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At the Yeatses

A book of mine, Yeats: The Man and the Masks, was completed in 1947, eight years after the poet’s death, a time when many of his friends were alive, and above all, his wife. George Yeats has since died, on August 23, 1968, and it seems an appropriate moment to think back on that distinguished woman. When I came to know her, she had been sorting and arranging Yeats’s books and papers, “a hen picking up scraps,” as she said.

I was grateful to her not only for lending me manuscripts, a suitcaseful at a time, but for helping to interpret them. For example, I once suggested to her that the “old Rocky Face” in Yeats’s poem “The Gyres” might be the moon, presiding there over the ages of human history. But she remembered that, at the time he composed the poem, her husband had been reading up on the Delphic oracle, and was excited by the image of the oracle speaking through a cleft in the rock. She felt sure that it was the oracle who was being described, and not the moon. No doubt she was right.

Another day, I asked her with some embarrassment whether she thought that the outburst of blood, which in several poems Yeats associated with the end of each twenty-eight-phase lunar cycle, might not be based on the menstrual cycle. But on this matter Mrs. Yeats was firm. “W.B. knew very little about all that when we married,” she said, “and in fact until well after that part of A Vision had been settled.” Some thirty years later, I can see that Yeats had in mind a bloodletting like sexual violation rather than the habitual process I had proposed.

I came to know Mrs. Yeats well during this year, and to apprehend that, with all her self-effacement, she had played a great role with aplomb. Once I quoted to her a remark in a letter from Yeats’s father, written while she was ill with influenza and in danger of death in 1918. J.B. Yeats said that if she died, Willie would fall to pieces. “I haven’t read the letter,” she said, “and anyway, it wasn’t true.” But he himself wrote, “For how could I forget / The wisdom that you brought, the comfort that you gave?” She provided him with a tranquil house, she understood his poems, and she liked him as a man.

She talked to me with candor about “the marriage,” as—to her amusement—I pedantically found myself calling it, perhaps in unconscious response to her own objectivity about it. She had met Yeats in 1911, when she was eighteen, having been born on October 17, 1892. By that time she had already spurned her mother’s wish for her to lead an upper-middle-class life of balls and parties, on the grounds that she wished to become an artist. Her artistic career did not get far, but she used her freedom to look into subjects her mother considered unwomanly, such as philosophy and occultism. The interest in occultism was one she shared with Yeats; he encouraged her to join the Golden Dawn in 1914, and at her initiation acted as her Hiereus or sponsor.

Yeats was well acquainted with her mother and their friends, but some years passed before he took a stronger interest in her. In 1916 the Easter Rebellion made Maud Gonne a widow: her husband John MacBride, from whom she had long been separated, was one of those executed. To Yeats MacBride had appeared to be “a drunken vainglorious lout,” and when he heard that MacBride had refused a blindfold, saying, “I’ve been staring down rifle butts all my life,” he remarked that MacBride might better have said that he had been staring down pintpots all his life. His antipathy to MacBride at first made him see the rebellion as all wrong, and he and Maud Gonne had—according to her daughter Iseult—a furious argument on the subject. Then he brought himself to recognize the importance of the blood sacrifice that had been made, and even of MacBride’s part in it. The poem he wrote did not give up his reasons for opposing the rebellion, or his dislike of MacBride, but he now attributed the rebels’ “bewilderment” to “excess of love,” a malady with which he could thoroughly sympathize, and one appropriate for Easter in any year.

Yeats seems to have felt honor bound to propose marriage to Maud Gonne, though he knew well enough the difficulties that might ensue. Iseult (Gonne) Stuart told me, “My mother is not a woman of much discernment, but she had enough to know better than to marry Yeats, to whom she wasn’t suited.” It was then that Yeats considered for a time the possibility of marriage to Iseult, whom he had known since childhood, and whose severe beauty he greatly admired.

Iseult was quite different from her mother. At that period of her life she was bored by Maud Gonne’s politics; her interests were literary and artistic. At the age of fifteen she confided to her diary (as she told me) that she was in love with Yeats, and asked him to marry her, only to be rejected. Now he bethought himself and said to her that he would take her away from her mother’s atmosphere of extremist politics. Though he was an old man, he would give her a life among agreeable people. “You wouldn’t say you loved me, would you?” she asked. Being uncertain, he would not. Iseult Stuart told me that she had thought to keep Yeats about as her mother had done, but he became very decisive. They met by arrangement at a Lyons Corner House in London, to discuss the matter. She tried to equivocate, but he asked, “Yes or no?” At this she could only say no. Years afterward he said to her nostalgically, “If only you and I had married,” and she caught him up with, “Why, we wouldn’t have stayed together a year.”

