A Djinn speaks
- 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 At the beginning she was anxious about one of them, the unpublished first draft of Yeats’s autobiography, and asked me to return it speedily … I was able to allay her disquiet by returning the manuscript on time.’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.’
Thus in October 1917 George Hyde-Lees found herself on her honeymoon with W.B. Yeats, who was suffering from nervous stomach disorders. They went first to his flat in London and then to a hotel on the edge of Ashdown Forest, where he received a note from Iseult wishing him well. Later, George told an interviewer that she felt him ‘drifting away from her’. He wrote to Iseult making clear his belief that he had made a mistake. Both of them were miserable. Yeats began work on the poem about Iseult Gonne which eventually became ‘Owen Ahearne and His Dancers’, using a notebook which Maud Gonne had given him:
I can exchange opinion with any
I have as healthy flesh & blood as any
But oh my heart could bear no more when theupland caught the wind;
I ran, I ran from my love’s side because my
heart went mad.
‘What followed,’ Saddlemyer writes,
has been described several times by George herself . . . Fully aware of the reason for his unhappiness, first she contemplated leaving him. But then, reluctant to surrender what had been for so many years her destination, she considered arousing his interest through their joint fascination with the occult. She decided to ‘make an attempt to fake automatic writing’ and then confess to her deception once her distracted husband was calmer.
George made this admission that she faked it in the early 1950s to Virginia Moore, who was researching her book The Unicorn: William Butler Yeats’s Search for Reality. Yeats remembered the first words as: ‘With the bird all is well at heart. Your action was right for both but in London you mistook its meaning.’ George remembered writing: ‘What you have done is right for both the cat and the hare.’ Yeats would have understood that she was the cat and Iseult the hare or the bird. George’s hand continued to move and wrote, according to Yeats: ‘You will neither regret nor repine.’
‘The word “fake” would continue to haunt George, even though it was a phrase she herself employed in speaking with Virginia Moore and Ellmann,’ Saddlemyer writes. In 1961, when Norman Jeffares was writing his introduction to Yeats’s Selected Poems, she wrote to him: ‘I dislike your use of the word “Fake” . . . I told you this before & you had a happier phrasing in your book. However, I cannot ask you to alter this. The word “Fake” will go down to posterity.’
The words she wrote, in any case, worked wonders. Within days, Yeats described his new happiness to Lady Gregory:
The strange thing was that within half an hour after writing of this message my rheumatic pains & my neuralgia & my fatigue had gone & I was very happy. From being more miserable than I ever remember being since Maud Gonne’s marriage I became extremely happy. That sense of happiness has lasted ever since.
It is easy to understand George’s objection to the word ‘fake’, despite her own use of it. By the time she spoke of these events to young and eager scholars, séances and the occult and automatic writing had gone well out of vogue. Also, the memory of what it was like in that hotel room on her honeymoon with the great poet must have been raw beyond explanation, easier to dismiss casually than explain carefully. Using the word ‘fake’ herself was defensive; seeing someone else using it made it different.
Before she married him, she knew Yeats’s work, attended his lectures and bought his books; she knew of his love for Maud Gonne and his affair with her stepfather’s sister. She knew also of his love for Iseult Gonne and may even have known of her mother’s letter to Lady Gregory. She realised now not only that the famous love poet did not love her and had married her on a whim, but that the idea of the poet, which would have fascinated her, was far removed from the grumpy, sickly, indifferent and miserable man with whom she was now confined in a small space.
In her panic that day, as she began to write in the room, neither her motive nor the language which came to her can be accurately described, however, as fake. What happened was that her needs and her reading converged as she began to eroticise the occult and its attendant forces, just as Maud Gonne had done with Irish nationalism. She was clearly working with desperate longings under pressure; she was producing sentences which made those apparent, followed by words which came at will, easily, from her conscious and her unconscious selves, brought closer to each other by a fear and pain which offered her an unusual receptivity. It seemed that she both believed and didn’t believe in what she was doing. She was moving deliberately and sleepwalking at the same time. Ellmann’s interview notes with her from 1946 read: ‘Had it not been for the emotional involvement, she thinks nothing would have come of it – but as it was she felt her hand grasped and driven irresistibly.’
Yeats was tireless and unembarrassed in his questioning of the spirit, asking many questions, for example, about former loves. And she, in turn, allowed the automatic writing at times to make clear her own sexual needs. In this strange time between the prevailing influence of Madame Blavatsky and that of Sigmund Freud, they both remained ambivalent about the power of a medium to control the autonomous power of the unconscious mind. In 1913 Yeats wrote: ‘Because mediumship is dramatisation, even host mediums cheat at times either deliberately or because some part of the body has freed itself from control of the waking will, and almost always truth and lies are mixed together.’ George’s problem was that she was now, on a daily basis, embodying this dramatisation, in all its ambiguities and complexities. She was both cheating and allowing some part of herself to be freed from conscious control.
