The Irish Connection:
Wallace Stevens and
Thomas MacGreevy
Peter Brazeau
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First published in The Southern Review 17:3 (Summer 1981) p533-541.
This text has not been re-edited for this hypertext version.


I HAVE MET THROUGH YOU many people with whom I am in sympathy," Wallace Stevens once confided to his close friend Barbara Church, "but none more so than Tom McGreevy." With this poet and art critic, Stevens enjoyed one of the most stimulating relationships in the last seven years of his life. The impact of their correspondence on Stevens the man of letters during the first year of friendship would alone justify a closer look, even if their single meeting in New York after six years of such long-distance relations did not offer a revealing close-up of Stevens the man.

The Dublin-Hartford connection began in the spring of 1948. By briefly tracing how the link came about, one comes to appreciate McGreevy's cosmopolitan literary background, which was part of his appeal to the Hartford-bound Stevens. He recognized in McGreevy a man who, from his youth, had been "eager to be at the heart of his time." Born in 1893 in County Kerry, McGreevy came to Paris in 1927 as Lecteur at the prestigious École Normale Supérieure after leaving a lectureship at London's National Gallery upon graduation from Trinity College (Dublin). Once in Paris he became part of James Joyce's inner circle. At Joyces' apartment, the versatile McGreevy might be found helping with proofs of Work in Progress, to which he contributed at least one episode; talking about Vico's symbolism with Joyce; or, more often when Joyce was present, entertaining with Irish anecdotes, for he was a notable storyteller. In the twenties and early thirties, however, McGreevy was himself an active young man of letters. He contributed poetry to the Dial, Criterion, and transition, among others; translated Valéry; and wrote some of the earliest critical studies of T. S. Eliot and Richard Aldington. It was, in fact, through his friend Aldington whom he met at the Joyces' in the late twenties, that McGreevy was introduced to yet another literary circle presided over by Henry Church, a wealthy American expatriate, and his Bavarian wife, Barbara, at their villa outside Paris. Although they lost touch during the war, which McGreevy spent in Ireland and the Churches in a state of quasi-exile in America, when they reestablished contact in 1947, Wallace Stevens had become a valued member of the Churches' New York circle.

Hearing through Mrs. Church that Stevens had spoken appreciatively of some McGreevy poems which he had seen years before, the Dubliner took the first opportunity to write to Stevens, on April 12, 1948, hoping the compliment was correct. Such praise from Stevens, whose work he had had some familiarity with during the twenties and thirties, meant a good deal, for by now McGreevy had largely stopped publishing poetry. That evening Stevens brought McGreevy's letter home from the office to ponder. Out of what was little more than a note listing the difficulties the Irishman had had in locating him, Stevens made the substance for a meditation on the relations between poets and responsive readers. It was a procedure Stevens repeated to his literary advantage in the ensuing months. A persistent query by this Irish art critic concerning a favorite Renaissance painter, a dialogue on Baudelaire initiated by this modernist poet, or a chance association between the figure of Eulalia in Stevens and Lorca made by this man of "impecable taste," for example, provided Stevens with the stimulus for fruitful, sometimes extended, reflection. In the process, McGreevy left his mark on at least three of Stevens' poems and two of his last four majoring and th essays.1 Space permits a detailed look only at the most extraordinary of these episodes, which resulted in "Tom McGreevy, in America, Thinks of Himself as a Boy," a poem which clarifies both the remarkable sympathy the Hartford artist felt for the Dublin writer at the start and its creative effect on Stevens the poet.

A few weeks after their first exchange of letters, McGreevy's Poems arrived in Hartford on May 5, 1948, the true beginning of their friendship. As Stevens read these Irish pieces that spring, he experienced a notable sense of kinship with the County Kerry poet. Near the end of the slender volume, he came upon "Recessional," the poem that did the most establish this rapport. Moved by it, Stevens wrote "Tom McGreevy, in America," a record of his reflections on McGreevy's lyric. In the autobiographical "Recessional," the Irishman portrayed the pull of his homeland on his imagination during years abroad. Recounting an episode which had happened on his first trip to Switzerland, McGreevy focused on the flow of his thoughts as he stood on the riverbank at Engelberg. The literary associations of the area, where a Jamesian hero had spent some of his last days, soon gave way in the young poet's mind to more vital personal associations:

In the bright broad Swiss glare I stand listening
To the outrageous roars
Of the Engelbergeraa
As it swirls down the gorge
And I think I am thinking
Of Roderick Hudson.
But as I stand,
Time closes over sight,
And sound
Is drowned
By a long silvery roar
From the far ends of memory
Of a world I have left.

