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Autograph letter signed to William Force Stead.

Riversdale, Willbrook, Rathfarnham, Dublin: 26 September [1934] Stock Code: 123152
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"The ring I always wear"

A fascinating letter written by Yeats to his friend William Force Stead (1884-1967), expounding the symbolic meanings in the ring that Yeats had had made for him by Edmund Dulac.

Stead was an American-born poet, literary scholar, and Anglican clergyman, who studied at Oxford and then became chaplain and fellow at Worcester College from 1926 to 1933, when he was forced to resign due to his conversion to Catholicism. He was a friend of C. S. Lewis, Edmund Blunden, and of T. S. Eliot whom he baptised into the Anglican faith in 1927. He was later responsible for discovering the manuscript of the insane Christian poet Christopher Smart's Jubilate Agno, published in 1939 as Rejoice in the Lamb: A Song from Bedlam, and thus for bringing the antics of Smart's cat Jeoffry to the attention of the world.

When Yeats was living in Oxford in 1920, and deeply involved in the occult investigations that would culminate in A Vision (1925), Stead introduced himself by sending him a copy of his latest book of poems. He was invited to come and visit, and remembering their first meeting in a later talk entitled "Oxford Poets", in which he mentioned his anticipation that "since boyhood I had thought of him as the Magician Merlin harping in the Forest of Brocéliande". He was likely not disappointed, discovering Yeats in the company of his wife, a Hindu priest with "a long flowing orange coloured robe", and the Jesuit Father Martindale, "in the midst of a discourse on spiritualism and its evidences of survival". Yeats explained to Stead that he had not read his poems but been compelled to invite him because on touching Stead's book he had been visited by the odour of violets. Yeats, ever sensitive to spiritual missives in the form of "sweet smells" (A Vision), and particularly that of violets which he associated with sanctity, thus felt that Stead had been favourably flagged up for him by his spiritual instructors and began to cultivate a significant friendship and correspondence. Yeats later penned a reference to help Stead continue his academic career in America: "I have known Mr W. Force Stead since 1920. I think him an imaginative scholar with considerable critical ability and knowledge of English literature. His own writings show that he is sensitive to rhythm and style. He is a charming personality." He also did Stead the considerable courtesy of including two of his poems in the Oxford Book of Modern Verse that he controversially edited in 1936. Stead, for his part, concluded his "Oxford Poets" talk with the following ringing encomium, describing Yeats as: "the greatest poet and also the most remarkable man I have ever known... No words can revive the flash and fire of his mind, or his capacity for filling a room with his electric personality, lifting us out of ourselves, and carrying us away into regions of cloud-capped towers and gorgeous palaces and airy tongues that syllable men's names. Whenever I walked home after an evening with him, I heard the stars singing above me, and the memory of him remains an everlasting example of the truth that a man of genius is far greater than anything his genius creates."

In the present letter, which is apparently the last known from Yeats to Stead, the aged poet explains the meaning of the symbols on the ring designed for him by Edmund Dulac: "The Butterfly is the main symbol in my ring - the ring I always wear - the other symbol is the hawk. The hawk is the straight road of logic, the butterfly the crooked road of intuition - the hawk pounces, the butterfly flutters. I do not know any book upon the subject. I got like you a vision if I remember rightly." Stead had clearly in his preceding letter mentioned some spiritualist experiment involving a candle, of the type Yeats and Stead are known to have explored together, as Yeats goes on: "I suggest that your candle is knowledge, conscious effort, thought; and the butterfly the wisdom out of 'the unconsciousness' that follows. A Japanese describes the attainment of Nirvana in these words: 'something delightful has happened to the young man but he can only tell it to his sweetheart'". Yeats is here referring to something he read in D. T. Suzuki's Essays in Zen Buddhism (First Series).

The letter is highly characteristic of the spiritually attuned relationship shared by the two poets and men of faith (though of different sorts), and these utterances on the hawk, the candle, and the butterfly are of general interest to any reader of the poetry of Yeats, which relied so strongly on this sort of symbology especially in his mature phase. More specifically the notes on the butterfly may give a partial clue to the meaning of Yeats's 1934 publication Wheels & Butterflies.

Stead's papers are held at the Beinecke Library, Yale, though this letter appears to have escaped that acquisition.

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Single leaf with Riversdale letterhead, autograph letter signed to recto only. Framed (370 x 320 mm).


Usual folds, excellent condition.


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