On May 17, 1916, John Butler Yeats in New York wrote to his favorite daughter, Lily, in Dundrum:

So Lord Justice Holmes is dead. Several years long ago he dined with me when we lived near Sandymount. A few days before I left Dublin for London in 1867 he invited myself and four others to his poor little lodgings in Nelson Street, and all the men except myself became Judges of the Supreme Court in Ireland—one was judge in Jamaica—with great incomes and carriages and property—and except Hugh Holmes all died long ago and are forgotten except in the fond memory of their children and grandchildren. Am I not entitled to think myself the successful man among them? At any rate I am inclined to think that any one of them would have bartered away all his honours for my length of days—even if they did not have my brilliant offspring, yourself included.1

He should not have added “yourself included,” a demeaning afterthought. Much as he cared for his daughters Lily and Lolly, he knew that neither of them was to be compared for brilliance with his sons Jack and William. His daughters belong to the history of cottage industries in Ireland. Lily, trained in embroidery, ran Dun Emer Industries; Lolly, skilled in hand-press printing, was mainly responsible for the Cuala Press: it issued elegant books, most of them books of W.B. Yeats’s poetry as they arrived and before they were commercially published. Sometimes the sisters worked together, but more often and happily apart. WBY interfered with their arrangements, often to good effect. Lolly also taught art and published three guidebooks to the practice of brushwork. Both sisters were crossed in love, Lily by J.M. Synge, Lolly by a don of Trinity College, Louis Purser. Lolly was thought to be incipiently mad and even when quiet she was difficult to get on with. Lily disliked her, and hated living in her vicinity. Neither of them married. In the first chapter of Joyce’s Ulysses Buck Mulligan, talking to Haines, ridicules both sisters:

…That’s folk, he said very earnestly, for your book, Haines. Five lines of text and ten pages of notes about the folk and the fishgods of Dundrum. Printed by the weird sisters in the year of the big wind.

They are lampooned again, many chapters later:

To be printed and bound at the Druiddrum press by two designing females. Calf covers of pissedon green. Last word in art shades.

John Butler Yeats was born on March 16, 1839, in Tullylish, County Down. His father was rector of the local Church of Ireland. JBY (as I’ll call him) got a decent education, culminating in a degree from Trinity College, Dublin. On September 10, 1863, he committed the error of marrying Susan Pollexfen of Sligo. He should not have married. She should not have married him. He intended a career in law and completed his legal studies to the extent of being called to the Bar in January 1866. But in June 1867, and despite having a wife and two children to support, he gave up law and set off for London to study art and make himself a portrait painter. Wife and children were lodged in her parents’ house in Sligo, to begin with, and later dragged back and forth between London, Dublin, and Sligo in a doomed effort to sustain the financial demands of JBY’s career in painting, conversation, and the aesthetic life. Susan was nearly always unhappy, and for good reason. Her husband preferred talking to painting, and he regarded the claims of social life as stronger than the duty of supporting a family. Between June 13, 1865, and August 29, 1875, Susan gave birth to six children, one of whom died in infancy, another at the age of three. Two strokes in 1887 and another in the mid-1890s virtually removed her from social life. She died suddenly on January 3, 1900, at the age of fifty-eight from “general paralysis.”

In Reveries over Childhood and Youth WBY recalled her when “her mind had gone in a stroke of paralysis and she had found, liberated at last from financial worry, perfect happiness feeding the birds at a London window.”2 On May 11, 1908, Yeats told his lover Mabel Dickinson that “my mother was so long ill, so long fading out of life, that the last fading out of all made no noticeable change in our lives.” But she had kept alive Yeats’s sense of Sligo, and of every value his father despised: legend, folklore, the world of ghosts and spirits, “stories that Homer might have told.” It was Susan who kept in Yeats’s mind images of the old pagan Ireland from which he summoned a new, antithetical Ireland to come forth. Susan’s death made another change. It enabled JBY to set off on December 21, 1908, for New York and to stay there for the rest of his life, talking, writing letters, and failing to fulfill commissions for portraits. For many years he had painted portraits for which he had received scant payment or none. He survived in New York on lectures, occasional articles, the support of his patron, John Quinn, and unpredictable money from WBY when royalties and a Civil List pension from the British government allowed him to be generous. JBY died on February 3, 1922.


