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 …

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Letters

Praising Yeats May 11, 1995