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Flying the Net

Joseph M Hassett

Mad, Bad, Dangerous to Know: The Fathers of Wilde, Yeats and Joyce, by Colm Tóibín, Viking, 192 pp, £14.99, ISBN: 978-0241354414

When WB Yeats completed his first volume of autobiography, Reveries over Childhood and Youth (1915), he wrote to his father that “[s]omeone to whom I read the book said to me the other day ‘If Gosse had not taken the title you could call it ‘Father & Son’.” Although Yeats tactfully made no reference to Gosse’s subtitle – A Study of Two Temperaments – or to the book’s portrayal of the son’s need to escape his father’s temperament in order to begin a creative life of his own, Gosse’s title would indeed have been a perfect fit for Yeats’s book.

So too Colm Tóibín might well have titled this enormously insightful and entertaining book Fathers and Sons, although the subtitle would need to account for both similarities and differences of temperament. Tóibín brilliantly captures the need of the sons of Sir William Wilde, John Butler Yeats, and John Stanislaus Joyce to escape the influence of their fathers, if only as a prelude to benefiting from it.

All three sons became such distinct personalities that it is easy to overlook their interrelationships, which melded and fortified the influence of the troika of fathers. Yeats’s first encounters with Wilde and Joyce were uncannily prophetic of seismic consequences. “My first meeting with Oscar Wilde,” Yeats wrote, “was an astonishment.” The meeting occurred in September 1888 when Yeats was twenty-three and Wilde thirty-four. James Joyce, at the time, was six years old and newly enrolled in Clongowes Wood College. It would be another fourteen years after Yeats’s astonishment of a meeting with Wilde before the famous first meeting  between Joyce and Yeats, at which the then twnety-year-old student would ask the thirty-six-year-old poet his age, Yeats would answer thirty-five, and Joyce would suggest that Yeats was too old for Joyce to help him.

If Yeats was astonished at Wilde’s success in creating his brilliant persona, he must have been more than a little surprised at the cheekiness of Joyce. Nonetheless, the encounter was the start of a fruitful relationship in which Yeats energetically helped Joyce to establish himself as a writer, and Joyce paid Yeats the supreme compliment of incorporating his lyric “Who Goes with Fergus” into the heart of Ulysses. Although Joyce and Wilde met only in the form of Wilde’s presence in Ulysses and Joyce’s essay about him in a Trieste newspaper, Wilde hovered so dominantly above the Dublin of Yeats and Joyce that his name infiltrated their legendary first meeting. Joyce startled Yeats on that occasion by asserting his hope that Wilde’s deathbed conversion to Catholicism was not sincere because he did not like to think that Wilde had been untrue to himself at the end.

Wilde, Yeats and Joyce were important to each other, and the importance of the fathers was not lost on the sons. Yeats later wrote that “I have often explained Wilde to myself by his family history”, adding elsewhere that Wilde “knew how to keep our elders in their place”. Family history explains much about Yeats and Joyce as well. Thus it was an inspired thought when Tóibín responded to an invitation to give the Richard Ellmann Lectures in Modern Literature at Emory University by speaking about the fathers of the three subjects of Ellmann’s monumental biographies, and incorporating the lectures into the book under review. The challenge of such an undertaking was daunting. Not only had Ellmann’s biographies of James Joyce, WB Yeats and Oscar Wilde touched on their fathers, but the fathers themselves have been the subject of impressive biographies, including William Murphy’s Prodigal Father (1978), John Wyse Jackson and Peter Costello’s John Stanislaus Joyce (1997), and Emer O’Sullivan’s The Fall of the House of Wilde (2016). Finally, Roy Foster’s two-volume WB Yeats: A Life (1998, 2003) brilliantly explores its subject in the context of his family and contemporaries.

Thus the question might have arisen whether there was anything left to say. It turns out that there was plenty more to say, and dazzling new ways of saying it. Tóibín’s book is a testament to the way in which a great writer’s insights and narrative powers can make scholarship leap off the page. Moreover, bringing the fathers ‑ and in Wilde’s case his mother ‑ into the work of the sons lengthens the life of the Irish literary revival. The work of Wilde’s parents in preserving and writing about Irish antiquities, folklore and myth adjusts the beginning of the literary revival back to the 1830s, and the super-charged power of the interrelated work of the parents and sons propels the influence of the revival into a still-lengthening future.

