Eve Patten writes: On December 10th, 1923, the poet WB Yeats addressed those gathered for the Nobel Prize ceremony banquet at the Grand Hotel in Stockholm. Speaking of the honour brought to Ireland by his award for Literature, he acknowledged a circle of fellow Irish writers who had worked to free their country from provincialism and win for it ‘European recognition’.
Such recognition was timely. The prize was widely seen as a gesture towards the drawing of Ireland into the European and wider international fold: coming as it did at the end of the civil war and coinciding with the first unsteady steps of a newly independent state, it was a peace prize too, of sorts. As The Irish Times had reported the previous month, when Yeats’s award was announced: ‘His success is a national, as well as a personal, triumph, and it constitutes a fitting sequel to the recent admission of the Free State to the membership of the League of Nations.’ For the poet’s friend Oliver St John Gogarty, who proposed a motion to send congratulations from the Irish Senate, the prize was the ‘most significant thing’ to happen in the country since the Treaty, his encomium overtly reading the literature award in a political key.
Fast forward to the same date, December 10th, but now thirteen years later in 1936, and to another Nobel Prize ceremony – this time for the Peace Prize, awarded that year (and in lieu of the suspended 1935 medal) to Carl von Ossietsky. A German journalist, Ossietsky had challenged growing antisemitism in the 1920s and helped to expose clandestine German rearmament plans that flouted the Versailles agreement. In 1932 he was briefly imprisoned for treason, and in February of 1933, with Germany under Hitler’s authority and keen to suppress resistant voices, incarcerated again, first in Spandau prison and then in Papenburg-Esterwegen concentration camp, where he endured severe physical punishment and contracted tuberculosis. Ossietsky was not present at the Nobel ceremony of 1936: the Nazi regime had forbidden him permission to travel to receive the prize, and so the chairman of the Nobel Committee spoke on his behalf.
The controversial circumstances of the award, which put intense pressure on the Nobel authorities and risked further inflaming tensions across Europe with an increasingly assertive Germany, were reported in all the major papers. Even without the publicity however, Yeats himself was already familiar with Ossietsky’s convoluted route to the honour, having been made aware of the German author’s situation almost two years earlier. In the early spring of 1935, the exiled German playwright Ernst Toller and the English author Ethel Mannin met the poet in London and asked him to endorse an accelerating international campaign to nominate Ossietsky for the Nobel, largely in the hope of it also securing his release from prison. Yeats’s response to the predicament of the German author on that occasion revisits the tricky orchestration of politics and prizes that had played in the background to his 1923 award for Literature.
The two supplicants were well placed to plead Ossietsky’s case. Ernst Toller was an internationally respected playwright who had vividly described his own experience of imprisonment – for his leadership of the short-lived revolutionary Bavarian socialist republic, in 1919– in his 1933 autobiography Eine Jugend in Deutschland, published in English a year later as I was a German. Ethel Mannin, a prolific popular novelist and socialist, was deeply influenced by Toller’s book. She met him in person in Moscow, in the summer of 1934, and subsequently made him the dedicatee of her 1935 novel Cactus, in which a middlebrow romantic saga – an Englishwoman’s love affair with a German prisoner of war – gives way to expressionist predictions of European conflict spreading from Spain across the continent. In turn this novel, feverish but prescient, had been hastily redrafted from a short story in her 1933 collection Dryad, the same volume she had presented to Yeats ‘with affection and admiration’ in the late winter of 1934 at the beginning of what she terms her ‘intimate friendship’ with the elderly poet.
A few months after their first meeting Yeats asked Mannin to call for him at the Savile Club in London so they could dine together. On her way there she stopped at a party in the Soviet embassy, where she ran into Toller, recently returned from Moscow. After several vodkas to celebrate their reunion she explained that she was ‘entertaining Yeats’, and for Toller, the opportunity was too good to miss: here was a convenient-to-hand Nobel Prize winner who might lend his name to Ossietsky’s cause. ‘He was very excited about it,’ Mannin recalls in her 1938 memoir Privileged Spectator. ‘We drank some more vodkas on the strength of the inspiration and finally left.’ At the Savile Club women were not admitted, so she and Toller took Yeats onwards, in the pouring rain, to Claridges. Mannin describes their entrance to the Mayfair hotel with a novelistic flourish: ‘surely no stranger trio crossed that stately threshold,’ she wrote, ‘Yeats, tall, silver-haired, be-cloaked, looking so exactly as a distinguished poet might be expected to look and so seldom does, Toller short, dark, wearing a picturesquely broad-brimmed hat, like something out of the pages of La Vie de Bohème, my hatless self, the three of us emerging from the rain and dripping into the brilliance of that most elegant of lounges.’ They ordered more vodka, attempted (in vain) to silence the orchestra so they could hear themselves speak, and then Mannin and Toller put their case to Yeats.
If the pitch at Claridges was made on the spur of the moment, the strategy it represented was, as historian Irwin Abrams has accounted, systematic and high-profile. Led initially by Ossietsky’s exiled friends in Paris, including Toller himself, the campaign for the Peace Prize was taken up in the international press in the summer of 1934 and sustained by a worldwide grouping of journalists, lawyers and pacifists. From the USA, the scientist Albert Einstein and the economist Otto Nathan lent their support, as did the 1931 Nobel Peace Prize awardee Jane Addams. In England the political scientist Harold Laski joined a long list of predominantly left-leaning activist writers including Virginia and Leonard Woolf, Aldous Huxley, Bertrand Russell and HG Wells. The cause inspired a group nomination from both houses of the British parliament and from individual politicians such as Clement Attlee and Herbert Morrison. But inevitably there was resistance too, from those concerned at the surreptitious use of the prize to challenge National Socialism or unwilling to add to the tension in current European relations. Among others, the former foreign secretary Austen Chamberlain, who had shared the Nobel Peace Prize in 1925, refused to endorse the campaign for Ossietsky on the grounds that it was indecorous and politically inappropriate.
