Poems of W. B. Yeats

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Yeats, W.B.
Poems of W.B. Yeats.
San Francisco: The Arion Press, 1990. (AEQ 4524)

Printed in an edition of 426 copies, this is copy 144, signed by the illustrator.

In his first full-scale book project, Richard Diebenkorn (1922–1992), who fell in love with the poetry of Yeats while in college, was persuaded by Arion Press publisher Andrew Hoyem and noted Harvard scholar Helen Vendler to illustrate a selection of Yeats’s poems. The result is an edition with six etchings by Diebenkorn. Five of the etchings interpret one of Yeats’s recurrent images, the coat.

Coats were also a recurring image with Diebenkorn. A pencil drawing made in 1943 of his Marine uniform jacket (right) resurfaced more than forty years later with the use of his coat etchings in the Poems of W.B. Yeats. Diebenkorn responded to the jacket in an immediate visual way and strived to continue this habit. (Livingston, 25) He gave this drawing to his mother, who was so distraught at the sight of an empty Marine uniform jacket, that she put it away. Diebenkorn later found it hidden in a drawer.

In the Poems of W.B. Yeats, the first etching of a coat is from “The Apparitions.” COAT I is illustrated as losing its shape and strength “Fifteen apparitions have I seen: The worst a coat upon a coat-hanger.” This stanza is repeated three times. COAT II is from “Sailing to Byzantium.” The etching illustrates more of a shell of a coat, the coat losing its form and identity, “And aged man is but a paltry thing, A tattered coat upon a stick…” COAT IV is from “He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven,” describing the dim and dark cloths lit and half-lit yet full of dreams. COAT V is from “A Coat”: “Covered with embroideries, Out of old mythologies,” a re-embodied coat, yet without substance.

In the shown opening, COAT III, the etching is of a spindly line of a coat evoking the shape of an arched window and recognizable objects such as buttons, buttonholes, and sleeves. It is the essence of the object rendered in an ethereal way, echoing the lines in the poem, “shade more than man, more image than a shade.” 

Richard Diebenkorn was primarily an abstract artist yet was also a member of the Bay Area Figurative Artist school and painted figures and landscapes. He is best known for his Ocean Park series (1967–1993), inspired by the seascape near his home and the passage of time and space represented by transparent hues and bold geometric shapes.

Livingston, Jane., Richard Diebenkorn, and John Elderfield. The Art of Richard Diebenkorn. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997.

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Poems of W. B. Yeats