Tóibín brings this latter feature to life by entering his book as a character who roams the streets of Dublin, finding traces of the sons and parents in streets that have “a peculiar intensity … that gets more layered the longer you live in the city and the more stray memories and associations you build up”. Tóibín’s wanderings demonstrate the power of what Henry James, in a preface to The Aspern Papers, called “the palpable imaginable visitable past” ‑ a realm just barely within reach that remains “fragrant of all, or of almost all, the poetry of the thing outlived and lost and gone, and yet in which the precious element of closeness, telling so of connexions but tasting so of differences, remains appreciable”. Tóibín finds these same elements of closeness and connection in his walk around Dublin. Wilde, Yeats and Joyce, he tells us, “had fathers whose energy could be mined and used, just as they themselves offered an energy that any walker in the city can mine and use”. While one or more of the fathers might merit the “mad, bad, dangerous” description that Tóibín’s title adapts from Lady Caroline Lamb’s comment about Byron, this vital energy is the essence of their legacy.

One of the evocative relics of Dublin’s visitable past is the house on Merrion Square where Sir William Wilde and his wife, Jane, raised their children, and from which Oscar needed to escape to invent himself as a domineering figure able to stand toe-to-toe with parents of near-mythic dimensions. Jane Elgee Wilde was a well-known poet who presided flamboyantly over a star-studded literary, political and social salon. Importantly, she published two volumes of Irish folklore and fairy lore that, as Roy Foster has pointed out, “profoundly influenced the young Yeats”.

Sir William Wilde was a colossal figure of enormous accomplishment and dizzying eccentricity, the latter so notorious that, as WB Yeats wrote, there was “even a horrible folk story … that tells how Sir William Wilde took out the eyes of some man, who had come to consult him as an oculist, and laid them upon a plate, intending to replace them in a moment, and how the eyes were eaten by a cat”. In real life, Sir William was a skilled and pioneering eye and ear surgeon, author of medical textbooks and inventor of surgical procedures and devices. Significantly, as Tóibín writes, he was “an important antiquarian, topographer, folklore collector and archaeologist at a time when the study of ancient Ireland was becoming politically resonant”. Among the examples noted by Tóibín are Wilde’s work with George Petrie in Co Meath “discovering the remnants of lake dwellings, known as crannógs, and recovering a large number of artefacts, which were put on display in the Royal Irish Academy”. A prolific writer, Wilde emphasised the significance of Ireland’s store of antiquities in his book The Beauties of the Boyne, and Its Tributary, the Blackwater, published in 1849.

The pertinence of Wilde’s antiquarian work to the literary revival is apparent from the speech he made to the Aran Islanders at the ancient fortress of Dún Aengus, when, in 1857, he led a group of seventy members of the British Association for the Advancement of Science on a trip to the islands. As recounted by Martin Haverty, and related by Tóibín, Sir William appealed to the islanders to protect the fort: “Remember, above all, that these were the works of your own kindred, long, long dead, that they tell a history of them which you should be proud of, that there is no other history of them than these walls, which are in your keeping.”

Samuel Ferguson, who was in the audience at Dún Aengus, lauded Wilde in his 1876 elegy for preserving antiquities, and foreseeing the revival, envisioned “… wond’ring modern men who stand amazed / To think their Irish fathers ever raised / Works worthy of such care”.

Tóibín shows how the young Oscar almost followed a “sort of shadow path” as an antiquarian and archaeologist traced for him by his father. Following Sir William’s death, however, Oscar veered from the paternal path to pursue a different life in England. But this is no simple story of a son repudiating a father. As Tóibín insightfully puts it, Oscar “merged the talents he had taken from his parents with their sense of nobility and their feeling that they could do whatever they liked”. That sense of invulnerability had been evident in the Wildes’ response to a publicity campaign against Sir William by a former patient, named Mary Travers, who accused him of molesting her. Lady Wilde invited a libel action by writing a defamatory letter about Travers to her father. When Travers sued, the Wildes refused to settle. Even though Lady Wilde was assessed costs of £2,000, the Wildes believed that their refusal to settle was vindicated because Travers was awarded only a farthing in damages. This experience was part of Oscar’s family memory when, nearly thirty years later, the Marquess of Queensberry defamed him as “posing somdomite” [sic]. Bringing a libel action against Queensberry was so instinctive a response that Wilde persisted, with all the inexorability of Greek tragedy, even in the face of Frank Harris’s urging that he drop the case because he was sure to lose. He had inherited what Emer O’Sullivan calls his parents’ “predisposition to calamity”.

