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The Magic of W.B. Yeats

Yeats’s ‘Vision’ Papers, Volume 1: The Automatic Script: 5 November 1917–18 June 1918

General editor: George Mills Harper, edited by Steve L. Adams, by Barbara J. Frieling, by Sandra L. Sprayberry
University of Iowa Press, 565 pp., Three-volume set $135.00

Yeats’s ‘Vision’ Papers, Volume 2: The Automatic Script: 25 June 1918–29 March 1920

General editor: George Mills Harper, edited by Steve L. Adams, by Barbara J. Frieling, by Sandra L. Sprayberry
University of Iowa Press, 596 pp., Three-volume set $135.00

Yeats’s ‘Vision’ Papers, Volume 3: Sleep and Dream Notebooks, ‘Vision’ Notebooks 1 and 2, Card File

General editor: George Mills Harper, edited by Robert Anthony Martinich, by Margaret Mills Harper
University of Iowa Press, 444 pp., Three-volume set $135.00

The Gonne-Yeats Letters 1893–1938

edited by Anna MacBride White, by A. Norman Jeffares
Norton, 544 pp., $35.00

Running to Paradise: Yeats’s Poetic Art

by M.L. Rosenthal
Oxford University Press, 362 pp., $30.00

Yeats and Artistic Power

by Phillip L. Marcus
New York University Press, 263 pp., $40.00


One afternoon in May 1911 W.B. Yeats, visiting his friend and former lover Olivia Shakespear in London, was introduced to an English girl named Bertha Georgiana Hyde-Lees. He was nearly forty-six years old, “George” a few months over eighteen. A friendship soon developed, enthusiastic on her part, warier on his. They had much in common, including an interest in esoteric philosophy, astrology, the Tarot, and magic. They attended seances together. In 1914 George was admitted, with Yeats as sponsor, to the Stella Matutina Section of the Golden Dawn, a secret society devoted to occult science and magic. By November 1915 the question of marriage had arisen, but there were difficulties. Yeats was still enchanted with Maud Gonne, although she had desecrated their love in 1903 by marrying Major John MacBride:

My dear is angry that of late
I cry all base blood down
As if she had not taught me hate
By kisses to a clown.

Maud’s marriage ended in 1905, and a legal separation was effected the following year, but her Catholicism made it impossible for her to think of marrying again. Besides, she didn’t want to marry Yeats.

They had first met on January 30, 1889, and he had fallen in love with her. But Maud was politically and soon to be sexually involved with Lucien Millevoye, a Boulangist campaigner. Millevoye and Maud had a child, Georges, who died in infancy; their second child, Iseult, was born on August 6, 1894, and survived. Maud broke with Millevoye in the summer of 1900. MacBride then entered her life, first as a companion in her fight for the independence of Ireland, then as her suitor. When the marriage came to an end, Maud sought Yeats’s help in getting advice on legal and political questions. In December 1908 Yeats and Maud became lovers, but she soon gave up the sexual part of their intimacy and reverted to its spiritual or ideal mode. To complicate matters, from the spring of 1908 Yeats had been having an affair with Mabel Dickinson: it ended with a row on June 6, 1913, and Yeats felt free thereafter to allude to her as a harlot. Meanwhile he had started to swoon over Iseult Gonne, a beautiful, vivid girl who charmed him by reciting French poems.

By the end of 1915 it was clear to Yeats and his friends that he must do something, he was in an emotional mess. It would be better to marry than to burn; more to the point, better to marry than to run the risk of making a lover pregnant. There had been a scare of that kind with Mabel Dickinson, followed by telegrams and anger. In 1916, while Yeats was worrying about his life, John MacBride was transformed from clown to martyr: the British government executed him for his part in the Easter Rising. Maud was now free. On July 1, 1916, Yeats proposed to her again, but she gave him her usual answers, that she preferred his friendship and that posterity would appreciate her wisdom in letting a great poet concentrate on his poems. A week later, Yeats surprised her by asking whether or not she would object if he were to propose to Iseult. Maud said she did not think her daughter would take his proposal seriously. In the event, Iseult took it seriously enough to keep Yeats dangling for several months. At the end of September 1917 she said no, and he at once thought of George Hyde-Lees. He proposed to her, was accepted, and they were married on October 20, 1917.

The auspices were not good. In the first days of the honeymoon Yeats was miserable, distraught that by marrying he had betrayed three women, Maud, Iseult, and George. Four days after the wedding, according to his account of the episode, he started thinking, “I have lived all through this before.” On October 29 he wrote to Lady Gregory:

Then George spoke of the sensation of having lived through something before (she knew nothing of my thought). Then she said she felt that something was to be written through her. She got a piece of paper, and talking to me all the while so that her thoughts would not affect what she wrote, wrote these words (which she did not understand), “with the bird” (Iseult) “all is well at heart. Your action was right for both but in London you mistook its meaning.”

George was evidently trying to divert him and to bring assurance from the spirits that in marrying her he had done the right and true thing.

