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.
That all this revelation must some day come to an end in a book was Yeats’s idea from the start. The method of presentation worried him. Mrs. Yeats wished him to present the material directly, without introduction, but Yeats’s mind was too modulated and subtle for that. He therefore began within weeks of the start of the automatic script to concoct a transmission myth about Kusta Ben Luka.
This myth introduced the first edition of A Vision, which appeared early in 1926. Soon after, Yeats decided to do a new edition, and this time to tell about the automatic writing. Mrs. Yeats was absolutely opposed, and they had then, as she told me, the first and only serious quarrel of their marriage. Yeats prevailed, to her great embarrassment. The second edition of 1937 made room also for many second thoughts and also for many doubts. When Allan Wade asked him if he believed in A Vision, he said evasively—though accurately, “Oh, I draw from it images for my poetry.” The book hovered between philosophy and fiction, bread and cake.
Yeats heard that Ezra Pound had commented, after the first edition of A Vision was published, that no one should be allowed to read the book before he was forty. The implication was that it would go well with senescence. As Yeats knew, the book contained exactly the sort of abstract schematizing that Pound disliked. In riposte he decided to dedicate the book to his friend, and wrote “A Packet for Ezra Pound” for the purpose. Willynilly, Pound would be obliged to have his part in the book, for A Vision comprehended all possible opponents of itself within its scheme.
Once Yeats had revised the book, he was free to do other work, though a surviving document called “Seven Propositions” indicates that during his last decade he pushed his speculations about final matters even further. Sometimes he joked about mysticism, but as his wife pointed out, one can do that and still be serious about it. My own attitude toward automatic writing, and indeed toward spiritualist phenomena in general, seemed too skeptical to Mrs. Yeats. “Do you not believe in ghosts at all?” she asked me. “Only in those inside me,” I replied. “That’s the trouble with you,” she said with unexpected severity.
I still know very little about ghosts. But I can see that the metaphysical urge in Yeats was inseparable from his greatness as a poet. Were it removed, there would be few poems left. He regarded as metaphysical certain experiences which others might regard as within merely human compass: moments when memory offers bitterness or sweetness like a taste, or when, for no mere reason, the being becomes radiant. There is a poem in Yeats’s series, “Vacillation,” which describes such an experience,
My fiftieth year had come and gone,
I sat, a solitary man,
In a crowded London shop,
An open book and empty cup
On the marble table-top.
While on the shop and street I gazed
My body of a sudden blazed;
And twenty minutes more or less
It seemed, so great my happiness,
That I was blessed and could bless.
Mrs. Yeats said that this had actually happened to him, and that, in part because it was his only such experience, he attached great importance to it.
I learned from Mrs. Yeats, in fragments of recollection, something of what Yeats was like. One day she spoke about his hands, for example. His palm was very large in relation to the hand’s outer surface; the fingers were tapered to very thin, square edges, with rounded nails. In Sean O’Sullivan’s portrait of him at the Abbey Theatre, Yeats is shown, inaccurately, with pointed nails on round fingers. She talked of his late preference for blue shirts, and of how people wrongly assumed that he wore them in sympathy with the Irish fascist organization, the Blue Shirts, when in fact blue went well with his white hair. It was true that he had met with General Eoin O’Duffy, the Blue Shirt leader, but she noticed that “they spoke on different lines and neither listened to the other.” In describing O’Duffy to other friends, Yeats always called him “the swashbuckler,” a label derisory enough to indicate the labeler’s lack of enthusiasm. For, notwithstanding such parleying, Yeats never ceased to advocate “the right of every man to see the world in his own way,” as he wrote to John Quinn in 1905. He was always ready to denounce authority when this right was impinged upon, and so could never have accepted an authoritarian regime.
She told me of Yeats’s sense of humor. Sometimes this took the form of prankishness, as when he allowed his wife, on their first visit together to Coole, to bring their cat along. Lady Gregory had an absolute rule against animals in the house. So Yeats had to wait until their hostess was asleep to bring the cat in, and to take it out early in the morning before she woke up. Mrs. Yeats asked why he had not forewarned her, and he replied, “I wanted to see what she’d say.” He liked to force his friend George Russell to play croquet with him, and then spent all his time keeping Russell from getting his ball beyond the first wicket. Russell’s only recourse was to pay his calls at 9:30 in the morning, a time when Yeats would not impose recreation.