His relations to his sons were often difficult. As a rationalist, he detested WBY’s dealings with the occult world, seances, mysticism, and spiritualism. In Memoirs WBY recalls two incidents:

I began to read Ruskin’s Unto This Last, and this, when added to my interest in psychical research and mysticism, enraged my father, who was a disciple of John Stuart Mill’s. One night a quarrel over Ruskin came to such a height that in putting me out of the room he broke the glass in a picture with the back of my head. Another night when we had been in argument over Ruskin or mysticism, I cannot now remember what theme, he followed me upstairs to the room I shared with my brother. He squared up at me, and wanted to box, and when I said I could not fight my own father replied, “I don’t see why you should not.”

JBY also suspected that WBY was not merely proud but heartless. Taking Lolly’s side in a dispute with WBY in 1906, JBY rebuked him for his neo-Nietzschean hauteur:

As you have dropped affection from the circle of your needs, have you also dropped love between man and woman? Is this the theory of the overman; if so, your demi-godship is after all but a doctrinaire demi-godship…. But I fear I am wasting your time and that this is trivial fond record to a man who has cast away his humanity.

But normally the poet and his wayward father got on well enough when they were separated by the Atlantic Ocean. At worst the letters between father and son were strenuous in asserting their disagreements.

JBY was easier on his son Jack, who spent most of his early life in Sligo and, by marrying at the age of twenty-three, established his independence. In early years JBY thought that Jack’s imagination would thrive equally in his several enthusiasms—drawing, painting, writing stories, directing puppets, and making miniature theaters. On March 21, 1902, he wrote to WBY:

I have great hopes of Jack. He seems to have audacity and to be perfectly careless as to his reputation. His imagination is highly active—his faculties of judgment wholesomely quiescent—moreover he is in constant touch with life—inanition which might so easily overtake the poet who is a great corrector will never touch him—Nature I loved and next to Nature Art applies to Jack.

But Jack had no hopes of his father. He remained cool to him and mindful of his irresponsibility. Of the several children, Jack was especially close to his mother, and even when she had lapsed into darkness and silence he spoke or wrote to her as if she were still vigorously present in the world. He never forgave his father for giving her a miserable life.

Jack Yeats was born in London on August 29, 1871. He made his spiritual home in Sligo. He was an engaging boy, did well at Sligo Grammar School, and became the most equable and independent of the Yeatses. Born into a Protestant family, and despite his father’s agnosticism, he remained a churchgoer all his life. His marriage to Cottie White was by all accounts notably happy. They lived in Devon for several years, and settled in Ireland in November 1910. It irritated Jack when he was mistaken for the famous WBY, but generally the brothers were well disposed toward each other, short of intimacy or affection.

In the early years Jack illustrated some of WBY’s poems. He seems not to have been jealous of the Nobel Prize winner. In later years he spent many hours walking the streets of Dublin, alert to sights and sounds. I never met him, but I often saw him, tall, in a long black overcoat, hat and scarf as if he were providing a theatrical image for his friend Samuel Beckett. He was a prolific artist: by the time he stopped working in 1955, two years before his death, he had completed 1,200 paintings and 700 drawings. He had also written novels and plays. Bruce Arnold, in his biography, reports that from the age of seventy to eighty-four Yeats painted more than 500 canvases. A few of his paintings are in the Tate and other international galleries. Many of them are in private collections. In Ireland his work is considered a national treasure, as the Yeats Room in the National Gallery indicates. He is far more beloved than his brother.


Bruce Arnold claims that Jack Yeats “painted Ireland into an existence which it did not previously enjoy.” That is true. Jack’s Ireland differed from WBY’s; it was tangible, worldly, a place of work and sport, featuring the Galway Races and the Rosses Annual Regatta, as well as the Atlantic Ocean and the West of Ireland, and women, their shawls and loneliness. The drawings collected in Life in the West of Ireland (1912) are regularly compared in this respect to Synge’s Riders to the Sea and The Playboy of the Western World. But Arnold’s biography, affectionate to the man, nearly dismisses the artist. He argues that Jack Yeats was a fine soul but not a first-rate painter. When he compares him to other Irish painters—William Orpen, Nathaniel Hone, Walter Osborne, John Lavery, Mainie Jellett—he sees Yeats as inferior. He maintains that Yeats never learned to paint or properly to prime his canvases. In his later paintings he abandoned the use of linseed oil and turpentine, and squeezed paint directly from the tubes. The low humidity of central heating hasn’t helped his work. As a result of his carelessness, many of his paintings—especially the later ones from about 1937—are flaking, and there are cracks and bulges in the paint surface. The necessary work of restoration is proceeding.3