And at Claridges on that rainy London night, Yeats also said no. ‘He was acutely uncomfortable about it, but he refused,’ Mannin recalls. ‘He never meddled in political matters, he said; he never had. At the urging of Maud Gonne he had signed the petition on behalf of Roger Casement, but that was all, and the Casement case was an Irish affair. He was a poet, and Irish, and had no interest in European political squabbles. His interest was Ireland, and Ireland had nothing to do with Europe politically; it was outside, apart.’
Hearing the poet’s words Toller was overcome with emotion, and then Mannin wept too, though unsure if she was upset for Ossietsky, moved by Toller’s tears, or ‘whether it was merely the vodka’; and all three sat in silent distress amid ‘elegant ladies and gentlemen in evening dress all around, and waiters and flunkeys moving about, and the orchestra playing and the chandeliers glittering’. Finally Toller walked off into the night, and Yeats said to Mannin that one day he would ‘talk politics and he would explain himself to me. But he never did.’
Biographers diverge in their readings of Yeats at this time. WJ McCormack suggests that the poet was unwilling to offend his German fan base (he had recently accepted Germany’s Goethe-Plakette award); Brenda Maddox argues that his ‘nerve-trembling was hardly the ringing denunciation of Hitler that some wish Yeats had made’; Roy Foster counters that he was simply ‘vague’ on 1930s European realpolitik but never leaned towards the Nazis. To be fair, Yeats consistently refrained from signing petitions of this kind. He was also nearly seventy and ready to disengage from public affairs. And perhaps he was understandably wary of both Toller and Mannin because of their communist associations (or ‘very near’ communist, as Mannin described herself). Perhaps too, at a more visceral level, Ossietsky’s situation triggered his unease with the politically demonstrative: think back to his 1920 poem, ‘On a Political Prisoner’, with its distaste for the embittered and populist version of the imprisoned Constance Markiewicz that had replaced the silk-kimonoed aristocrat. But whatever his reasoning for the refusal, the resulting scene was indeed, ‘acutely uncomfortable’.
In fact Yeats did explain himself to Mannin, writing from Mallorca in the spring of 1936 in response to a further attempt to gain his support for Ossietsky, and saying that he would always resist being made into a politician. ‘If the Nobel society did what you want it would seem to the majority of the German people [that] the society hated their government for its politics not because it was unhuman – this is the way their newspapers would explain it,’ he argued. After all, how many victims of the Russian government had been given the peace prize? And if the Germans were in any way like the Irish ‘the antagonism so raised would doom the prisoner you want to help, either to death or to long imprisonment.’ He recoiled with horror, he insisted, at what was happening in Europe, and requested her to look up his poem ‘The Second Coming’ to understand and appreciate his perspective. Which Mannin did, much later in the mid-1950s, recalling the poem’s line ‘the ceremony of innocence is drowned’ in the post-atomic horrorscape that the prophetic Yeats had not lived to see.
Carl von Ossietsky was released to a prison hospital in May of 1936 but died soon afterwards, in 1938, his physical condition never having recovered from the effects of his imprisonment. And Yeats died in January 1939, disappearing in ‘the dead of winter’, as Auden noted in his elegy for the poet, while all the dogs of Europe began to bark. Mannin met Toller again by chance on another wet London night, and they sheltered in the porch of a lingerie shop to exchange news, of Spain, of the coming war, and – to her dismay — of his readiness to support the call to arms. ‘We embraced and parted, hurrying our separate ways through the deluge,’ she wrote. ‘All my life I shall remember Toller standing in the doorway of the pink corset shop with that sorrow on his fine face, urging that if needs be we must fight.’ But in America, where he had gone to work for Spanish relief, Toller hanged himself in a New York apartment, his death prompting Auden to a yet more poignant elegy for the writer, ‘shadowless at last among / The other war-horses’ of a Europe now too injured to recover.
The international conversations around Ossietsky’s Nobel Prize were soon lost in the noise of the war and revisited later only in passing discussion by writers such as Hubert Butler. As the centenary celebrations of the first Irish Nobel Laureate for Literature conclude, it might be worth pausing on the unfortunate episode, not for what it says directly about Yeats’s politics, more for what it reflects of a reticence, both personal and national, to take responsibility in the international arena. If the honour bestowed on him in 1923 represented the elevation of his country to ‘European recognition’, it did not necessarily follow that Yeats – and his country – would in turn ‘recognise’ the unpalatable versions of Europe that emerged in the following decade. The connection between prizes and politics can be severed as easily as celebrated. Political commitment takes many different forms. In this context Yeats and Ethel Mannin diverged critically from each other in their beliefs, the Nobel poet lacking a degree of conviction when confronted with those ‘European political squabbles’, and the novelist, still working for German prisoner relief late into the 1940s, always burning with passionate intensity.
Eve Patten is Professor of English at Trinity College Dublin and Director of the Trinity Long Room Hub Arts and Humanities Research Institute. Her most recent book is Ireland, Revolution and the English Modernist Imagination (OUP, 2022).