Yeats among Painters
(Yeats Summer School lecture, August 2006)
Rajeev S. Patke
‘I am a poet, not a painter’, Yeats declared in A Vision (1990: 134), but he was the kind of poet who could affirm that ‘if we are painters, we shall express personal emotion through ideal form, a symbolism handled by the generations, a mask from whose eyes the disembodied looks, a style that remembers many masters that it may escape contemporary suggestion’ (1961: 243). It should come as no surprise, therefore, that the idea of Yeats among painters touches upon every conceivable way in which a poet might find a use for painting while remaining securely a poet. A person might write as well as paint; live among painters; express decided views on individual works or on the arts in general; assimilate the verbal and the pictorial into a general theory of culture and society; and write poems that evoke specific pictures, either marginally, or centrally. At one time or another, Yeats engaged in each of these activities. The result was a life and a body of writing with an exceptional degree of integration between the pursuit of poetry and a fascination with the plastic arts. I propose to speak of this integration in a broad survey that begins with the poet in the context of his family and affinities, then touches upon his views on the painters he admired most, and then turns to the role played by paintings in specific poems. Given the scale and diversity of the matter at hand, I shall have to omit reference to the plays, the longer poems, and will touch upon his interest in sculpture only very briefly.
The visual appealed to Yeats primarily for its symbolic potential. In early youth he might have subsidized the idea that the painterly and the poetical were intertwined, as in a poem which declares that ‘a song should be / A painted and be [-] pictured argosy’ (Ellmann 1949:30). But Yeats soon became weary and wary of poetry that was mimetic of painting. In 1888, he wrote to Katherine Tynan, ‘We both of us need to substitute more and more the landscapes of nature for the landscapes of Art’ (1997: 119). In 1913, he declared he had long since rejected poetry based on ‘detailed description’ and ‘Impressions that needed so elaborate a record’ (1961: 348). In the late 1930s, Dorothy Wellesley even suggested, somewhat reductively, that poor eyesight and Celtic temperament combined to give Yeats an aversion to making poetry out of the kind of visual detail that is generally included in the idea of Nature (1940: 190-1).
Be that as it may, Yeats was not drawn to the practice of attempting in words what the painter does through line, colour, and design. For him, the aesthetic moment presented a union of passionate thought and feeling in the image. The nature of the image as he conceived it subsidized a fundamental analogy between poetry and painting: ‘I began my own life as an art student and I am a painter’s son, so it is natural to me to see such analogies’, he said (Loizeaux 1, in O’Driscoll 26-7). The most powerful source of symbolic imagery was the Anima Mundi, which he described as ‘a great pool or garden’ in which the mental images of individuals have their collective and interrelated being (1959: 352), such that ‘all those elaborate images that drift in moments of inspiration or evocation before the mind’s eye’ ‘are but, as it were, a condensation of the vehicle of Anima Mundi, and give substance to its images in the faint materialisation of our thought’ (1959: 350).
Yeats attended arts school in his youth before deciding to give up art as a career in early 1886.
He continued to paint, now and then,
for more than a decade after that,
and was especially fond of his pastel of
interactions with painting continued outside art school, in his father’s
studio, and through contact with the circle of friends associated with his
father. John Yeats had given up law for painting by the time his eldest son was
a schoolboy. The siblings had some training in art; the sisters later worked in
professions that were based in part on the arts and crafts. Lily embroidered,
Lolly taught art and worked at a printing press, and Jack won recognition as one
John Yeats had given up an early enthusiasm for the Pre-Raphaelites, and described himself in 1904 as ‘a born portrait painter … imprisoned in an imperfect technique’ (1997: 79).
Yeats described his father’s circle of friends in the Autobiographies as ‘painters who had been influenced by the Pre-Raphaelite movement but had lost their confidence’ (1999: 67). He remembered them with affection and sympathy, comparing John Nettleship somewhat extravagantly with Blake, finding in his work ‘in place of Blake’s joyous, intellectual energy a Saturnian passion and melancholy’ (1999: 142). ‘One of the sensations of my childhood’, he wrote, was ‘a description of a now lost design of Nettleship’s, God creating Evil, a vast, terrifying face, a woman and a tiger rising from the forehead’ (1961: 425). Nettleship came to specialize in representations of lions.
Mr. Nettleship’s Picture at the
The Lion, the world’s great solitary, bends
Lowly the head of his magnificence
And roars, mad with the touch of the unknown,
Not as he shakes the forest; but a cry
Low, long, and musical.
Another member of the circle, Frank J. Potter, was cherished for a very different kind of picture. Yeats recollected that his ‘exquisite Dormouse, now in the Tate Gallery, hung in our house for years’.
He also remembered Potter’s predilection for a particular shade of dark blue, `a colour that always affects me’ (1999: 67-8).
The relation between father and son was decisive in its influence on the son. Many of the young poet’s earliest conceptions about art and life were formed in his father’s studio. Later, differences in temperament became self-evident, and ‘It was only when I began to study psychical research and mystical philosophy that I broke away from my father’s influence’ (1999: 96).
The father’s desire to lead the
life of a gentleman-painter always struggled hopelessly with his inability to
create the means with which to do so. The brilliant conversationalist had other
failings: he was habitually incapable of declaring a painting complete. This
habit acquired mythical proportions after he moved to
Yeats wrote of it shortly thereafter: ‘I have not seen this portrait, but expect to find that he had worked too long upon it … that the form is blurred, the composition confused, and the colour muddy. Yet in his letters he constantly spoke of this picture as his masterpiece, insisted again and again, as I had heard him insist when I was a boy, that he had found what he had been seeking all his life’ (1988: 152-3).