The Swiss cataract evoked the roar of the Atlantic off the Irish coast at Mal Bay which had so impressed McGreevy as a child when he heard it thirty miles inland at home in the village of Tarbert. So attractive was the image of his youth and home conjured up in that sound that the Irish exile ended his poem pondering the advantages of drowning and thus returning home where

I could hear
Where listeners still hear—
That far-away, dear
Roar Greevy's
The long silvery roar
Of Mal Bay.

These are the nostalgic sounds which so powerfully affected Stevens and which lay behind his compliment to the emotional reach of "Recessional" at the end of "Tom McGreevy, in America": "The sound of him / Comes from a great distance and is heard." McGreevy's self-portrait in "Recessional," a view of a poet framed by his nostalgia for home, attracted Stevens because he saw in it his own likeness. The l940s were a time when the Connecticut poet had become preoccupied with his own boyhood memories of the Pennsylvania locale where he had grown up. His native region now served as an analogous point of imaginative reference in such poems as "Credences of Summer," where Oley and other Berks County areas had some of the same hold on Stevens as the Mal Bay area had on the Irish poet.

McGreevy was understandably astonished when he received Stevens' poem three months after their first contact and saw, as he wrote to William York Tindall, that his new acquaintance "was doing me the honour of thinking of himself as Tom McGreevy of America." Stevens points up his strong sense of identification not only by the title but by assuming the persona of the Dubliner throughout much of the poem. Tom McGreevy in America, nonetheless, speaks with a distinctively Stevensian accent in the poem. Whereas the Irish McGreevy had written a nostalgic work about his desire to return home, Stevens composes his lyric, in part, as a meditation on the aesthetics of such nostalgic art. To read the poems in tandem is to see that in "Tom McGreevy, in America" Stevens steps back and reflects on what his double had accomplished in "Recessional." It is a typical Stevens poem in that it takes as its subject the making of poetry. The first stanza summarizes what Stevens, assuming the persona of the Irishman in "Recessional," sees as McGreevy's poetic achievement in that lyric:

Out of him that I loved,
Mal Bay I made,
I made Mal Bay
And him in that water.

The opening quatrain sets out such heroic creativity in the plainest diction, a counterpoint of moving understatement which continues throughout much of the poem. Later stanzas form an intricate gloss on the aesthetic implications of McGreevy's accomplishment. The fourth stanza, for example, begins with the speaker again musing on the value of such imaginative intercourse with reality: "What would the water have been, / Without that that he makes of it?"

The second stanza, however, is the most striking example of McGreevy with a Stevens accent. Stevens actually rewrites a stanza from another McGreevy poem, "Homage to Hieronymous Bosch," which had caught his attention the first evening he read the Irish collection:

High above the Bank of Ireland
Unearthly music sounded,
Passing Westwards.

In "Tom McGreevy, in America," Stevens changes the meaning completely to fit into the meditation "Recessional" had provoked. The first evening he had thought the unearthly music represented the "nostalgie du divin (which obviously is epidemic in Dublin)." In his poem, however, the music has not only reversed direction but changed meaning. It is the poetry of home, the sound of Tarbert, that Stevens asserts McGreevy hears in the Dublin wind:

Over the top of the Bank of Ireland,
The wind blows quaintly
Its thin-stringed music,
As he heard it in Tarbert.

Stevens has updated "Recessional", as it were, sensing that the Irish youth in Switzerland who had felt the pull of home on his imagination continues to undergo such metamorphosis as a middle-aged Dubliner.

Sending a copy of the poem to McGreevy in July 1948, Stevens asked permission to publish it in a group of poems scheduled to appear later in England. He rightly felt that he had to ask permission since there was an ethical question involved: was the image of McGreevy true enough to the reality of the Kerryman to bear his name in public? "The whole poem was like myself talking to myself," McGreevy quickly replied, with more than a bit of honest surprise.2 In reading "Recessional" Stevens had intuited an essential feature of McGreevy's personality. The appeal of his home in the west of Ireland was permanent, not merely an expatriate's homesickness, as his country village continued to draw him on visits during the years in Dublin when he was writing Stevens.