She was moving in dangerous territory, having been enough in occult circles to know how much opprobrium was heaped on the quack and the fake. Her husband needed her to keep working, especially once the medium said, in a beautiful phrase, that he had come ‘to give you metaphors for poetry’; she needed him, in turn, to stop talking in public about it, and she used the medium to warn him to be silent. She told Ellmann that her only serious quarrel with him in all the years of their marriage concerned his wish to publish a description of her automatic writing in the second edition of A Vision.
The medium gave him, as promised, metaphors for poetry. The experience, and her wish to keep it hidden, also gave him one of his most touching and tender narrative poems, ‘The Gift of Harun Al-Rashid’, in which the woman in her sleep offers the scholar hidden knowledge:
Or was it she that spoke or some great Djinn?
I say that a Djinn spoke. A live-long hour
She seemed the learned man and I the child.
The narrator has cause to wonder, as George must have done in those early months of their marriage, if the sleeping wisdom that she offers is the sole basis for his love:
What if she lose her ignorance and so
Dream that I love her only for the voice,
That every gift and every word of praise
Is but a payment for that midnight voice
That is to age what milk is to a child?
His reply to that question must have been of considerable interest:
All, all those gyres and cubes and midnight
Are but a new expression of her body
Drunk with the bitter sweetness of her youth.
And now my utmost mystery is out.
A woman’s beauty is a storm-tossed banner.
When George went with her husband to Ireland soon after her marriage, every move she made was studied intensely by the five women who were most involved with the poet. They were his unmarried sisters Lily and Lolly; Maud Gonne and Iseult; and Lady Gregory. The fact that George managed never to quarrel with any of them while maintaining her distance from each says a great deal about her patience and her temperament.
Lily and Lolly wrote to their father, who had moved to New York and was refusing to come home, describing their new sister-in-law. ‘You feel that she has plenty of personality but that her disposition is so amiable that she does not often assert herself,’ Lolly wrote, ‘not from inertness but because she is happiest in agreement with people around her.’ When they went to the Abbey Theatre, Lily noticed that ‘when the lights went down George used to sit forward and look round me at him, smile to herself and sit back again.’ When George’s daughter Anne was born in 1919 and son Michael in 1921, the sisters became enthusiastic babysitters and general chroniclers of their brother’s household. ‘I think George enjoys the thrill she gets when she gives her name in shops,’ Lolly wrote. ‘Mrs W.B. Yeats.’ Lily thought her sister-in-law ‘delightfully sane, just think of all the pests of women that are going about who suffer from nerves and think it soul – and so does some unlucky man till he marries them – Willy is in luck.’
In London soon after her marriage, George set about befriending Iseult Gonne, inviting her to stay the night, giving her a dress for Christmas and generally taking the harm out of her. The following year, when her mother was imprisoned for sedition, Iseult stayed at Yeats’s old flat in London and was sent money by George, who wrote worried motherly letters to Ezra Pound (who would soon have an affair with Iseult) about the need for her to find a job, doubting if she would consent to doing ‘machine work’. When Iseult began to share a flat with the highly unsuitable mistress of Wyndham Lewis, both Yeats and George arrived from Dublin and swooped on the place, as though they were her parents, and removed Iseult, Josephine her maid, her cat, her birds and her furniture to more decent quarters. George was less than two years older than her.
Taking the harm out of Maud Gonne would prove more difficult. In October 1918, while Maud Gonne remained in prison, Yeats and George rented her house, 73 St Stephen’s Green in Dublin. ‘Should you be released,’ Yeats wrote to her, ‘and allowed to live in Ireland we will move out, which strangers would not.’ The following month, while pregnant with her first child, George caught the influenza virus which was raging through Europe. Yeats feared that she was dying. Maud Gonne, too, had been ill in Holloway Prison, and, after much agitation, was released to a nursing home in London. From there she fled to Yeats’s old flat, where Iseult was living. She wrote to Yeats: ‘My home in Dublin is the best place for all of us, with Josephine to cook for us. Please try & arrange that.’ Ezra Pound wrote to John Quinn: ‘I hope no one will be ass enough to let her get to Ireland . . . It is a great pity, with all her charm, that the mind twists everything that goes into it, on this particular subject’ – he meant politics, adding in brackets: ‘Just like Yeats on his ghosts.’ On 24 November, Saddlemyer writes, ‘disguised as an emaciated Red Cross nurse (perhaps in the very uniform Georgie had cast off on her marriage), Maud slipped through the immigration line and arrived at the door of 73 St Stephen’s Green, demanding shelter.’ She was accompanied by her two children and much menagerie.
