Thomas McGreevy and Wallace Stevens:
A Correspondence

Mary Joan Egan
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First published in The Wallace Stevens Journal 18:2 (Fall 1994) p123-145.
This text has not been re-edited for this hypertext version.
 


 

ON 12 APRIL 1948, THOMAS MCGREEVY of Fitzwilliam Place in Dublin wrote a letter to Wallace Stevens at the Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company in Connecticut.1 Their mutual friend, Barbara Church,2 had told McGreevy some time before that Stevens had seen some of his poems and had spoken well of them. Although McGreevy no longer published poetry, except for rare occasional pieces, he wanted to know if the American poet, whom he had long admired, had seen merit in his work. He wrote, "I have known your Susannah since my 1922 birthday," referring to "Peter Quince at the Clavier," which had been published in Others in August 1915. McGreevy offered to send a copy of a book he had written about his friend and neighbor, the Irish painter Jack B. Yeats, as well as his own collected poetry.3 The letter struck a sensitive nerve; Stevens answered in part:

I was really touched by it: by the eagerness on your part for the satisfaction that any sensitive poet gets from a response. It is the same satisfaction, if I may try to put my finger on it, that one gets from a sudden sense of kindness in an extremely unkind world. It is one of those things about poets that is usually misunderstood, but it is something that it is important to understand. . . . I do not remember where I saw your poems and, since it was some years ago, I do not actually remember the poems, to be honest about it, but I do remember seeing them and being very much affected by them at the time.4

Stevens went on to say that he would like to have Jack B. Yeats make a drawing of McGreevy on one of the front pages of the book he would send. Yeats obliged; McGreevy wrote, "I showed Mr. Yeats your letter and he liked it and its writer so the page of my little book with all our names on it is a precious and historical document now please God." Of the drawing, he observed, "I see that he has got my querulousness" (27 Apr. 1948). Although they were not to meet until 1954, they exchanged letters until Stevens' death a year later.5

It would seem an unlikely friendship: McGreevy was gregarious, unabashedly outspoken about his religious beliefs, and quick to establish intimacies; Stevens was reserved, jealous of his privacy, and so given to abruptness that many regarded him as a misanthrope. But these opposites complemented one another happily, and the seven years saw an incremental dialog that soon made them true cronies. Stevens' daughter would observe that McGreevy was one of those "with whom . . . he was most himself" (L 811).

At the age of fifty-four, McGreevy was richly and variously experienced in the art and literature of his time. He had a relatively late start. After finishing national school at sixteen, he worked for the civil service in Dublin and then in London until World War I, when he joined the British army. He was demobilized as a lieutenant in 1919 and took advantage of a scholarship for ex-officers to attend Trinity College, Dublin, where he took an honors degree in political science and history. After his graduation, he began his eclectic career as writer, critic, lecturer, translator, and art historian, moving among Dublin, London, and Paris as opportunities faded or blossomed.

In 1927 he went to Paris as lecteur at the École Normale Superieure. During the next seven years he was active in the circles that were giving form and voice to the literature of the time.6 In his poetry, published in avant-garde magazines such as The Dial, Criterion, and transition, he strove to develop his own voice — Irish and modern but independent of both Celtic twilight and prevailing mainstream influences. In a critical monograph about T. S. Eliot written in 1931, he speculated about what the sensibilities of specifically American writers had to contribute to the western world and mentioned Stevens as being detached from the masses and not a spokesman for them.7 This work indicates that his attempts to assimilate the best thinking and art of his time were not limited to Europe but already spanned the Atlantic.

McGreevy moved to London in 1934 and back to Dublin in the spring of 1941. There he continued to write, chiefly about art, and involved himself in the culture of his own nation. For all his cosmopolitan experience, McGreevy was emphatically not a West Briton; he was an Irish Irishman, familiar with Gaelic language and story, seeking both to inform Ireland with the finest that the rest of the world could offer to bring it out of its insularity and to make Irish thought and sensibility internationally recognized. He never lost his rural Irish identity; he was born and grew up at Tarbert, a village in County Kerry on the estuary of the Shannon. He went back there often for his holidays and regarded it as the base of his being. Wallace Stevens shared this nostalgia for the ultimate home — in his case, Reading, Pennsylvania.