To read "Tom McGreevy, in America," then, is to gain access to Stevens' room at home that spring of 1948 and to hear at least some of what he said to himself as he turned the pages of a book from a new correspondent and discovered a kindred imagination at work. While Stevens enjoyed his stimulating correspondence with the Irish poet and art critic, which left its mark on his poetry and essays during the period, he also valued the more ephemeral pleasures that came in the mail from McGreevy. A postcard from Rome or Wales might momentarily waft Stevens beyond the usual itinerary of his imagination. The inevitable "God's blessing" at the end of McGreevy's letters might bring him momentarily back in time, as well. A report on W. B. Yeats's Irish burial might let Stevens occupy a seat next to McGreevy and his friend Jack Yeats in the cortege as it made its way through the countryside to Sligo. The Irish papers McGreevy occasionally sent might put him in touch with aspects of everyday life in another country which delighted Stevens, from racing news to requiem notices. No small part of the pleasure the Hartford-bound Stevens took in such exchanges with McGreevy, as with his other foreign correspondents, was the opportunity to actualize life abroad. McGreevy was his necessary angel in Dublin, through whose sight he glimpsed an Ireland which, as Stevens once told his friend, he knew he would never actually visit.

At times, however, all this seemed understandably unreal to Stevens. Occasionally during the six years in which these friends met only on paper, McGreevy seemed a man made out of words. While Stevens acknowledged that his Irish friend was "as warm-hearted a person as any that I know," nonetheless, as he confided to their mutual friend Barbara Church, McGreevy could be "a difficult correspondent—for me, because he is mythical, theoretical, an inhabitant of the world of names." Here Mrs. Church, who had brought the two men together, helped to sustain their relationship as she shared her first-hand observations of each man with the other during her summers in Europe and her winters in New York. Her accounts became even more important when, a few years after the two men began to exchange letters, McGreevy was appointed Director of Dublin's National Gallery and the strenuous schedule made him a more sporadic correspondent. Mrs. Church's account of Stevens at a coming-home party after one of her trips abroad typifies how she helped each man see more of his friend than he saw on to paper:

Wallace Stevens came first for the party from Hartford (4 hours drive) with his daughter Holly, a handsome, intelligent girl.... They are proud of each other, I love to look at them, it was a struggle for both, Holly did not appreciate her father when she was very young and he made no effort to make her. Now she is older and wiser (27, I believe) and there is Peter [Hanchak, Stevens' grandson], the voyant as W. St. calls him, 7 years old and quite something for both of them. She was married to a Russian, W. St. said Roussian to show his aversion, and is divorced.

After exchanging some sixty letters, the long-distance friends finally met in January 1954, appropriately enough at Barbara Church's s New York apartment. McGreevy had come to America as Irish delegate to the Congress in Art History and Museology at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Despite a strenuous schedule during much of his month-long stay, he hoped to see something of Stevens both in New York and in Hartford, one of the overnight stops on a New England museum tour arranged for the delegates. In Connecticut McGreevy did come face-to-face with Stevens at home (figuratively speaking) though they did not actually see each other for the first time until their luncheon in New York the following week. It was not so much in the note that Stevens had written resisting a brief meeting in Hartford, however, that Greevy encountered the Hartford Stevens, the man who kept people at bay in his hometown. Instead of "trying to inch in for a few moments" during McGreevy's hectic twenty-four hours in Connecticut, Stevens preferred to hold off their meeting until the Church luncheon when "[we] shall have plenty of time then to shake hands, drink ourselves to death, and anything else we think of. Any attempt on my part to meet you up here might embarrass you, me, or both of us." In this note Stevens was trying not so much to keep McGreevy at arm's length at home as to fashion a more auspicious setting for their first encounter.Rather, McGreevy came face-to-face with the Hartford Stevens who held people off when he did not see the Connecticut poet among the local notables at the Wadsworth-Atheneum gala honoring such distinguished visitors on their one night in the city. That evening McGreevy learned why Stevens had not been invited to Hartford's local museum to dine in Tapestry Hall with the visiting dignitaries, who included André Malraux. It was not because Stevens was an unrecognized at home but because he had made it plain long ago that at home he did not wish to play the role of Hartford's writer-in-residence. As he had bluntly told Norman Holmes Pearson when informally invited to a local college where his old friend William Carlos Williams was to speak, "I want to keep Trinity at arm's length (to be plain about it) because I want nothing but the office and home as home." If McGreevy did not actually meet Stevens on his brief visit to his hometown, that evening he nonetheless caught sight of the Hartford Stevens, a man of decided reserve in his day-to-day relations with the community where he lived more than half of his life.

