Letters aren’t usually to my taste, but I except an odd little book I’ve just finished, W.B. Yeats and T. Sturge Moore, Their Correspondence 1901-1937.
One of our correspondents needs no introduction. The other, T. Sturge Moore (1870-1944), was the brother of the Cambridge philosopher G.E. Moore, whose Principia Ethica was still being assigned in freshman philosophy when I was in college. He made his living at the graphic arts, in which he showed considerable flair in an art nouveau vein; it is the sort of thing you will like if you like that sort of thing. Among other things he designed most of the covers for Yeats’ books. Moore was also an extremely distinguished poet and verse dramatist, and he wrote at least one poem and two verse plays (Medea and Daimonassa) that are far better than anything in Yeats.
Yeats plays the great man in his letters, as he does in his poetry, constantly prevailing on Moore for small and not-so-small favors. He borrows money — it is not always clear whether he pays it back — makes appointments and breaks them, pleading fatigue or “neuralgia,” and, once, egregiously, sends Moore to the copyright office on his behalf.
I am going to send you a bundle of plays to get copyrighted. Mrs. Emery, who would have done this for me, is away and for certain reasons these plays have to be done at once… You will be able to do the whole thing in an afternoon…. Will you send the plays to the Censor, or, if not, will you send me his address? It might be as well for you to send them. I will of course send you a cheque for the cost.
“I will of course send you a cheque for the cost”: God forbid I should ask you to do me a huge favor and pay you for it in advance. Personally I would have told Yeats to get stuffed. But Moore accedes gracefully, as if he too were convinced of Yeats’s superiority.
At the heart of the letters is an argument about “Ruskin’s cat” that runs for several years. Yeats believed in ghosts and spirits, like many of his mystical Irish friends, and tries to justify their existence to Moore philosophically:
John Ruskin, while talking with Frank Harris, ran suddenly to the other end of the room, picked up, or seemed to pick up, some object which he threw out of the window. He then explained that it was a tempting demon in the form of a cat. Now if the house cat had come in both cats would have looked alike to Ruskin. (I know this for I once saw a phantom picture and a real picture side by side.) Neither your brother [G.E.Moore, who defended in his Refutation of Idealism the common-sense view that the external world exists independent of our senses] nor [Bertrand] Russell gives any criterion by which Ruskin could have told one cat from the other. No doubt if pressed they would have said that if Ruskin’s cat was real Harris would have seen it. But that argument amounts to nothing. Dr. Smyllie, a well-known Dublin doctor, made his class see the Indian rope trick by hypnotic suggestion a few years ago. All saw it: whether the suggestion was mental or merely visual makes no difference. Perhaps Russell would say ‘a real object’ persists, a phantom does not. Shelley pointed out that the same dream recurs again and again… not only things but ‘dreams themselves are a dream.’
Moore replies sensibly enough:
Do you deny that there are such things as illusions? Do you think that there are black snakes wriggling on the counterpane of a man who has D.T.? If so, we are only quarrelling about a fact, not a word. If you suppose there is a separate reality for each one of us that is not what we usually mean by reality it is putting a new meaning to the word… Do you deny that our sense can be deranged and make mistakes, just as our reasoning faculty may, as in Othello’s case, make a mistake? If you bang your head against a door you see stars that are not there but swim around as though they were. The blow has deranged your sense of sight, just as a disease may, or a hypnotic trance, or even a conviction may.
This reduces Yeats to incoherence.
Damn Russell — he is as fine a mathematician as you like, but when he philosophises a politician walking on his hands… Your brother is not a politician but a philosopher. Berkeley and practically all philosophers since have contended that ‘sensations’ are part of the human mind and that ‘we know nothing but spirits and their relations.’ Your brother and his school contend that ‘sensations’ are ‘behind,’ not in, the mind. They, like Berkeley, are concerned with immediate knowledge: what you write about hallucinations has nothing to do with it.
Yeats’s summary of philosophic thought on the mind-body problem leaves something to be desired. He makes a hash of Moore’s brother, who said that sensations were “before” the mind, not “behind” it. And “immediate knowledge” begs the question of whether a hallucination is “knowledge” at all. Yeats goes on in further letters to adduce the range of early 20th century spiritual phenomena — photographs of thoughts, Richet, Madame Blavatsky and the like — eventually exasperating Moore:
It is all moonshine and nonsense… When you say that seeing two pictures on the wall when only one is there is as good proof of the existence of two pictures as if both were on the wall you contradict yourself, because you admit there is only one on the wall. You make a distinction between what you know to exist and an illusion of sense and deny it at the same time. That is to make two contradictory propositions both of which cannot be true. It is not a question as to what happens to be fashionable among intellectuals, but as to whether there is a case that can be stated without involving a contradiction. Fools follow fashions in thought as in other things and then they think because they are very many they must needs be right as well as strong.
This is as close as he comes to calling Yeats a fool. Of course Yeats is a fool. Mrs. Yeats is reported to have said that Yeats simply never understood people; certainly he did not understand Moore.
Now it is possible, I suppose, to be a fool and also a great poet, although I can think of no such case. To take most of Yeats’s poetry seriously it is not necessary to believe in ghosts. It is, however, necessary to prefer aristocratic to democratic government, assertions to reasons, instinct to intellect, astrology to astronomy, and the mystical properties of sex to just about anything else. Even more than Blake, his poetry is preposterous because his ideas are preposterous.
Yeats is generally considered one of the master stylists of the 20th century. Yvor Winters explains his reputation:
In the first place, there is real talent scattered throughout his work; in the second place, our time does not recognize any relationship between motive and emotion, but is looking merely for emotion; in the third place, Yeats’s power of self-assertion, his bardic tone, has overwhelmed his readers thus far. The bardic tone is common in romantic poetry; it sometimes occurs in talented (but confused) poets such as Blake and Yeats; more often it appears in poets of little or no talent, such as Shelley, Whitman, and Robinson Jeffers. For most readers the bardic tone is synonymous with greatness, for through this tone the poet asserts that he is great, in the absence of any (or sufficient) supporting intelligence. If the poet asserts his own greatness long enough and in the same tone of voice, the effect is hypnotic; we have seen the same thing on the political platform in the persons of such speakers as Mussolini, Father Coughlin, and Adolf Hitler.
Winters omits one point: Yeats looks like a Great Poet, with his piercing gaze, roman nose, and snowy hair. He was exceptionally jealous of his hair. He refers in the letters to the equally fine-maned Bertrand Russell as “bald-pated,” and in his poetry frequently employs bald men, as in The Scholars, as a symbol for intellect, which he despised. The reputations of Shelley and Whitman also profit from their looks. Moore, by contrast, looks like the harmless village eccentric. And Yeats is a great man, and no one has heard of Moore.
(Update: Colby Cosh troubles to read the Moore poem I cited. He dislikes “carven,” which is a perfectly respectable English word, although it smacks of the 1890’s, from which Moore, and Yeats for that matter, never freed himself entirely. He objects on metrical grounds to line 5, which I scan as follows:
Though un / intend / ed, ir / revoc / able!
The inversion in the fourth foot is unusual, but not problematic. Neither is the elided article in line 6; Moore is writing not about a particular incident but a type. What I think raises this poem to greatness is its perception of the nature of speech; “self-bemusing ease” is a master stroke. Bloggers have talked a lot lately about how easy it is to hit the “Send” button or the “Print” button. This poem is about how easy it is to hit the “Talk” button. I will be very happy if everyone reads it as attentively as Colby does.)