‘Europe’s welcome to the Free State’: The story of WB Yeats’s Nobel victory (2024)

On November 14th, 1923, late at night, WB Yeats received a telephone call at his home, 82 Merrion Square, Dublin. The caller was Bertie Smyllie, editor of The Irish Times, bringing the first report that Yeats had won the Nobel Prize in Literature. Ten minutes later a telegram from the Swedish ambassador confirmed the good news.

Yeats’s famous reaction – “How much, Smyllie, how much is it?” – quickly became a popular anecdote, much circulated by Smyllie himself. Similarly popular is Yeats’s story of how he and his wife George marked the occasion, following a futile midnight search for a bottle of wine: “as a celebration is necessary we cook sausages”.

While the news was warmly welcomed here in Ireland, reactions elsewhere were mixed. Some members of the English press bitterly complained about the passing over of writer Thomas Hardy. In the United States, journalists lamented the continuing absence of American winners (and would continue to do so until 1930 when Sinclair Lewis became the first American to win the award).

In attempts towards conciliation, Yeats thanked “the English committees” for nominating him, and paid tribute to Thomas Mann as the other leading contender. He was wrong on both fronts. Mann was first nominated in 1924 (he would receive the award in 1929) and Yeats was not nominated by an English committee but instead by a member of the Swedish Academy.

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And the most surprising fact of all – also unknown to Yeats – was that the year 1923 did not mark his first nomination but instead his seventh. He was nominated previously in 1922, 1921, 1918, 1915, 1914, and quite amazingly in 1902, at a very early stage of his long writing career.

For all of the reputed secrecy concerning the Nobel Prize and its operations, a remarkable amount of information can be gleaned from its own website, nobelprize.org, where you can search its archive by prize and person, and find out who was nominated and by whom for every year up to 1971 (a secrecy rule of 50 years applies). If you plan a visit to this archive, be ready to spend some considerable time!

The names that don’t appear are remarkable: James Joyce is a famous non-winner and the archive shows also that he was never even nominated. Virginia Woolf, Joseph Conrad and Franz Kafka never figured among the nominees either. Thomas Hardy received 25 nominations, over 12 different years between 1910 and 1927, and never won. Henrik Ibsen was nominated unsuccessfully three times, Leo Tolstoy 19 times and in three of those instances for the Peace Prize.

Reports from the Nobel Committee show that Yeats was a very close contender in 1922, losing out to Spanish dramatist Jacinto Benavente, largely on pragmatic grounds. The two writers were found to be of comparable stature in literary worth, with Yeats praised for his “exceptionally highly developed English poetic culture”.

The committee feared, however, that the geographic distribution of the prize looked too limited, and so it went to the Spanish writer.

All changed – for Yeats and Ireland – a year later. The Nobel citation for Yeats, read to him in Stockholm on December 10th, 1923, praised him “for his always inspired poetry, which in a highly artistic form gives expression to the spirit of a whole nation”.

Just months before, in September 1923, the fledgeling – and fragile – Irish Free State had joined the League of Nations. No longer seen as a writer in the dominant tradition of English, Yeats could now be celebrated by Per Hallström, chairman of the Nobel Committee of the Swedish Academy, as “the interpreter of his country, a country that had long waited for someone to bestow on it a voice”.

We literary historians rightly emphasise the role culture has played in the creation of an Irish state, but there’s a nice reversal here: in 1923, political independence could enable the global recognition of Irish literature as a distinct tradition, through the awarding of the most famous of prizes.

So Yeats’s understanding of what had occurred behind the scenes was correct in one dimension, at least: “I consider that this honour has come to me less as an individual than as a representative of Irish literature, it is part of Europe’s welcome to the Free State”.

Margaret Kelleher’s 2023 Joseph Hassett Yeats lecture, on Yeats and the Nobel Prize, is available on the National Library of Ireland website

‘Europe’s welcome to the Free State’: The story of WB Yeats’s Nobel victory (2024)

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