Arnold argues that Yeats’s native gift, perhaps his sole gift, was for line drawing and draftsmanship, but that he never learned the subtleties of oil, tone, and color perspective. He first made reliable money with line drawings and cartoons for newspapers, and for comic and sporting magazines: he never thought it necessary to study the mysteries of art. As Arnold says, he did not acquire “a fully realised palette,” and his composition was often “predictably mundane.” In Arnold’s view, he could have been a major artist if he had worked his gifts, but there was nearly always a discrepancy between his vision and “his capacities to present it”:

Technically Jack had a hard time of it, suffering from the shortcomings of his truncated art school education…. And his approach to watercolour painting was the cautious one of the graphic artist using pencil, and adding washes and more intense areas of colour to the skilful and inventive drawings.

Arnold says that Yeats’s landscapes and seascapes are diminished by “their lack of focus and their uninspired composition.” He finds no reason to disagree with a reviewer in The Irish News who commented on Yeats’s exhibition at the Gieves Gallery in London in January 1924:

His merit lies in the freshness of his vision, and the spontaneity of his statement, which disdains all conventional devices of picture-making. He does not search for the picturesque, and does not trouble with composition. That his pictures have the balanced distribution of masses which make for good design is probably due to instinct rather than to deliberate planning…. Mr Yeats allows nature to compose his pictures.

Arnold concedes that occasionally, as in Now (1941) and The Basin in which Pilate Washed his Hands (1951), Yeats somehow achieved magnificent composition, but he implies that in those paintings he stumbled into merit. If stumbling accounts for such authoritative works as The Sport of Kings (1947), The Hero Worshipper (1955), Freedom (1947; see illustration on page 35), and A Summer Day (1914), it would be prudent to trust to such luck. But Arnold scolds Yeats for his contented amateurishness. If a painting such as The Funeral of Harry Boland (1922) moves us, he says, “it is for reasons within ourselves rather than within the painting.” Yeats liked to paint dramatic or pathetic events, as in Bachelor’s Walk: In Memory (1915) and Communicating with the Prisoners (1924). These are not great paintings, Arnold remarks, but they are much loved in Ireland because their themes are historically identifiable and they appeal to “a collective, national sadness.”

That is probably true. But Yeats’s work appeals to many people for different reasons. The line drawings have a vigorous sense of ordinary lives; they catch the appearance and spirit of the people Yeats saw on the roads of Sligo, Galway, and Donegal. The watercolors of Devon and of the West of Ireland are at least charming; they speak of a world that may not long survive. Many people love the paintings, works from 1923 or thereabouts, which abandon the rule of line in favor of color and movement, thick impasto, the paint often applied with fingers and thumb or palette knife. There is persistent dispute about the change of style. Hilary Pyle4 and some other scholars of Yeats see more continuity than change, and they emphasize that he remained a figurative rather than an abstract painter to the end. To other eyes the later style is startlingly new. Herbert Read compared the later Yeats to Kokoschka and Rouault. Many agree with Raymond Mortimer that in these paintings “gusto for the thing seen is drowned in gusto for the means of expression.” Arnold leaves the possible explanations open. But it is clear that Yeats eventually came to regard the rule of line as a nuisance. This conviction was at one with his commitment to the experience of remembering, at whatever cost to the event or the object recalled: it was the emotion of remembering he cared about. He gave the same privilege to memory, dreams, and visions: he probably had more visions than his brother had, who sought them more assiduously.

Arnold is helpful on virtually every aspect of Yeats’s work. His biography is as comprehensive as it could well be, short of submitting Yeats to divination and psychoanalytic interrogation. The artist is seen among the evidences of his works, his friends, and associates. Occasionally Arnold becomes petulant, like a schoolmaster regretting the time and spirit he has lavished on a gifted, lazy pupil; but affection for the pupil keeps the relation going.

Terence Brown claims that his book The Life of W.B. Yeats issues from “a significantly reinvigorated historical criticism.” I don’t understand the claim, unless he means that historical criticism has survived the reign of “theory” and gathered up its strength again. The book is a straightforward biography, moving intelligently between life and times, foreground and background, using all the available material for a complete portrait of the poet. Readers may wonder why a new portrait is necessary or desirable, considering that the first volume of R.F. Foster’s biography5 has been so responsive to its subject, and the second and final volume is likely to be finished within a matter of months. But Brown has his own view of Yeats, not the same as Foster’s. He thinks that Yeats lost confidence in every institution he once approved of—nationalism, Ireland as a spiritual entity different from England, the Abbey Theatre, marriage, the Irish Free State—and that these disappointments compelled him to make a different life for himself. He quotes the passage from Memoirs in which Yeats tries to explain, with appropriate regret, why his affair with Olivia Shakespear could not last:

It will always be a grief to me that I could not give the love that was her beauty’s right, but she was too near my soul, too salutary and wholesome to my inmost being. All our lives long, as da Vinci says, we long, thinking it is but the moon that we long [for], for our destruction, and how, when we meet [it] in the shape of a most fair woman, can we do less than leave all others for her? Do we not seek our dissolution upon her lips?

