Slouching to the Ouija Board | The Nation


Slouching to the Ouija Board

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Maddox treats this material skeptically. For her the automatic writing is merely "an oblique form of communication between a young wife and an aging husband who did not know each other very well." She notes "the way the supposed instructors follow Georgie's personal agenda, invariably taking her side." It is also hard to imagine Yeats finding his vision with the unintellectual Maud Gonne--something of a spiritualist before she converted to Catholicism--had she instead become his liaison with the dead. George was extremely well read, in French and Italian, in classic mystical texts and, crucially, in her husband's work. Yeats may have satisfied himself that his system did not derive from the Hegel his wife had read, that he was the recipient of "truths without father." We, however, are apt to be less credulous than a man who, when spotted in his study at an hour when he by his own memory placed himself outdoors, would conclude blithely that he must have been in both places at once. The system Yeats got through George was the trellis on which he trained his "spiritual intellect" like a climbing vine, and she deserves to be considered along with Ezra Pound her husband's most important collaborator.

About the Author

Benjamin Kunkel
Benjamin Kunkel is an editor at n+1 magazine. His first novel, Indecision, will be published in the fall by Random...

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Yeats's Ghosts is like the marriage at its heart: Beginning in excitement, it declines into duty. Maddox's narration becomes a bit mechanical as the sessions of automatic writing and sleep-trances stop; the sustained sexual bliss Yeats knew for a first time in his marriage proves portable and he takes it elsewhere; the duties of childrearing overtake the wife and hardly distract the poet; and George remains Yeats's effectual secretary while retreating into a distance of heavy drinking and long afternoon naps. The most entertaining parts of the book's second half come when Ezra Pound pops in to judge Yeats's lunar theories ("very very very bughouse") or to refer to Thoor Ballylee, Yeats's restored tower, as "Ballyphallus, or whatever he calls it."

Maddox may not mine the happy occult period of the Yeatses' marriage for all that it is worth, but she is right to place it at the center of the poet's life. Nothing better illustrates in Yeats's own case what he called "character isolated by a deed." Here everything seems to unite: his reliance on women as muses; his great sexual passion; the region of vision that was perhaps more home to him than Ireland; his capacity at once for collaboration and for loneliest thought; above all, his silliness and credulity or--for they were the same--his astonishing self-confidence and receptivity. Yeats's politics was a kind of feudal nationalism; he revered the aristocracy and the peasantry and scorned the "hucksters" of the bourgeoisie. His psychic economy is similarly lacking in a middle class. He was sillier than anyone--having elaborated the pattern of world history he nevertheless could not remember in what sequence the Renaissance and Reformation had arrived--and also more authentically noble: "No other writer," Edmund Wilson wrote, "has been able to sustain the traditional grand manner with so little effect of self-consciousness." Yeats is at once the great modern poet of the blessing and the curse; of political hatred and romantic love; of bawdy lust and disincarnate vision; of "the frog-spawn of a blind man's ditch" as well as "mathematical Babylonian starlight." It was the populous middle kingdom of normal commercial life that was foreign to him.

Yeats's life therefore exercises a kind of anthropological fascination; he was so unlike us. He did not learn to read until he was 7, when his father aided him by throwing books at his head. He never held a job but as senator of the Irish Free State. He managed his marriage by séance, he had seen fifteen floating apparitions and he believed that in an afterlife of "dreaming back" the soul would revisit all the sites of its passion. To almost everyone this seems like nonsense. But when Yeats's life looks back at us, it stares disconcertingly at the prefab sophistication of our high and low culture and tempts us to believe in the productivity, the utility, even the wisdom, of nonsense. Better, perhaps, to attack the formless dark with the "metaphysical appliance"--Maddox's term--of Yeats's psychohistorical system than with no tool at all.

Maddox subtitles her book The Secret Life of W.B. Yeats, but little if any of her information is new. She is the first of Yeats's biographers to incorporate the voluminous Vision Papers into a life of the poet, although R.F. Foster will presumably follow suit when he publishes his second and final volume of the authorized biography. (The first volume, The Apprentice Mage, was a magnificent tapestry of Anglo-Irish life.) Nevertheless, the puzzle of Yeats's character will remain. We may never understand perfectly a man of so many contradictions and such deliberate artifice, a poet who wrote:

What matter that you understood no word!
Doubtless I spoke or sang what I had heard
In broken sentences. My soul had found
All happiness in its own cause or ground.

The paradox is how unsecret so much of Yeats's life was, how public. He was not only a founder of the Irish National Theatre but a senator, a political poet and, with his pince-nez and floppy ribbonlike ties, a flamboyant, much-discussed personage. "In the last forty years," wrote a journalist in 1939, just after Yeats's death, "there was never a period in which his countrymen did not regard him as a public figure." It is not coincidental that when Al Gore lamented the agonies of Bosnia and Rwanda and Ted Kennedy eulogized his famous nephew, they borrowed a line from Yeats. Or that writers, when they would like to give a feel of public and historical moment to their books, take a phrase from Yeats as a title: Slouching Towards Bethlehem (America in the sixties), Hearts Grown Brutal (Yugoslavia in the nineties), The Leveling Wind (the end of the cold war). Few other poets have voices so expansive. "All my poetry is meant to be spoken or sung on the stage," Yeats wrote. The work of most other poets is chamber music in comparison.

Yeats's poetry now has an antediluvian feel, despite its deliberate, harsh modernity. It is admired rather than emulated, and probably in the language's foreseeable future no one will again write so oratorically, and with such confidence, in "the traditional grand manner." Yeats spoke from a public position in the accents of the dead. Robust public life has gone the way of table-rapping, and he has left no real heirs.

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