A story of her husband that gave his wife less pleasure was one he told with Tory irony to Frank O’Connor: it seemed that Mrs. Yeats, who was as far to the left in politics as he was to the right, disliked their next-door neighbors as fascist sympathizers. On a certain day she went out and discovered that one of her democratic hens was missing, and assumed it had been devoured by the neighbors’ police dog. She wrote them a letter. A prompt reply came back, “Dog killed.” She was still reeling from this message when the democratic hen reappeared. She wanted to write to the neighbors, but Yeats said, “You won’t be able to bring back the fascist dog.” On a milder note, Yeats always addressed her in letters as “My dear Dobbs,” Dobbs being the name of a round man, and she being a bit round herself. But he never used this epithet in conversation.
Because Yeats’s poetry and life were pervaded by Maud Gonne, I paid a number of visits to that grand vestige of an ancient flame. Madame MacBride, as she was always called (in my ignorance I called her Mrs. until her friend Ethel Mannin sternly reproved me) was then eighty-two, six feet tall, majestic in her skin and bones. She received me as a young man come to call, and I too regarded it as a courtly visit. I can see more clearly now that she had many mysteries. In the annals of Irish emancipation from British rule, she had a peculiar status. Her family and birthplace were English, yet she claimed Irishness for reasons which, though creditable, remain puzzling. Her passion for her adopted country was in many ways admirable, but it was adulterated by a fanatical quality which led her from the time of the Dreyfus case to anti-Semitism, and from the time of Hitler to pro-Nazi sympathy. Hitler was to carry out the attack on Britain for which she had always longed.
To consecrate her work she would have to have been martyred, like Madame Roland, but she lived on, habited in black, not mourning the executed husband from whom she had been separated after two years of marriage, but an Ireland similarly partitioned. Longevity brought its grandeur. Yeats had conferred upon her an immortality which she had perhaps not earned. Gradually young men, like those who had once adored her for her beauty, came as I did to visit because they adored Yeats’s images of her; and she died, rather unwillingly, into his poems, which she had never greatly liked.
I had always assumed that Yeats remained an unrequited lover, an impression fostered in Maud Gonne’s writings. But one day in Dublin, reading an occult journal kept by Yeats in 1908, I came across a passage written late in the year while he was staying with Maud Gonne at Coleville, her house in the Norman countryside. There was an obscure reference to her feeling that they could not continue. I asked Mrs. Yeats what was meant, and she said, “I wouldn’t have volunteered the information, but since you have found it out for yourself, I can confirm that W.B. and Maud Gonne were lovers at that time.” Subsequently I heard the same thing from a woman whom Yeats loved late in life, to whom he had also confided it. I realized the meaning of the reference in “A Man Young and Old,” where he wrote in one section,
The first of all the tribe lay there
And did such pleasure take—
She who had brought great Hector down
And put all Troy to wreck—
That she cried into this ear,
“Strike me if I shriek.”
For Yeats, at least, this autumnal flowering of a springtime passion had an importance out of proportion to its brevity. It made him feel he had vindicated his earlier fleshless pursuit of her.
As I try to imagine Maud Gonne’s relationship with Yeats from her point of view, I can now comprehend it somewhat better. At the moment when she paid her momentous first visit to the Yeats household in 1889, she was already, unbeknownst to him, deeply in love with a Frenchman. A year later, in January 1890, she became the mother of a small boy (not girl) called Georgette. The father was Lucien Millevoye, a newspaper editor and a married man, whose political extremism was a point of affinity with her. Millevoye had ardently supported the political ambitions of General Boulanger, and Maud Gonne carried secret messages about Europe to promote the cause. But in 1889, Boulanger, his oven having cooled, fled from France. Maud Gonne turned to the Irish Independence movement. Yeats, instantly enamored of her, gathered her into his own activities and found some new ones that they could engage in together. Oblivious to Millevoye’s existence, he felt that the spiritual marriage to which she had acceded might eventually become material too.
To Maud Gonne’s grief, Georgette died, I think late in 1893. She questioned Yeats and his friend George Russell on what might happen to the soul of a dead child, and Russell pronounced that it was often reborn in the same family. The hint actuated her to descend with Millevoye to the dead child’s vault in the hope of there reconceiving the soul of the lost child in another body. A daughter, Iseult, was in fact evoked. The theatricality is less than the pathos. In many ways, as Yeats knew and said, Maud Gonne had a kind of hapless innocence in her experiences. He speaks in “A Bronze Head” of murmuring at the thought of her, “My child, my child.” As for her lover Millevoye, he treated her badly, but she did not break with him until he appeared one day in 1896 to see Iseult, in the company of a more recent mistress.
