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By George

Two vignettes. In the spring of 2002 Ann Saddlemyer is giving a lecture at the University of São Paulo on George Yeats and the influence that her gifts as a psychic and medium had on her husband’s poetry. While she is speaking, very loud noises are heard overhead, as if wooden crates are being tumbled violently across the floors in the rooms above us. Shortly afterward, the venetian blinds on the windows at the back of the room suddenly set up a furious rattling, although the day outside is calm and mild. On both occasions, Professor Saddlemyer, paying no heed, continues serenely with her lecture. Later, during questions, a member of the audience rises to say that in the circumstances she cannot let these eerie phenomena go unremarked. Saddlemyer, with the faint, rueful grimace of a long-suffering sorcerer’s assistant, merely shrugs and murmurs, “Oh, George….”

Second vignette. I return home from Brazil, and a copy of Becoming George arrives. As always when I first open a biography, I turn straightaway, with childish eagerness, to the photographs. Here is the young Georgie Hyde Lees, here various ancestors, here the house where she was born, the friends she loved, the man she married. And at the last, above a picture of her grave, is a snapshot taken in 1965 of a reunion in Dublin between the elderly George Yeats and Ezra Pound. Mrs. Yeats wears spectacles and a faintly absurd woolen hat. At once my mind races back, the years flickering like the pages of a calendar, to an afternoon in Dublin in the early 1960s.

At the time I was living in a flat in a decaying Georgian house in Dublin’s Upper Mount Street. The Yeatses’ middle-aged daughter, Anne, a painter, occupied the flat below mine; in physique, Anne Yeats was her mother built to her father’s scale, and had an enchanting smile. We would often meet on the stairs and stop to talk, usually about the dilapidated condition of the house and the perfidy of the property company that owned it. That day, the day that I had suddenly remembered, I was coming up the stairs and saw Anne Yeats about to enter her flat, accompanied by a diminutive, elderly lady. As I passed them by, and greeted Anne, I paid scant attention to the old woman, in her woolen hat and outsize spectacles. She, however, turned to me and—this is what I suddenly recalled, looking at that photograph—gave me a long, searching, cool, but not unfriendly stare.

In her São Paulo lecture, Ann Saddlemyer referred repeatedly to the peculiarly penetrating, compelling quality of George Yeats’s gaze, “those unforgettable dark hazel eyes,” something attested to by practically everyone who had been subjected to it. That day on the stairs, I did not realize that the person looking at me was Yeats’s widow, the famous Mrs. W.B., as she was universally known in the literary Dublin of the day. Nor did I particularly register the glance she gave me. Forty years later, however, seeing that photograph in Saddlemyer’s book, I was suddenly fixed again by those huge, dark eyes, not as in a memory, but as if it were happening now, as if this long-dead woman were gazing at me from beyond the grave. I am not superstitious or of a mystical bent, but even now when I summon up that fleeting encounter I experience a ghostly shiver down the spine.

There was little in George Yeats’s upper-middle-class if slightly rackety background to suggest that she might have inherited mystical powers, although her mother, like so many of her contemporaries, had an interest in the occult. Bertha Georgina Hyde Lees was born in 1892 in Fleet, in Hampshire. Her father was a soldier with a private fortune, much of which he drank away before his early death in 1909. Drink flowed freely in the Hyde Lees veins: George’s grandfather and great-grandfather had also been alcoholics, and in later life she too had a strong penchant for “pink ladies” and “brandy Alexanders” and the odd generous tot of whiskey in her tea.

Her mother, the flighty and unconventional Nelly, was, according to Saddlemyer, “easily bored, infinitely preferred the company of men to women, and encouraged courtiers.” Georgie, although by no means conventional, and heir to her father’s gaiety and charm, developed early on a love of learning and arcane scholarship. She was a dauntless reader, devouring everything from the novels of Hardy and Balzac to the Enneads of Plotinus and the works of the Spanish mystic Raymon Llull and the Renaissance Platonist Pico della Mirandola. She studied Gnosticism, hermeticism, and the Kabbalah, alchemy and astrology, mysticism, ritual magic. She was fluent in Latin, and spoke most of the major European languages. It is easy to see the attractions she would hold for the sketchily educated and monoglot Yeats.