Father and son differed on the notion of art as imitation. The son argued that art used the outer world ‘as a symbolism to express subjective moods. The greater the subjectivity, the less the imitation’, adding that ‘The element of pattern in every art is, I think, the part that is not imitative’ (1955: 223). The father had no sympathy for the son’s interest in the occult, in politics, and in ingesting philosophical ideas into poetry. However, during the more than dozen years of epistolary exchanges between New York and Europe, father and son developed what Yeats referred to as ‘telepathic communication’ (1955: 251).
First, each in his medium excelled in the art of portraiture. Second, their views on the notion of artistic personality concurred. In 1910, Yeats wrote to his father, ‘Character is the ash of personality’ (1997: 128). The father applauded the idea, developing it into the belief that the process of true artistic self-expression was based on personality, not character. In 1912, he criticized artists like Swinburne or Sargent for revealing mere technique, for lacking ‘heart’ and ‘environment’, unlike the great serious painters of Italy and Belgium, and ‘such painters as Hogarth’ (1955: 143). He compared Rossetti unfavorably to Michelangelo in terms of the claim that ‘All art is reaction from life but never, when it is vital and great, an escape’ (1955: 144). This idea has some relevance to the complex dialogue of the poem ‘Ego Dominus Tuus’ (1915).
In 1922, the son compared portraits by Bernardo Strozzi and Sargent to claim that the contemporary portrait lacked a vital ingredient found in the Renaissance portrait: ‘unity of being’:
‘Somewhere about 1450 … men attained to personality in great numbers, “Unity of Being” … Whatever thought broods in the dark eyes of that Venetian gentleman has drawn its life from his whole body; it feeds upon it as the flame feeds upon the candle’, whereas, ‘President Wilson lives only in the eyes, which are steady and intent; the flesh about the mouth is dead, and the hands are dead, and the clothes suggest no movement of his body, nor any movement but that of the valet’ (1999: 227). The claim for a former unity of being that is now lost may retain all the controversial element attached to T.S. Eliot’s hypothesis about a dissociation of sensibility that is supposed to have occurred in the seventeenth century; regardless, it is evident that between father and son certain ideas were congruent, even when their expression differed.
Third, father and son were of one mind about what they perceived as ‘antagonism between a state of war and the practice of art and literature’ (1955: 247). In 1914, John Yeats described his idea of the poet as an individual characterized by his capacity for multitudinous feelings, which imprison him in the world that is poetry, while the man of action leaves the world of poetry when a single feeling liberates him into action (1955: 187). A similar distinction motivates the rhetoric of Yeats’s poem ‘On Being Asked for a War Poem’ (1915) and in his elegy and obituary on Major Robert Gregory (1918). In ‘Ireland and the Arts’ (1901) Gregory is treated as a hero for showing the result of what Yeats believed was the need for artists to choose their subjects under ‘the persuasion of their faith and their country’, which in Gregory’s case meant being drawn to the grey mountains of Ireland’s west, ‘that are still lacking their celebration’ (1961: 208-09). The tragedy of the talented Gregory was not that he died young, in war, but that he chose to set aside his vocation for the arts and accepted life and death as a man of action.
Turning to the relation between father and the younger son, we
note that both John and Jack were painters, but differed vastly in temperament
and the kind of art each practised. John was gregarious and irresolute; Jack
extremely private and quietly self-confident.  John painted only portraits; Jack experimented widely in all
sorts of genres, styles, and media. John wrote a little, in late life,
reluctantly; Jack wrote plays and narrative fiction from early on, and numbered
Beckett among his admirers. John had decided views on art; Jack practiced an art
that could not be less interested in art; a trait in which he also differed
from his poet-brother. George Moore remarked of Jack, in the context of a
similarity with John Synge, that ‘neither takes the slightest interest in
anything except life … Synge did not read
The poet and his brother were separated by age, temperament, and
by the environments each chose as homes during adult life. What they shared
were childhood memories of
The father introduced his eldest son to the work of many poets, including Shelley and Blake. Ironically, the visionary art of Blake provided Yeats a natural ally against the belief, exemplified by his father, that the business of the artist was to represent as well as he could the reality in front of his eyes. Blake had scorned artistic practice based on ‘reasoning from sensation’ (1961: 122), declaring that ‘No Man of Sense can think that an Imitation of the Objects of Nature is The Art of Painting’ (Erdman 577). Blake recognized imagination as ‘the first emanation of divinity’, and dismissed the dictates of reason as ‘deductions from the observations of the senses’ and the ‘foolish body’ of ‘vegetative’ things (1961: 112-13). Yeats developed his notion of antinomy from the Blakean idea that ‘Without Contraries is no progression’ (2005: 27).  For Yeats, the visionary mysticism of Blake differed from that of Swedenborg, who seemed to him like Blake’s ‘angel sitting by the tomb’. In contrast, Yeats would evoke what he called Blake’s own ‘more profound correspondences’ to ‘the peaceful Swedenborgian heaven’ through the boys and girls ‘walking or dancing on smooth grass and in golden light, as in pastoral scenes cut upon wood or copper by his disciples Palmer and Calvert’ (1990: 12). [17-19]
From 1889 to 1893, Yeats worked with the painter, poet, and scholar Edwin J. Ellis on an edition of Blake. Interest in this project went hand in hand with an increasing absorption in spiritualism, occult phenomena, and esoteric forms of wisdom. Yeats admired Blake’s illustrations to Young, Blair, Milton, and The Book of Job. Blake’s illustrations to Dante’s Inferno and Purgatoria received special praise for their ‘mystical pantheism’ and their ‘profound sympathy with passionate and lost souls’ (1961: 144). He adored the illustration for ‘Francesco and Paola’ because it showed ‘in its perfection Blake’s mastery over elemental things’ (1961: 126-7).  Even Botticelli had not done better, he felt, because his art was ‘over-shadowed by the cloister’, and able to achieve the ‘supremely imaginative’ only in the Paradiso (1961: 144).  In 1938, while at work on the poem that became ‘Under Ben Bulben’, Yeats mulled over the Rilkean idea that ‘a man’s death is born with him’, and at the end of a successful life, ‘his nature is completed by his final union with it’. Yeats had found an apt image for this approach to the idea of death in Blake’s design for Blair’s The Grave, in which the soul and body embrace at death. 