Stevens sent copies of Parts of a World (1942) and Transport to Summer (1947); McGreevy found the books delivered at his flat on a Saturday evening when he came home from the opera. Stevens was to find ample "satisfaction that any sensitive poet gets from a response": "Like Debussy's music your poetry doesn't make a noise" (27 April 1948). McGreevy began "browsing," "tuning in," "finding things I'm happy to find while waiting leisurely to find the ultimate res Wallace Stevens" (10 May 1948). A few days later he wrote of Stevens' "Credences of Summer" (CP 376), "On every page I find things that content me, as 'The trumpet of the morning blows in the clouds and through / The sky."' A devout Roman Catholic, he added, "And I think my delight in it is of the Holy Spirit" (26 May 1948).

Stevens also "browsed" and "tuned in" to what McGreevy had sent him — the Poems and the book about Jack B. Yeats. Of the latter, the avowed purpose of which was to show that Yeats was important because "he paints the Ireland that matters" (5), Stevens wrote: "Your essay on Mr. Yeats is right on the rightness of his realism. The mind with metaphysical affinities has a dash when it deals with reality that the purely realistic mind never has because the purely realistic mind never experiences any passion for reality — I think Mr. Yeats visibly does" (L 597). McGreevy had argued that in his choice of subject matter and his rendering of attitudes, poses, and expressions, Yeats had captured the uniqueness of the Irish mind and spirit; and he had included twenty plates to illustrate his claim. Later, when McGreevy sent him a newspaper photograph of himself and Yeats, Stevens wrote, "In his picture although Mr. Yeats has the lean look of the visionary, he also has the extremely live look of the man to whom reality means as much as the imagination ever could mean, if not more" (L 652). The importance of the fusion of reality and imagination has been well established as the very core of Stevens' poetics. He praised both Courbet and Giorgione, different as they were in style, for their "devotion to the real" and "resistance to the false, the fraudulent" (L 632). As he matured and developed as a poet, Stevens was more and more concerned with "[t]he demand for reality in poetry," which "brings one sooner or later to a point where it becomes almost impossible since a real poetry, that is to say, a poetry that is not poetical or that is not merely the notation of objects in themselves poetic is a poetry divested of poetry" (L 631). He seems to have recognized this demand for reality in McGreevy's work as well as in that of Yeats.

The Poems, influenced but not dominated by the techniques of Joyce and his early followers, ranged in subject matter from the Anglo-lrish War to art to love. Stevens read them carefully and commented, "These poems are memorabilia of someone I might have known and they create for me something of his world and of himself. It is possible to see that you were (and I hope are) a young man eager to be at the heart of his time" (L 596).8 Stevens played with the meaning of a tercet that comes two-thirds of the way through McGreevy's "Homage to Hieronymus Bosch":

High above the Bank of Ireland
Unearthly music sounded,
Passing westwards. (Poems 14)

McGreevy was right to put the Bank of Ireland before the unearthly music, Stevens said, because attention is thus focused on the real rather than the unreal. That element alone interested him; he was apparently unaware of the intended import of the poem. McGreevy had long been impressed by the power of Bosch's grotesquery, but his immediate motive was his reaction to the hanging of Kevin Barry, an eighteen-year-old IRA soldier in the Anglo-Irish War, on 1 November 1920 (Schreibman 104, 170 n 11). His death caused intensified outrage against the British: it inspired a number of street ballads, one of which is well-remembered and frequently sung with the other Irish songs of rebellion. Memorabilia of his last days are preserved in the National Museum in Dublin. Stevens might have found these facts interesting had he been aware of them, but his interest was solely in the appropriateness of the tercet and the use he could make of it.9

"Homage to Hieronymus Bosch" is a composition of truly Boschean imagery — a child without hands, a faceless woman, worms, rats, ghosts — and Stevens speculated that the Bank of Ireland passage was an intrusion of the nostalgie du divin, "which," he remarked, "obviously is epidemic in Dublin" (L 596). He lost no time in using ideas from McGreevy's letters as well as his poems in "Our Stars Come from Ireland," a poem in two sections: "Tom McGreevy, in America, / Thinks of Himself as a Boy" and "The Westwardness of Everything." From the tercet he had noted he took the ideas of imaginary music over Dublin and of westwardness in general and bent them to his own purpose. McGreevy's poem is ominous and foreboding; Stevens has:

Over the top of the Bank of Ireland,
The wind blows quaintly
Its thin-stringed music,
As he heard it in Tarbert. (CP 454)

He has transformed his gleaning into an expression of the nostalgia it suggested to him, as he did with McGreevy's metaphor of the sound of a rushing Swiss river recalling the sounds of the Shannon Estuary tides in "Recessional" (Poems 45). McGreevy had used a reference to Mal Bay, an Atlantic inlet northwest of his home, as the closure of "Recessional"; he had written, "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" (10 May 1948). Stevens used the two Irish place names to parallel his references to the eastern Penn