AROUND DUBLIN in his last years, William Butler Yeats was known in some less than friendly circles as "Willy the Spooks" and "The Gland Old Man." The second epithet was in reference to the Steinach operation Yeats underwent in 1934. This minor surgery was supposed to bring about an increase in the growth of the cells of the testicles. Yeats was 69 at the time and felt a need for the rejuvenation promised by Steinach's then fashionable treatment.
No one would have thought up derisive nicknames for John Butler Yeats, Willie's father. Unlike his son, JBY was a genial and well-loved man. Nor would JBY have given himself over to Steinach: physically and spiritually, the father remained youthful right up until his death at age 82. The art collector John Quinn, who served as JBY's guardian and surrogate son in America, once called the old man "the youth of eighty." William Murphy, his biographer, mentions JBY's "spirit of eternal youth" and writes that "John Butler Yeats at sixty-eight may have had the youngest mind in Dublin."
But if JBY remained in many ways a juvenile, he was mostly a delinquent one. He studied for a career in the law and was admitted to the bar. But in court he spent his time drawing caricatures of his colleagues. He quickly realized the legal profession was incompatible with his personality and at the age of 28, he gave up law to devote himself completely to his art.
But throughout his long life, JBY was to be "gloriously and quixotically unsuccessful." His life involved not so much an Irish attraction to failure as a Bohemian disdain for success. He found it almost impossible to finish a painting (believing, Murphy writes, that "as things constantly change, nothing is ever really finished"). When he did manage to complete a portrait, he had difficulty demanding a fee. As a result, he did not make the most of the portrait commissions his influential friends were forever lining up for him and was always short of funds.
This situation did not go over very happily with his wife, Susan. She was a Pollexfen. The Pollexfens were a business-minded people committed to the philosophy of "getting on." Susan never adjusted to life with this easy-going artist who denied her the comfort and gentility she had expected. Writing about one of Synge's plays years after Susan's death, JBY mentions "our Irish institution, the loveless marriage." It was an institution he knew first-hand. "The weakness in my character is a distrust of any kind of personal success," he once wrote. Although he made a few enemies in his lifetime, JBY's impractical nature was to prove frustrating not only to his wife, but to many of those closest to him -- John Quinn and his eldest son Willie in particular.
JBY believed passionately that the artist must please himself first. He told his son Jack (who was also a painter and with whom JBY is sometimes confused): "never interest yourself in anything you don't care about." JBY never "made it" in the art world: he was 62 when his work was first exhibited; he was dead 50 years when his first one-man show was held in 1972 in Ireland.
But with this biography, JBY's contribution as an artist is fleshed out and his reputation enlarged. Murphy claims that "Today John Yeat's paintings are acknowledged as among the finest of their time." The painter Robert Henri thought that Yeats was "the greatest British portrait painter of the Victorian era." Yet it is Yeats's drawings that demand recognition. There are over 150 photographs and drawings included in this biography, many of them reproductions of JBY's work in pencil. His sketches show great vitality and ability. With them, Murphy comments, Yeats "was to create a portrait gallery that included virtually everyone of importance in the Irish Renaissance and in Anglo-Irish Dublin between 1898 and 1907."
JBY, in a characteristically unconventional move, went to New York for a brief visit when he was 68 and never returned to Ireland. He died in New York 14 years later. But they were among the best years of his life -- he became friends with John Sloan and Robert Henri (of the "Ashcan School" of painters), and with many of the younger artists and writers of the day. His brilliant talk and good humor were magnetic.
Murphy tells an anecdote from JBY's New York days: "Once a young man, introduced to him as he sat at the head of the table, innocently remarked, 'So you're the father of the great Yeats.' The old man drew himself up, looked sternly at the upstart, and retorted, 'I am the great Yeats.'"
Most people would probably agree with the young man that William Butler Yeats was "the great Yeats." In his choice of a title for this biography, Murphy himself acknowledges the importance of JBY's role as father to his: more famous son. If JBY had sired a family of sales clerks, instead of one that included a great poet and a wellknown painter, it is hard to say, whether this biography would have been written. Yet JBY had an enormous impact on Willie. Late in his father's life, Willie began to admit ("with some surprise") to his father "how fully my philosophy of Life has been inherited from you in all but its details and applications." Perhaps if JBY had been the sales clerk, the strength of that admission by William Butler Yeats would alone have made him important.
Which is not to say that father and son were alike or compatible. There was a great deal of the Pollexfen in Willie: "To Willie his father's character and behavior" were "irritating beyond endurance." In 1921, the year before his father's death, WBY wrote to Quinn about the old man: "He even hates the sign of will in others. It used to cause quarrels between me and him, for 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. . ."
WBY did escape, of course, and achieved the success his father scorned. Ironically, though, no biography of WBY, generally regarded as the most significant poet of the 20th century, has been written to compare with this brilliant work by William Murphy.
Once when he was asked to write his autobiography, JBY replied: "I have no wish to unwind that mangled yarn." With Prodigal Father, the mangled yarn is unwound. Murphy's book is exhaustive, well-written, and unpretentious. In spite of Murphy's modest denials, this biography is close to being a history of the Yeats family and of the entire Irish Revival as well.
But always the focus is on the fascinating figure of John Butler Yeats, this painter who became "a whole person." Murphy deserves the final word here: "Perhaps at least this much may be said: that in a perfect world in which 'getting on' has become unnecessary and irrelevant, John Butler Yeats might be its perfect citizen, the end product of a beneficent evolution, wise tolerant, liking and likable, witty, intelligent, full of shifting but always exciting ideas, a delight to the hearts and minds of those around him."