According to Georgie, she met the poet first in 1911, when her mother took her to tea one afternoon at the home of her good friend Olivia Shakespear. Georgie’s best friend at the time was Olivia’s daughter, Dorothy, the partner of Ezra Pound, and Saddlemyer remarks on the strikingly similar patterns that Georgie’s and Dorothy’s lives would follow, “each devoting her life, considerable artistic talents, and inheritance to nurturing a husband whose poetry was paramount.” Nelly Hyde Lees had known Yeats for many years and admired his poetry. In 1911, Yeats, in his middle forties, was still pining for the love of his early life, Maud Gonne, yet nevertheless was engaged in what Georgie later dismissed as “a purely amorous affair” with Mabel Dickinson, a masseuse. To the very end of his life Yeats had a sharp eye for the girls, and is likely to have taken note, that day at the Shakespear home, of the nineteen-year-old art student with the beautiful eyes, sprightly personality, and fund of deep learning.

What brought them together was their interest in spiritualism and, specifically, their membership in the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, into which, at Yeats’s instigation, Georgie was inducted in 1914:

Dressed in a black tunic fastened by a cord passed three times round her waist and wearing red shoes, she was blindfolded; after completion of the ritual the cord was replaced by a black sash crossing from the left shoulder to her right side. What must surely have been the most dramatic moment occurred when, kneeling with her right hand in the centre of the Holy Symbol (a triangle), she swore “to persevere in the labours of the Divine Science” or be expelled and overwhelmed with misfortunes which “journey as upon the winds,…strike where no man strikes…slay where no sword slays.”

Georgie proved a willing adept, and in the following years rapidly overtook her mentor, climbing through the various, complex stages of initiation with ease, so that when eventually she and Yeats withdrew from the Golden Dawn there was only one degree of expertise between them.

In the years leading up to the First World War the love that Yeats had so long borne for Maud Gonne—“that grand vestige of an ancient flame”1—was at last burning itself out. In a bizarre switch of affections, he began to woo Maud’s daughter, Iseult, a highly strung young woman who, although she certainly did not love him, was no doubt flattered by the famous poet’s attentions: as she confessed years later to the Yeats biographer Richard Ellmann, she had considered “keep[ing] Yeats about as her mother had done.” By September 1917 Yeats’s patience was wearing thin. He presented Iseult with an ultimatum, saying that, as Yeats’s biographer A. Norman Jeffares wrote, “if she would not marry him he had a friend who would be very suitable, a girl strikingly beautiful in a barbaric manner.” Iseult still dithered, until finally, on September 26, Yeats formally proposed marriage to Georgie, who recalled him describing himself to her as “a Sinbad who after many misadventures had at last found port.” And indeed, in the Arabian Nights voyage they were about to embark upon, Georgie, or George, as Yeats unaccountably preferred to call her, would prove to be both his genie and the magic lamp lighting his way into new realms of artistic inspiration.

The beginnings of their life together were less than magical, however. The “occult marriage,” as Yeats’s recent biographer Terence Brown characterizes the union,2 began on October 20, 1917, at the Harrow Road register office in London, with Georgie’s mother as witness and Ezra Pound as best man. The wedding was private to the point of secrecy, and Georgie hated it: years later, writing to friends who were about to get married and seeking to dissuade them from a civil ceremony, she described register offices as “nasty frowzy places” where “the officials spend at least half an hour taking off their greatcoats and hats and recovering from train or bus journeys and undigested breakfasts (very vulgar…).” Nor did matters improve when the newlyweds—Yeats was fifty-two, Georgie twenty-four—returned to the groom’s lodgings at Woburn Buildings, where during their courting days the poet had treated his girl to a meal of chops cooked inside a brown paper bag, a method of which he was very proud. Now he came down with a severe attack of stomach cramps, no doubt psychosomatic, and the honeymoon had to be delayed. Ever practical, Georgie, as Saddlemyer observes, “immediately made herself useful not just as nurse but as amanuensis,” and within a couple of days was writing letters to Yeats’s dictation.

It was a letter that brought this early marital crisis to a head. When the couple on honeymoon checked into the Ashdown Forest Hotel, a letter came from Iseult Gonne, well-meant, according to the scrupulously unjudgmental Saddlemyer, wishing Yeats well in his marriage and likening Georgie, prophetically, as it would turn out, to a sphinx. Well-meant or not, the letter plunged Yeats deeper into misery and convinced him that he had betrayed Iseult, her mother, and Georgie, in his haste to wed. It seemed the marriage was about to collapse before it had properly started. In their desperation both consulted planetary dispositions, but the heavens offered scant comfort. Yeats found that “all events of Vth house [love affairs] & 11 [hopes] caught in the most evil construction,” while Georgie turned her eyes skyward “to ask why we are unhappy.” For Yeats, poetry offered some, bitter, release. In “Owen Aherne and his Dancers,” written at the time, the poet’s heart demands:

How could she mate with fifty years that was so wildly bred?
Let the cage bird and the cage bird mate and the wild bird mate in the wild.

