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Stolen Yeats letters are found

W.B. Yeats


By Irish Echo Staff

A collection of unpublished letters written by William Butler Yeats that was stolen in the 1970s and returned “anonymously” has been identified at Princeton University.

The Guardian reported that John Kelly, who has spent decades tracking down thousands of Yeats’s letters, discovered the collection as he was concluding research for the latest volume of his work on the Irish poet and dramatist.

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Kelly, said the guardian report, was browsing the catalogue of Princeton University Library, where he had pored over Yeats’s holdings some years earlier, when he spotted a file of 17 letters to the poet’s publisher he had not seen before.

He discovered from the librarian it had been stolen in the 1970s, disappearing without trace until it turned up recently, delivered anonymously in a brown package.

Kelly, the general editor of the “Collected Letters of WB Yeats,” recalled feeling disconcerted that he could have missed an entire collection of significant letters.

“Upon inquiry, it turned out that the letters, then in a binder, had been stolen … and only recently and anonymously returned,” he said.

“It is not known whether the anonymous restorer was the original thief. That would seem plausible, but the Princeton catalogue ambiguously and perhaps magnanimously lists the letters as ‘a gift of anonymous.’”

The letters were previously unpublished and recovered “in the nick of time”, Kelly said, for inclusion in the fifth of a 12-volume publication for Oxford University Press.

The 17 letters, added the report, were written to the poet’s publisher, Arthur Bullen, and publishing assistant, Edith Lister, when they were working on Yeats’s collected works. Yeats hoped it would establish his reputation as a major poet.

“Justifiably, as it turned out”, Kelly said.

Concluded the Guardian report: Asked what Yeats would have thought of the letters’ theft and recovery, Kelly said: “He would have been perhaps irritated at first, and then quite amused. Yeats never made much money as a poet until quite late, so he used to sell off occasionally some manuscript.”