We’ve been hearing rather a lot about our great poet W.B. Yeats recently, since 2015 marked the 150 year anniversary of his birth. I’m taking this opportunity to comment on his connections to the Wilde family as outlined in my book, Wilde’s Women. He was rather skeptical about Oscar & Constance’s marriage.
Although Yeats knew the Wildes well, and thought them ‘very imaginative and learned’, his retrospective commentary, on Oscar in particular, is coloured by the events that marred Oscar’s life. For this reason, it should be treated with some caution. Yet, his observations offer valuable insights into the lives of Lady Jane Wilde and Oscar Wilde in particular.
Perhaps most telling of all is a remark Yeats included in Letters to The New Island (1934):
‘When one listens to her [Lady Jane Wilde] and remembers that Sir William Wilde was in his day a famous raconteur, one finds it no way wonderful that Oscar Wilde should be the most finished talker of our time’
He certainly thought highly of Oscar’s abilities as a raconteur, and he praised him in The Trembling of the Veil, writing:
‘I had never before heard a man talking in perfect sentences, as if he had written them all overnight with labour and yet all spontaneous’.
In 1887, Ward and Downey published Jane Wilde’s Ancient Legends, Mystic Charms and Superstitions of Ireland, a compendium of folk tales, several of them collected by her late husband, William, while he was compiling data for the Irish censuses of 1841 and 1851. Yeats praised this collection lavishly and referred to it liberally in his own Fairy and Folk Tales of the Irish Peasantry.
His admiration for Lady Wilde prompted him to ask novelist Katharine Tynan to write him a letter of introduction to her; he expressed the hope that he would find Lady Wilde:
‘as delightful as her book …as delightful as she certainly is unconventional’.
Jane, always welcoming to young Dubliners who were trying to make their way in London, as she and her sons had, embraced him as ‘my Irish poet’. He in turn acknowledged that London had few better talkers. Noting her ambitious nature, he decided that Jane:
‘longed always perhaps, though certainly amid much self-mockery, for some impossible splendour of character and circumstance’.
Perhaps his greatest tribute to Jane was to christen Maud Gonne, his great love and muse, ‘The New Speranza’. Both women were six feet tall.
Yeats also admired Oscar’s writing. He asked permission to include ‘Requiescat’, the poem inspired by the tragic early death of his sister, Isola Wilde, in the anthology of Irish verse he compiled. In reply, Oscar wrote:
‘I don’t know that I think ‘Requiescat’ very typical of my work’.
Undeterred, Yeats used it anyway and it was hailed as, ‘the brightest gem in this collection’.
Later, Yeats commented on Oscar’s only novel, declaring: ‘Dorian Gray, with all its faults, is a wonderful book’.
He also realised how astute it was of Oscar to dedicate many of his stories to society women who could further his career, and he declared of Wilde’s plays:
‘the famous paradoxes, the rapid sketches of men and women of society, the mockery of most things under heaven, are delightful’
Yet, he realised how subversive they were and understood that the only real people in A Woman of No Importance were the villains and non-conformists, declaring that the:
‘tragic and emotional people, the people who are important to the story, Mrs. Arbuthnot, Gerald Arbuthnot, and Hester Worsley, are conventions of the stage.’
When it came to Oscar’s personal life, Yeats believed he was constructing an elaborate facade. He recalled spending Christmas Day 1888 with Oscar and Constance, and wrote:
‘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’.
Decades after Oscar’s early death, Yeats admitted:
‘of late years I have often explained Wilde to myself by his family history’.
He speculated that Oscar might have fled to safety had his mother not declared:
‘If you stay, even if you go to prison, you will always be my son, it will make no difference to my affection, but if you go, I will never speak to you again’.
Many years earlier, she too had lost a libel action, but she had treated it as a victory and a vindication nonetheless.
Yeats also shed light on the source of Lady Wilde’s intense nationalism. When he delivered a speech marking the centenary of the birth of Young Irelander Thomas Davis on 20 November 1914, Yeats included an account, which he claimed came directly from Jane, of how she had happened upon Davis’s funeral procession in September 1845.[i] Impressed that a poet with such high ideals could provoke this outpouring of adulation and grief, she decided to embrace his cause. Oscar recounted a similar version of this incident during a lecture he delivered to the Irish Diaspora in San Francisco in 1882.
By coincidence Dr. William Wilde, Oscar’s father, was also present at Davis’s funeral in his capacity as member of the Royal Irish Academy. Years later he was invited to head a committee formed to commemorate Davis, and it was he who commissioned the marble figure of Davis by sculptor John Hogan that stands in Dublin’s City Hall.
[i] W.B. Yeats, Tribute to Thomas Davis (Cork, Cork University Press, 1947), p.17.
Much of the information for this post comes from: W.B. Yeats. 1922. The Trembling of the Veil. London: Werner Laurie and my book, Wilde’s Women.