There are numerous accounts of what happened next, none more detailed or astute than Saddlemyer’s. In Georgie Yeats’s own version, she thought to distract Yeats from his unhappiness, and reassure him about his treatment of Iseult and Maud Gonne, by making “an attempt to fake automatic writing,” as she told a later interviewer. She was to come to regret the use of that word “fake.” Forty years later, when A. Norman Jeffares repeated it in the first draft of his introduction to his edition of Yeats’s Selected Poems, she objected strongly, but went on resignedly: “However, I cannot ask you to alter this. The word ‘Fake’ will go down to posterity.”

What happened was this. Sitting in their hotel room with her unhappy husband, George picked up a pencil and, talking all the while to Yeats, began to write. The words that came to the page unbidden and, she insisted, not by her own agency were, according to Ellmann, “What you have done is right for both the cat and the hare,” although Yeats’s version was “with the bird all is well at heart. Your action was right for both but in London you mistook its meaning.” As Saddlemyer remarks, probably neither memory is entirely accurate. After the initial message the writing continued, as George’s hand, possessed seemingly by an occult power, sped across the pages. Yeats was entranced. In the introduction to the second edition of A Vision (1937), his—and George’s—vast, intricate, and utterly dotty magical treatise, he wrote:

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.”

Thus began one of the most bizarre but most richly productive collaborations in the history of literature. For years George Yeats would pour out automatic writings which fed straight into her husband’s poetry, the great work—“miraculous” is for once the mot juste—of his maturity and old age. What had begun as a desperate and perhaps erotically charged attempt on the part of a young bride to save a tottering marriage became one of the great literary inspirations; Yeats, who feared he had made a dreadful mistake by inviting this young woman into his life, on the contrary found to his joy that, as Ellmann wrote, “he had married into Delphi.” George would soon be delivering messages from a host of spiritual controls Yeats himself preferred to call Instructors and Communicators, “oddly named,” as Saddlemyer concedes, but “not particularly exotic,” including such luminaries as Thomas of Dorlowicz, Thomas of Odessa, and Leo Africanus; Dionertes, Eurectha, and Eliorus; Epilamia, the only female among them; and, splendidly, Frazzlepat.

What is to be made of all this? Did the Yeatses believe that they were being communicated with directly from the spirit world? For all her deep interest in the occult, could a woman as common-sensical as George Yeats, with her mischievous sense of humor and refined taste for irony, really imagine that these willful and childishly irritable “Instructors and Communicators” were speaking through her? All commentators tread warily in this haunted territory. Richard Ellmann, loyal friend and confidant of the widowed Mrs. W.B., in his early book Yeats: The Man and the Masks says only that George “made it possible for [Yeats] to shape the symbology and ideology of his major poetry,” and then puts a discreet finger to his lips and tiptoes away. Terence Brown is more direct, but hardly less protective, observing that George probably “recognized how risible what they were about together could be made to seem by unsympathetic critics,” and that what “probably began as a wifely stratagem, at once sexually alluring and suggestive of hidden feminine powers (to which Yeats had always been susceptible) became a way of life—arduous, demanding, psychologically risky as well as fruitful.”

Saddlemyer contents herself with providing as many opinions and possibilities as she has been able to gather. Having surveyed the field of theories about the origins of seemingly magical phenomena such as automatic writing, quoting eminent neuropsychologists and neurosurgeons, and even taking a short canter on the hippocampus, that area of the brain which sorts and preserves the mind’s vital data on the past, she remarks that “we can safely acknowledge what critics…have always known: the ‘Wisdom of Two’ was constructed by Georgie on a foundation of shared knowledge and experience of which Willy’s3 previous writing and study played no small a part.”

Modern psychologists confirm that, writing automatically when in a deep trance, a hypnotized individual “literally does not know what his right (or left) hand is doing. The suggestion is given… that without his awareness and even while he is concentrating on other matters, his hand will guide his pen in writing a message from the unconscious.” In persons sufficiently susceptible, these skills can be learned and polished; urged on by Willy, Georgie had plenty of opportunity to practise. She had, after all, initiated them.

This is reasonable, yet that word “fake” stubbornly lingers, like a wisp of ectoplasm.

