“Does the imagination dwell the most/Upon a woman won or woman lost?” Yeats asked. For most of his readers and biographers, the answer has been clear: a woman lost. Usually when the story of Yeats’s life is told, no one figures in it more prominently than Maud Gonne, the tall, extravagantly beautiful Irish nationalist whom the poet loved in vain. For many years she rejected his marriage suits, and in 1903, fourteen years after he first met her, she annulled what Yeats had considered their spiritual union by marrying another man. More than a decade later Yeats could still write to her: “Yet always when I look death in the face,/When I clamber to the heights of sleep,/Or when I grow excited with wine,/Suddenly I meet your face.” Perhaps he could have written as much all his life long; Gonne haunts more than anyone else his last poems.
But Yeats’s love for Gonne is remarkable largely in its fanatic duration. Otherwise it shares with most unrequited love a blank, ideal character. The great romance story of Yeats’s life, shorter on love though it may be, is that of his marriage to Bertha Georgie Hyde-Lees, whom Yeats called George. This is the story that Brenda Maddox (who has previously written a biography of James Joyce’s wife, Nora: The Real Life of Molly Bloom, and a domestic account of D.H. Lawrence: The Story of a Marriage) sets down in Yeats’s Ghosts. The book was published in England first, as George’s Ghosts, which gives a better idea of its emphasis. Maddox does not bother much with illuminating Yeats’s verse through his life (for that, the best biography remains Richard Ellman’s classic study Yeats: The Man and the Masks). Instead, she concentrates on George and the other women in Yeats’s life whom biographers have tended to scant: his mother, sisters and later mistresses.
In 1917 George was only 24, but she was already, like Yeats, an Adept Major in the Second Order of the Golden Dawn. That is, she was a full initiate in a London mystical society–an alchemist and occultist who knew in what sense 4=7 and 6=5 (equalities that indicated different stages of mystical attainment). Yeats had sponsored her initiation in 1914, and the two sometimes met on the way to séances. For several years George had admired him from a kind of middle distance, “perched in some window of her mother’s house.” Her occult training meant that she understood the astrological rationale for Yeats’s determination to be married by October 1917. Yeats was not only, at 51, eager to continue the family line and establish a settled life but aware that this was the most propitious time his horoscope allowed. Accordingly, he proposed a final time to Maud Gonne (widowed when her estranged husband, Maj. John MacBride, was executed for his role in the 1916 Easter Rising) and then, having received the usual answer, to Gonne’s wild and beautiful daughter Iseult. There, too, he met refusal.
Yeats was candid with George about all this, but the marriage began inauspiciously. He came down with a fever the night before the vows were exchanged, and when the couple repaired for their honeymoon to a “golfing hotel” in Sussex he sank into a fit of gloom. Perhaps he still loved Iseult and had chosen wrongly. Maddox vividly evokes the scene: Confined to the room while gale winds tore at the trees outside, George looked on as Yeats, not known for his tact, sat absorbed in writing poems to Iseult. Naturally, George thought of bolting.
“What she did instead,” writes Maddox, “in the afternoon of October 27, 1917, saved the marriage.” It also arguably made Yeats the poet we recognize today. George’s coup was this: She began to feign the automatic writing she had sometimes practiced as a spirit medium. The moving hand scrawled out for Yeats to read: “What you have done is right for both the cat and the hare.” Just as he was meant to, Yeats interpreted the cat as George and the hare as Iseult. He felt relieved, and began to put questions to the unknown spirit dictating through his bride. Would he ever know peace? “You will neither regret nor repine.” A week before, Yeats had confessed his terrible anxiety about the marriage to his mothering friend Lady Gregory; now he wrote her to say that he was “extremely happy.”