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 …
Copyright © 1979 by Richard Ellmann.