my friend from Trinity College, John Todhunter, visited me,
he said, ‘You live here in a whirlwind of ideas.’ It was like breathing
pure oxygen after the stale air of Dublin. Susan hated it
and she never missed an opportunity to tell me so.
a girl growing up in Sligo, her life had been easy—plenty of money,
no cares, servants always at her beck and call—but her family
were a strange, intense people of simple faith for whom the
fear of God was the beginning of wisdom. She was one of eleven
children, six boys and five girls, and on a Sunday morning,
all sat together in one room in gloomy silence, a silence broken
only by the sound of their mother, Mrs Pollexfen, turning
over the pages of a book or the creaking of a chair or a sigh
from my friend George.
the Yeats home, where there were nine children (I was the eldest),
we all ran about and laughed and played. We’d nicknames
for everything—even the scissors had a name—and everything
in the house had a story.
father, William Pollexfen, ran a successful shipping and milling
business, and he was a man of direct action—even when he
took the top off his egg. No tapping on a boiled egg for the gruff
William Pollexfen. He held the egg cup firmly in one hand, and
with a sharp knife in the other, he beheaded the egg with one blow.
Where the top of the egg went wasn’t his business. It might hit
the ceiling, it might hit a grandchild, William Pollexfen didn’t
He was someone to admire and to avoid, especially at
the dinner table where he complained if anyone had an extra spoonful
of sugar—he was always complaining. Willie thought he
was King Lear.
father, the red-haired rector of Tullylish, a parish in Ulster, was
my friend, my mother my conscience. My father theorised about
things and explained things—he had a scientific mind— and
he cared nothing for authority or power. My mother never explained
anything, and she disciplined her children with kindliness
and firmness, never speaking a harsh word.
evening when the house was quiet and the servants had gone
to bed, my father would sit for a while and smoke beside the
kitchen fire—and I’d be with him. He always used a new clay pipe,
and he waved the smoke aside with his hand as he talked. He
was devoted to poetry, especially Shelley, and I’d listen as he read:
Wild West Wind, thou breath of Autumn’s being,
from whose unseen presence the leaves dead
driven, like ghosts from an enchanter fleeing...
loved all my family, my uncles and aunts, the children of my grandfather,
Pastor John Yeats, of Drumcliff. I remember writing
to my daughter Lily how proud she should be to have them
in her blood. I never knew and never will know a people so
attractive. They were like wild snowdrops—capricious, gentle,
family was of a different breed. Instead of indulging his children
with affection, William Pollexfen clung to money—and
his whole family caught the disease. It was a disease I’d been taught
to despise. And when the Pollexfens made money they didn’t
know what to do with it—except to look at it—they certainly
didn’t give it away to a starving artist, except for those occasions
when things got so bad Susan had to persuade her father
to support us with a pound or two. With this uncritical feeling
for money went their feeling for class—they had to believe
themselves better than everybody else—which of course,
they weren’t. Class feeling is a curse. My fear was that itmight
infect my own children but I don’t think it did.
Jack hasn’t got
it and he spent the most time with the Pollexfens, nor the girls,
Lily and Lolly, but Willie could be a snob. That was the appeal
of Lady Gregory when he first visited Coole Park. And his
mother, too; I never heard her speak kindly of our English neighbours
or any of my friends. She thought they were beneath her.
in London as the wife of a would-be artist, Susan had to run
a home and take care of a family—she had six children in ten years—and
with the birth of each one she suffered bouts of nervous
depression. She just couldn’t cope—even with a servant—so
she returned often to her family in Sligo, sometimes staying
for as long as two years.
was opposed to these visits with the Pollexfens. When Susan was
away, I missed the children terribly. Every perambulator passing
along the pavement used to make me start fancying it was
the children and several times in the night I woke up thinking
I heard them crying.
And I feared the repressive atmosphere
of the Pollexfen home, the air of melancholia that hung
over everything and everybody. One of the uncles had been
committed to a lunatic asylum and the others always seemed
to be on the edge. It wasn’t the sort of atmosphere I wanted
my children to grow up in. Jack was still too young to be affected,
and his brother Bobby, red-haired like my father and myself
and dark-eyed like his mother, he was robust and could take
the rebuffs. Less attention was paid to the girls, Lily and Lollie;
they seemed able to cope, but Willie was a nervous child who
could only develop with kindness and affection and I knew he
wasn’t getting that from the Sligo aunts.
