Four Dubliners: Wilde, Yeats, Joyce, and Beckett, by Richard Ellmann. New York: George Braziller. 122 pp. $12.95. Well-tempered judgment, urbanity, sound research, and a sympathetic understanding of his subjects are the hallmarks of Richard Ellmann's work, in which the arts of criticism and biography are happily and skillfully blended. In ``Four Dubliners,'' Ellmann has given us a gracefully balanced quartet of essays. Each was first delivered as a lecture at the Library of Congress, each is written in the engagingly conversational style that has guided so many readers through the complexities of modern literature, and each, though it stands by itself, subtly illuminates and is illuminated by the others.
With his feet firmly on the ground of biographical research and his eyes trained appreciatively on the texts, Ellmann traces some of the literary affinities of these four very dissimilar Dubliners, all of whom chose to make their lives in the ``unfamiliar air'' outside Ireland: Wilde, the master of witty paradox; Yeats, the grand, sometimes sententious poet of tragic gaiety; Joyce, who invented new words and sought to redeem the commonplace realities of ordinary life; and Beckett, who broke new ground in writing of deprivation, impoverishment, negation - things reduced to their last and least.
As Ellmann reminds us, there were personal links among the four: meetings, mutual help, encouragement, criticism, and that elusive process known as influence. What he finds among the four writers is not a common theme, but modulations that move us from the themes of one to those of the others.
The essays on Wilde, Yeats, and Joyce begin in biography and end in criticism. But Ellmann's approach is far from Freudian. Rather than ``explain'' the writings as ``symptoms'' of crises in the artists' lives, he shows us how the artists allowed their lives to be determined by the requirements of their art.
Perhaps the most graphic instance, recounted in ``W.B. Yeats' Second Puberty,'' is the purportedly ``rejuvenating'' operation the poet underwent in his 70th year in hope of recovering both his physical potency and his poetic inspiration. According to Yeats's surgeon, whom Ellmann interviewed, the operation was what is now called a vasectomy. And the benefits - contra Yeats - were purely in the mind of the patient, who was physically unaffected but went on to write with unprecedented frankness of the ``lust and rage'' that drove his versemaking in his last years.
In ``Oscar Wilde at Oxford,'' Ellmann recounts several anecdotes to illustrate how young Wilde resisted what he called the ``violence of opinion'' he encountered among his contemporaries by cultivating his own very civilized gift for seeing both sides of a given question and expressing the alternatives in a witty paradox.
The subtitle of ``Samuel Beckett: Nayman of Noland'' comes from ``Finnegans Wake.'' Perhaps because Beckett is so resolutely not a ``personality,'' perhaps because he alone is still alive, this is the least biographical of the essays, the one in which Ellmann draws together the lines of influence he has been tracing.
In what seems a kind of Joycean pun, ``doubleness'' is the link that connects these four ``Dubliners.'' Wilde was able to embrace both piety and paganism, the moralism of Ruskin and the aestheticism of Pater, and to express these sometimes conflicting truths in his work. Yeats had a double vision, which oscillated between seeing the world as a ``beatific cornucopia'' and a void. Joyce created his cornucopia from the most commonplace materials of daily life, drawing word-worlds of plenitude from paltriness. And Beckett, always paring away to reach the void, manages somehow - perhaps unintentionally, Ellmann thinks, to ``stave off the void.'' Ellmann's poised vision of these four: Beckett denying, Joyce affirming, Yeats ranging from pole to pole, Wilde yoking contraries, is a stellar example of the ``double vision'' in which literary criticism and biography are partners rather than rivals.