An Imperfect Life: On George and W.B. Yeats

An Imperfect Life: On George and W.B. Yeats

An Imperfect Life: On George and W.B. Yeats

Perfection of the life or of the work? The correspondence between W.B. Yeats and his wife George shows the complexities of art and life entwined.


The time is 1917; the place, London. The war is on. You are a young woman, attractive, well-off, fluent in French, German and Italian. Since no adequate translation of Pico della Mirandola exists, you translate the Renaissance Neo-Platonist’s Latin yourself. But while your interest in esoteric philosophy leads you to become a member of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, your eyes are wide open. You volunteer for the Red Cross. You are immersed in London’s literary avant-garde. After all, your best friend is married to the American poet Ezra Pound. Your friend’s mother was once the lover of W.B. Yeats, whom Pound considers the greatest living poet—hardly an idiosyncratic opinion.

You have had no love affairs of consequence. When Yeats, a 51-year-old bachelor, once again proposes to Maud Gonne (the Irish actress and political activist with whom he’d fallen in love as a young man), she declines. When Yeats then proposes to Maud’s daughter, Iseult, she also declines; Iseult would later have an affair with Pound. A month later, when Yeats proposes to you, you accept. At 11:20 in the morning on October 20, 1917, you are married in the Harrow Road Registry Office; the witnesses are Pound and your mother.

“I think [this] girl both friendly, serviceable & very able,” writes Yeats to an old friend. “She is under the glamour of a great man 30 years older than herself & with a talent for love-making,” reports your mother. Honeymooning in the Ashdown Forest Hotel in Sussex, you cast a horary (an astrological chart designed to answer a particular question at a particular place and time). “Per dimandera [domandare] perche noi siamo infelice,” you write in a language you know your husband does not understand—“to ask why we are unhappy.” The discombobulated Yeats is writing letters to Iseult; he is writing poems: “O but her heart would break to learn my thoughts are far away.” A decade later, now the mother of two young children, the wife of a Nobel Prize–winning poet, you write “burn this when read” at the top of a letter to a close friend: “had I known that all this might happen I should certainly never have had a family!”

This is one way of describing the life of Bertha Georgie Hyde Lees Yeats, the fascinating woman who devoted her entire adult life to the needs and, after his death, reputation of an indisputably great poet, a poet with whose poems (qua poems) we are only beginning to come to terms, despite the poet’s prominent place in the canon. “The intellect of man is forced to choose/Perfection of the life, or of the work,” wrote Yeats in “The Choice,” and it would seem that, for him, the choice was clear. He could be an arch, distant father (“Who is it you are looking for?” he once asked his daughter when meeting her at the family gate), a husband expert at affecting incompetence at simple everyday tasks so that his purchase on greatness might be presumed. Once, when worried about his eyesight, George sent him a new lamp. “What oil do I put in it?” he asked. “The lamp of course consumes lamp oil,” she wrote back. “You could surely not have imagined that it demanded Sanctuary oil, or olive oil?” Easily, as George knew well, her husband could have imagined that it demanded Sanctuary oil. When asked how it felt to “live with a genius,” George replied, “Oh alright, I never notice.” Her devotion did not wobble, but she was no one’s fool.

* * *

There is something wrong, something too ingeniously self-forgiving, about Yeats’s distinction between perfection of the life and perfection of the work. Yeats was a formidable guy; he lived in a medieval tower, he talked with dead people, he wrote some of the most beautiful lyric poems in the language. But nobody has a perfect life. Every life is enriched by disappointment, driven by compromise, and to suggest that one might have been a good person if only one had not been a great artist is to diminish the integrity of art. It is to suggest that art is not fueled by human experience—from the aesthetic to the political to the apocalyptic—but somehow transpires beside or beyond it. Ann Saddlemyer’s recently published edition of the lifelong correspondence between Willy and George allows us to witness the complexities of life and art entwined.

