They met in Dublin in 1902. Joyce had been angling for an introduction through AE. He admired Yeats and could recite some of his poems from memory.
There are various versions of what was said.
Yeats was King of the Cats and Joyce had published very little except an attack on the Irish National theatre. Both Forster and Ellmann read the meeting as symbolic for modern literature (in different ways), but all the versions agree that Joyce was very rude and Yeats was not put off by his arrogance, although he may later have commented: “Never Have I seen so much pretension with so little so show for it.”
So imagine an unpublished Undergraduate at Oxford wrangling a meeting with Sir Geoffrey Hill, and reading him her poems. He praises them and then she says:
”I really don’t care whether you like what I am doing or not. It won’t make the least difference to me. Indeed, I don’t know why I’m reading to you.” (Joyce qtd. by Yeats qtd. by Ellmann)
Sadly I can imagine someone doing this in 2013. It sounds like the appalling lack of manners and tact that gets excused as “raw honesty” by posturing idiots.
Joyce also explained to Yeats: “All his objections to everything I have ever done.” And left with the famous parting shot: “I am twenty. How old are you? I told him, but I am afraid I said I was a year younger than I am. He said with a sigh, “I thought as much I have met you too late. You are too old”.
Yeats doesn’t seem to have been offended and went out of his way to help Joyce find publishers.
Over thirty years later he included 3 poems in his anthology of modern verse. They come from Pomes Penny Each. Given the space he gave Ruddock, Gogarty and Wellesley and the praise and space he gave to Walter James Turner, this is no real recommendation.
As I’m working my way through Yeats’ collected works, it’s increasingly obvious that Yeats as critic is at his best in his letters. Whatever lunatic claims he might make for Wellesley or Rudock, his letters to them balance praise with telling criticism. Yeats’ judgement when he’s writing about what he called ‘technic’ or giving advice about a particular poem, has so far been worth considering. And on consideration always seems valuable.
He kept Joyce’s poems and Epiphanies to read more closely and then wrote Joyce what Ellmann calls, “a long and complimentary letter”. It’s complimentary because Ellmann only had a fragment and both he and Forster quoted the first half (Ellman 108 and Forster vol 1 277) … Yeats wrote:
The work which you have actually done is very remarkable for a man of your age who has lived away from the vital intellectual centres. Your technique in verse is much better than the technique of any young Dublin Man I have met during my time. …However, men have started with as good promise as yours and have failed and men have started with less and have succeeded. The qualities that make a man succeed do not show in his verse, often, for quite a long time. They are much less qualities of talent than qualities of character-faith (of this you have probably enough), Patience, adaptability (without this one learns nothing) and a gift for growing by experience and this perhaps is rarest of all.
The Letter is given in full in My Bother’s Keeper (208) and after the praise comes the criticism Yeats was so good at in his letters…
I think the poem that you have sent me has a charming rhythm in the second stanza, but I think it is not one of the best of your lyrics as a whole. I think that the thought is a little thin. Perhaps I will make you angry when I say that it is the poetry of a young man who is practising his instrument, taking pleasure in the mere handling of the stops. It went very nicely in its place with the others, getting a certain richness from the general impression of all taken together, and from your own beautiful reading. Taken apart by itself it would please a reader who had got to know your work but it would not in itself draw attention to that work
Pound would say much the same thing about some of the poems in Chamber Music.
Here, as in nearly every poem, the motif is so slight that the poem scarcely exists until one thinks of it as set to music, and the workmanship is so delicate that out of twenty readers scarce one will notice its fineness.
But for Pound, being that one who noticed was important: writing the kind of poem only one out of twenty might value was the mark of the “True Artist”. True Artists did not write for ‘the mob’.
I prefer Yeats’ attitude. It’s not enough to be able to play the instrument. You have do something with it that is worth the price of admission.
Perhaps a neat antidote to all those formalist poets “Practicing their stops” and offering the reader little more than the spectacle of a would be virtuoso endlessly running up and down the same set of scales.