Whatever the facts of the matter, if one may speak of facts in such circumstances, George’s discovery of her gift as a medium did more than save the marriage, it made it. Yeats was delighted to think that almost by accident he had married an oracle, but he was not so besotted by this access to the magical as to deny how much of it might be coming from inside George and, indeed, himself. In the second version of A Vision he wrote, with just the faintest hint of defensiveness, that

the blessed spirits must be sought within the self which is common to all. Much that has happened, much that has been said, suggests that the communicators are the personalities of a dream shared by my wife, by myself, occasionally by others…a dream that can take objective form in sounds, in hallucinations, in scents, in flashes of light, in movements of external objects.

Besides, the actualities of the matter were not the point. The point was poetry. Asked by a friend if he believed in A Vision, Yeats replied, “Oh, I draw from it images for my poetry.” George herself now and then let the mask slip, dismissing the “magic” as of no consequence compared to its effect on her husband’s work. In a letter to her friend the poet Thomas MacGreevy in 1925, she wrote a very telling couple of sentences:

All the pseudo-mystico-intellecto-nationalistico stuff of the last fifteen years isnt worth a trouser-button, or rather as a trouser-button is a most necessary article one might say a pillowcase button! As long as there was any gesture in it…it was worth it.

George was above all a practical woman, who bent all the energies she could muster to the single task of being her husband’s muse, and she did so in a more literal sense than is usually the case with artists’ wives. She devoted the rest of their lives together, and the long years of her widowhood, to the promotion of Yeats’s poetry. Saddlemyer is wonderfully comprehensive in her account of domestic as well as artistic matters, chronicling with admiration, sly humor, and tenderness George’s skills as helpmeet, homemaker, lover, and mother. The passages of the book devoted to the periods the pair lived at Thoor Ballylee, the old castle in County Sligo that Yeats had bought and renovated, are particularly charming. George made Yeats happy in a myriad of ways, including, at least in the early years, the erotic. In return the poet was not always gallant, and, toward the end, was willfully cruel, when, fizzing with monkey glands after the famous Steinach operation to restore his flagging virility, he took a number of lovers, most of them younger than George. She bore it all with fortitude, charity, and saving humor. “After your death,” she told the errant poet, “people will write of your love affairs, but I shall say nothing, because I will remember how proud you were.”

After Yeats’s death in 1939 George entered upon a phase of her life for which she had been preparing for a long time, perhaps even from those terrible days immediately after the wedding in 1917, for she clearly saw from the start that Yeats had one eye fixed on the here and now and one, perhaps the one with the stronger gaze, on posterity. In the 1940s George told the young Richard Ellmann that there was one quality in her husband which never ceased to astonish her, and that was “his extraordinary sense of the way things would look to people later on.” Until her own death in August 1968 she guarded Yeats’s legacy with a keen sense of what would further his reputation and preserve the purity of his achievement, picking with a fine discrimination the academics—she called them “seekers”—who flocked to Dublin hoping for access to manuscripts and letters. She also kept an eager interest in the new generation, befriending a number of younger poets, such as John Montague and Patrick Kavanagh, entertaining them with conversation and Jameson whiskey at her house on Palmerston Road.

Ann Saddlemyer has written a profound, exhaustive, and richly evocative life of this truly remarkable woman. George herself preferred to stay in the shadows, suppressing many of her own desires and ambitions—at one stage she wrote a novel, but destroyed it—and in drawing her subject forward into the light Saddlemyer has exercised an admirable discretion and sense of balance along with an almost fierce devotion to the facts. Becoming George is a gigantic book, with a daunting scholarly apparatus,4 and is the product, surely, of a lifetime of study and thought and discrimination. As a young scholar working in Dublin on Synge’s plays, Saddlemyer came to know George Yeats, and was a good friend of her daughter Anne, and the warmth of affection for George and the Yeats family permeates the book and brings it to life.

  1. 1

    Richard Ellmann, Yeats: The Man and the Masks (1948; Norton, 1979), p. xxv.

  2. 2

    Terence Brown’s The Life of W.B. Yeats (Blackwell, 1999) is one of the finest, and certainly the most elegantly executed, of the available biographies.

  3. 3

    Willy” is Saddlemyer’s preferred designation throughout, even though those who addressed the poet as Willie seem all to have used the latter spelling.

  4. 4

    The task of proofreading alone must have been enormous. The text is immaculate, with no more than one or two tiny slips so far as this reviewer could see—although George Steiner will be startled to notice that he has ten entries in the index, the compiler of which confused him with his namesake, Rudolph, the founder of anthroposophy.

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