Yeats refused to let her in, and even when a doctor arrived and informed Maud Gonne that her continued presence might endanger George’s life, ‘still the lunatic refused to go,’ as Lily Yeats wrote to John Quinn. Yeats ‘had a scene with her and turned her out’. She wrote him venomous letters and denounced him to her fellow nationalists. ‘Later she would complain,’ Saddlemyer writes, ‘that although married to a rich wife, he took advantage of her in prison by offering such a low rent, and she never forgot that George’s pet hares ate all the greenery in her garden.’ In spite of this, once the Yeatses moved out, cordial but distant relations were established, and Yeats began to attend Maud’s ‘at homes’ on Tuesdays at number 73. The following summer, as George stayed with her baby daughter in Galway and Ireland prepared for guerrilla war, one of her mediums warned her husband ‘not to be drawn into anything . . . you may be tempted to join in political schemes if there is trouble and you must not.’ The figure of Maud in the automatic writing was the ‘Bird with white & black head & wings’. She was ‘dangerous . . . Nothing must be said unless she speaks of it – then simply say you are destroying the souls of hundreds of young men. That method is most wicked in this country – wholesale slaughter because a few are cruel . . . I am not sure of her.’ A few years later Yeats wrote to George that Maud Gonne ‘had to choose (perhaps all women must) between broomstick and distaff and she has chosen broomstick’.
Of the women who were closest to Yeats, Lady Gregory was the one he saw most of after his marriage. George, Yeats’s father noted when he met her in New York, was ‘the only woman I have ever met who is not scared of Lady Gregory. I fancy Lady Gregory is extra civil to her – naturally.’ She was, he wrote, ‘too intelligent’ not to see Lady Gregory’s ‘great merit, but yet alive to the necessities of self-defence’. The two women had a great deal in common: notably steadfastness, conscientiousness, and a belief in Yeats’s genius. ‘They were shrewd judges of character,’ Saddlemyer writes, ‘and generous in the service of others; although good listeners, neither suffered fools or deceivers gladly.’
Later, when the Yeatses had a house in Dublin, Lady Gregory stayed with them on her visits to the city. She attended Yeats’s ‘Mondays’ in the house. ‘It is supposed to be for men only,’ she wrote, ‘and might be better so.’ Unlike Mrs Oliver St John Gogarty, however, who presided at her husband’s evenings, George Yeats ‘always discreetly withdrew, reappearing only to serve refreshments’. When Lady Gregory came to stay, George gave up her room for her, ran messages and answered the telephone for her, all the while maintaining civil and often warm relations with her. In 1927 she wrote to a friend: ‘Lady G was here for one whole month . . . only left yesterday and I have been sitting in the smallest possible nutshell in order to preserve a moderate outward sanity.’ Even though she blamed Gregory for the controversy over the Abbey Theatre’s rejection of Sean O’Casey’s The Silver Tassie, calling her ‘an obstinate old woman’, she kept her resentments to a few correspondents, including Dorothy Pound: ‘Christ how she repeats herself now . . . she’ll tell you the same saga quite literally three times in less than an hour, and repeat it again the next day, and the day after that too. Burn when read . . . She wants W to go down to Coole for most of September, and I hope he will – he doesn’t seem to mind the reiterations. Personally they send me nearer lunacy than anything I ever met.’
Houses and flats and rooms had the same power for Yeats as phases of the moon. It is not a coincidence that a short time after his marriage he moved Iseult into his flat in London and then rented Maud Gonne’s house in Dublin. By allowing Iseult to inhabit his London rooms and by his own moving daily in the house her mother bought, and then by refusing them entry to 73 St Stephen’s Green, he was enacting and exorcising these two women’s haunting of him. He was also behaving sensibly. Yeats was good at making sure that even sensible behaviour had an undertow of symbolic resonance.
Thus he bought the derelict Norman keep at Ballylee in the spring of 1917, to assist him in his dreaming, telling Lady Gregory that its decoration would ‘depend on my wife if I marry’. In June he wrote to a friend: ‘I am 51 myself and do not like it at all and keep thinking of all the follies I have committed not to have someone to talk to after nightfall and to bring me gossip of the neighbours. Especially now that I am going to own a castle and a whole acre of land.’ Once married, George joined the dream and began to plan the renovation of the tower at Ballylee. ‘Among the duties she took over,’ Maddox writes, ‘was the correspondence with Rafferty, the builder who was renovating Thoor Ballylee. She did more. She paid, from her own bank account, the bills for the tower she had never seen in the country she had never visited.’