Having attempted automatic writing, George found she could do it, and produced a great deal of it. These writings gave Yeats much of the material he arranged in his A Vision (1925). In the introduction to the revised version of A Vision (1937) he has this report:

What came in disjointed sentences, in almost illegible writing, was so exciting, sometimes so profound, that I persuaded her to give an hour or two day after day to the unknown writer, and after some half-dozen such hours offered to spend what remained of life explaining and piecing together those scattered sentences. “No,” was the answer, “we have come to give you metaphors for poetry.”

In The Making of Yeats’s ‘A Vision’: A Study of the Automatic Script (1987) George Mills Harper revises the date of the revelation to make it October 27, and explains how Yeats and his wife, seer and medium, engaged in the automatic writing. There were no seances, no darkened rooms, no observers. George did not go into a trance. Over a period of about two and a half years, they had 450 sittings in Ireland, England, and—when George accompanied Yeats on a money-raising lecture tour—the United States. The procedure was that Yeats raised a theme, asked a question—“Is then the knowledge of god easier to the artist than the saint?”—and George transmitted the answer—“Much.” Question: “Is butterfly symbolic of cleared subconscious?” Answer: “No Butterfly symbol of innocence of emotion Eagle complexity & unbalanced emotion anger overcoming wisdom—Butterfly wisdom overcoming anger—the clearing of subconscious destroys anger.”

The Communicators—as Yeats called them—answered his questions to the extent eventually of 3,600 pages. They called themselves by a variety of names, such as “Ameritus.” George found it hard on her wrist, and on her patience. She often got bored. From March 28, 1920, they adopted an easier method by which “George speaks while asleep.” On September 18, 1922, they decided to give up these activities so that Yeats could set about bringing the mass of writing into the order of a philosophic system, “this task [which] has been laid upon me by those who cannot speak being dead & who if I fail may never find another interpreter.” Yeats acted upon Blake’s principle, that he “must Create a System or be enslav’d by another Man’s.” A Vision, dated 1925, was privately printed on January 15, 1926. George’s words to Yeats during her “sleeps” are now published for the first time in the third volume of Yeats’s ‘Vision’ Papers; the automatic scripts are given in the first two volumes.

This may be the place to report that Phillip L. Marcus, in his Yeats and Artistic Power, maintains that all the automatic writing was a fabrication on George’s part. The theme of his book is Yeats’s sense of artistic power, and he wonders why there is virtually no reference to this in A Vision or the automatic writing:

That it occupies no such place in A Vision seems best explained by the fact that the automatic writing and the ‘sleeps’ that eventually replaced it were from first to last a conscious or unconscious fabrication of George’s, and although she carried over into the “spirit” communications most of Yeats’s abiding literary and occult preoccupations she did not give that of artistic power any significant place, perhaps because she did not recognise its importance but possibly rather because the act of collaboration between her and her husband was in fact an expression of her own creativity and thus in a sense a covert act of artistic power that competed with his own.

A bold claim. It is true that some of the communications are wifely. In one, Yeats is told to take more exercise and see his doctor for a check-up. In another, on June 27, 1919, he is warned against having anything to do with the increasing political agitation in Ireland: “That method is most wicked in this country—wholesale slaughter because a few are cruel—The leader should never incite.” That sounds like George rather than the Communicator “Ameritus.” But the sitting goes straight from this admonition into technical questions about “initiatory moments” that are clearly Yeats’s. I don’t suppose that automatic writing is like sitting down to play the piano: there is probably a blurred period before Ameritus calls the meeting to order.

Marcus wrote his book before Yeats’s ‘Vision’ Papers became available, so he had to rely on Harper’s account of them in The Making of Yeats’s ‘A Vision,’ where the notable moments are necessarily detached a little from their contexts. In the Vision Papers I don’t find any sign of fabrication or deception on George’s part. The difference between wifely stuff and the rest is always clear. George had a mind of her own, she was not just taking dictation from the communicators, but this didn’t prevent her from feeling she was a genuine medium.

Not that the writing was always as automatic as it was supposed to be. Yeats wanted to ask about his relations with Maud, Iseult, and George, and to make occasional inquiries about Olivia and Mabel. “Will MG attain a wisdom older than the serpent?” he asked on January 9, 1918, and the Communicator, evidently a student of Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell—“If the fool would persist in his folly he would become wise”—answered: “She will attain to the wisdom of folly.” After a while George wanted to steer Yeats away from these delicate subjects to matter of philosophic import. But the going was often slow.On August 28, 1918, at Ballinamantane House the Communicator was out of sorts:

Today the bucket will draw no water

You have not prepared

I indicate what I wish to do—you choose another topic

Yes but I did not choose definitions

I dont like the atmosphere of this house—better put it right before more writing

At Oughterard on August 1, 1919, the sitting started badly: an imprecise question got a dusty answer in italics “Please attend & dont fidget.” At Oxford on February 1, 1918, the Communicator made it clear that he was not a mere professor:

Do you know Boehmes symbolism?

No I do not know any symbolism from book and I cannot get it from your minds because I am here only to create

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