Saddlemyer is a meticulous scholar of a kind now increasingly rare. She has published crucial editions of the plays of Yeats’s close friends J.M. Synge and Augusta Gregory; she has also edited Synge’s letters. Unlike most meticulous editors, however, Saddlemyer is also an elegant writer with a keen sense of proportion. Her biography of George Yeats, Becoming George: The Life of Mrs. W.B. Yeats, published in 2002, is uncommonly readable, marked by an acuity of emotional and literary insight lacking in the otherwise distinguished standard biography of Yeats himself (by the historian Roy Foster). It’s safe to say that Saddlemyer’s biography, to which the Yeats family letters are crucial, is more fun to read than the letters themselves.

This is in some ways inevitable. Willy and George were often separated by professional duties, but the distance and the duration were usually short. Their letters consequently tend to skip the leisurely evocations of daily life one associates with a rich correspondence, jumping quickly to the pressing matters of the moment—the sickness of a child (Anne and Michael Yeats were often seriously ill), the restoration of Ballylee (the tower the Yeats family sometimes called home), a question about the Abbey Theatre (of which Yeats was a director), the fate of the Cuala Press (which was haphazardly run by Yeats’s sisters, the aptly named Lily and Lolly, who lived together but despised each other).

Yet the letters nonetheless embody something that no biographical narrative can convey: tone. Quoted outside the context of the ongoing correspondence, George’s remark about the oil lamp (“you could surely not have imagined that it demanded Sanctuary oil”) sounds exasperated, which it is, but the remark is also clever, bemused, loving, generous, meant to entertain—part of an intricately textured exchange between two people who know each other as well or better than they know themselves. So while Willy seems at times the absent patriarch, the dad who loves his work, it’s also clear that George managed his absences, even condoning the last-gasp amorous liaisons of his final years; she appreciated help with the doddering “tiger,” as she called him behind his back. “When do you want me,” wrote a plaintive Willy, hungry for news of home. “My only distress is absence from you & I miss you always, & when I see a lovely sight—evening light on the beeches or the light—long for you that I may talk of it. Is not love being idle together & happy in it.”

* * *

Still, these letters represent only a small part of the intricate correspondence of Willy and George Yeats. Think back to the autumn of 1917. Stuck in the Ashdown Forest Hotel, her four-day-old marriage a disaster, George began (by her own admission) to “fake” automatic writing in order to entertain her despondent husband: she then felt her hand seized by an unseen power. Willy described what happened next in the revised edition of A Vision (1937), the esoteric account of all human history and personality that the automatic writing ultimately made possible:

What came in disjointed sentences, in almost illegible writing, was so exciting, sometimes so profound, that I persuaded her to give an hour or two day after day to the unknown writer, and after some half-dozen such hours offered to spend what remained of life explaining and piecing together those scattered sentences, “No,” was the answer, “we have come to give you metaphors for poetry.”

Over the next several years, Willy and George produced more than 3,600 pages of script, his questions, her answers. This is their most intimate exchange, and it is almost never referred to in the actual letters Willy and George wrote to each other.

The first few days of automatic writing have not been preserved (the remainder having lately been transcribed and edited by George Mills Harper and a fleet of assistants), so there is no record of Yeats being assured that the spirits had contacted him, through his wife, to further his poetic career. George remembered the initial contact differently: “What you have done is right for both the cat and the hare,” she scribbled, confident that her husband would understand that the hare was Iseult Gonne and the cat was herself, which he did. In the approximately 450 sessions of automatic writing that followed, the intimate sex life of George and Willy Yeats looms as prominently as metaphors for poetry (though Willy would go on to write great poems about sex). “What is important,” says one spirit through George, is “that both the desire of the medium and her desire for your desire should be satisfied.” Willy is advised to keep up his strength by making love to his wife more than once a day: “it is like not taking enough exercise & a long walk exhausts you.” “You mean,” asked Willy, “by doing it once I will lose power of doing it twice.” Yes, came the answer, “& then of doing it once.”

The automatic script ranges widely over innumerable topics; it is often tedious; it calls on vast reserves of esoteric knowledge. But one theme is constant: if the conversations are to continue, the medium (or “interpreter,” as George preferred to be called) must be satisfied. And when the interpreter is not satisfied, the script shouts it out loud and clear:

     I dont like you
     You neglect me
     You dont give me physical symbols
to use

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.

* * *

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
Translunar Paradise.

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

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