The passage becomes clearer when we read Leonardo da Vinci’s note:

Behold now the hope and desire of going back to one’s own country or returning to primal chaos, like that of the moth to the light, of the man who with perpetual longing always looks forward with joy to each new spring and each new summer, and to the new months and the new years, deeming that the things he longs for are too slow in coming; and who does not perceive that he is longing for his own destruction. But this longing is in its quintessence the spirit of the elements, which finding itself imprisoned within the life of the human body desires continually to return to its source.

And I would have you to know that this same longing is in its quintessence inherent in nature, and that man is a type of the world.

The passage from Memoirs seems to say that Yeats had to give up Olivia Shakespear for Maud Gonne precisely because he recognized in Maud the image of the destruction he longed for. The passage suggests further, according to Brown, “that the affair with Shakespear and his abandonment of her for an ideal image (‘the shape of a most fair woman’) had powerfully affected the development of Yeats’s sense of self as an artist who must live in a very special way.” Brown’s book illustrates some versions of this special way and their bearing upon Yeats’s poetry, plays, and behaviors.

Brenda Maddox’s book is a partial portrait and could be regarded as complete only if we assumed that W.B. Yeats had little else on his mind but sex. The justification for this emphasis is that Yeats in his middle and later years associated sexual capacity with poetic power. The central chapters of the book deal with Yeats’s marriage. On July 1, 1916, he proposed yet again to his first love, the widow Maud Gonne MacBride. He could not have been surprised or dismayed when she declined the offer. He was already enchanted with her daughter Iseult and had proposed to her. In August 1917 he asked Maud would she mind if he were to renew his proposal to Iseult. Maud answered that she doubted that Iseult would say yes but that he was free to ask her. He did, and she kept him dangling for a year before saying no.

He may have anticipated her refusal and thought of turning toward Bertha Georgie Hyde-Lees (“George” to him), whom he had known for several years. She had accompanied him to séances and done some bits of scholarly research for him. In August 1913 he spent two weekends as guest of her mother and stepfather in Ashdown Forest, Sussex. In 1914, when George was initiated into the Amoun Temple of the Stella Matutina branch of the Order of the Golden Dawn, Yeats was her sponsor. They shared many occult interests. She was not as beautiful as Maud or Iseult, but she was impressive, highly intelligent, and far better educated than Yeats was. He proposed, and they were married on October 20, 1917, a date for which he knew his natal horoscope was auspicious.6

During the first days of their honeymoon in the Ashdown Forest Hotel, Yeats was distressed. He was preoccupied with Iseult, and he felt that his marriage injured three women: George, Iseult, and Maud. To divert him, George started going through the motions of automatic writing and soon found that she had a gift for it, that she was “seized by a superior power,” as she later told Olivia Shakespear. She was a genuine spirit medium, transmitting messages from various loosely identified spirits. Yeats was fascinated by this occult turn of events and they engaged in frequent automatic writing from October 27, 1917, to March 29, 1920, and occasionally for a few months thereafter. The method was simple. Yeats asked questions and the Communicators, as he called them, answered them through George’s hand. Most of the questions had to do with Maud, Iseult, and George, to begin with, and later touched on domestic arrangements, family planning, children. (Their first child, Anne, was born on February 26, 1919, their second and last, Michael, on August 22, 1921.)

In March 1920 WBY and George agreed on a new and less tiring procedure. George would talk in her sleep, Yeats would continue to ask questions, and he and George would share their dreams. Later he transcribed what he could of the words she had said in sleep or half-sleep, and he developed these answers in elaborating the quasi-philosophic System that had begun with the Automatic Scripts. The “Sleeps” continued till midsummer 1922, with an additional “Sleep” on March 21, 1924, and they issued in little essays, results of later conversations with George. The note for March 21, 1924, reads in part:

Asked about the office of spirits at [Phase] 15 and [Phase] 1 in communications with the living. They do not influence the contents of those communications except by influencing their continuity of presentation. Where there is continuity of presentation it is through the assistance of a spirit at one of those two phases. A guide who has continuous existence is born from a spirit at [Phase] 15 and a spirit at [Phase] 1, and takes his character from the spirit that begets, not from the mother….

