YEATS FOR $750,000

~ Posted by Anthony Gardner, December 21st 2012

It isn’t often that I receive something in the post that tempts me to sell the roof over my head, but Maggs Brothers’ latest catalogue soon had me musing on local property prices. The London book dealers are offering as a single lot the Gatch collection of publications by the Yeats family—W.B., his artist father John and brother Jack, and his sisters Lily and Lolly. Priced at $750,000, it is (Maggs believe) the most comprehensive Yeats collection in private hands.

I’ve loved Yeats’s poetry ever since my mother recited it to me as a child, and all my adult life I’ve bought books by and about him. But looking at the Gatch treasures—among them an inscribed first edition of Yeats’s earliest stand-alone publication, "Mosada" (1886)—I realised that I was a pitiful dabbler. The best book in my library wouldn’t even make the substitutes’ bench.

On Tuesday evening a small party was held to launch the catalogue at Maggs’s rambling, cheerfully unmodernised (and reputedly haunted) premises in Berkeley Square. Edna O’Brien (above), resplendent in a Gitanes blue dress, read half a dozen poems, including "An Irish Airman Foresees His Death" and—most movingly—Yeats’s tribute to his patron Lady Gregory, Coole Park and Ballylee 1931 ("We were the last Romantics—chose for theme/ Traditional sanctity and loveliness"). The audience included Yeats’s biographer Roy Foster and three editors of his letters—John Kelly, Warwick Gould and Deirdre Toomey—who between them probably knew as much about the poet as the rest of the world put together. 

The collection’s owner, Milton ‘Mac’ Gatch, proved to be a benevolent, white-haired New York clergyman unfazed by Yeats’s obsession with the supernatural. He’d inherited the collection from an aunt, along with money to expand it, but was retiring to a house whose bookshelves were already full. Astonishingly, Yeats didn’t even come high on his list of literary priorities—his real love was Anglo-Saxon prose.

Would Yeats have enjoyed the party? I couldn’t help thinking of his lines from "The Scholars":

Bald heads forgetful of their sins
Old, learned, respectable bald heads
Edit and annotate the lines
That young men, tossing on their beds,
Rhymed out in love’s despair…

But I think he would have enjoyed seeing a ghost-hunters’ tour pause outside the windows—and I’m sure he would have fancied Edna O’Brien. 

Anthony Gardner previews talks for Intelligent Life. His recent posts for the Editors' Blog include Absurd Persons Plural and Zero tolerance at the gift shop