Blake’s views on art had their effect on specific poems. For example, Blake wrote of the line in graphic art as the defining boundary that identifies shapes and forms in space: ‘The great and golden rule of art, as well as of life, is this: That the more distinct, sharp, and wirey the bounding line, the more perfect the work of art; and the less keen and sharp, the greater is the evidence of weak imitation, plagiarism, and bungling’ (Mitchell 47, 60). ‘In Memory of Major Robert Gregory’ endorses the Blakean premise of a conjunction between `the hard and wirey line of rectitude and certainty’ (Erdman 550). It commemorates the dead hero as having been born ‘To that stern colour and that delicate line / That are our secret discipline / Wherein the gazing heart doubles her might’ (236).
In A Vision, Yeats placed Blake in Phase Sixteen, in which the artist finds within himself ‘an aimless excitement’ and ‘a violent scattering energy’ which the intellect must recognize as in part illusory (1990: 169). Yeats felt that Blake lacked models and had to invent his own symbols. He was a Promethean spirit rebellious against conventional norms in art and life. The struggle took its toll, leading Blake-Yeats argued-to forms of expression that were sometimes confused or obscure. Blake’s limited access to the achievements of the Venetian or Flemish traditions, combined with his adherence to a technique anchored to ‘the bounding line’, meant that Blake disparaged ‘shadows and reflected lights’ in painting as concessions to ‘reason builded upon sensation’ (1961:133), leaving him with no appreciation for what Yeats reveled in, the iridescent or glowing colours of Titian. Blake practiced what Yeats concluded was `a severe art’, the product of ‘a too literal realist of the imagination’ (1961: 119).
IV The Pre-Raphaelites
Yeats recollected that as a young man, ‘I was in all things Pre-Raphaelite … and once at Liverpool on my way to Sligo I had seen Dante’s Dream in the gallery there, a picture painted when Rossetti had lost his dramatic power and today not very pleasing to me, and its colour, its people, its romantic architecture had blotted all other pictures away’.  In the 1880s, Yeats was fed up of the kind of attitude that valued social realism in painting: ‘“A man must be of his own time”, they would say, and if I spoke of Blake or Rossetti they would point out his bad drawing and tell me to admire Carolus Duran and Bastien-Lepage’ (1999: 114).  Yeats detested what he described as ‘Bastien-Lepage’s clownish peasant staring with vacant eyes at her great boots’ (1999: 122). To him, such art was a symptom of an age that had lost its impulse for the religious element in life. He found this element latent even in the secular art of the Renaissance: ‘Could even Titian’s Ariosto that I loved beyond other portraits have its grave look, as if waiting for some perfect final event, if the painters before Titian had not learned portraiture while painting into the corner of compositions full of saints and Madonnas their kneeling patrons?’ (1999: 115) 
Visiting the Tate Gallery in 1913, Yeats confessed to feeling overwhelmed yet again by the Ophelia by Millais, and Rossetti’s Mary Magdalene (1961: 346). [26-27] Rossetti was respected for working within a traditional symbolism, as with the lily in the hand of the angel in The Annunciation, and the lily in the jar in Girlhood of Mary, Virgin. [28-31] His appeal was based on how he could endow the faces of his women with what Yeats calls ‘perfected love’ (1961: 150), ‘imagination in the presence of beauty’ (1961: 351). Yeats’s Journal entry for 17 March 1909 speaks of ‘The old art, if carried to its logical conclusion, would have led to the creation of one single type of man, one single type of woman … a poetical painter, a Botticelli, a Rossetti, creates as his supreme achievement one type of face, known afterwards by his name’ (1999: 370). Yeats was equally fascinated by William Morris. He said that if he could have lived any life but his own, he would have liked to live the life of Morris. Failing that, he would have been happy to have worked with Rossetti and Morris and Burne-Jones. For a time in 1857, the three worked as part of a larger team, creating a set of murals for the Debating Hall of the Oxford Union Society. Yeats was alluding to that project under the romantic notion that ‘I would be content … to set up there the traditional images most moving to young men while the adventure of uncommitted life can still change all to romance’ (1961: 347). There is some irony to his fantasy, since the murals he romanticized-we are told-‘deteriorated beyond recognition within a few years and now present a ruinous appearance despite repeated attempts at restoration’ (Prettejohn 101).  Nevertheless, Yeats’s attachment to an emotional complex that had its origins in Pre-Raphaelitism and in Symbolist art remained unwavering throughout his life.
Yeats’s sister Lily worked for a time under Morris’s daughter, May, at embroidery.  Yeats wrote in 1890 of the debt owed by English society to Morris by praising his role in promoting the culture of aesthetic consumption: ‘heavy tapestries and deep-tiled fireplaces, hanging draperies and stained-glass windows that all seem to murmur of the middle ages’ (1989b: 108). Yeats’s admiration for Morris found special focus in the portrait by G. F. Watts.  The qualities he admired most in the man looked out from the painting: ‘Its grave wide-open eyes, like the eyes of some dreaming beast, remind me of the open eyes of Titian’s Ariosto, while the broad vigorous body suggests a mind that has no need of the intellect to remain sane, though it give itself to every fantasy: the dreamer of the Middle Ages’ (1999: 131-2). 