By the summer of 1922, the Communicators had given Yeats not only calming assurances about Maud, Iseult, and George, but metaphors for his poetry, a draft philosophy of history, and a map of psychological types correlated to the twenty-eight phases of the moon, matters on which George, too, was adept. Yeats spent much of the time between the summer of 1922 and April 23, 1925, working out those “truths without father,” as he called them in “The Gift of Harun Al-Rashid”:

A live-long hour
She seemed the learned man and I the child;
Truths without father came, truths that no book
Of all the uncounted books that I have read,
Nor thought out of her mind or mine begot,
Self-born, high-born, and solitary truths….

Yeats published those truths as A Vision on January 15, 1926. “I wished,” he said, “for a system of thought that would leave my imagination free to create as it chose and yet make all that it created, or could create, part of the one history, and that the soul’s.”

It is easy to take a skeptical view of these deliverances. Phillip L. Marcus has argued, in Yeats and Artistic Power, that the automatic writing was “a conscious or unconscious fabrication of George’s.”7 It is true that some of the advice George transcribed was what any good young wife would give to her middle-aged husband, but the difference between these domestic writings and the occult ones is always clear. I don’t agree with Marcus or with Brenda Maddox that the automatic scripts were George’s fabrication. Maddox sees them as “an oblique form of communication between a young wife and an aging husband who did not know each other very well and needed it for things they could say to one another in no other way.” “There are good grounds for suspecting,” she claims, “that [George] was in conscious control throughout.” “Georgie’s burst of magic was a brilliant stroke,” she says, “one of the most ingenious wifely stratagems ever tried to take a husband’s mind off another woman.” But this conclusion does not give enough weight to the fact that it was Yeats, not George, who asked the questions and took charge of the themes. George was indispensable but she did not control the issues.

Maddox’s book is a study of the women in Yeats’s life, starting with his mother:

In this Freudian light, Yeats’s work becomes full of oral deprivation and a longing for a return to the passivity of the infant as a refuge from conflict with the father.

Such an observation seems cursory. George and her part in the automatic writings occupy the main chapters, which are based on George Mills Harper’s The Making of Yeats’s ‘A Vision’8 and on Yeats’sVision’ Papers.9 The remainder of the book is also familiar matter, a description of Yeats’s dealings with women before and after his marriage. The list of lovers includes Maud Gonne, Olivia Shakespear, Alick Schepeler, Florence Farr, Mabel Dickinson, Dorothy Travers-Smith, Margot Ruddock, Ethel Mannin, Dorothy Wellesley, and Edith Shackleton Heald. The last two had lesbian inclinations.

It is difficult to say what Yeats got from these liaisons or why, after his marriage, he sought out paramours. It is probable that marital intimacy ended sometime around 1926, perhaps soon after the “Sleeps” and the shared occult activity were called off. Yeats spent more time in England, leaving George in Dublin to deal with correspondence and his career. She may have been complaisant, as Terence Brown thinks, or past caring about marital intimacy. She drank a lot, but was often sober enough to be escorted by one of her friends—usually Thomas MacGreevy or Lennox Robinson—to a social or artistic event. Meanwhile, in England, Yeats seems to have found it agreeable to be released from wife and children and from de Valera’s Ireland. Most of his women were English, high-toned if not high-born, sexually uninhibited, comfortably off if not rich; some of them owned splendid houses and gardens. Yeats liked to play the grandee, especially at Penns in the Rocks, Dorothy Wellesley’s estate. As for the sex: Who now can say? Yeats wrote many thank-you notes for sexual gifts, apparently lavish. A late poem to Dorothy Wellesley implies some spanking. Some of the women—Dorothy Wellesley, Margot Ruddock—are acknowledged in poems: other poems look back to George, Iseult, Maud, Olivia.

