In Mad, Bad, Dangerous to Know: The Fathers of Wilde, Yeats and Joyce, Colm Tóibín, the distinguished Irish novelist and critic, sets out to illuminate the work of Ireland’s premier playwright, poet, and novelist in relation to their fathers. The book’s title, taken from the notorious description of Lord Byron by Lady Caroline Lamb, the Anglo-Irish aristo and author whose affair with the poet turned out badly, is catchy, but the phrase doesn’t apply very exactly to the subjects of this book.

Tóibín’s first chapter introduces his subjects through an enchanting and informative walking tour of that part of central Dublin south of the Liffey encompassed by Trinity College, Westland Row, Merrion Square, and St. Stephen’s Green. This small area provided the settings for many important events in the lives of these three writers. I think Tóibín might have included the old Kildare Street Club at the corner of Nassau Street, a prime social center of Anglo-Irish life before Independence; Yeats was a member, and this is probably the club he mentions in “Easter, 1916.”

My mention of this omission is a quibble, but, out of this group, Yeats is the one whose depths Tóibín seems least successful in fathoming. All of these authors are inscrutable to a degree, but Yeats may be the most enigmatic. Trying to identify commonalities among three writers of genius is bound to be iffy; sometimes Tóibín succeeds, and sometimes he does not. “Leopold Bloom moves alone in the city, as Stephen Dedalus does,” he writes. “Wilde in his London world stood alone too, as he suffered alone. And Yeats stayed proudly aloof, as Joyce did in his exile.”

Yes and no. Certainly Yeats in his poetry projects an image of proud and defiant individuality, but looking back over his life he also wrote, referring to Lady Augusta Gregory and John Millington Synge, “My glory was/ I had such friends.” He treats the reader of his Autobiographies to a fascinating, almost novelistic group portrait of the leading literary, political, spiritualist, and artistic figures of his day. And “In Memory of Major Robert Gregory” provides one-stanza sketches of men who were “my close companions many a year,/ A portion of my mind and life, as it were.”

Yeats’s father, John Butler Yeats, was a skillful and insightful portrait painter but an epic procrastinator, temperamentally incapable of executing what he set out to accomplish. His iron-willed son, who paid his father’s bills for many years, wrote to his and his father’s patron John Quinn: “It is this infirmity of will which has prevented him from finishing his pictures and ruined his career.” Certainly W. B. Yeats and his siblings—his sisters Lolly and Lily (craftswomen, book designers, and educators) and his brother, the painter Jack Butler Yeats—took their father’s failure as a negative object lesson. “While their father’s financial circumstances worsened, all four of the Yeats children worked and made money,” Tóibín comments. “From early in their lives, they were serious, determined, and industrious.” Yeats senior lived in exile in New York for the last fifteen or so years of his life, becoming, at this distance from his children, “one of the best letter writers of the age.”

I find this assessment of the elder Yeats’s letters difficult to agree with. Much of his advice to his son about poetry was vague if not wrongheaded, such as his assertion that “what is new is detestable to poetry.” W. B. Yeats, a leading light of the late-Victorian Celtic Twilight, triumphantly reinvented himself as one of the great modernists. And Yeats can have had little use for his father’s vague assertion that “the poet is a magician—his vocation to incessantly evoke dreams and do his work so well, because of natural gifts and acquired skill, that his dreams shall have a potency to defeat the actual at every point.” Yeats’s greatness resulted from doing the opposite of what his father advised, turning away from his earlier dreaminess to explore “the foul rag and bone shop of the heart.”

Tóibín quotes at wearisome length from the elderly painter’s puerile love letters to a widow with whom he carried on an intense, but platonic and largely epistolary affair for many years: “Ah! Rosa, Rosa, it makes me tremble to think of you” and “Your bosom is as soft and round as when you were eighteen, and your spirit, your inner self, is like your bosom.”