Yeats’s predilection for Pre-Raphaelite art led naturally to sympathy for the Aesthetic movement of the 1890s. Yeats saw himself surrounded by diverse men of tragic genius. A younger contemporary, Max Beerbohm, represented many of them in a memorable caricature. [36-37] Yeats was particularly taken up with Aubrey Beardsley, who he later placed in Phase Thirteen of A Vision (along with Baudelaire and Ernest Dowson), to illustrate ‘The Sensuous Man’ (1999: 164). In 1894, Beardsley provided the poster for an Abbey Theatre production featuring The Land of Heart’s Desire.  A hue and cry was raised about his illustrations for Oscar Wilde’s Salomé. George Moore, for example, complained of The Yellow Book, in which they appeared, as the very ‘organ of the incubi and succubi’ (1999: 274). Yeats stood firm behind Beardsley when the latter was ‘dismissed from the art-editorship of the Yellow Book under circumstances that had made us indignant’ (1999: 248). He remained the proud owner of several Beardsley prints, among them ‘The Climax’ and ‘The Dancer’s Reward’ (1999: 479, n82), [39-40] and was fond of recollecting that Beardsley told him that ‘I make a blot upon the paper’, ‘and I begin to shove the ink about and something comes’ (1999: 254; 1940: 97). Ironically, the notion that Beardsley did not need to labour in order to be beautiful has been questioned by Beardsley’s modern biographer, who provides convincing proof of a process of composition every bit as laborious as that of Yeats (Sturgis 121).
What fascinated Yeats most about Beardsley was not his capacity to shock the public but the ‘emotional morbidity’ that enabled him ‘to take upon himself the diseases of others’ (1990: 165). Yeats elaborated his views on this trait into a little theory of what he called ‘victimage’, which claimed that ‘Beardsley, after the manner of a medieval saint, took on “the knowledge of sin”’ to enable “persons who had never heard his name to recover innocence”’. Beardsley, however, denied all such arguments. He told an interviewer, ‘What I am trying to do is show life as it really is’, adding that ‘I see everything in a grotesque way… Things have always impressed me in this way’ (Sturgis 219-20).
After Beardsley’s death in 1898, Yeats became friends with two
other artists, Charles Ricketts and Edmund Dulac. Each played a significant
part in the poet’s life, providing many outstanding illustrations for his
books, and designs for some of his plays. Yeats became acquainted with Charles
Ricketts and Charles Shannon in 1899. They worked closely as painters and art
dealers. They also edited a journal and ran a press.
Contact with another artist and designer, Althea Gyles, was confined to the 1890s. She prepared distinctive book covers for The Secret Rose (1897), Poems (1899), and The Wind Among the Reeds (1899).  In 1898, Yeats provided an enthusiastic essay to accompany three of her images, describing her art as ‘full of abundant and passionate life’, which brought to mind ‘Blake’s cry, “Exuberance is beauty”, and Samuel Palmer’s command to the artist, ‘“Always seek to make excess more abundantly excessive”’ (1975: 135). 
V A Vision
Not all of Yeats’s interest in the arts was based on
personalities. He looked for a way to engage with ideas while retaining in his
poems the passion proper to art. He felt that ‘the casting out of ideas’ from
art was a ‘misunderstanding’ encouraged by the pursuit of technical refinement
(1961: 353). Like many other European artists and writers born in the latter
half of the nineteenth century, he held the belief that if art like that of
Shakespeare or Dante was to be possible again, the Western tradition had to be
enriched by resources from other cultures. Yeats’s Journal entry for 9 March
1909 speaks of ‘turning over the leaves of Binyon's book on Eastern Painting,
in which he shows how traditional, how literary that is’ (1991: 361). When he
had to imagine a feature in a painting that would avoid ‘the sense of weight
and bulk that is the particular discovery of
Yeats perceived a historical need for the imaginative arts to
remain ‘at a distance’ from ‘a pushing world’ (1961: 224). In Europe, he
argued, this distance had not been kept, as it had in Eastern cultures, hence
the need to ‘go to school in
When it came to Modern art, Yeats remained a cautious and reluctant admirer. Before the turn of the century, Impressionism had become the latest buzz word among painters, and wary of being caught out for lack of alertness to the latest trends, Yeats made determined efforts to accommodate himself to what filled him with distaste. Manet’s canvases, for example, left him nonplussed. He wrote about them often with shock and puzzlement. [47-49] In the ‘Introduction’ to The Oxford Book of Modern Verse (1936), the emotional landscapes of T. S. Eliot’s poetry and Manet’s paintings are described as pervaded by a depressing ‘grey middle-tint’, which left him longing for ‘the vivid colour and light of Rousseau and Courbet’ (1964: 224). Likewise, Yeats described the art of Ezra Pound as ‘the opposite of mine’; conceding reluctantly that it was ‘as characteristic of the art of our time as the paintings of Cézanne’ (1990: 72). The same struggle against his own inclinations is evident in his endorsement of ‘the cubes in the drawing of Wyndham Lewis’ and ‘the ovoids in the sculpture of Brancusi’ as valid ‘stylistic arrangements of experience’ (1999: 86).  Elsewhere, Yeats was less benign: in 1916, he wrote to his father, ‘I feel in Wyndham Lewis’s Cubist pictures an element corresponding to rhetoric arising from his confusion of the abstract with the rhythmical’ (Fletcher 174).
