“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.”
He had reason to be, more than he knew. George’s ruse had become something else as she felt her hand genuinely take leave of her will. Now twice a day Mr. and Mrs. Yeats sat down for sessions of automatic writing. The poet began to ask metaphysical questions, and he was answered by a host of helpful spirits–called Thomas, Isabella of the Rose, Aymor, Ameritus–speaking with the rich authority of the dead. Eventually they would provide him the rudiments of his permanent vision: the grand scheme that plotted the cycles of history and the types of human personality along the twenty-eight phases of the moon. “We have come to bring you metaphors for your poetry,” they said. For two and a half years the “unknown instructors” were unstinting in this way; he and George accumulated more than 3,600 pages over 450 sessions.
It is not too much to say–although Maddox does not–that Yeats was reborn as a poet. In the decade and a half prior to his marriage, he had been especially occupied with managing the Irish National Theatre, which he had founded with Lady Gregory, and while he continued to refine his great gift of lyric rhetoric, the occasions of his poems had become less frequent than in his youth and were often some public controversy or mere event of private life. The vision that could transfigure or supplant these things was missing. To his contemporaries Yeats seemed to be in the twilight of his career, a custodian of his early work and a promoter of others. George’s ghosts changed all that. Equipped with his lunar system, his marriage and his work sanctioned by the dead, Yeats became a High Romantic again–intoxicated and hieratic, a whiskey-priest of the imagination. Such well-known poems as “The Second Coming” and “Byzantium” derive directly from the system, in which history winds or unravels between the poles of objectivity (the full moon) and subjectivity (the new moon). There entered into his work that rough oracular quality, that stamping fire characteristic of “late Yeats.” In 1937, twenty years after he wed, Yeats could still say of the system outlined in A Vision: “To me it means a last act of defence against the chaos of the world, & I hope for ten years to write out of my renewed security.”
But the Yeatses’ séances were not only an intellectual boon. The text of “The Vision Papers,” as scholars have dubbed them, was first published in 1992, and Maddox has found there much more than metaphysics. George was a young woman, and Yeats, for all his 51 years, was sexually naïve. Maddox slyly notes that the dictating spirits “seemed at times to have been reading Marie Stopes’s Married Love,” a contemporary sexual self-help book stressing especially the husband’s duty to give pleasure. The “unknown instructors” likewise informed the poet when the medium was “lonely, tired, or hungry, or when she need[ed] more attention or more sex.” When the Yeatses first tried to conceive a child, the spirit Aymor informed the couple that their child would reincarnate a seventeenth-century English aristocrat who died in infancy and would be an “avatar” comparable in world-historical importance to Buddha or Christ. Other spirits more practically advised the poet on ideal dates for conception.
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.
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.