An Imperfect Life: On George and W.B. Yeats
Despite the aura of possible chicanery that inevitably surrounds such an enterprise, George emerges from it as the same brilliantly capable person who managed her husband’s career while also raising two children and electing to spend her summers in a castle with no electricity, no indoor plumbing, jackdaws nesting in the chimneys and a first floor that regularly flooded to a height of two feet.
All that, and a civil war raging around her. On the night of August 19, 1922, a stranger knocked on the door and said politely that their bridge, adjacent to the tower, was about to be blown up. George described the aftermath to her friend Ottoline Morrell:
After two minutes, two roars came & then a hail of falling masonry & gravel & then the same man shouted up “All right now” & cleared off. We had gone round opening all the windows to save the glass & nothing was damaged. Not a hole in any roof, though some stones went right over the tower (130 feet & more up) & fell on the cottages on the other side.
Shortly after this incident, Yeats was appointed a senator of the newly created Irish Free State, making him an especially prominent target; the houses of thirty-seven other senators were burned. While Yeats was sequestered in London, armed guards watched over George and the children in their Dublin home. Shots were fired in the street. “Not a word from you except that one telegram—not a word since I left—& I am anxious,” wrote Willy, but George insisted that she should stay put:
Do not think that I for one moment do not realise the upset to you that all this is, or that I neglect the possibilities of danger to you. I am not suggesting that you should come back—except for the senate—but I do think that a general removal might be a bitter mistake. Anne has slept through everything…. If I do not fear for you when you are my whole world surely my instinct is right?
George’s instincts were bolstered once again by supernatural powers. On the night of January 6, 1923, she cast a horary asking, “Will this house be raided or burned?” What distinguishes her behavior here, as elsewhere, is an unflappable combination of the pragmatic and the otherworldly; life’s tools were deployed as they were rendered necessary by circumstance.
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Did she and Willy really believe they were talking to dead people? Yeats began the revised version of A Vision by reporting a friend’s comment that he seemed much better educated than he had a decade earlier; he went on to attribute this change to his and George’s communications with the spirit world. Really, he ought to have attributed the change to George, whose early years of study in the British Museum (her application records her purpose of “reading all available literature on the religious history of the 1st 3 centuries A.D.”) fueled their conversations. George’s favorite philosopher was William James, the American pragmatist who defined truth as what “works,” and after Willy’s death, when a Yeats scholar asked George point-blank if she believed in the spirits with whom they’d conversed, she paused carefully, then said, “We thought they were expressing our best thought.”
Willy’s relationship to psychic phenomena alternates between a similarly tough-minded pragmatism (“metaphors for poetry”) and a more tender-minded longing for a world that the poet W.H. Auden once dismissed as “Southern Californian.” Unlike his wife, Yeats could seem merely otherworldly, even helpless, yet this quality makes his moments of direct engagement with daily life all the more moving when they do occur. “I am greatly stirred by your letter,” he wrote when he learned that their daughter Anne had admitted to her mother that she’d neglected her schoolwork. “Most by what you quote from Anne. She could not have written like that if she was afraid of you, or if she did not want to please. There was nobody I could have written to like that. I would have been afraid to tell of my short comings.” This is the kind of thoughtful embrace of the imperfect life one would expect of the author of poems like “A Dialogue of Self and Soul” and “The Wild Swans at Coole.”
Why did George marry this poet in the first place? Her father, William Gilbert Hyde Lees, was a charming, handsome, wealthy, unambitious man; in 1908 he was hospitalized for alcoholism (a disease with which George would also cope), and a little over a year later he died. When George met Yeats in 1911, she was 18 and he 46—exactly the age her father would have been. Yeats was also charming and handsome, not wealthy but decidedly ambitious. Through him, George could recover the life she had lost and at the same time realize a life she never would have had, a life that exceeded the imaginative expectations of the Kensington socialite she’d been raised to become. That George was not openly ambitious for herself may represent not a failure of will or a capitulation to social norms but a frank appraisal of her needs. Still, George did write plays (none survive), and she attempted a novel, provoking an ominous exchange with Willy after he revealed her ambition to someone else: “How the devil am I to ‘write a novel’ if people ask how it progresses?”
Why did Willy marry George? Why did he want so suddenly and urgently to get married at all? In 1913 he published a pamphlet called Poems Written in Discouragement: the title could stand for most of the work he produced in his middle years. The opening poem of Responsibilities, published in 1914, declares that he has “no child…othing but a book” to present to his ancestors; the closing poem laments that all his “priceless things/Are but a post the passing dogs defile.” Deprivation was Yeats’s midlife muse, and I suspect he believed it would continue to be so. He wanted a wife, he wanted a child, but he never imagined that this commitment to domestic life, however mediated by the assumption of male privilege, would change him so utterly. The author of poems written in discouragement became the author of poems written in ecstasy—poems born of an uncanny imaginative confidence unseen in English poetry since Blake:
I mock Plotinus’ thought
And cry in Plato’s teeth,
Death and life were not
Till man made up the whole,
Made lock, stock and barrel
Aye, sun and moon and star, all,
And further add to that
That, being dead, we rise,
Dream and so create
It wasn’t just the automatic writing that made such poems possible: the sensibility of the later poems feels more like George than Willy—fascinated by the world beyond the senses but also skeptical, tough-minded, embedded in the earth. What is characteristic of Yeats here, nobody else, is the manipulation of one sentence through eleven trimeter lines, the first ten dominated by monosyllabic Germanic words so that the sudden eruption of Latinate diction in the eleventh line (the multisyllabic words magically fulfilling the rhythmic requirements of the trimeter) feels like a revelation of what it also describes: “Translunar Paradise.”
Poems did not come easily to Yeats. In a late poem called “The Circus Animals’ Desertion” he confessed, “I sought a theme and sought for it in vain,/I sought it daily for six weeks or so.” In an early poem called “Adam’s Curse” he explained that “A line will take us hours maybe;/Yet if it does not seem a moment’s thought,/Our stitching and unstitching has been naught.” Lived experience, material gained from the séance table or the breakfast table, is crucial to a poem, but such experience does not make the poem. In poetry, said Yeats, “the real world” is summoned into being by “rhythm, balance, pattern, images,” through a style “that remembers many masters.” Few of Yeats’s letters dwell on this work, the painstaking work of craft; it is not always interesting to talk about, because by and large it involves immense frustration and thankless fortitude. It is one of the few aspects of an imperfect life that cannot easily be shared.
Recently, in a review of one young American poet by another, I found this statement: “Yeats may be a distant and unlikely model for contemporary poets.” Why? Because he is devoted utterly to craft? Because he doesn’t live in Brooklyn? What about Eliot or Dickinson? How about Shelley or Donne? Yeats did not become Yeats by hanging out with like-minded contemporaries or by attempting consciously to distinguish himself from his forebears. Nor did he become Yeats simply because he married a complicated, intelligent woman or because he was appointed to the Irish Senate or because he engaged in psychical research. Many people might do such things, might find deep satisfaction in such things, while remaining incapable of writing a single sentence. A few people might also take equally hard-won satisfaction in rhyming their name with the word “slates,” in rhyming their wife’s name with the word “forge,” in arranging a single sentence into four iambic tetrameter lines whose rhythmic density asks (as the title of the poem suggests) “To be carved on a Stone at Thoor Ballylee”:
I, the poet William Yeats,
With old mill boards and sea-green
And smithy work from the Gort
Restored this tower for my wife