Yeats was 'conflicted' about death of close friend Lady Gregory


SUMMER SCHOOL:HAD SHE lived longer, Lady Augusta Gregory might have tempered the increasingly strident political views WB Yeats adopted in the late 1930s. She might also have discouraged the poet’s “somewhat adolescent dalliances” with women half his age, students at the 53rd International Yeats Summer School in Sligo heard yesterday.

James Pethica, director of the school, explored Yeats’s “massively conflicted” feelings on the death of his oldest friend, concluding that, as well as being a blow he had dreaded, her passing was a “liberation”.

Students heard that the woman Yeats had described as “more than mother or father or friend . . . the only person in the world to whom I could tell my every thought” had also been his moral compass up to her death in May 1932.

Pethica, who is writing a biography of Lady Gregory, said critics suspected that the owner of Coole Park in Galway would have tempered the “increasingly strident political views Yeats adopted in the late 1930s”, including his flirtation with fascism and the Blueshirts.

She would also have disapproved of his dalliances with “name hunters, would-be bohemians and hostesses”.

“It is hard to imagine that she would have remained silent about his treatment of his wife and his disingenuous effort to hide his last affairs from her,” Pethica said.

Lady Gregory had been quick to reprove Yeats, and when he fell “too obviously” for a young London actor called Florence Darragh, who performed at the Abbey Theatre, she had told him “with relish” how Darragh had mocked the way he “trotted all over the theatre after her like a little dog”.

When another young woman told Yeats, in 1913, that she was pregnant by him, which turned out to be untrue, his sometimes “domineering and unforgiving” friend told him that the episode “has not been worthy of you”.

But Yeats’s devotion to the long-time friend, who helped found the Abbey, was underlined when he stayed at Coole for the last nine months of her life.

The poet was not there when Lady Gregory died in the early hours of May 23rd, 1932, but arrived at Gort station hours after being summoned by telegram.

Lady Gregory’s granddaughter Catherine, then 18, told Pethica how she and Yeats had travelled from the station, facing each other in a side car, in total silence. “He wasn’t in a state where he could talk to anyone. He was sobbing.”

Pethica said there had been a claustrophobic co-dependent aspect to the Yeats-Gregory relationship, and, after her death, the poet had embraced the possibility of new beginnings.

While he was bereft at the loss, he also felt freed from the judgment of a woman he regarded as thoroughly Victorian.