Albright gives a similarly forthright account of the poet’s spelling and punctuation, excerpted below. While acknowledging his debt to Richard Finneran, who oversaw a different collection of Yeats’s poems, Albright parts company from him in two ways:
First, he is more respectful of Yeats’s punctuation than I. He supposes […] that Yeats’s punctuation was rhetorical rather than grammatical, an imaginative attempt to notate breath-pauses, stresses, and so forth; and that the bizarre punctuation in some of Yeats’s later poems is due to the influence of experimental modernists such as T.S. Eliot and Laura Riding. I suppose that Yeats was too ignorant of punctuation to make his deviations from standard practice significant. Although Yeats surely wished to make his canon a text worthy of reverence, he conceived poetry as an experience of the ear, not of the eye. He could not spell even simple English words; he went to his grave using such forms as intreage [‘intrigue’] and proffesrship. His eyesight was so poor that he gave up fiction-writing because the proof-reading was too strenuous. Finally, Yeats himself admitted, ‘I do not understand stops. I write my work so completely for the ear that I feel helpless when I have to measure pauses by stops and commas’.
Yeats had several ‘punctuational quirks’, Albright notes, including the fact that he seldom used hyphens. This tendency inevitably led to occasional ambiguity, such as when a tree is described as a ‘great rooted blossomer’. Albright’s evidence, which includes Yeats’s use elsewhere of the phrase ‘Great bladdered Emer’, points to the need for a hyphen in this case. I agree with his conclusion, but it’s not beyond all doubt.
An inattentive, half-blind, possibly dyslexic poet must rely on his editors, and in fact Yeats was often happy to do so. Yeats had a strong sense of decorum and propriety; he wanted his poems to look finished, indeed burnished, but he could not fulfil this wish without aid.
In order therefore to punctuate the poet’s text, Albright concludes, ‘one must first try to divine the purpose that punctuation must serve’.
This then is the task of editors: we must become mind-readers in a small, indirect way, fine-tuning the thoughts that lie behind their often imperfect expression, the better to bring a writer’s authentic voice to the light.