Monday, May 9, 2016

Matters of Perspective: Dunsany and Yeats

In 1934 Lord Dunsany was presented the Harmsworth Prize from the Irish Academy of Letters for his novel The Curse of the Wise Woman (1933).  Dunsany (left), at 6 foot 4 inches tall, towers over F.R. Higgins (seated), who was on the board of the Abbey Theatre, and poet William Butler Yeats (right), looking small and parrot-like.  (Was Yeats really as short as he looks here?)

In his third volume of autobiography, The Sirens Wake (1945), Dunsany wrote:
Yeats had invented the Irish Academy of Letters [in 1932] and had omitted me, which was no surprise; though his reason for doing so was surprising, which was that I did not write about Ireland. I told one or two Irish writers that I too was going to start an Academy, an academy to honour the names of writers of the fourteenth century in Italy; for I said that, since writers work for posterity, it was not a bit too late to honour fourteenth-century writers now. Who, I asked, would they suggest?  Dante of course was suggested; but I was shocked. "Most certainly not," I said, stroking my hair as Yeats used to stroke his. "Dante did not write about Italy, but of a very different place. Most unsuitable!" 
Dunsany then admits that this "may have been the trifling sting that stimulated my energies" and he started writing his Irish novel, The Curse of the Wise Woman, on February 12th, 1933, and finished it three and a half months later, on May 27th.

When Dunsany was finally admitted to the Irish Academy, Oliver St. John Gogarty joked at the dinner:

Since this Academy was founded to keep Dunsany out we ought to dissolve it, now that he's admitted.

The details underneath this story are a bit more complicated.  Yeats initially proposed Dunsany to be an associate (but not regular) member, clearly a secondary status, and he apparently never sent Dunsany any invitation at all.  Dunsany only heard about it through press accounts, so naturally he was miffed.


  1. Great article Doug, I'd heard about this but never in great detail. Wonderful photo, I'd never seen. Photos of Dunsany seem to be quite uncommon even though he was probably pretty well known in many circles.

  2. I found a source claiming that Yeats was over six feet, so his stature in this photo must be a trick of perspective.