Among Irish writers who left large imprints on literature, there were a peculiar pair who failed to impress one another when twice their paths crossed. William Butler Yeats (1865-1939) and C.S. Lewis (1898-1963) met in Oxford, and both found their encounters less than inspiring.
Obviously, when the two of them met, Yeats was an internationally renowned pillar of poetry, and Lewis was a young man with a trifling reputation. Oddly enough, they were introduced by an American poet.
[Editorial Note: This is a longer post than most, but it is a fascinating subject that demands more comprehensive discussion.]
William Force Stead (1884-1967) had served in the United States Consular Service. Upon being posted to the United Kingdom, he studied at Queen’s College in Oxford, and was ordained a priest in the Church of England.
His religious life must have been curious, since he apparently explored some of the spiritualism common to that era. However, his ordination did allow for his employment in a convenient position. While Chaplain of Worcester College in Oxford, he baptized T.S. Eliot, who had become his friend.
He left the position when he decided to convert to Roman Catholicism. (Apparently it was a bit of a scandal.) At the outset of the Second World War, he returned to the United States where he pursued an academic life. One of his poems, “Sweet Wild April,” can be read in the supplemental notes below.
The Relationship Between Lewis and Stead
In his diary of his early life, published as All My Road Before Me, Lewis describes a visit to his home made by Stead.
Sunday 8 July: After lunch I lay on the lawn reading Boswell while Harwood and Maureen played duets to their great satisfaction. Just before tea I had gone into the house when I saw someone at the hall door and opening it found Stead.
I talked to him in the drawing room for a few minutes and then brought him out and introduced him to Harwood and disappeared to get tea. He talked philosophy to Harwood and I threw in impertinent interruptions whenever I came out to put a cup or a cake on the table. . . .
Stead, fresh back from Venice and Rome, gave as his verdict that “Italy was a pleasant surprise to him. He had always imagined the Italians a degenerate people but found that they were really quite go ahead and up to date.”
They were also more patriotic than the English, for they were always waving flags and went mad over the name of Italy whereas “he had never found that Englishmen showed any great enthusiasm over the mention of England.” They and their landscape were, he said, hardy and vigorous whereas one always felt the softness of England.
Lewis’ next sentence expresses in eleven words an entire volume. It is followed by fascinating observations about the Italian fascism of the early twenties.
Stead is an American and has not been to the war. We also talked of Fascismo. We were all inclined to favour it except Harwood who said it was only a more successful version of the Ku Klux Klan and that Mussolini had the face of a villain.
Asked if he believed in Fascist atrocities, Stead said that they committed atrocities only when they were deserved.
Stead’s Introduction of Lewis to Yeats
Stead apparently possessed the type of personality that resonated with Yeats, who was captive to various Hermetic and Rosicrucian mythologies. Yeats must also have appreciated Stead’s poetry, since he included two of his poems in the Oxford Book of Modern Verse (1892-1935).
Stead was modest about his ability to contribute to the conversation as it was guided by the elder authority. With some frequency, he was invited to dine with Yeats and his wife (although it does not appear that his own wife accompanied him). Here is his description of the normal pattern for such evenings.
[It was] an easy and intimate little party, but I was often puzzled in the hours that followed when we retired to his study: Yeats, who mistook me for a philosopher and a man of learning, went voyaging off into regions with which I was wholly unfamiliar.
He was then reading the Catholic theologian, Baron von Hugel—and here I could offer a few comments; he was already interested in Byzantium, and I had a little knowledge of the Eastern Empire. But his range of interest–tho’ he was not a man of learning–went far beyond my boundaries. For instance, he would open a volume on Art, Apollo by Reinach, and ask me to compare the facial expressions in Greek and Roman sculpture, as representing the contrast between the subjective or instinctive life and the objective or rational life.
This led to a discussion of the difference between the Greek and Roman civilizations, and to subjective and objective periods during the Christian era.
Here I was invited to follow his involved system of intersecting cones, as the objective age or civilization was moving up into the subjective, and the subjective age or civilization was moving down into the objective.
These again were symbolised by the dark of the moon as the objective, and the light or full moon as the subjective, and the transition as the gradual rounding out of the dark into the light, and vice versa.
I was often quite lost, and even the poet himself, to whom this reading of character and history had come as a revelation—partly thro’ his wife, who had pronounced psychic powers—even the poet would pause at times, drop his glasses, dangle them at the end of their ribbon, look round and say: “It is all very difficult.”
Stead offers a suggestion as to why his company may have been valued by the famous poet.
I must have been useless as a source of information and ideas, but Yeats was lonely and felt rather neglected in Oxford; his was not the academic type of mind, and learned ladies bored him by asking, “Mr. Yeats, what is your subject?” as though he were a don, with some narrow field of research.
He soon adopted a blunt reply—“Astrology,” and that floored them. As a matter of fact, it was one of his many interests in occultism. . . .
