Wilde About Yeats

After meeting with Oscar Wilde, Yeats defines the term “Cruel Irony”. Courtesy Annie West (AnnieWest.com)
After meeting with Oscar Wilde, Yeats defines the term “Cruel Irony”. Courtesy Annie West (AnnieWest.com)

Tomorrow is Yeats Day, marking the birth of William Butler Yeats (13th June 1865). (Thanks to Annie West for permission to use the picture above. Her website, chock full of pictures of the incidents of his life Yeats would prefer to forget, is here).

William Butler Yeats had philosophical interests (and is listed in DIP), which went beyond his habit of reading Plotinus to dutchesses. He developed a system regarding the self and anti-self, and these reflections on the self have parallels to Wilde’s thought. The occasions Yeats met Wilde made a strong impression on him.

When I Met Oscar Oscar Wilde by W. B. Yeats

My first meeting with Oscar Wilde was an astonishment. I never before heard a man talking with perfect sentences, as if he had written them all over night with labour and yet all spontaneous. […] And when I dined with Wilde a few days afterwards he began at once, “I had to strain every nerve to equal that man at all”; and I was too loyal to speak my thought: “You and not he said all the brilliant things. He like the rest of us had felt the strain of an intensity that seemed to hold life at the point of drama. He had said on that first meeting that `The basis of literary friendship is mixing the poisoned bowl’; and for a few weeks Henley and he became close friends till, the astonishment of their meeting over, diversity of character and ambition pulled them apart, and, with half the cavern helping, Henley began mixing the poisoned bowl for Wilde. Yet Henley never wholly lost that first admiration, for after Wilde’s downfall he said to me: `Why did he do it? I told my lads to attack him and yet we might have fought under his banner.'”

Christmas Dinner, 1888 (Yeats was 23. Quoted from New York Times: The Life of W. B. Yeats: A Critical Biography by Terence Brown)

A year of literary drudgery reached its ironic conclusion when Oscar Wilde, then thirty-four years old, invited Yeats for Christmas dinner at the elegant home he shared with his wife in Tite Street. He thought the young man alone in London. The poet was impressed by the precious interior of the house beautiful, by Wilde’s studied act of self-fashioning and by his commitment, in disdain of the market-place, to art as a form of moral vision. It was this latter aspect of his fellow Irishman’s experiment in living that was to mean most to Yeats. He would remember how Wilde in his person and in his critical writings had espoused a doctrine which made the aesthetic a force for the spiritual transformation of human consciousness. After dinner Wilde read aloud to Yeats from the proofs of his iconoclastic treatise `The Decay of Lying’.

Yeats later perceived the Christmas he witnessed as being a work of art, rather than one of nature: “I remember thinking that the perfect harmony of his [Oscar’s] life there, with his beautiful wife and his two young children, suggested some deliberate artistic composition.” (For more on Yeats’ perceptions of Oscar Wilde and Wilde’s mother Jane Wilde, see Eleanor Fitzsimons’ Yeats on Wilde.)

Wilde’s ideas of personal development are plausibly at the root of Yeats theory of self. Wilde believed in self-fashioning and had a fascination with masks, holding them to be more true than what they concealed.

Yeats argues for an self that is not given by Nature or God but achieved by the individual. To change ourselves, says Yeats, requires an act of imagination. “Active virtue as distinguished from the passive acceptance of a current code is therefore theatrical, consciously dramatic, the wearing of a mask” (1909; Autobiographies, p. 347; also quoted in Per Amica Silentia Lunae). Only in this way can we impose discipline on ourselves. Yeats suggests active natures tend to pose and cites Oscar Wilde as an example.

More on the development of Yeats’ philosophy of the self here.

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