Wyndham Lewis on W.B. Yeats


Source: New Verse, May 1939, pp. 45-46.

Note: Lewis was a Nazi sympathizer.


When we call to mind William Blake—not any passage, but just the name and what it stands for—we recall something of an extremely concrete power. Yeats, on the other hand, comes back to us as a memory of a limp hand. Or perhaps I should say, he does to me.

The white breast of the dim sea

And all dishevelled wandering stars :

of such typical stuffed language is sixty per cent. of his earlier verse composed. Later the limp-hand effect altered for the better. But the latterday firmness was probably less typical.

            I mentioned Blake because Yeats was much influenced by him. The genteel “Danaan” mysticism of the Celtic Twilight was different enough from the volcanic communings with the “Man Who Built the Pyramids.” What mystical experience Yeats had I cannot say. Wandering in a Burne-Jones world he met a great variety of great Irish giants, I am sure, but I cannot feel so certain that, with Blake, he saw — as if awake — personages usually confined to certain definite time-tracts.

            When I was invited by the editor of NEW VERSE to write something, no matter what, about the great poet who is just dead, I thought at first I had better not. It has the appearance of hitting a man when he is down to jump in and say something short of praise in such a case. Praise Yeats of course, quite simply, I could. I could say that I thought he had written a half-dozen verses as lovely as anything in English. The writing of a faultless lyric is such an achievement that I could leave it at that. But everyone knows he has written a few lyrics of consummate beauty : there would be not much meaning in saying that and nothing more. But I reproached myself for proposing to be silent.

            When famous men die they come up before a jury of about twelve good men and true. (There are never more than about twelve men in any age who are at once good and true.) That first verdict of the new-born “posterity” does not mean a great deal. But I should be sorry to be one of those who sent a true poet to oblivion—and if a jury simply could not be found—if all the twelve defaulted—then I suppose the judge would just put on his black cap straight away and that would be that. So I saw—when I was summoned by NEW VERSE—that I must serve.

            The fact is that in a certain mood I do respond to Maeterlinck, even to an Irish brogue. And Yeats has given me a sort of kick : a kind of soft, dreamy kick. I am obliged to him. I am certain he will live. He will live to give many as yet unborn a kick like the kick he gives me. An authentic kick. I am for this particular ghost. And this will, I believe, be a unanimous verdict.