An exceedingly spirited wife
In 1930 W.B. Yeats wrote to his old friend and former lover Olivia Shakespear, "I have a great sense of abundance - more than I have had for years. George's ghosts have educated me." He was referring in this cryptic observation to the fact that he had recently been revising his prophetic book A Vision, which had appeared to almost complete critical inattention in 1926. Revision was reminding him of the mysterious way its astounding contents had been communicated to him through the mediumistic powers of his young wife. Marriage, indeed, had brought the poet what he had sedulously sought since the 1880s when he had first dabbled in magic and conjuration - occult illumination. Like the works of William Blake before him, whose mythological system Yeats had identified in the 1890s, the authors of A Vision were, the poet believed, "in eternity".
Yeats had married the 25-year-old Englishwoman Georgina Hyde-Lees in October 1917, more or less on the rebound, when he was 52. The execution in 1916 of John MacBride had released Maud Gonne from the bonds of matrimony, and Yeats had felt almost duty-bound to propose to her. She had wisely rejected him. In the aftermath of that rebuff, relieved as he must have been, he had conceived an erotic passion for her daughter Iseult. Iseult did not take seriously his persistent hope that they might be man and wife.
As is well known, on the honeymoon spent in Sussex with her new husband, George (Yeats's preferred diminutive) Yeats - observing his depression and continued obsession with Iseult - had attempted automatic writing to distract the poet, only to discover an amazing facility for the practice. And for years to come she indulged her husband, who quickly came to believe, as she assuredly did herself, that she had summoned spirits from the vasty deep, bearing a gift of esoteric wisdom. What was not known until quite recently (though Yeats himself gave a hint of it in the introduction to A Vision) was the fact that the spiritualist traffickings of Yeats and his remarkably gifted spouse involved a great deal of personal matter - sexual, familial, psychological - as Yeats met the challenges of a late marriage to a young wife and brooded on the complexities of his own fraught amatory career.
It was only in 1987, with the publication of George Harper's The Making of Yeats's A Vision, that the full picture of this strange series of transactions began to emerge. It was made almost complete in 1992 when Harper and his dedicated team of editors of Yeats's Vision Papers published their three-volume edition of the automatic script and of the sleep and dream notebooks which succeeded it. What all this amounted to was the published record of one of the most extraordinary acts of imaginative and compositional collaboration in literary history, which has begun to attract the attention of scholarship.
The fact that the collaboration was between an older and famous man and a vigorous, highly intelligent young woman, bound together in a precipitously contracted marriage (only the astrological auspices were favourable when Yeats at last took the matrimonial plunge), has quite naturally begun to excite the biographical industry. For one can scarcely imagine a more tasty subject: the romantic poet cast off by the beauty of the age and rejected by her precocious daughter; the young bride at last bringing him the magical contact with the spirit world he had always craved; the difficult adjustment to the married state, with the late induction to married sex and the birth of children; and all set against a background of international crisis and troubles in the poet's native land. And this is the story that Brenda Maddox has to tell us in a book which is less A New Life of W.B.Yeats than a study of his marriage, which directs us to reflect anew on his childhood and youth, and especially on his relationship with his mother as the source of all his problems with life and women.
It would scarcely be possible to make such a story dull; and Maddox, who has already proven herself an insightful analyst of literary marriages and relationships in her biographies of Nora Joyce and of D.H. Lawrence, is never less than readable. At times she communicates tellingly, with an urgent narrative pace, the compulsive nature of what the Yeatses were about as they gave themselves over to a kind of of psychodrama of multiple personalities, a two-hander with a chorus of attendant spirits to guide their intimate conversations.
THE heart of her book beats with a pulse of lived experience in which she reckons George a wily protagonist in a subtly conducted campaign for Yeats's attention and for his uxorious regard. For a time she was the victor, until her poet's interest in the practical aspects of the project waned (she had given what he needed - occult revelation and two children, one the hoped-for heir) and age made him a man determined to make up for the missed opportunities of a chaste youth. Maddox dares in the final section of her book to treat of a marriage that in many respects had broken down, though I think she underestimates the deep regard in which George continued to hold her husband, despite his affairs, his mistresses and his desultory attention to their offspring. Her dedicated custodianship of his literary estate, to which many scholars and editors have borne witness, is a testament to her own abiding commitment to the difficult but remarkable man she had married.
Maddox is also audacious in her fundamental thesis, starkly stated: "The secret of Yeats is that his mother did not love him - at least, not in the way that warmed him in recollection or that a child needs for confidence in life". While granting the force of this, (and it is a case that has been made with greater critical sophistication by David Lynch in a book not included by Maddox in her bibliography) presented in these terms this opinion is made the basis of rather forced psychological readings of some of the poems, and a speculative self-indulgence. Of "The Dolls" she writes: "Could the vivid allusions to the trauma of childbirth in this and other poems mean that as the oldest (and wretchedest) child in the family, Yeats witnessed or overheard some of his mother's many labours?"
This book, with its portrait of a marriage and its intimate perspectives is assured of a wide readership. Since the canvas is so centrally shared by George Yeats herself, it seems a pity then that it did not conclude with some account of her stewardship of her husband's reputation. Instead, Brenda Maddox has chosen to reopen, if that's quite the word, the issue of who exactly is interred under Ben Bulben. One supposes that the story of muddled bones (already available in Diana Souhami's Gluck: Her Biography) was just too good to pass up. Maddox's suggestion that the grave in doubt could be opened for a DNA test so that "honesty in tourism" might be achieved, seems a factitious justification for a decision that one suspects was governed by an instinct for good copy. Was her vivid portraiture of the living Yeats and his remarkable collaborator not enough for her?
Terence Brown is Professor of Anglo-Irish Literature in Trinity College Dublin. His The Life of W. B. Yeats: a critical biography is forthcoming.