The most systematic arrangement of his views on art and history was articulated through the writing of A Vision (1925, rev. 1937).  Its typology of human personality, combined with its cyclic account of history, gave him an opportunity to survey the development of Western civilization through authors and artists whose central characteristics were taken to exemplify what he regarded as the logic of historical process and the logic of the four-fold grid of Will, Creative Mind, Mask, and Will of Fate. For example, Phase Sixteen shows ‘great satirists, great caricaturists’, types of ‘The Positive Man’, who hate the ugly and pity the beautiful, which makes them utterly unlike artists who pity the ugly and sentimentalize the beautiful, like Rembrandt and Synge (1990: 171). Yeats used the latter two as illustrations of Phase Twenty-three, in which, the artist is ‘never the mere technician that he seems, though when you ask his meaning he will have nothing to say’. According to Yeats, such artists have ‘eliminated all that is personal from their style’, and show reality ‘without exaggeration’, while delighting ‘in all that is willful, in all that flouts intellectual coherence’. He attributed to such artists a capacity to work ‘in toil and in pain’, as in the patience shown by Rembrandt ‘in the painting of a lace collar though to find his subject he had but to open his eyes’,  or by Synge in the many notebooks he filled with minute observations of his subjects. Above all, he found that their work was ennobled by ‘a pity for all that lived’. Ugliness, for Rembrandt, was ‘an escape from all that is summarized and known, but had he painted a beautiful face … it would have remained a convention, he would have seen it through a mirage of boredom’ (1990: 188-90).
The most extended discussion of art occurs towards the end of A Vision, in the chapter titled ‘Dove or
Swan’. From sculpture in Greek and Roman art, through the development of
Christian iconography, Yeats arranges the broad movement of historical change
to fit the pattern of his twenty-eight phases. The early achievements find
their culmination in Byzantine art: ‘I think that in early
How do subsequent painters fit into this overview of Western history? Yeats places his answer ‘in the period from 1380 to 1450’, with Masaccio, and developments that find their Renaissance culmination in ‘Botticelli, Crivelli, Mantegna, Da Vinci’. He describes this generation as having arrived at the realization of a beauty in which ‘Intellect and emotion, primary curiosity and the antithetical dream, are for the moment one’. Yeats distinguishes the forms that followed in Michelangelo, Raphael and Titian as characterized by their capacity to ‘awaken sexual desire’. In his view, later developments pale in comparison, offering little that is not ‘a Renaissance echo growing always more conventional or more shadowy’ (1990: 274-9), although how remnants of the past survive in later painting differs between, say, Reynolds and Gainsborough. While a painter like Reynolds continued to live ‘content with fading Renaissance emotion and modern curiosity’, the ‘exhaustion of old interests … is present in the faces of Gainsborough’s women as it has been in no face since the Egyptian sculptor buried in a tomb that image of a princess carved in wood’ (1999: 277). [53-54]
Yeats hardly ever wrote a poem that can be read as a mere verbal
representation of a visual representation. Poems in which the visual arts play
a significant role number over a dozen; a handful more make a point by alluding
to a painting or invoking a painter in minimal terms. Most of these poems were
written during the latter part of his career. There are several likely reasons
for this new mode of writing. Trips to Europe, like the one to Urbino in 1907, or
I shall first consider poems where the primary referent is
painting as an art-form rather than a specific painter or painting. In such
poems, the allusion functions as metonymy: painting represents the arts, which
represents an idea of civility, which represents the value celebrated by the
poet. Such allusions can be polemical, as in ‘To a Wealthy Man Who Promised a
Second Subscription to the
The 1912 poem intervenes in a public controversy. It exhorts a
reluctant patron to stop acceding to the philistinism of the
In ‘Meditations in Time of Civil War’, the section on ‘Ancestral Houses’ invokes the traditional role of paintings among the aristocracy and the landed gentry as part of an ordered way of life that the poet cherishes all the more because it is now threatened with extinction:
What if the glory of escutcheoned doors,
And buildings that a haughtier age designed,
The pacing to and fro on polished floors
Amid great chambers and long galleries, lined
With famous portraits of our ancestors;
What if those things the greatest of mankind
Consider most to magnify, or to bless,
But take our greatness with our bitterness?
While ‘Meditations’ is elegiac, ‘The Municipal Gallery Revisited’ (1937) is celebratory. The poet offers solemn and self-conscious congratulation to the nation for its great painters, housed in their principal gallery, a collection enriched for the poet by personal associations with their subjects: ‘Ireland not as she is displayed in guide book or history, but Ireland seen because of the magnificent vitality of her painters, in the glory of her passion’ (630): 
Around me the images of thirty years:
An ambush; pilgrims at the water-side;
Casement upon trial, half hidden by the bars,
Kevin O'Higgins' countenance that wears
A gentle questioning look that cannot hide
A soul incapable of remorse or rest;
A revolutionary soldier kneeling to be blessed;
An Abbot or Archbishop with an upraised hand
Blessing the Tricolour. ‘This is not,’ I say,
The poets have imagined, terrible and gay.’