I warned Susan, who was
the least assertive of the sisters, ‘Keep him away from that termagant,
Aunt Agnes.’ In my family it was considered bad manners
to speak crossly to children but that wasn’t the case with
the Pollexfens. They complained, ‘Willie doesn’t know his letters
and him nearly seven years old.’ I argued that educating a
child too early might stunt his mind but all the Pollexfens could see
was that he was inattentive to the trivialities of the outer world.
‘He’s imaginative and has many things to occupy his mind,’
I told them. ‘Backward’ countered the aunts—and always
just loud enough for me to hear.
the children, Sligo was a paradise; a dream world. As Willie wrote
later, ‘I have walked on Sinbad’s yellow shore and never shall
another’s hit my fancy.’ They grew up close to their Middleton
relatives who were easy-going, and to the stable boys
and the servants who told them stories of the fairies and the banshees.
Willie saw his first fairy in Sligo. It was night, he told me,
and he saw through an open window a fairy moving down a
moonbeam towards him. He made the mistake of talking to it and
it disappeared. The children loved Sligo. If I shaped their minds
with reading and talk, Sligo shaped their imaginations with
stories and adventures played out in the shadow of Ben Bulben.
had been getting the occasional commission in London— mainly
from friends—but I was visiting Susan and the children in
Sligo when I got my first formal commission—to paint the wealthy
Herbert family at Muckcross Abbey in County Kerry. I’d
just arrived at the Herberts’ and barely had time to set up my easel
when I was told my son Bobby was dead. He’d had a cold when
I left Sligo and it developed into croup. Susan heard the cry
of the banshee the night he died, and Willie and Lily woke to hear her calling, ‘My son, my little son,’ and they heard
of the galloping hooves as someone went for the doctor but
it was too late—Bobby was dead. He was nearly three years old
and the brightest of the lot of them. Susan never got over Bobby’s
Our last child, Jane, born two years after Bobby died,
lived only ten months. And the Pollexfens took out their grief
on me. Even George. I was to blame. I was irresponsible, a selfish
wastrel. Hadn’t I given up the law? Hadn’t I given up a good
life in Dublin? And for what? Did I ever give a thought to my
wife and family?
could understand the frustrations of the Pollexfens; they had such
high expectations when Susan and I married but I had gone and
done something over which they had no control. Now we were
practically penniless—with little promise of anything better.
I needed commissions if I was to make a proper living as a
painter but I didn’t go out and look for them. Why? Because I didn’t
think I was good enough. It’s as simple as that. And if I got a
commission I didn’t finish the painting for the very same reason.
I needed more training and that meant time and, above all,
money, money we didn’t have. Yet I remained optimistic— like
Mr Micawber I was certain something would turn up.
what I told Susan, ‘Something will turn up. In the meantime
we have to mortgage the estate at Thomastown to put food
on the table.’ The
children were happy enough living in London except when Susan
reminded them of how little money we had and told them they
couldn’t have the things they wanted until Mrs Flanagan, one
of the tenants at Thomastown, paid her rent. So the children named
a rag doll ‘Mrs Flanagan’ and when the rent didn’t come in
on time, they took it out on the doll—flinging it down the stairs.
As they got older, they were always making things, like houses
out of cardboard boxes, or painting and drawing—they were
all very good at drawing, even Willie.
They loved dressing up
and they had a sheet they hung across the room and with a lit candle
behind it, they did shadow plays. Jack was a great mimic and
made everybody laugh, especially when he pranced around
in Susan’s white satin wedding boots. And I read to them
every evening—the great literature—Shakespeare, Chaucer,
the Brontës, Dickens, Defoe—I’ve never forgotten sitting
in the Tullylish Rectory when I was a child, my mother sewing,
my father reading, the only light two tall candles in silver
candlesticks on the table, and I reading Robinson
such delight and excitement that I had to keep my hands under
the table so that my parents mightn’t see how they were shaking.
I read to my children every evening, and when Willie went
to school, while he wasn’t the best student in the class, he knew
things that confounded the teachers. Indeed he told me a while
back, and I’m proud of it, that when he’s writing his plays, it’s
my voice he hears in his head—just as I hear my father’s:
Wild West Wind, thou breath of Autumn’s being,
from whose unseen presence the leaves dead
driven, like ghosts from an enchanter fleeing...