April 24, 2015

Princeton acquires a rare collection of W.B. Yeats poems printed by Cuala Press

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The Dun Emer press-room, ca. 1903. Elizabeth Corbet Yeats is at the iron hand-press; Beatrice Cassidy, standing, is rolling out ink, and Esther Ryan is correcting proofs at the table.

The Graphic Arts department at Princeton has recently acquired a rare manuscript of poems by W.B. Yeats that was printed by the poet’s sister, Elizabeth Corbet Yeats, who founded Cuala Press. The collection is apparently “considered one of the rarest and most desirable of all the Cuala Press books (only one copy is known to have appeared at auction in the past thirty years).”

According to the exhibition Unseen Hands: Women Printers, Binders & Book Designers, Cuala Press was founded in part because Elizabeth Yeats admired William Morris’s Kelmscott Press.

Yeats had been a member of William Morris’s circle in London, and was inspired by his social and political ideas, and more generally by both the Arts and Crafts revival and the Celtic Renaissance of the late nineteenth century. Such ideals meant she was perpetually short of funds, but she did manage to publish fine editions of many Irish writers of the period—including the works of her brother William Butler Yeats—over the more than thirty years the Dun Emer and Cuala presses were in operation. Her work is simple, almost austere, but beautifully made.

The Cuala Press collection of poems is one of only 30 copies printed and includes nine of the most beloved poems by W.B. Yeats, including “The Lake Isle of Innisfree,” which was featured in a recent New York Times reflection by  Russell Shorto, who visited the place that inspired the poem in Ireland.

Of course, as I approached the lake, the poem was reverberating in my mind, and at first the imagery seemed to live up to it. The lake is five miles long, fringed with greenery; moody hills rise on the opposite shore. The furrowed water was dotted with little islands, some of them very atmospheric. As it happens, though, Innisfree is not one of the atmospheric ones. It’s tiny, and looks like a bur, a bristling seed pod, almost angrily sprouting trees and brush from its humpy back.

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Other poems in the Cuala Press collection include “The Lover Tells of the Rose in his Heart,” “Into the Twilight,” “He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven,” “The Fiddler of Dooney,”  “When You are Old,” “A Faery Song,” “The Song of Wandering Aengus,” and “The Pity of Love.”

Here’s “When You are Old,” which is one of my favorites:

When You Are Old
by W. B. Yeats

When you are old and grey and full of sleep,
And nodding by the fire, take down this book,
And slowly read, and dream of the soft look
Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep;
How many loved your moments of glad grace,
And loved your beauty with love false or true,
But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you,
And loved the sorrows of your changing face;
And bending down beside the glowing bars,
Murmur, a little sadly, how Love fled
And paced upon the mountains overhead
And hid his face amid a crowd of stars.

Claire Kelley is a the former Director of Library and Academic Marketing.

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