Yeats’s three gallery poems are types of what I shall call the ‘locational’ poem, each rooted to a specific place. They are complemented by ‘occasional’ poems, in which the role played by painting is tied to a specific time. In two of them, the moment is the time of death. The first, ‘Upon a Dying Lady’ (1912-14), is about Aubrey Beardsley’s sister Mabel, who was suffering from cancer. Like her brother, Mabel was a Roman Catholic. In the poem, because it is a religious day, she turns the faces of all the dolls in her collection towards the wall: ‘Pedant in fashion, learned in old courtesies’ (261). For the poet, her action brings to mind the carefree times when Charles Ricketts made the dolls, providing them costumes based on Aubrey’s drawings, or dresses made familiar through Rococo costumes redolent of gaiety and indulgence, ‘Vehement and witty’, like ‘the Venetian lady / Who had seemed to glide to some intrigue in her red shoes, / Her domino, her panniered skirt copied from Longhi’ (261-2). 
The second example of an elegiac ‘occasional’ poem is ‘In Memory of Major Robert Gregory’ (1918).  Recent biographical commentary suggests that the poet might have been much less close to Robert Gregory, and Gregory less close to the vocation of painting, than the poem implies. Regardless, Yeats celebrates the special gift he attributes to the dead man,  with an undercurrent of distress at how the pursuit of action in war had deprived Irish art of a natural heir: 
We dreamed that a great painter had been born
To cold Clare rock and
To that stern colour and that delicate line
That are our secret discipline
Wherein the gazing heart doubles her might.
Soldier, scholar, horseman, he,
And yet he had the intensity
To have published all to be a world's delight.
So far we have looked briefly at two types of poem that refer to painting in terms of a generic value. A third type identifies the painter as the archetypal figure for the artist. In such poems, the artist either ‘eroticises the idea of the divine’ (Holdridge 1), or spiritualizes the erotic. When the erotic is not in play, the painter sublimates the noumenal in the phenomenal. There are three specific periods Yeats draws upon in this enterprise: Byzantine art, Renaissance art, and the disciples of Blake.
Several poems commemorate the milder, pastoral manifestations of
the Blakean vision through allusions to Samuel Palmer and Edward Calvert. In
‘The Phases of the Moon’ (1918), Yeats uses the dialogue form to dramatize the
relation of thought to image through an exchange between his fictional
characters Aherne and Robartes, in which the seeker of ‘Mere images’ is at his
study in a high tower. He is identified as ‘
The lonely light that Samuel Palmer engraved,
An image of mysterious wisdom won by toil;
And now he seeks in book or manuscript
What he shall never find.
Blake’s disciples make another appearance in one of the last poems written by Yeats, where Renaissance landscapes (meant to serve as background for the human or divine foreground) lead to the tranquil art of Richard Wilson and Claude Lorrain, and the epiphanic visions of Calvert and Palmer:
Gyres run on;
When that greater dream had gone
Calvert and Wilson, Blake and Claude,
Prepared a rest for the people of God,
Palmer's phrase, but after that
Confusion fell upon our thought.
The phrase from Palmer that Yeats singles out describes Blake’s illustrations to Thornton’s Virgil, as ‘the drawing aside of the fleshy curtain, and the glimpse which all the most holy, studious saints and sages have enjoyed, of that rest which remaineth to the people of God’ (633).
The Renaissance gave Yeats the most secure sense of shared values to which the most minimal allusion would suffice. That is how Leonardo da Vinci makes an implied appearance in ‘Among School Children’:
Her present image floats into the mind–
Did Quattrocento finger fashion it
Hollow of cheek as though it drank the wind
And took a mess of shadows for its meat?
Michelangelo functions in similar fashion in several late poems. In ‘Michael Robartes and the Dancer’ (1918), his sculptures offer a muscular contrast to the opulent art of Veronese. The latter, like his other distinguished Venetian brethren, is said to offer ‘proud, soft, ceremonious proof / That all must come to sight and touch’. In contrast, Michelangelo’s ‘Morning’ and ‘Night’ show:
How sinew that has been pulled tight,
Or it may be loosened in repose,
Can rule by supernatural right
Yet be but sinew.
Michelangelo makes another brief appearance in ‘An Acre of Grass’ (1936). Here he is described as capable of conceiving divine beings who can pierce clouds or ‘Shake the dead in their shrouds’ (419). He appears again in ‘Long-Legged Fly’ (1937), the type of human mind whose concentration in the pursuit of his gift produces a momentous outcome for human history. The refrain brings Caesar, Helen, and Michelangelo together in an extraordinary analogy:
That girls at puberty may find
The first Adam in their thought,
Shut the door of the Pope's chapel,
Keep those children out.
There on that scaffolding reclines
With no more sound than the mice make
His hand moves to and fro.
Like a long-legged fly upon the stream
His mind moves upon silence.
‘Under Ben Bulben’ (1938) returns to Michelangelo, and his depiction of ‘half-awakened Adam’. [67-68] Here–alas–Yeats is disappointingly facetious in speaking of Adam’s capacity to disturb
Till her bowels are in heat,
Proof that there's a purpose set
Before the secret working mind:
Profane perfection of mankind.
Classical and Byzantine art mattered as much to Yeats as the
Renaissance. Mosaic images occur in several late poems, such as the dolphins in
the final stanza of ‘
Astraddle on the dolphin's mire and blood,
Spirit after Spirit! The smithies break the flood.
The golden smithies of the Emperor!
Likely sources for the dolphin iconology have been identified
variously as a plaster cast in the
Straddling each a dolphin's back
And steadied by a fin,
Those Innocents re-live their death,
Their wounds open again.
The poem then turns to the evocation of another painting, Nicholas Poussin’s Acis and Galatea,  which, when Yeats saw it, was titled The Marriage of Peleus and Thetis. The mistaken title ‘explains the appearance of that hero and his sea-nymph, together with the substitution of Pan for Galatea’s lover, Polyphemus, in the poem’ (1990: 173-4). 
Slim adolescence that a nymph has stripped,
Peleus on Thetis stares.
