Yeats’s Ghosts: The Secret Life of W.B. Yeats, by Brenda Maddox. Published by HarperCollins, 10 East 53rd Street, New York, NY 10022. 212-207-7000. 474 pages. $32 hardcover.
One reviewer of Brenda Maddox’s unusual but insightful biography of the man many have called the greatest poet of the 20th century, Irishman William Butler Yeats, says the book is “full of wonderful women and preposterous men.” Yeats did indeed travel in idiosyncratic society, with the likes of American poet Ezra Pound, his mentor; the grand dames of the Irish literary Renaissance, Lady Gregory and Maud Gonne (the model for his stirring Cathleen ni Houlihan); orientalist Edward Denison Ross; Swami Shri Purohit; President Eamon de Valera; authors Frank O’Connor, Sean O’Faolain, Francis Stuart, and Max Beerbohm; Pound’s English protégé, poet Basil Bunting; playwrights Sean O’Casey, Oscar Wilde, Gerard Hauptmann, and Ernest Toller; actor Barry Fitzgerald; and literary lights Lady Dorothy Wellesley (the Duchess of Wellington, a poet-protector of Yeats), Lennox Robinson, and Sieg-fried Sassoon. All of these friends could be preposterous; many of them could be wonderful, too.
The poet’s many lovers, especially Gonne, Olivia Shakespear, Ethel Mannin, and Edith S. Heald, were a big reason he had to contend with so many “ghosts.” Of course his wife and the mother of their two children, Bertha Georgie Hyde-Lee Yeats, knew him best of all.
Yeats produced his best work late in life. After he married at age 51, he and Bertha developed an unusual relationship that became the bedrock for his later work. Long a fan of astrology, the poet-playwright didn’t really mature until his new wife, frustrated by her husband’s infatuation with Maud Gonne’s daughter, struck on a plot that eventually resulted in the births of their two children.
Mrs. Yeats knew that her husband had begun having sexual relations with women relatively late, at age 30, but that he had an inordinate appetite for beautiful women. During their honeymoon in the Ashdown Forest, Sussex, in late 1917, the determined Georgie conveniently began performing “automatic writing,” claiming that spirits were communicating through her. The “spirits” very helpfully encouraged Yeats to take his wife into his bed. The couple’s Q&A sessions continued for many years, and Georgie bedded her husband often enough to conceive. Maddox praises Georgie for that.
Although Yeats had done much good work before his marriage, afterwards he was stupendous. During the 1920s he was more enthusiastic about promoting Irish literature than Home Rule. However, he also served skillfully in the Irish Senate, though he was sympathetic to fascism, too.
He wasn’t afraid of physical or emotional fights, and he did not avoid controversy. His backing of Sean O’Casey’s plays, The Plough and the Stars and Juno and the Paycock, echoing the Easter Rebellion of 1916, kept Yeats at the forefront of the Irish dramatic scene.
So did his playwriting. Yeats crafted poetic dramas utilizing Japanese Noh forms, and his greatest successes involved poetry–he lived for the rhyme of things. As bizarre as his spiritualist-poetic philosophy was (though Morrow contends that he couldn’t have believed all his wife’s automatic writing), his rhymes worked well. He won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1923. (His honest remark on receiving the news by phone from the editor of the Irish Times, “How much [money], Smyllie, how much is it?” is famous.)
Yeats loved his home later in life, Thoor Ballylee, County Galway, but he spent much time in England and France. Just before he died in 1939 he wrote “The Black Tower,” a poem confronting his ghosts. On a wind-swept Irish hilltop, besieged men waiting for a king who won’t return guard a black tower. With echoes of executed Patrick Pearse and 1916, the “oath-bound men” have no hope:
There in the tomb the dark
But wind comes up from
They shake when the winds roar.
Old bones upon the mountain shake.
Not much of a believer in “organized religion,” Yeats was buried at Roquebrune, France, in a Catholic cemetery with Anglican prayers, near where he was staying when he died. Due to the onset of World War Two, his remains waited a decade before authorities tried to locate them. The biographer says the bones sent for burial in Drumcliffe Churchyard, County Sligo, should be DNA tested. Wherever the poet’s remains lie, his epitaph still resounds:
Cast a cold eye
On life, on death.
Horseman, pass by!