Yeats welcomed almost any form of belief. He craved the supernatural. It was the only air he could live and breathe in. (“Oxford Poets” by David Bradshaw in Yeats’s Mask)
Lewis’ Introduction to Yeats
Lewis could hardly believe his good fortune when his acquaintance invited him to meet Yeats. However, it was the poet’s peculiarities, rather than his talents, that left the deepest impression.
In a lengthy letter to his brother Warren, Lewis describes in detail these events. He begins with the receipt of the invitation, and includes a humorously critical evaluation of Stead’s poetry.
I received this morning a letter from my obliging friend Stead. Stead is rather a punt: I think you saw me stop to speak to him one day in the Corn. 36 He is an undergraduate but also curate of a parish in Oxford. He writes poetry. The annoying thing is that it’s exactly like mine, only like the bad parts of mine: this was my own original opinion and it has been confirmed by others. Perhaps you can imagine the sensation I experienced in reading it.
Stead’s letter was to say that he had mentioned to Yeats–whom he knows–“my double claim to distinction as an Irishman and a poet” and would I come along this evening and see him?
The letter continues with a description of the evening.
I accordingly repaired after dinner to Stead’s lodging in Canterbury Street. He is a married man: his wife is an American: she is the sister of a woman who is married to a brother of Mrs Moore’s.
She was a woman of implacable sullenness who refused even to say good evening to me: beside her at the fire sat an American gentleman who was apparently left to console her for the absence of her husband.
This was a very amiable person: he was ‘studyin’ when I entered, but politely laid his book down. You know the sort of face in which a long promontory of nose (eagle build) projects from between two rounded hills of cheek (cherub build)? Picture this surmounted by a pair of horn spectacles and made of a texture rather like cod’s roe: then add that this face beams but can contribute to the crack only by saying ‘That’s right’ at the end of everyone’s remark.
In these rather nasty surroundings Stead was finishing a very nasty meal of cold fish and cocoa: but he soon put on his coat and after asking his lady why there were no stamps in the house and receiving no answer, swung out with me into the usual Oxford theatrical night. Trusting soul to leave his wife unguarded in such society!
Yeats lives at the end of Broad St, the first house on your right as you leave the town. I can assure you I felt a veritable Bozzy as I reflected that I was now to meet at last WILLIAM BUTLER YEATS! But enough of that.
We were shown up a long stairway lined with rather wicked pictures by Blake–all devils and monsters–and finally into the presence chamber, lit by tall candles, with orange coloured curtains and full of things which I can’t describe because I don’t know their names.
The poet was very big, about sixty years of age: “awful” as Bozzy says: grey haired, clean shaven. When he first began to speak I would have thought him French, but the Irish sounds through after a time.
Before the fire was a circle of hard antique chairs. Present were the poet’s wife, a little man who never spoke all evening, and Father Martindale. Father M. is a Catholic Priest, a little twinkling man like a bird, or like Puck, whom I take to be an atheistical dog. I used to go to his lectures in the old days: he is a mocker.
Everyone got up as we came in: after the formalities I was humbly preparing to sink into the outlying chair leaving the more honourable to Stead, but the poet sternly and silently motioned us into other ones. The meaning of this I have not fathomed: ’twas very Pumble-chookian.
Then the talk began. It was all of magic and cabbalism and “the Hermetic knowledge.” The great man talked while the priest and Mrs Yeats fed him with judicious questions.
The matter I admit was either mediaeval or modern, but the manner was so XVIII Century that I lost my morale.
I understood how it is possible for a man to terrify a room into silence: and I had a ghastly presentment that something would presently impel me to up like that “unknown curate” and say “Were not Vale Owen’s revelations, Sir, addressed to the passions?”
And then as Max Beerbohm says “Bang” the suddenness of it! However I remembered that Johnson WAS really dead and controlled myself. Indeed some good angel guided me: for presently I really had something to say–a case mentioned by Coleridge which was most apposite and indeed crying for quotation on something just said.
But thank God I didn’t: for a minute later the priest did. YEATS (thumping his chair): “Yes–yes–the old woman in Coleridge. That story was published by Coleridge without the slightest evidence. Andrew Lang exposed it. I’ve never had a conversation on the subject that SOMEONE didn’t bring in Coleridge’s old woman. It is anonymous in the first place and every one has taken it over without question. It just shows that there’s no limit to the unscrupulousness that a sceptical man will go to–”
MARTINDALE: “Oh surely Mr Yeats–”
YEATS: “Yes! There is a Professor living in Oxford at this moment who is the greatest sceptic in print. The same man has told me that he entered a laboratory where X (some woman whose name I didn’t catch) was doing experiments: saw the table floating near the ceiling with X sitting on it: vomited: gave orders that no further experiments were to be done in the laboratories–and refused to let the story be known.”
But it would be only ridiculous to record it all: I should give you the insanity of the man without his eloquence and presence, which are very great. I could never have believed that he was so exactly like his own poetry.