Her limbs are delicate as an eyelid,
Love has blinded him with tears;
But Thetis' belly listens.
Down the mountain walls
From where pan's cavern is
Intolerable music falls.
Foul goat-head, brutal arm appear,
Belly, shoulder, bum,
Flash fishlike; nymphs and satyrs
Copulate in the foam.
The most well-known instance of a poem that derives its impetus from a classical myth is the sonnet ‘Leda and the Swan’ (1923).  The parent myth has a long tradition of representations in European sculpture and painting, from classical to modern times. Commentators seem to agree that the most likely source-image came from a photograph of a Roman bas-relief copy (in the British Museum)  of a Greek original, reproduced in Elie Fauré’s History of Art (1921), of which Yeats owned a copy: 
A sudden blow: the great wings beating still
Above the staggering girl, her thighs caressed
By the dark webs, her nape caught in his bill,
He holds her helpless breast upon his breast.
What is amazing about the sonnet is how the dramatic beginning transports the reader from the purely brutal or the merely prurient to the truly awe-inspiring. The awkwardness of the visual image is left behind, and so is the physical absurdity of the myth, so that the poet can turn the evocation towards the tremendous rhetorical question that becomes the point of the poem. Elizabeth Cullingford notes that Faure's overheated commentary isolates precisely the features of the bas-relief that attracted Yeats' attention: ‘look at the “Leda” as she stands to receive the great swan with the beating wings, letting the beak seize her neck, the foot tighten on her thigh--the trembling woman subjected to the fatal force which reveals to her the whole of life, even while penetrating her with voluptuousness and pain’. However, the basic point made by Ellmann retains its validity, that in the poem, ‘we watch Leda’s reaction, not the god’s’ (Cullingford 1994: 165-87; Ellmann 1964: x).
‘Leda and the Swan’ demonstrates how little of what makes a poem powerful in its impact can be attributed to a visual source. We conclude that a painting or an image offers very little by way of clue to how Yeats would use it. We can think of the relation between the visual and the verbal in Yeats in terms of three contraries. First, the visual is a significant part of aesthetic experience, but the aesthetic is the lesser part of visionary experience. Hence the materiality of the visual is prone to translation, as something other than, and latent with, the greater. Second, Yeats valued subjectivity and spontaneity, but quiddity of response was assimilated into a system whose coherence becomes a more-than-aesthetic end in itself. It functions as a habit, and we can end up either satisfied at its cohesiveness or irritated at its totalizing intent. Third, Yeats argued passionately for the integration of the arts into common life; in practice, however, he remained impatient with what the ‘common person’ might think or want of art. Yeats subscribed to the logic of the coterie and the elite; his views on art were rooted in personal associations rather than aesthetic principles. His taste for art remained, fundamentally, cautious and conservative.
Nevertheless, his work remains open to the most unexpected interactions between the visual and the verbal. His power to transmute verbal representations of the visual into complex figures of thought, feeling, form, and idea grew stronger with age, making him an exemplary presence, not unlike the visionary-clerk in The Celtic Twilight (1893), whose poems ‘were all endeavours to capture some high, impalpable mood in a net of obscure images’ (1959: 12). In the case of Yeats, we can replace ‘obscure’ with ‘exultant’ images. Regardless of Pater, and Lessing before him, we can say of Yeats, using his words, that ‘He was going to try and apply to painting certain fundamental principles of art which he had found true of poetry. He was convinced that all the arts were fundamentally one art, and that what was true of one art was, if properly understood, true of them all’ (1975: 343).
(Parenthetical numbers in the text refer to page numbers in Yeats’s Poems (edited by A. Norman Jeffares, 1989).
Arkins, Brian. 1990. Builders of My Soul: Greek and Roman Themes in Yeats. Gerrards Cross: Colin Smythe.
Blake, William. 1988. The Complete Poetry and Prose of William
Blake. Ed. David V. Erdman. Commentary Harold Bloom.
Coote, Stephen. 1990. William Morris: His Life and Work.
Cullingford, Elizabeth Butler. 1994.
‘Pornography and Canonicity: The Case of Yeats' “Leda and the Swan”.’ In Representing
Women: Law, Literature, and Feminism, ed. Susan Sage Heinzelman and
Zipporah Batshaw Wiseman.
Ellmann, Richard. 1949. Yeats: The Man and the Masks.
Engelberg, Edward. 1988. 2nd
edition. The Vast Design: Patterns in
W.B. Yeats's Aesthetic.
Fletcher, Ian. 1987. W. B. Yeats and His Contemporaries.
Forster, R.F. 2003. W.B. Yeats: A Life, Volume 2: The Arch-Poet,
Holdridge, Jefferson. 2000. Those Mingled Seas: the Poetry of W.B. Yeats,
the Beautiful and the Sublime.
Kiely, Benedict. 1989. Yeats’s Ireland: An Illustrated Anthology.
Loizeaux, Elizabeth Bergmann. 1986. Yeats and the Visual Arts.
Mitchell, W. J. T. 1978. Blake's Composite Art: A Study of the
Illuminated Poetry. Princeton:
North, Michael. 1985. The Final Sculpture:
Pierce, David. 1995. Yeats's Worlds:
Prettejohn, Elizabeth. 2000. The Art of the Pre-Raphaelites.
Pyle, Hilary. 1993. Jack B. Yeats: His Watercolours, Drawings
Schuchard, Richard. 1989. ‘Yeats, Titian, and the New French Painting’. In Yeats the European. Ed. A. Norman Jeffares. Gerrards Cross: Colin Smythe, 142-59, 305-08.
Skelton, Robin and Ann Saddlemyer.