As Tóibín shows, Wilde also inherited his father’s conviction that “the only way he could rescue himself was by writing”. Thus we see Wilde heroically writing De Profundis in prison, and witness Tóibín poignantly reading it in the same prison. Oscar Wilde’s relationship to his parents emerges from this rich and detailed narrative as sometimes a blessing, sometimes a curse, but always a source of vital energy.

Tóibín shows both the power of John Butler Yeats’s influence on his son, and the imperative to escape it. The closeness with a difference in the relationship is reflected in the almost-but-not-quite-identical initials by which father (JBY) and son (WBY) are often known. JBY was quick to claim originary credit for his son’s spectacular lyric voice. “The Pollexfens are as solid and powerful as the sea-cliffs,” he wrote of his wife’s family in his unfinished memoirs, “but hitherto they are altogether dumb. To give them a voice is like giving a voice to the sea-cliffs. By marriage to a Pollexfen I have given a tongue to the sea-cliffs.” His son did not hesitate to acknowledge JBY’s claim, writing that it was the only compliment that ever turned his head.

The fact that JBY’s memoirs were unfinished signals the core aspect of his personality against which his son needed to rebel. Even as an eleven-year-old, WBY noticed, as he later recorded in Autobiographies, that his father, who had abandoned a possible career as a barrister to become a painter, was “never satisfied and can never make himself say that any picture is finished”. His inadequacy as a breadwinner put enormous strains on his family, but inspired a great industriousness in his son. “It is this infirmity of will,” WBY wrote of his father to New York lawyer John Quinn, “which has prevented him from finishing his pictures and ruined his career. He even hates the sign of will in others … the qualities which I thought necessary to success in art or in life seemed to him ‘egotism’ or ‘selfishness’ or ‘brutality’. I had to escape this family drifting, innocent and helpless …” Escape he did, into an extraordinarily productive life as a poet, dramatist and public man.

Still, there remained a gnawing tension between the successful poet and his drifting father, until something magical happened. In 1907, at age sixty-eight, JBY moved to New York, where, with substantial support from Quinn’s purchase of WBY’s manuscripts, he wrote to his son, as Tóibín says, “serious and intelligent and compelling letters about art and life, about poetry and religion, about his own hopes as an artist and his life in the city”. The magic, as insightfully captured by Tóibín, arose from a condition that fascinated Joyce and was one of the weapons of his character Stephen Dedalus ‑ exile. In this case, however, it was the father, rather than the son, who departed. Tóibín explains it this way: “As W.B. Yeats did not now witness his father’s slow and inevitable physical decline, but instead received many letters from the old man filled with good humour and wisdom and a soaring hunger for life and ideas, then his father’s exile was enabling and inspiring for his son’s work.” Moreover, through his letters, JBY “could attempt to influence W.B. Yeats and guide him, as he never had managed before” when they lived in proximity to each other.

Meanwhile, JBY was turning his drifting into an artistic principle. The self-portrait that Quinn commissioned at the outset of his move to New York was still unfinished at his death in 1922. In a letter to a friend in January 1917 JBY wrote of the self-portrait, “I want it to be ‘great’ – an immortal work – that’s why I put off finishing it.” JBY applied an analogous approach to his long-distance relationship with Rosa Butt, daughter of his father’s friend Isaac Butt, the great advocate of Home Rule for Ireland. Tracing JBY’s letters to Butt with enormous empathy and skill, Tóibín shows how JBY spoke longingly of their imagined life together, but never acted on his longing. He was living the doctrine articulated by his son as a principle of poetic inspiration: “The desire that is satisfied is not a great desire.” WBY”s adherence to that principle gave rise to the most sustained poetic tribute to a Muse in the history of poetry in English, his poems to and about Maud Gonne in the courtly love tradition, in which to win the Muse is to lose her.