One more joke must be recorded. Stead presently told us a dream he had had: it was so good that I thought it a lie. YEATS (looking to his wife): “Have you anything to say about that, Georgie?” Apparently Stead’s transcendental self, not important enough for the poet, has been committed to Mrs Yeats as a kind of ersatz or secondary magician.
Finally we are given sherry or vermouth in long and curiously shaped glasses, except Martindale who has whiskey out of an even longer and more curiously shaped glass, and the orgy is at an end.
Try to mix Pumblechook, the lunatic we met at the Mitre, Dr Johnson, the most eloquent drunk Irishman you know, and Yeats’s own poetry, all up into one composite figure, and you will have the best impression I can give you.
A week later Lewis records, in the same missive, a description of their encore gathering.
Having met Stead yesterday in the Broad with his wife and of course with our friend of the nose, I was told that the great man had expressed himself sorry not to have been able to see more of me owing to his argument with the priest, and would I come again with Stead [the] next night?
This night we were shown to a study up in the ceiling and entertained by him alone: and, would you believe it, he was almost quite sane, and talked about books and things, still eloquently and quite intelligently? Of course we got on to magic in the end—that was only to be expected.
It was really my fault, for I mentioned Bergson. “Ah yes,” said he, “Bergson. It was his sister who taught me magic.” The effect of this statement on Aunt Suffern (already in paroxysms of contempt over what I had already told her about Yeats) ought to be amusing.
We spoke of Andrew Lang. YEATS: “I met him once—at a dinner somewhere. He never said a word. When we began to talk afterwards, he just got up and took his chair into a corner of the room and sat down facing the wall. He stayed there all the evening.” Perhaps Lang didn’t like wizards!
Of the “great Victorians” he said: “The most interesting thing about the Victorian period was their penchant for selecting one typical great man in each department—Tennyson, THE poet, Roberts, THE soldier: and then these types were made into myths. You never heard of anyone else: if you spoke of medicine it meant—(some ‘THE Doctor’ whose name I’ve forgotten): if you spoke of politics it was Gladstone.” This is especially interesting to us as explaining the mental growth of a certain bird we wot of. (“Well all said and done boys, he was a GREAT man.”)
So home to bed more pleased with our poet than I had been on the last occasion: and rather thankful that L’Oiseau Pomme de Terre hadn’t been there to explain that “you can see he’s a disappointed man” after every adverse criticism on any living writer. Oh, before I leave it, Stead told me he had shown Yeats a poem: Yeats said he thought “IT WOULD DO VERY WELL” to set to music! Stead thinks this is a compliment. H’mh!
A moment ago we heard Stead’s appraisal of Yeats, which ended with a declaration of his interest in the supernatural. Stead said “Yeats welcomed almost any form of belief.” Well, that is not quite true. As the passage continues, he reveals Yeats’ discomfort with those who might challenge his affinity for occultic phenomena.
Once when I had brought an undergraduate with me, Yeats gave us a long discourse on re-incarnation. At the end my young friend ventured to observe that the theory of re-incarnation “bristles with difficulties.”
Yeats passed it off in sullen silence, but several times later on referred indignantly to “that young man who said re-incarnation bristles with difficulties.” (“Oxford Poets”)
The young man who dared suggest to Yeats that reincarnation was a flawed philosophy was none other than C.S. Lewis.
It is little surprise that the relationship between the two Irish poets never grew close.
Below you will find poems written by Lewis’ acquaintances mentioned in this column. The first is by Stead, and reflects a truly carefree spirit. The second is one of Yeats’ most famous works, penned in the aftermath of WWI.
Sweet Wild April
O sweet wild April
Came over the hills,
He skipped with the winds
And he tripped with the rills;
His raiment was all
Of the daffodils.
O sweet wild April
Came down the lea,
With his sisters three:
Carnation, and Rose,
And tall Lily.
O sweet wild April,
On pastoral quill
Came piping in moonlight
By hollow and hill,
In starlight at midnight,
By dingle and rill.
Where sweet wild April
His melody played,
Trooped cowslip, and primrose,
And iris, the maid,
And silver narcissus,
A star in the shade.
When sweet wild April
Dipped down the dale,
Pale cuckoopint brightened,
And windflower trail,
And white-thorn, the wood-bride,
In virginal veil.
When sweet wild April
Through deep woods pressed,
Sang cuckoo above him,
And lark on his crest,
And Philomel fluttered
Close under his breast.
O sweet wild April,
Wherever you went
The bondage of winter
Was broken and rent,
Sank elfin ice-city
And frost-goblin’s tent.
Yet sweet wild April,
The blithe, the brave,
Fell asleep in the fields
By a windless wave
Preached over his grave.
O sweet wild April,
Farewell to thee!
And a deep sweet sleep
To thy sisters three, –
Carnation, and Rose,
And tall Lily.
The Second Coming
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: a waste of desert sand;
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Wind shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?