A Djinn speaks

Colm Tóibín

  • Becoming George: The Life of Mrs W.B. Yeats by Ann Saddlemyer
    Oxford, 808 pp, £25.00, September 2002, ISBN 0 19 811232 7

In 1979, in a preface to a new edition of Yeats: The Man and the Masks, Richard Ellmann wrote about 46 Palmerston Road in Rathmines in Dublin, where George Yeats lived between her husband’s death in 1939 and her own death almost thirty years later. Mrs Yeats lived, Ellmann wrote, among the dead poet’s papers. ‘There in the bookcases was his working library, often heavily annotated, and in cabinets and file cases were all his manuscripts, arranged with care … She was very good at turning up at once some early draft of a poem or play or prose work, or a letter Yeats had received or written.’ When Ellmann came to Dublin in 1946 to work on his book, ‘she produced an old suitcase and filled it with manuscripts that I wanted to examine. At the beginning she was anxious about one of them, the unpublished first draft of Yeats’s autobiography, and asked me to return it speedily … I was able to allay her disquiet by returning the manuscript on time.’ She had, Ellmann wrote, provided Yeats with ‘a tranquil house, she understood his poems, and she liked him as a man’. Now she oversaw the poet’s legacy with canniness and care.

When John MacBride, Maud Gonne’s estranged husband, was executed after the 1916 Rising in Dublin, Yeats talked once more of marriage to Maud Gonne, and then became involved with her daughter Iseult, to whom he also proposed. Joseph Hone writes about this in his authorised biography of the poet, published in 1942. When Iseult finally rejected him in the summer of 1917, he decided to propose to a young Englishwoman, Georgie Hyde-Lees. He wrote to Lady Gregory: ‘I certainly feel very tired & have a great longing for order, for routine & shall be content if I find a friendly serviceable woman. I merely know – we had our talk alone two years ago – that I think this girl both friendly, serviceable & very able.’

She also had money. He wrote to his father: ‘She is a great student of my subjects and has enough money to put us above anxiety and not too much money. Her means are a little more than my earnings and will increase later, but our two incomes together will keep us in comfort.’ They were married in October 1917. He was 52; his new wife, soon to call herself George, was 25. Ezra Pound, best man at the wedding, wrote to John Quinn in New York to say that he had known Georgie Hyde-Lees as long as he had known his wife, who had been her best friend; he found her sensible and thought she would ‘perhaps dust a few cobwebs out of his belfry. At any rate she won’t be a flaming nuissance [sic] to him and his friends.’

Yeats wrote about their honeymoon in the introduction to A Vision:

On the afternoon of 24 October 1917, four days after my marriage, my wife surprised me by attempting automatic writing. 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 . . . When the automatic writing began we were in a hotel on the edge of the Ashdown Forest, but soon returned to Ireland and spent much of 1918 at Glendalough, at Rosses Point, at Coole Park, at a house near it, at Thoor Ballylee, always more or less solitary, my wife bored and fatigued by her almost daily task and I thinking and talking of little else.

The first volume of Roy Foster’s biography of Yeats, taking us up to 1914, which was published in 1997 (the second and final volume will be published in the autumn), showed that while no statement or public position by Yeats could be taken at face value, this did not mean that he was a chameleon or in a constant state of vagueness. He was, it seemed, a chameleon when it suited his imaginative purpose or while he was on the Irish Sea. Once arrived, he could be full of firm and combative conviction. In writing about his life Foster managed an alertness to Yeats’s political skills and certainties and his sense of command, and, at the same time, offered a nuanced reading of Yeats’s protean enthusiasms and loyalties.

The slow release of Yeats’s papers and letters over the past sixty years has helped to establish this sense of a Yeatsian self in constant re-creation. Ann Saddlemyer’s biography of George Yeats, short on analysis and long on meticulously researched detail, at times verging on the unreadable, offers a more taxing version of the life of Mrs Yeats than Brenda Maddox’s George’s Ghosts (1999), but it does not solve the mysteries surrounding the relationship between Yeats’s marriage and his work: it makes them instead more fascinating and more open to different readings and interpretations.

George Hyde-Lees’s interest in the occult, which began a number of years before she met Yeats, was part of the spirit of the age. In 1891, the year before George’s birth, Alice James confided to her diary: ‘I suppose the thing “medium” has done more to degrade spiritual conception than the grossest form of materialism or idolatry: was there ever anything transmitted but the pettiest, meanest, coarsest facts and details: anything rising above the squalid intestines of human affairs?’ Despite her objections, the James family continued to believe in transactions with the spirit world. When, in 1905, during a séance in Boston, a medium spoke in the presence of Mrs William James of a communication from a ‘Mary’ to Henry, the message was dutifully passed on to Henry James in England, who wrote that it was his ‘dear Mother’s unextinguished consciousness breaking through the interposing vastness of the universe and pouncing upon the first occasion helpfully to get at me’. Both James in his stories and Thomas Mann in The Magic Mountain (1924) understood the power which ghosts and séance scenes held in the imaginations of their readers. During the First World War, as Maddox says, ‘grieving millions turned to the spiritualist movement, searching for messages from their lost men.’ Arthur Conan Doyle wrote: ‘I seemed suddenly to see that it was really something tremendous, a breakdown of walls between two worlds, a direct undeniable message from beyond, a call of hope and of guidance to the human race at the time of its deepest affliction.’

