House of the Spirits
A review of Yeats’ Ghosts by Brenda Maddox
from Newsday
Early in the year 1917, W.B. Yeats decided that it was time to get married. The planetary conjunctions were perfect. In fact, his cherished astrological charts pointed to October of 1917 as the ideal date for a wedding. It was all settled; he only lacked a bride. He had spent the last twenty five years proposing over and over again to the fiery Maud Gonne, whose repeated rejections had fueled many melancholy poems. In 1916, he made one last proposal to Maud, and then turned his attention to her young illegitimate daughter, Iseult. Another year and a half of proposals followed, but by September 1917, when Iseult rejected him for the last time, time was running out. He had one month to find his wife.
This is the moment at which Brenda Maddox begins her splendid new biography, Yeats’ Ghosts. The poet was fifty-one years old, weary of his long bachelorhood and running short on inspiration. The visionary spirit of his early poetry had abandoned him. In recent years, he had devoted most of his energy to the Irish theater, as an administrator as well as a playwright. He was a successful literary figure, but the younger generation, such as T.S. Eliot, were beginning to dismiss his poetry as old-fashioned.
Not only did Yeats survive this crisis, but he went on, in the next two decades, to compose some of the most famous poems of our century. Lyric poetry is typically a product of youth, an intense flame consuming itself. Very few poets manage to discover new springs of genius late in life. The mystery of Yeats’ triumphant old age is the animating question of this book. Rather than charting Yeats’ long and complex life from birth to death, Maddox has structured her biography with the selective freedom of a novel. She focuses on 1917, the turning point, the most important year of his imaginative life, the year of his amazing honeymoon.
The woman he married in October 1917, Georgie Hyde-Lees, was not as beautiful as Maud or Iseult, but she was only twenty-five years old, she shared his passion for ghosts and esoteric knowledge, and she loved him. Yet, almost immediately, Yeats began to regret his haste. The honeymoon began miserably. Three days after the wedding, he confessed to his wife that he still loved Iseult Gonne. “It was the worst moment of her life,” Maddox writes. “She thought of walking out. What she did instead… saved the marriage.”
What Mrs. Yeats did was fall into a trance and begin automatic writing. The spirits, it seemed, were speaking through her. The first message they brought was good news: “You will neither regret nor repine.” Yeats was thrilled. The spirits approved of his nuptials. Over the next week Georgie wrote ninety three pages of supernatural communication. In the course of the next two and a half years, she wrote 3,600 pages. Yeats believed the spirit world had chosen his wife as a medium in order to provide him with mystical revelations. “The Vision,” his weird and fascinating description of his philosophical system, emerged directly out of these sessions with Georgie. And from his new esoteric ideas, such as the cycles of history, the phases of the moon, the gyres and the cones, sprang legendary poems like “The Second Coming.”
The story is well-known to readers of Yeats, but Yeats’ Ghosts offers an interesting twist. Maddox suggests that Georgie may have been faking it. She views the seances as “one of the most ingenious wifely strategems ever tried to take a husband’s mind off another woman.” Apparently the ghosts had a lot to say about very personal subjects, such as when and how often Mr. and Mrs. Yeats should make love. The first biographer to utilize the full transcript of the Automatic Script, Maddox concludes that her mediumship “handed Georgie the levers of control over the marriage.”
And yet, despite the evidence that Georgie was manipulating the credulous poet, Maddox also acknowledges that Georgie herself had a deep belief in ghosts and psychic powers. Possibly their folie a deux deceived them both. Their sympathetic but skeptical biographer sees the magic writing as a “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.” Yeats may have believed he had discovered a new religion, but readers will have to look elsewhere for a serious exploration of his metaphysics. Maddox prefers to focus on sex, which preoccupied Yeats more and more as he grew older.
His experiment in “ghostly marriage therapy” rejuvenated the poet. He had found a new style, a new vision, and a new reservoir of sexual appetite. Having remained a virgin until he was thirty years old, Yeats felt he had to make up for lost time. Apparently, Yeats did not, as rumor had it, receive a transplant of monkey glands in order to restore his potency, but he was indisputably obsessed with his erections. He also managed to turn his struggle with impotence into great poetry. The comic figure of the old lecher whose heart is “Sick with desire/ And fastened to a dying animal” represents the perpetual struggle of the imagination against mortality. No poet has ever written so much and so eloquently about the torments and compensations of old age.
The “ghosts” of Maddox’s title are not only the supernatural “Communicators” who dictated the Automatic Script. She is also referring to his personal ghosts, most particularly, his long-dead mother. “The secret of Yeats is that his mother did not love him,” she asserts baldly. Though some might recoil from the aggressive psychoanalytic tone, Maddox is unfailingly intelligent in her interpretations. While Georgie raised their children, Yeats found new women to fall in love with: nurses and muses, all of them slightly unavailable in the way he seemed to find most comfortable.
You don’t have to believe in ghosts to agree that Yeats did find one way to conquer death. No matter how degrading his follies, he was able to turn dross into gold, through the music of his verse. His imagination drew upon strange elements, but the work lives on its own. As he wrote:
 “A living man is blind and drinks his drop.
 What matters if the ditches are impure?”