At this time Yeats began to think seriously about Georgie Hyde-Lees. She was more intelligent than Maud Gonne or Iseult, and more companionable, with a sense of humor that was lacking in them. She was attractive, with bright searching eyes and a high color, which gave her, as he said, a barbaric beauty. She was interested in his subjects; she had the virtue of being in love with him. Yeats had felt for some years that he must marry. When he confided to Lady Gregory that he and Georgie (whom he would soon rechristen George) were to be married, he asked if he should bring her to Coole for a visit. Lady Gregory replied, “I’d rather you didn’t come till you were married and nothing could be done about it.”

Under such unpropitious auspices Yeats and Miss Hyde-Lees were married on October 20, 1917. During the first days following the ceremony, Mrs. Yeats saw (as she told me) that her husband was “blue.” They were staying at the Ashdown Forest Hotel. She knew his situation and understood that he felt he might have done the wrong thing in marrying her rather than Iseult, whose resistance might have weakened with time.

Mrs. Yeats wondered whether to leave him or what. Casting about for some means of distraction, she thought of attempting automatic writing. Yeats was familiar with this procedure although it was disapproved of by the Golden Dawn. Her idea was to fake a sentence or two that would allay his anxieties over Iseult and herself, and after the session to own up to what she had done. Accordingly on October 24, four days after their marriage, she encouraged a pencil to write a sentence which I remember as saying, approximately, “What you have done is right for both the cat and the hare.” She was confident that he would decipher the cat as her watchful and timid self, and the hare as Iseult—a fleet runner. Yeats was at once captured, and relieved. His misgivings disappeared, and it did not at once occur to him that his wife might have divined his cause of anxiety without preternatural assistance.

Then a strange thing happened. Her own emotional involvement—her love for this extraordinary husband, and her fears for her marriage—must have made for unusual receptivity, as she told me later, for she suddenly felt her hand grasped and driven irresistibly. The pencil began to write sentences she had never intended or thought, which seemed to come as from another world. As images and ideas took penciled form, Yeats went beyond his initial relief about his marriage. Here were more potent relevations: he had married into Delphi. To Maud Gonne and her daughter he appeared to be buried in what they always referred to as “the prosaic marriage.” But nothing could have been less prosaic than what he was experiencing.

Along with intellectual excitement and emotional involvement there came to Yeats a great serenity of spirit, which lasted until the Irish Civil War broke out five years later. He liked being husband, and he liked being father; they soon had a girl and then a boy. One of his poems, “To Be Carved on a Stone at Thoor Ballylee,” proudly associated husband and wife,

I, the poet William Yeats,
With old mill boards and sea-green slates,
And smithy work from the Gort forge,
Restored this tower for my wife George….

Changing her name had been rewarded with this magnificent line.

In the meantime he had an opportunity to demonstrate his freedom from his old life. Maud Gonne had rented her house at 73 Stephen’s Green in Dublin to him in 1918. She herself had been forbidden by the British authorities to enter Ireland. But she smuggled herself over, disguised as a beggar woman, and presented herself at Yeats’s door asking to be taken in. At this point George Yeats was extremely ill with influenza. Yeats knew that Maud Gonne’s presence in the house was bound to create turmoil, and he refused to admit her. She refused to leave, it being her own house, even when the doctor advised her that her presence might endanger his patient. Yeats became quite fierce until Maud Gonne gave in and decamped. He knew where his true loyalty lay.

He worked passionately to embody in systematic form, for which A Vision offered an appropriate title, the fragmentary revelations in the automatic script. He insisted that his wife keep up the automatic writing for two or three hours a day, usually from three to six in the afternoon. It was a great strain for her. She feared as well that it might become simply a new obsession for him. A reluctant Sybil, she therefore broke off the communication several times, and insisted that he return to writing verse. Yet the verse began to register its effect, too. Not only were there explicitly symbological poems, but he would scarcely have conceived of “The Second Coming” as the extinction of rationality, she felt, if it had not been for the automatic script. His daily behavior was also affected: to place people in their appropriate phases of the moon, as the script required, entailed listening to what they said and watching the way they behaved, and for the purpose he took a much greater interest in the outside world. This interest proved surprisingly congenial to him.

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