The gregarious McGreevy was understandably nervous when, the following Saturday, he arrived at Barbara Church's Park Avenue apartment to meet the formidable Mr. Stevens. A small poet's luncheon had been arranged, at McGreevy's request. Marianne Moore was the only other guest, for she was another long-distance friend he had wanted to meet during his stay. "At 12 o'clock Miss Moore and I arrived, and in a very few minutes Wallace Stevens arrived. It was the first time we laid eyes on each other. He was absolutely charming," McGreevy found to his relief. Amid the pleasant din created by these congenial friends, for "I don't think that any of us listened to what the others said. We were just like so many canaries; we all talked together," McGreevy was struck by Stevens' manner. That afternoon his Hartford friend was a man "full of youthful divilment [sic] ... without any need for watchfulness or caution." Stevens' joie de vivre during their five-hour luncheon left McGreevy with the impression that, at seventy-four, Stevens was a "young forty." Back in Ireland, as McGreevy sorted out his impressions of the people he had met on his trip, no one seemed so much the open American, once they had met, as his Hartford friend. Astoundingly, Stevens impressed McGreevy as nothing less than a contemporary Whitman: "though I met lovely people ... I incline now in retrospect to think that maybe only you really were American. Are you, do you think, the first American since Whitman who was surely wasn't he? the first American of all?" Between Hartford and New York, McGreevy had encountered two sides of the many-faceted Stevens, a man who could be as spontaneous and warm as he was more often reserved and formal.

There was a poignant epilogue to this meeting. A few months after that pleasant luncheon, Stevens was back in New York on business for the day and paid an afternoon call on Mrs. Church. It was the first time he had visited at the apartment since he had met McGreevy there, and the conversation naturally turned to their Irish friend. Talk of the affection which McGreevy had so easily evoked during his trip brought an admission from Stevens which dumbfounded Mrs. Church. "I should have answered when you were there on the spot," she replied in her letter the following day. "We were talking about Tom and his ability of being loved by everybody, or nearly, you complained, yes a little, that many people do not love you." She wrote, in part, to reassure Stevens: "I should have said: but my husband did, I do, I am sure Marianne Moore does and also Tom. I saw Holly look at you, also Mrs. Stevens the rare times we were together—it is already quite a crowd." But she also pointed out what she had observed about his unwillingness more often to pay the price of friendships close to home: "I am sure you could easily have a crowd if you yourself were willing—I have learned that everything has to be paid for, mostly with our own efforts." To see Wallace Stevens in an Irish light, in the light of his friendship with Thomas McGreevy, then, is to see a bit more clearly not only Stevens the man of letters but also Stevens the man during the last decade of his life.

  Notes

1 "Tom McGreevy, in America, Thinks of Himself as a Boy"; "The Westwardness of Everything"; "The Novel"; "Imagination as Value"; and "Two or Three Ideas." Back to text.

 

2 Unpublished letter of Thomas McGreevy to Wallace Stevens, August 4, 1948. McGreevy was particularly surprised that in adapting these lines from "Hieronymous Bosch" Stevens had specified his boyhood village. "Where in God's name did you get it [Tarbert]?" In fact, on May 10, 1948, McGreevy, writing to thank Stevens for Parts of a World, had remarked: "Wallace Stevens was born at Reading, Pa., on October 2, 1879, fourteen years and 24 days before Tom McGreevy was born in Tarbert, Co. Kerry." Thus while Stevens derived both Irish place names in his poem from this note, he may also have found the germ of his invention in "Tom McGreevy, in America," the juxtaposition of Pennsylvania and Kerry, in that letter. Back to text.

  © Copyright 1981 J Ronald Harrison.  

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