The work of the last fifteen years of Yeats’s life is in many styles and tones. Some poems, including “Cuchulain Comforted,” “Man and the Echo,” and “Long-Legged Fly,” are quietly beautiful. “The Statues” is a powerful, far-reaching, and compacted poem, but it is not free of bombast. “Under Ben Bulben” is mostly rant, like the play The Herne’s Egg and the pamphlet On the Boiler. The poems of Crazy Jane and “A Woman Young and Old” imagine women and their sexual experiences: women are no longer required to be beautiful and silent, they are often vulgar, obscene, bawdy. The achievement of A Vision, in both the 1926 and 1937 versions, released in Yeats immense energy. Adultery seems to have given him abundance, audacity, nonchalance. What it did not make him feel, apparently, was guilt. He seems to have exempted himself from misgiving, shame, the conviction of sin, repentance, or remorse. In “A Dialogue of Self and Soul” Self claims:

I am content to follow to its source
Every event in action or in thought;
Measure the lot; forgive myself the lot!
When such as I cast out remorse
So great a sweetness flows into the breast
We must laugh and we must sing,
We are blest by everything,
Everything we look upon is blest.

No doubt. But remorse doesn’t concern “such as I,” it concerns “I.” In “The Choice” Yeats writes of “the day’s vanity, the night’s remorse,” but there is more evidence of the first than the second.

Maybe some of the women thought Yeats’s later poems and plays excessive. He wrote “my final apology” to Dorothy Wellesley:

You think it horrible that Lust and Rage
Should dance attendance upon my old age.
They were not such a plague when I was young.
What else have I to spur me into song?

Brenda Maddox’s book seems to have been written in haste. It is disfigured by many botched sentences, redundancies of style—“an annual pension of 150 pounds a year”—and misquotations. But even if we correct the errors as we come to them, we are left bewildered by her way with evidence. It doesn’t matter that she quotes me, not from anything I’ve written about Yeats, but from an unpublished lecture I gave at Sligo three years ago. But it matters that she uses as the epigraph to her chapter on Yeats’s mother a passage from his journal of 1909—“How much of the best I have done and still do is but the attempt to explain myself to her?”—knowing well that the journal entry gives the “her” as Maud Gonne and uses her initials (P.I.A.L.) as a member of the Order of the Golden Dawn. It has nothing to do with Yeats’s mother. In another flourish, alluding to Yeats’s vasectomy in April 1934, Maddox writes:

Eight years after Yeats’s death, helping Richard Ellmann prepare his short life of the poet, George said that while the Steinach operation had immensely increased her husband’s sense of well-being, it had failed to restore his capacity to have erections.

—and a footnote directs readers to Ellmann’s Four Dubliners for warrant. But Ellmann’s book (on page 40, not 28 as the note says) gives no such warrant:

On the physical level it cannot have had much effect, for Norman Haire [the doctor who performed the operation], whom Yeats authorized to discuss his case, said to me what a woman friend of Yeats’s confirmed—my curiosity was I hope legitimized by my being one of Yeats’s biographers—that the operation had no effect upon his sexual competence. He could not have erections, Haire told me. But the effect on his mind, as Mrs. Yeats emphasized to me eight years after his death, was incalculable.

Maddox is not a careful reader. George Yeats liked Ellmann, but she would never have discussed with him—or with any biographer—her husband’s impotence, if that is what it was in those later years. I trust that Maddox is not proposing that the “woman friend of Yeats’s” was George.

Maddox seems to think that in literary criticism, as apparently in scholarship, anything goes. Many things have been said about Yeats’s “Leda and the Swan,” but none as sordid as Maddox’s comment:

This poem, written in 1923, is now a feminist target; it has been called sexist and pornographic. In that light, the “great wings” and the “loosening thighs” do not seem a million miles removed from the godlike young Dublin barrister [John Butler Yeats] swooping down on the helpless girl from Sligo.

“In that light,” intelligence goes dark, and justice recedes.

The relation between life and work, in Yeats’s case, continues to be elusive. Circumstances incited the poems, but don’t go far to clarify them. The contexts regularly proposed—Ireland, family, Protestant Magic, mysticism, history, politics, poetic tradition, women, Europe—are diversely illuminating, but the relation remains opaque. The difficulty may be incorrigible. Michel Serres has remarked that one can always go from the work of art to its conditions, but not from the conditions to the work of art. In “The Choice” Yeats writes:

The intellect of man is forced to choose
Perfection of the life, or of the work,
And if it take the second must refuse
A heavenly mansion, raging in the dark.

There is no such choice; perfection is impossible in either of these categories. Terence Brown thinks that Yeats chose perfection of the work, at high cost to himself and, I would say, to other people. But he insisted on having the mansion, too, heavenly and worldly, and we rarely find him raging in the dark. He demanded everything.

This Issue

May 11, 2000