The most valuable insights of this book are to be found in Tóibín’s chapters on Wilde and Joyce. Unlike Yeats’s dramatic transformation, Wilde strikes one as having burst onto the scene sui generis, entirely self-invented. But Tóibín argues convincingly that he was very much his parents’ son. Yeats saw this, too, and wrote, “Of late years, I have often explained Wilde to myself by his family history.” Eccentricity ran in the family. Wilde’s mother, Jane, wrote high-flown Irish nationalist poetry under the nom de plume Speranza, painted her face, and dressed flamboyantly. His father, the surgeon Sir William Wilde, despite his eminence in medical and scientific circles, was known for a lack of personal hygiene. “Why are Sir William Wilde’s nails so black?” began a popular Dublin witticism. “Because he has scratched himself.” Yeats describes the couple as “dirty, untidy, daring . . . and very imaginative and learned.”

Beyond this, Sir William Wilde was the subject of a scandal that prefigured his son’s more famous imbroglio, having been publicly accused of sexual misconduct and caddish behavior by a protégée who went to great lengths to expose him, even printing a pamphlet about his wrongdoing and leaving copies at every house on the Wildes’ street.

More pertinent, however, than the Wildes’ eccentricity was what Tóibín calls the “idea of unstable and gnarled allegiances, of some beliefs as a sort of veneer.” The Wildes, as prominent members of the Protestant Anglo-Irish establishment, were at the same time bohemians, members of artistic circles in Dublin, and supporters of Home Rule. Many of their friends went to jail for their political views. Thus, in Tóibín’s words, “In the soirées that his parents gave, the idea of loyalty, whether to the crown or to Victorian sexual mores, was never stable.”

Received opinion about Wilde suggests that it was pure hubris and faulty judgment that propelled the flamboyant playwright to bring a libel suit against the Marquess of Queensberry, the father of his lover, Lord Alfred Douglas—that it never occurred to him he might actually have to go to jail. Tóibín’s argument is more interesting and nuanced. He suggests that imprisonment was not only socially acceptable in the pre-Independence Dublin society his parents moved in, but also almost desirable, a rite of passage that carried a certain cachet. Tóibín feels that, for Oscar Wilde, “there is a sense of shock at discovering the difference between prison as something imagined and then something that became desperately real for him when, at the age of forty, he found himself sentenced.”

Yeats’s aesthetic philosophy diverged sharply from his father’s, his work ethic even more so; the influence on Oscar Wilde from his father was more subtle, but clearly discernible. James Joyce’s connection with his father and use of him in his fiction was direct. “James Joyce sought to recreate his father,” Tóibín perceptively writes, to “reimagine him, fully invoke him, live in his world, while at the same time making sure that from the age of twenty-two, with the exception of a few short visits to Dublin, he did not see him much.”

John Stanislaus Joyce came from a wealthy family but through fecklessness and heavy drinking quickly managed to lose the money and property he inherited. My Brother’s Keeper, by Joyce’s brother Stanislaus, paints a devastating picture of their father: “at home he was a man of absolutely unreliable temper . . . grinding his teeth and looking at my mother and muttering phrases like ‘Better finish it now.’ ” He even tried to strangle his hapless wife; only James’s intervention stopped him. So why does Joyce’s fiction not paint him as a violent and dangerous drunk? Stanislaus recalls that during his brother’s student years in Dublin, James tended to stay in his room and ignore the family strife.

Joyce senior was a popular man about town, much admired for his singing voice and eloquence, both highly prized talents in Ireland. Stanislaus states that “excepting the literary allusions which Gabriel Conroy considers above the head of his listeners, the speech in ‘The Dead’ is a fair sample, somewhat polished and emended, of his after-dinner oratory.” Tóibín calls “The Dead” a “grand act of emotional recuperation”—an inspired characterization of Joyce’s use of his father’s legacy.

If John Butler Yeats’s life was a cautionary tale for his son, Joyce went even further, explicitly pitting his strength against his father’s weaknesses. Stephen in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man feels that his own “mind seemed older than theirs [Simon Dedalus and his friends]: it shone coldly on their strifes and happiness and regrets like a moon upon a younger earth.” Artistic cold-bloodedness and emotional sublimation—Tóibín brings them brilliantly together in his characterization of Joyce’s fiction:

Having learned to observe his father in a story such as “Grace” and in Stephen Hero, and having merged his spirit with that of his father in “The Dead,” in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Joyce now sought to outsoar his father, to see him as if through sweetened air from high above.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 37 Number 8, on page 75
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