Eds. 1965. The World of W.B. Yeats:
Essays in Perspective.
Sturgis, Matthew. 1998. Aubrey Beardsley: A Biography.
Yeats, J. B. 1955. Letters to his son W. B. Yeats and Others
1869-1922. Ed. Joseph Hone. Preface, Oliver Elton.
Yeats, W. B. 1940. Letters from W. B. Yeats to Dorothy
Yeats, W. B. 1959. Mythologies.
Yeats, W. B. 1961. Essays and Introductions.
Yeats, W. B. 1964. Rpt. 1970. Selected Criticism. Ed. A. Norman
Yeats, W.B. 1975. Uncollected Prose. Vol. 2. Ed. John P. Frayne and
Yeats, W. B. 1986. The Collected Letters of W. B. Yeats, Volume
1 1865-1895. Ed. John Kelly. Assoc. Ed. Eric Domville.
Yeats, W. B. 1988. Prefaces and Introductions: Uncollected
Prefaces and Introductions to Works by Other Authors and to Anthologies edited
by Yeats. Ed. William H. O’Donnell. Houndmills and
Yeats, W. B. 1989. Yeats’s Poems. Ed. and annotated by A.
Norman Jeffares with an appendix by Warwick Gould.
Yeats, W. B. 1989b. Letters to the New
Yeats, W. B. 1990. A Vision and Related Writings. Ed A.
Yeats, W. B. 1997. The Collected Letters of W. B. Yeats, Volume
1 The Poems. Second Edition. Ed. Richard J. Finneran.
Yeats, W. B. 1999. Autobiographies. Ed. William H.
O-Donnell and Douglas N. Archibald.
Yeats, W. B. 2005. The Collected Letters of W. B. Yeats, Volume 4 1905-1907. Ed. John
Kelly and Ronald Schuhard.
List of Images
2 WBY. 1887. Head of a
3 WBY. c1903. Coole Library. Pastel. MBY-AY. Loizeaux 10
4 JBY. 1903. Self-portrait. Murphy 253
5 J.T.Nettleship. 1886. Sketch of Refuge. Loizeaux 39
6 Frank Potter. 1880s. Little Dormouse. NGL
7 JBY. 1888. William. Murphy 153
8 JBY. 1911-22. Murphy-f.
9 JBY. 1907. Self-Portrait-detail. Kiely 126
10 Bernardo Strozzi. Portrait of a Gentleman. Engelberg 92b
11 Sargent. 1917. President Woodrow Wilson. NGD
12 JBY. 1899. Jack. Murphy 198
13 JY. Synge. Skelton-Saddlemyer-pl.5
14 JY. 1913. Backcloth
16 Blake. Marriage of H.&H. p3.100. Fitzwilliam Library
17 Edward Calvert. Ideal Pastoral Life
18 Edward Calvert. 1828. The Bride
19 Palmer. 1850. The Herdsman's Cottage
20 Blake. 1824-7. Francesca and Paolo. Birmingham
21 Botticelli. Dante-Paradiso-26
22 Blake. R.Blair. The Soul hovering over the Body
23 Rossetti. 1871.
24 Bastien-Lepage. 1877.
25 Titian. 1512. Portrait
26 Millais. 1851-2. Ophelia. Tate
27 Rossetti. 1857. Mary Magdalene leaving the house of feasting. Tate
28 Rossetti. 1855-58. The Annunciation. Tate
29 Rossetti. The Annunciation-detail
30 Rossetti. 1848. Girlhood of Mary. Tate
31 Rossetti. Girlhood of Mary-detail
33 Lily. Embroidery. Abbey Theatre. Pierce
34 G.F. Watts. 1870.
35 Titian. 1512. Portrait
36 Beerbohm. Some Persons of the Nineties
37 Beerbohm-detail. Wilde & WBY
38 Beardsley. Poster. Pierce 102
39 Beardsley. 1893. The Climax. Salomé
40 Beardsley. 1894. The Dancer's Reward. Salomé
41 Ezra Pound. C.1912. Sketch of WBY
42 Edmund Dulac. 1915.WBY & the Irish Theatre. Pierce
43 C. Ricketts. 1915. Deposition from the Cross. Tate
44 Althea Gyles. 1899. Book design.
45 Althea Gyles. 1898. Noah’s Raven
46 Gauguin. Ta matete.
47 Manet. Les Bockeuses. Schuchard 3
48 Manet. 1863.
49 Manet. 1870. Eva Gonzales. Schuchard 7
50 Wyndham Lewis. 1911. Self-portrait. Courtauld
51 Edmund Dulac. A Vision. Wheel.
52 Rembrandt. 1639. Portrait of Maria Trip
53 Thomas Gainsborough. 1777. The Hon. Mrs. Graham (detail)
54 Fayoum Portrait,
55 John Singer Sargent.
57 Sir John Lavery. The Blessing of the Colours. Kiely 131
59 Pietro Longhi. Colloquio tra baute (1750-60)
60 Charles Shannon. Robert Gregory. Kiely 82-3
61 Robert Gregory.
63 Samuel Palmer. 1879. The Lonely Tower.
64 Blake. 1821. Thenot & Colinet. Virgil-Thornton. Loizeaux 75
65 Michelangelo. Tomb of
Giuliano de' Medici, Night and Day.
66 Michelangelo. Ceiling of the Sistine Chapel (detail)
67 Michelangelo. Sistine Chapel Ceiling: Genesis-Adam
68 Mosaic at
69 Poussin. 1630. Acis
72 Leda. Bas-relief.
73 Elie Faure. Image from History of Art (1921). Cullingford 166.