Punctuating Yeats and reading writers’ minds

March 23, 2015

‘Yeats’s handwriting resembles a mouse’s electrocardiogram,’ writes the late Daniel Albright in his preamble to the marvellous Everyman Library edition of W. B. Yeats’ Poems, which he edited.

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’.

Read the rest of this entry »

Advertisements

The man who spoke with perfect sentences

November 5, 2013

Anyone who has ever transcribed an interview, conversation, or unrehearsed speech of any sort will be very aware of how disfluent this form of language is. We start and stop and stall, repeat ourselves, insert filler phrases and sounds, search for forgotten words, abandon trains of thought, deal with interruptions and distractions, follow tangents, and double back.

It’s a far cry from writing, which gives us the luxury of time to prepare and arrange the translation of our thoughts. Grammar is therefore normally much tighter in writing than in speech. And because we learn about language through writing, significantly later than we develop speech, we cannot help but find speech wanting when we (unfairly) compare the two.

Read the rest of this entry »


Gogarty’s Liffey swans

December 17, 2011

Irish writer Oliver St. John Gogarty was kidnapped at gunpoint by the IRA on a cold winter night in 1923, during the country’s Civil War. His escape is the stuff of modern romantic legend. W. B. Yeats — who thought Gogarty “one of the great lyric poets of his age” — gives the following account of events:

Oliver Gogarty was captured by his enemies, imprisoned in a deserted house on the edge of the Liffey with every prospect of death. Pleading a natural necessity he got into the garden, plunged under a shower of revolver bullets and as he swam the ice-cold December stream promised it, should it land him in safety, two swans. I was present when he fulfilled that vow.

[from the Oxford Book of Literary Anecdotes]

George Moore called Gogarty “author of all the jokes that enable us to live in Dublin”. Even during the abduction his tongue was unstill: on arrival at the house, he is said to have asked his captors whether he should tip the driver. Conduct was for Gogarty “a series of larks”, in Ellmann’s phrase; little wonder there was soon a popular ballad celebrating his Liffey adventure.

But the gift of swans is what I like most about the story, the gesture showing both Gogarty’s poetic sensibility and his talent for myth-making. The Liffey was not just a means of escape but an entity to be honoured with a ceremonial offering of further life (though the swans seemingly took some persuasion to make the river their home).

Who knows, maybe they’re ancestors of the one that nibbled my hand on the other side of the Shannon some decades later.