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Of Poets and Patriarchs

The hidden paternal influence on three great Irish writers

By Sunil Iyengar | November 1, 2018
Flickr/Stewart Black

Mad, Bad, Dangerous to Know: The Fathers of Wilde, Yeats, and Joyce by Colm Tóibín; Scribner, 253 pp., $26

In The Importance of Being Earnest, Oscar Wilde had Algernon say: “All women become like their mothers. That is their tragedy. No man does. That’s his.” A similar, if less-well-known, observation appeared in a 1903 essay by W. B. Yeats in the All Ireland Review. “Has it not been said,” Yeats asked, “that a man of genius takes the most after his mother?” Yet what about these writers’ fathers? The novelist Colm Tóibín takes up this question in his richly evocative new work. No matter how much Wilde, Yeats, and even James Joyce might have concealed their fathers’ influence, he suggests, it shaped the careers of these seminal Irish authors.

Tóibín’s first task is to evince the right character traits of all three fathers (Sir William Wilde, John B. Yeats, and John Stanislaus Joyce) to justify his title—an epithet Lady Caroline Lamb used to describe Lord Byron. But the three adjectives do not apply evenly to Tóibín’s subjects.

Mad? Well, yes, each father’s profound eccentricities translated into themes that shadowed the son’s life and work. In retrospect, however, Wilde Sr.’s indefatigable industry (he was an eye surgeon, a statistician, a travel writer, an archaeologist, and a folklorist) conforms to the pattern of other eminent Victorians. Despite his varied accomplishments, he was characterized by one contemporary as “apparently unshorn and unkempt,” someone who “looked as if he had been rolling in the dust.” We cannot know whether Oscar’s dandyish appearance—velvet coats, knee breeches, and green boutonnieres—was a rejoinder to his father’s sartorial choices. A far more serious matter left a deeper imprint on the future writer. When the playwright was 10 years old, Sir Wilde served as codefendant, with his wife, in a well-publicized libel case.

The plaintiff, Mary Travers, was a former patient of Sir Wilde’s who alleged that he had raped her while she was under chloroform. She brought the libel charge for remarks made by Lady Jane Wilde in defense of her husband. To this day, it remains unclear what really happened. The Lancet hailed the favorable verdict while The Times (London) concluded that “Sir William, having originally been introduced to her in his professional capacity, had taken a great interest in her affairs, had wished to befriend her, and had gradually placed himself on terms of intimacy which were afterwards abused.” Tóibín finds eerie similarities between this event and the later prosecution of Oscar Wilde for homosexuality. As just one instance, Tóibín notes that both Travers and the Marquess of Queensbury—Oscar’s own accuser—undertook “frenetic, fearless, almost manic activity” to “embarrass and harass” their opponents in public.

Another parallel: Sir Wilde’s slightly subversive passion for ancient Irish culture, along with his wife’s patriotic fervor, bequeathed to Oscar his own “astonishing individuality and independence of mind.” Tóibín refers to a lecture Oscar gave while touring America, when he mentioned Irish political prisoners who would socialize with his parents. As Tóibín writes, “the experience of court and then prison was something that had been normalized or even fetishized in the house on Merrion Square where Oscar Wilde was raised. In the soirées that his parents gave, the idea of loyalty, whether to the Crown or to Victorian sexual mores, was never stable.”

Isaac Butt, a Member of Parliament and former friend of Sir Wilde, was one of the lawyers trying him in the Travers case. The paternal grandfather of W. B. Yeats regarded him so highly that he gave Butt’s full name to one of his sons. The other son, the poet’s father and a painter, conducted a pining correspondence with Rosa Butt, Isaac’s daughter. The apparently unrequited nature of these letters, quoted at some length by Tóibín, recalls W. B. Yeats’s fabled pursuit of Maud Gonne.

Many of the letters came from New York, where John Butler Yeats spent his declining years, in debt and in thrall to a magnificent self-portrait he never quite completed. Even while living in Dublin and London, he acquired a reputation for leaving his paintings unfinished. The artist enjoyed talking to his subjects—he once said he could only paint “friendship portraits.” G. K. Chesterton admired his “entirely spontaneous style,” rating him above the poet-son as “perhaps the best talker I ever met.” Yeats Sr., whose other son was the artist Jack B. Yeats, is by far the most sympathetic personality in Tóibín’s book. He chided W. B. Yeats for being “doctrinaire” and, one suspects, often wished the poet simply would lighten up. His letters, which Ezra Pound brought out as a collection in 1917, bear rereading, as they herald essential aspects of W. B. Yeats’s emerging aesthetic. In one extract, he writes that “rhetoric expresses other people’s feelings, poetry one’s own.” W. B. Yeats’s readers will recognize this formulation as nearly identical to one of the poet’s celebrated maxims: “We make out of the quarrel with others, rhetoric, but of the quarrel with ourselves, poetry.” In another letter, he says, “Only for his dreams is a man responsible,” a line that anticipates W. B.’s cryptic statement, “In dreams begins responsibility.”

When quoting such letters, Tóibín doesn’t often pause to trace their literary footprints, but he does record Yeats confessing to his father “some surprise [at] how fully my philosophy of Life has been inherited from you in all but its details and applications.” In pondering this inheritance, Tóibín briefly revisits the ground of his 2004 novel, The Master, by alighting on Henry James—in this case, on Henry James Sr. and the uncanny resemblances between the Jameses and the Yeatses.

John B. Yeats might have been genially “mad,” but he does not come across as having been particularly “bad” or “dangerous to know.” The latter phrases may have better suited the father of James Joyce. Especially as depicted by James’s brother Stanislaus, John Stanislaus Joyce—their father—was irascible, frequently drunk, and improvident. And yet, as Tóibín makes clear, John Stanislaus is an inescapable presence throughout Joyce’s work, in a way that can’t be said about Wilde and Yeats. One has only to think of the relationship between Simon and Stephen Dedalus as it figures in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Ulysses. There is also the final line of Portrait: “Old father, old artificer, stand me now and ever in good stead,” and the example of Leopold Bloom as Stephen’s father-figure near the end of Ulysses.

Tóibín’s study of this complex legacy is the most impressive and original section of the book. He claims that James Joyce, from self-imposed exile, adopted a more compassionate view of his father than did his siblings, while remaining candid about his father’s failings. In doing so, Tóibín writes, Joyce “managed to release a great deal of psychic energy, which allowed him then to experiment with form and style, to move subsequently from the hesitant and the hushed into a fictional system that was brave and comic and untempered by caution.” Something Joyce asserted about his father nearly justifies Tóibín’s title for this odd trinity. In a letter to his patron, Harriet Weaver, Joyce wrote: “I got from him his portraits, a waistcoast, a good tenor voice, and an extravagant licentious disposition (out of which, however, the greater part of any talent I may have springs).” For all their differences, it’s not hard to see Joyce as the literary and cultural descendant of Wilde and Yeats and, in consequence, of their gifted fathers.

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