Iseult was born on August 6, 1894, and for a year or more Maud Gonne occupied herself with her daughter’s care and stayed in France. During that time Yeats met Lionel Johnson’s cousin, Olivia Shakespear, a solicitor’s wife, who was unhappy in her marriage. She had already borne a daughter, Dorothy, who was later to marry Ezra Pound. The affair with Mrs. Shakespear, which was straightforward, was one for which Yeats always remained grateful. Unfortunately, after a few months Maud Gonne wrote to say that she had had a dream about him; Yeats’s resultant agitation was patent to Mrs. Shakespear, who thereupon broke off their affair. They resumed it later, more casually, and remained good friends for life.
Yeats did not really obtain his sexual freedom until Maud Gonne was married in 1903. Then he took up with a number of women. His evident sexual interest caused a falling-out with his friend John Quinn, the New York laywer and collector. Quinn accused him of making overtures to Quinn’s mistress, Dorothy Coates, while Miss Coates was in Paris. Yeats denied it in Edwardian style: “If it had been your wife, yes,” he said to Quinn, “but your mistress—never!” Quinn, unmarried and unamused, did not speak to him again for several years.
In Yeats’s later years, and especially after a long period of illnesses culminating in Malta fever, from 1927 to 1928, he felt keenly his regret over his celibate youth. He wrote the poems of sexual reminiscence in the volume The Winding Stair, and in the late 1930s he had several love affairs. Mrs. Yeats knew how important they were to him, and, conscious of her role as poet’s wife, she countenanced more than she discountenanced them. “After your death,” she once said to him, “people will write of your love affairs, but I shall say nothing, because I will remember how proud you were.”
The history of Yeats’s last years is a sad one, with illness challenging his constant desire to renew himself. Three years before his death, he told his wife that it was harder to live than to die. He declared, closer to the end, “I must be buried in Italy, because in Dublin there would be a procession, with Lennox Robinson as chief mourner.” She told me that it would have taken him a hundred years to complete his work. I surmise that he was roughening the edges of the two forces he had always seen at work in the world, the one regarding reality as temporary, provisional, tidal, the other regarding it as hive- or nest-like, tenacious, lasting. “Let all things pass away,” says a world-conqueror in “Vacillation,” while in A Vision Yeats quotes with approval an impromptu song of Iseult Stuart, “O Lord, let something remain.” In May 1938 he wrote a quatrain for Edith Shackleton Heald in which he offered, as “the explanation of it all,” that
From nowhere into nowhere nothing’s run.
The same word resounds in two of his last plays: the old man in Purgatory says at the end, “Twice a murderer and all for nothing,” and the last speech of The Herne’s Egg includes the line, “All that trouble and nothing to show for it….” Yet in another late work, the poem entitled “The Gyres,” Yeats insisted that out of “any rich dark nothing” the whole gazebo would be built up once again. He could conceive of nothing as empty and also as pregnant. I think he saw with increasing rawness the clash between the urge to have done with fine distinctions, subtle passions, and differentiated matter, and the urge to keep them at all costs. In his last play, The Death of Cuchulain, the final chorus asks,
Are those things that men adore and loathe Their sole reality?
Yeats had begun to evolve a theory beyond A Vision, of how the varying panoply of the material world is really the reflection of spirits and their changing relations to each other. This was perhaps one of the explorations he did not live to complete. With a bow to skepticism, and yet a last rebellion against it, he said in one of his final letters, “Man can embody the truth but he cannot know it.”
Mrs. Yeats held views sufficiently at odds with his own to protect him from complacency. Mostly she tried to make possible his last poems. She knew his agitated spirit, knew also that he could be absurd and difficult as well as witty and sympathetic. She knew as well how he could overstate and then have second thoughts, and had helped him save himself from many follies. She had made it possible for him to shape the symbology and ideology of his major poetry. One quality in her husband never ceased to astonish her, and she pointed it out to me as something I had not mentioned. This was his extraordinary sense of the way things would look to people later on. Very possibly he knew that she would be at the center of his story. If she bore his impress, he also bore hers.
When I had completed Yeats: The Man and the Masks, to which she did not object, I wrote, after the passage of some years, a biography of Yeats’s friend James Joyce. I asked Mrs. Yeats if I might dedicate it to her, and she acquiesced. Should I say, “To Mrs. W.B. Yeats,” “To Mrs. George Yeats,” or “To George Yeats”? I asked her. “That’s for you to decide,” she said. I settled on “To George Yeats,” to make explicit what I hope I have represented here, her independence, her astuteness, her humor. Marriage to Yeats was as problem-ridden as it was magnificent. She lived through it with self-possession, with generosity, with something like nobility.
May 17, 1979