Friday, October 5, 2018

Did Yeats Say That? Quotable Yeats and Misattributions

I was reading a review of a new book on Pamela Colman SmithPamela Colman Smith: The Untold Story, by Kaplan, Greer, O'Connor, and Parsons (2018)—which comments that: “W. B. Yeats, for instance, wrote that she looked 'exactly like a Japanese. Nannie says this Japanese appearance comes from constantly drinking iced water.' ” 

Maybe because I remembered reading it before or because the name Nannie struck me as strange, I went to check. Checking online only repeats the same attribution in the majority of cases, but the odd online source does give the correct source of a letter to W. B. Yeats from his father, J. B. Yeats, as do most of the book sources. But it reminded me of how easily attributions can drift or be misremembered either by proximity or just the jumbling of memory. And how these jumblings are all too easily propagated across the web.

For many years witty quotations have been attributed to Mark Twain and Oscar Wilde to give them some parentage when we are unsure, but careless attribution is becoming more and more common as attributions are simply copied and pasted. Quite a few of the quotations attributed to W. B. Yeats are not really his—sadly, perhaps, because they are among the most widely quoted of his supposed formulations. For instance, out of a supposed Top Ten Quotes published this year for Yeats's birthday, I think only four are authentic:

1. X “Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.” (see below)
2. X “Do not wait to strike till the iron is hot; but make it hot by striking.” (see below)
3. X “There are no strangers here; Only friends you haven't yet met.” (see below)
4. √ “Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.” (“He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven”)
5. √ “How far away the stars seem, and how far is our first kiss, and ah, how old my heart.” ("Ephemera")
6. √ “Think where man’s glory most begins and ends, and say my glory was I had such friends.” (“The Municipal Gallery Revisited”)
7. ?X “Being Irish, he had an abiding sense of tragedy, which sustained him through temporary periods of joy.” (source uncertain, but not Yeats)
8. √ “Come away, O human child: To the waters and the wild with a fairy, hand in hand, For the world's more full of weeping than you can understand.” (“The Stolen Child”)
9. X “People who lean on logic and philosophy and rational exposition end by starving the best part of the mind.” (John Butler Yeats to his son, W. B. Yeats, in 1906)
10. X “Happiness is neither virtue nor pleasure nor this thing nor that but simply growth, We are happy when we are growing.” (John Butler Yeats, again; this time writing to Miss Grierson in 1909, slightly adapted: “And happiness . . . what is it? I say it is neither virtue...” etc.).

The first example—“Education is not the filling of a pail but the lighting of a fire” or sometimes “Education is not filling a bucket, but lighting a fire”—seems to derive from someone reading a passage which gave two quotations together—one by Yeats and one by Plutarch—and somehow eliding the name associated with the second one:

In other words, the key to a lively and a vital appreciation of the arts in the fields of collecting and criticism is the willingness to keep doors open, an eagerness to venture into new fields for the sake of the enjoyment which a work of art can bring.
William Butler Yeats has expressed the heart of this viewpoint in his statement, “Culture does not consist in acquiring opinions but in getting rid of them” and Plutarch in “Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.” (Vision and Image: A Way of Seeing, James Johnson Sweeney, 1968)
Sweeney was in fact reformulating the traditional translation of Plutarch's Greek, making it a little more pithy: “The mind is not a vessel to be filled, but wood that needs igniting” or in the translation of Philemon Holland, which Yeats read: “For that the minde and understanding of man is not of the nature of a vessell that requireth to be filled up: but it hath neede onely of some match (if I may so say) to kindle and set it on fire” (Plutarch, “Of Hearing”, Moralia). The full story is set out in The Quote Investigator and is also examined in an article from the Irish Times.

The Quote Investigator also tackles a few more Yeats attributions:–

“Do not wait to strike till the iron is hot; but make it hot by striking” is slippery in terms of precise wording, but a similar phrase seems to come first from the pen of Benjamin Franklin in 1782. 

“There are no strangers here, only friends you haven't met” appears to have its origin in the words of the popular American poet Edgar A. Guest, who published a poem titled “Faith" in 1915, which includes the lines: “I believe in the purpose of everything living, / That taking is but the forerunner of giving; / That strangers are friends that we some day may meet..."

Changing the author can change the meaning, and the fuller context often sheds a slightly different light on the words. Looking at the Yeats quotations investigated, there is one that I remember first seeing as part of an informational film at a National Park: “The world is full of magical things, patiently waiting for our senses to grow sharper”. Attributed to Yeats, it hints at “nature's finer forces” and devas or nature spirits, which we may perhaps discern if we subtilize our natures and refine our perceptions through spiritual practice. Yet the quotation (or its original version) comes from the playwright and essayist Eden Phillpotts and actually refers to the use of scientific instruments such as telescope and microscope:
The fimbriated flowers [of the buckbean] are a miracle of workmanship and every blossom exhibits an exquisite disorder of ragged petals finer than lace. But one needs a lens to judge of their beauty: it lies hidden from the power of our eyes, and menyanthes must have bloomed and passed a million times before there came any to perceive and salute her loveliness. The universe is full of magical things patiently waiting for our wits to grow sharper.  (A Shadow Passes, 1919).

It becomes therefore a paean to scientific observation and the senses' need for technology to sharpen them.

Of course, given the frequency with which one or other line of “The Second Coming” is quoted nowadays, two or three of the authentic Top Ten list would probably come from that poem: perhaps “The centre cannot hold,” “The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity,” “And what rough beast, its hour come round at last, / Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?”.

What else should make that genuine Top Ten?