William Butler Yeats (1865-1939) is among the easiest of 20th-century poets to love. The emotions in his poems are familiar – desire, scorn, rue; the images – the rose, the dancer, the golden singing bird – are intelligible and memorable; the rhythms and rhymes make intoxicating word music. One needs scarcely any background information to understand “September 1913,” “A Prayer for My Daughter,” “Sailing to Byzantium,” “Easter 1916,” “Among School Children,” “Lapis Lazuli,” and dozens of others among his best poems; and one needs very little literary experience to sense that they are great.
As most of his readers know, however, there is also an esoteric Yeats. He grew up arguing with his loquacious father, a gifted painter, who was a typical late-Victorian agnostic and materialist; but he also imbibed the stories of his mother’s family, country people from rural western Ireland. From Celtic mythology he gravitated naturally to an interest in theosophy and other varieties of occultism, which flourished in the London of the 1880s and ‘90s. It was not a casual interest: he was a member for thirty years of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, attaining the rank of Adept with the secret name “Demon Est Deus Inversus.”
In parallel with this mysticism was Yeats’s Irish nationalism. Politics for Yeats was always largely cultural; he favored independence for Ireland less for the sake of freedom from political or economic exploitation than because English efficiency and utilitarianism seemed to him sterile and soulless, a threat to Ireland’s religious, heroic, and aristocratic traditions.
This cultural nationalism found expression at first in Yeats’s poetry but more prominently in his plays, usually on subjects from Irish history and myth. Together with Lady Augusta Gregory and the playwright J. M. Synge, he founded the Abbey Theatre in Dublin to “hold together the twenty scattered millions conscious of their Irish blood.” Its early years were stormy, but it became one of the central institutions of Irish culture and would have earned Yeats a place in history even if he had not become a famous poet.
His cultural politics also brought Yeats into contact with Maud Gonne, a rich actress and activist of legendary beauty and fieriness. He was ardently in love, but she wanted him only for a friend and comrade. When she married another revolutionary, he was crushed. Though he had occasional affairs, he could not get over her; and when her marriage ended he proposed again, unsuccessfully. Nevertheless, he made sublime poetry out of his heartache: “No Second Troy,” “Adam’s Curse,” “The Folly of Being Comforted,” and several immortal lines inspired by Gonne in “Easter 1916” and “A Prayer for My Daughter.”
In his eminent and prosperous middle age, Yeats suddenly heard his biological clock ticking. His writings had always celebrated tradition, order, continuity; it now occurred to him that, since none of his siblings had children, perhaps he owed it to his ancestors to have a family. Besides, he wanted a wife to take care of him.
According to his horoscope, October 1917 was a uniquely opportune time to marry – an unusual number of favorable planetary conjunctions, or something of that sort. This mixture of practical and astrological considerations gave Yeats a sense of urgency. He had become infatuated with Maud Gonne’s daughter, Iseult – like her mother, an extraordinary beauty. But she wouldn’t marry him, either. So he turned to another young woman, Georgie Hyde-Lees, not beautiful but lively, literate, an admirer of Yeats, and a fellow member of the Order of the Golden Dawn.
Gamely Georgie accepted, and Yeats met his deadline. Immediately – on their honeymoon – catastrophe threatened. Yeats confessed his continuing obsession with Iseult. Moreover, he was, if not altogether impotent, at least sexually blocked. Miraculously Georgie – or perhaps some Higher Being – saved the situation. She began to write automatically, as though she were taking dictation from spirits. The spirits assured Yeats that he had done the right thing by marrying and that he would soon be happy. Instantly his depression vanished, and the marriage was consummated.
“Georgie’s burst of magic was a brilliant stroke,” writes Brenda Maddox in Yeats’s Ghosts; “one of the most ingenious wifely stratagems ever tried to take a husband’s mind off another woman.” After the first crisis, the automatic writing continued to offer remarkably practical advice, instructing the sexually naïve Yeats how to give his wife satisfaction and cautioning him not to overwork her as a medium. But it was far more than a marital aid. “We have come to give you metaphors for poetry,” the spirits announced. They gave him the “gyres,” or cones, that represented the phases of history and the types of personality; the “dreaming back” of spirits into previous lives; and the “mask” that allowed a person to cope with his inner antithesis and achieve Unity of Being. Beyond these, they gave Yeats the elaborate cosmic/historical system summarized in A Vision (1925), one of the oddest books ever written, which Yeats himself could not finally decide if he believed in.
Under the spirits’ guidance, Yeats and George (as she came to be called) had two children, after which the revelations and the couple’s sex life both tapered off. Like many another famous literary man, Yeats spent his final years surrounded by adoring women, while his wife managed his domestic and professional life. They were more than friends, though less than lovers: Yeats was always loyal and grateful, if not passionate; George was tolerant and good-humored. Some recent commentators have wondered if she was a masochist. Maddox does not pose this question explicitly but seems to see it lurking in the background and answers it implicitly. The answer is no. George Yeats was a strong, worldly, capable, intelligent, cultivated, generous woman who greatly admired her husband as well as loved him, believed (rightly) that his work was supremely important – to many others, including posterity, as well as herself – and was glad to forward it even at the expense of her own comforts and rights. This self-sacrificing attitude may be archaic, but is not pathological; and even a feminist may feel that it is admirable.
The “secret life” approach to biography is suspect, but Brenda Maddox, author of previous books on James Joyce’s and D. H. Lawrence’s marriages, is sensible, discreet, and brisk. Yeats’s Ghosts doesn’t convey much of the thought behind Yeats’s art (as Richard Ellmann’s Yeats: The Man and the Masks does) or much of the incredible charm of his prose and his personality (as The Autobiographies of W. B. Yeats does). But even gossip about the truly great is worth having, when it’s this well done.