Slow in his role as an artist, JBY lived energetically. Throughout his long life he fostered inter-generational links among the three creative families featured in the book. While a student at Trinity College Dublin, he would often join his parents to dine with Sir William and Lady Wilde. Sir William and Isaac Butt attended JBY’s address as auditor of the Law Students’ Debating Society during WBY’s first year of life. When WBY was a young man in London, and Wilde was facing his second criminal trial, JBY suggested to his son that he go to see Wilde and offer to help, perhaps as a witness. The unflagging JBY was an early and enthusiastic supporter of the ground-breaking prose of Joyce’s Ulysses when the initial episodes were serialised. His last day on earth was the day Ulysses was published in Paris – Joyce’s birthday – February 2nd, 1922.

In Ulysses, Stephen describes his father, Simon, in words that fit Joyce’s father, John Stanislaus Joyce: “A medical student, an oarsman, a tenor, an amateur actor, a shouting politician, a small landlord, a small investor, a drinker, a good fellow, a storyteller, somebody’s secretary, something in a distillery, a taxgatherer, a bankrupt and at present a praiser of his own past.” The downward trajectory might have included what Joyce, when entering University College Dublin, recorded as his father’s occupation: “entering competitions”.

Behind these words lies a father who dissipated his income and refused to support his wife and the ten children she bore him. His failure to provide a home resulted in the family moving ten times between his marriage to May Murray in 1879 and her death in 1903. Even these details do not begin to capture what Ellmann called a “sense of home life as a continuing crisis”. Food was often absent, and the spectre of domestic violence lurked. For example, Joyce’s brother Stanislaus recounted that in 1894, when Joyce was twelve, his father, in a drunken fit, grabbed his wife’s throat and roared: “Now, by God, is the time to finish it.” The children ran screaming between their parents and James jumped on his father’s back and toppled both father and mother over. Mrs Joyce snatched up the younger children and ran to a neighbour’s house.

No wonder Tóibín writes, “It would be easy, then, to think of John Stanislaus Joyce as one of the worst Irish husbands and worst Irish fathers in recorded history.” But then another magical exile occurred. This time it was the son who departed. In 1904, at the age of twenty-two, Joyce left his father and Dublin, returning only for a few short visits. From afar, Joyce was able to remember how his father took him on long walks, introducing him to, and telling him stories about, Dublin characters, and showing them disporting in their haunts. From a distance, Joyce could use his memories to, as Tóibín puts it, “not only memorialize his father but also to retrace his steps, enter his spirit, use what he needed from his father’s life to nourish his own art”.

Although the Simon Dedalus of Ulysses shares many of John Joyce’s faults, he also exhibits the companionable charm that the elder Joyce displayed outside his home, as when Simon’s tenor voice mesmerises his companions at the Ormond Hotel. In Ulysses, Joyce allows his father, Tóibín writes, “to be the man he is with his friends rather than with his family”. More importantly, he portrays the Dublin his father inhabited. Joyce himself captured his father’s contribution to Ulysses by saying that “the humour of [it] is his; its people are his friends. The book is his spittin’ image.”

Tóibín quotes tellingly from the letter Joyce wrote to his patron Harriet Weaver after his father’s death: “I was very fond of him always, being a sinner myself, and even liked his faults. Hundreds of pages and scores of characters in my books came from him … I got from him his portraits, a waistcoat, a good tenor voice, and an extravagant licentious disposition (out of which, however, the greater part of any talent I may have springs) but, apart from these, something else I cannot define.”

Toibin links his three fathers and sons with the observation that “[j]ust as Oscar Wilde began to become himself in the very year after his father’s death, and John B Yeats managed, figuratively, to kill his son by going into exile, so too James Joyce managed to kill his father by leaving him to his fate in Dublin, seeking, in his father’s absence ... to resurrect him, to offer life to what had become shadow.”

The undefinable “something else” that Joyce inherited from his father was a sense of the generational procession of fathers and sons reflected in the lines with which this moving book concludes ‑ the last stanza of the poem “Ecce Puer” that Joyce wrote on the day his grandson Stephen was born, six weeks after his father’s death in 1931:

A child is sleeping:
An old man gone.
O, father forsaken,
Forgive your son!


Joe Hassett’s latest book is The Ulysses Trials: Beauty and Truth Meet the Law (Lilliput). He practises law in Washington and is working on a play about the relationship between WB Yeats and James Joyce.