Both Yeats in the 1880s and his future wife thirty years later would use the occult movement in London as a way of educating themselves outside the confines of a university. Yeats described his early involvement with men ‘who had no scholarship, and they spoke and wrote badly, but they discussed great problems ardently and simply and unconventionally as men, perhaps, discussed great problems in the medieval universities’. In 1911, when she was 19, George Hyde-Lees’s stepfather gave her a copy of William James’s Pragmatism, which asserted that ‘the true is the name of whatever proves itself to be good in the way of belief.’ She continued to admire William James’s writing throughout her life. By 1912 she was attending lectures on early religion and mysticism and reading widely on medieval and Eastern religion. As soon as she reached the age of admittance, she applied for a reading ticket for the British Museum, expressing her interest in reading ‘all available literature on the religious history of the first three centuries ad’. By the summer of 1913 she was including the study of the super-normal in her reading; her attendance at séances in London may have begun as early as the previous year. Soon she became interested in astrology. Her study was as serious and systematic as circumstances would allow, helped by an ambitious mother and a private income, and a knowledge of Italian and Latin. She was a regular visitor to her friend Dorothy Shakespear at her London flat after she married Ezra Pound in 1914; her relationship with the Pounds increased the breadth of her reading as well as offering her, and indeed her mother, an example of how someone with her unusual mixture of cleverness, earnestness and independence of mind might marry.

In this world of esoteric reading, leisured mysticism, visiting lecturers and poets making it new, Yeats had iconic status. George’s mother knew him: her second husband’s sister was Olivia Shakespear, Dorothy’s mother, with whom Yeats had had an affair and remained on good terms. George met Yeats in 1911. She remembered vividly that she saw him and recognised him one morning in the British Museum, and later that same day while he was taking tea with her mother at Olivia Shakespear’s she was introduced to him. He was three years older than her mother and the same age as her father, who had been dead for two years. Over the next while, as George’s mother and her circle sojourned outside London, they were joined by the poet on a number of occasions. In February 1912 Yeats wrote to Lady Gregory: ‘I am at Margate with a Mr and Mrs Tucker (she was a Mrs Hyde-Lees who I have known vaguely for years). I got rather out of sorts, digestion wrong & so on & wanted to do nothing for a day or two . . . This is a dismal place & it rains all day but it is very quiet & and a good change & and I am with pleasant people & out of the Dublin atmosphere.’

Yeats was responsible for the induction with great ceremony and solemnity of Georgie Hyde-Lees into the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, a sort of Masonic Lodge for those interested in the occult, in July 1914. Here once again her dutiful, serious-minded, studious self emerged as she made her way through the Order’s elaborate stages, arriving at the same level as Yeats by 1917. In these years, as the war intensified, she worked as a part-time volunteer orderly and nurse in London while continuing her reading and visits to the British Museum. At the end of February 1917 she met Yeats in St James’s Street in London and they went together to a séance; it seems that the following month he discussed with her the possibility of marriage. He did not then formally propose, but instead left her waiting while he dallied with Maud Gonne and her daughter.

When he did propose, six months later, she accepted him. He described himself as ‘a Sinbad who after many misadventures had at last found port’, but in the days that followed explained his plans for a continuing familiarity not only with Maud Gonne but with her daughter Iseult. He made this clear both to his betrothed and, in turn, to her mother. Her mother wrote in alarm to Lady Gregory, the person who she knew could most influence Yeats, and one of the few who was already aware of the engagement: ‘I now find this engagement is based on a series of misconceptions so incredible than only the context can prove them to be misconceptions.’ Her daughter, she wrote, believed that the poet had wanted to marry her for some time, but the mother’s own impression now was that, instead, ‘the idea occurred to him that as he wanted to marry, she might do.’ George, she wrote,

is under the glamour of a great man thirty years older than herself & with a talent for love-making. But she has a strong and vivid character and I can honestly assure you that nothing could be worse for her than to be married in this manner . . . If Georgie had an inkling of the real state of affairs she would never consent to see him again; if she realised it after her marriage she would leave him at once.

Lady Gregory, in a letter which is now lost, having interrogated the poet, who had come to Coole, seems to have tried to reassure the mother. She wrote also to Georgie, expressing the hope that she would come to Galway soon before the floods rose above Ballylee, the ruined castle which Yeats had bought a year earlier. Georgie, in the meantime, had been brought by Yeats to meet Maud Gonne and Iseult. Maud wrote to Yeats:

I find her graceful & beautiful, & in her bright picturesque dresses, she will give life and added beauty to the grey walls of Ballylee. I think she has an intense spiritual life of her own & and on this side you must be careful not to disappoint her . . . Iseult likes her very much, and Iseult is difficult & does not take to many people.

Despite this, she told others that she believed the marriage to be ‘prosaic’. Arthur Symons wrote to John Quinn: ‘I wish you had heard Maude [sic] laugh at Yeats’s marriage – a good woman of 25 – rich of course – who has to look after him; who might either become his slave or run away from him after a certain length of time.’

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