George’s work on planning its restoration became, like her automatic writing, her contribution to the store of myth and symbol which would continue to nourish Yeats’s work. Nonetheless, both Yeats and Lady Gregory were concerned that George should not see the tower at its most inhospitable in winter, when it flooded and the walls were wet with damp. When they spent part of the summer of 1919 there, Yeats drew an idyllic picture for his father. ‘It may well be,’ William Murphy later wrote in his biography of Yeats’s father, ‘that one of the happiest days of his life was 16 July 1919. Fishing in the stream by the tower, with George sewing and “Anne lying wide awake in her 17th-century cradle”, he saw an otter chasing a trout.’ His tower, Yeats wrote to John Quinn, was ‘a place to influence lawless youth, with its severity and antiquity. If I had had this tower when Joyce began I might have been of use, have got him to meet those who might have helped him.’ Joyce, however, might have been more interested in the fact that conditions in the tower were so primitive. The nearest shop was four and half miles away. It had no electricity or plumbing. ‘Water for washing,’ Maddox writes,
had to be fetched from the river in a large galvanised water carrier on wheels, while drinking water came from another source farther away. Family life took place mainly in the cottage (where the single earth-closet was located); peat fires or oil stoves had to be kept lit to reduce the dampness seeping from the walls. The roof and top floors of the tower were unfinished, and there was no possibility of sleeping there.
The tower at Ballylee belonged firmly in the category of writers’ second houses, offering shelter to areas of imaginative energy rather than the growing family; it was dreamed into being, and then reworked and reconstructed in the way a poem was made. Both George and Yeats entered into the spirit of it wholeheartedly, pouring money into it, including much of the proceeds of Yeats’s American tour in 1920, and mentioning it constantly as the place to which they most longed to go. It was also their main connection to Ireland as the Black and Tan War raged. Lady Gregory must have taken a sly pleasure in writing from Coole in December 1920: ‘Your Oxford life sounds very peaceful – All chaos here still . . . The Black & Tans visited Ballylee opened the door with a key & went in & there were rumours they were going to settle there.’ This caused Pound to report to Quinn: ‘George just in to say that the Blackantans have tanned Ballylee.’ No damage was done, however, and, as their second child was born, the Yeatses continued to plan a return to the tower, Yeats writing to Lady Gregory that his wife talked ‘constantly of the trees and of her garden and of the river’.
In April 1921 they returned after an 18-month absence and were able to sleep for the first time in the tower itself, in the large bedroom above the ground floor. Yeats wrote to Quinn: ‘It is a great pleasure to live in a place where George makes at every moment a 14th-century picture. And out of doors, with the hawthorn all in blossom all along the river banks, everything is so beautiful that to go elsewhere is to leave beauty behind.’ Yeats wrote at a desk by the window, where he could watch the stares, or starlings, flying in and out of their nest, and, as the Civil War broke out in April 1922, this gave him his image for the final line for each stanza in ‘The Stare’s Nest by My Window’:
A barricade of stone or of wood;
Some fourteen days of civil war;
Last night they trundled down the road
That dead young soldier in his blood:
Come build in the empty house of the stare.
While they had sat out the Black and Tan War in Oxford, now they would witness first-hand the Civil War – which was dangerous for Yeats as a supporter of the Free State. In August, when the bridge at Ballylee was blown up, George wrote to Ottoline Morrell:
& when the fuses were lit & all the men ran off as hard as they could pelt, one man stayed behind to say: ‘In a few minutes now. There will be two explosions. Good night! Thank you.’ As though he was thanking us for the bridge! . . . At the time, after a feeling of panic when we heard the irregulars knocking at the door & had to go out to speak to them, one felt nothing but a curiosity to see how it was done & to try & save windows etc. But since then we have both felt rather ill & our hearts both hopping & stopping.
By the end of 1923, with the Civil War over, her husband having won the Nobel Prize and now a senator in the Irish Free State, with a house in Merrion Square (the equivalent of Berkeley Square in London, Yeats wrote to a friend), with the tower coming into shape, and two engaging children, and the Irish Sea between herself and her mother, George Yeats had added to her happiness by making a number of Irish friends of her own. Like many women of her class, she was in need of a pair of homosexual men to confide in and gossip with, and these came in the guise of the playwright Lennox Robinson and the poet Thomas MacGreevy. Since most of Dublin suspected their homosexuality, ‘neither was a threat to the good name of Mrs W.B. Yeats,’ Saddlemyer writes. She worked with both on the Dublin Drama League, which sought to produce more cosmopolitan work than was being put on at the Abbey. When MacGreevy moved to London in 1925, she wrote: ‘I wish you were back here. Willy said last night very solemnly: “Now MacGreevy’s not here we have to do our own gossiping.”’ In August 1925, the Yeatses spent time in Milan with Robinson and MacGreevy. Yeats, it seemed, did not enjoy the trip as much as George and her two new friends. He stayed in the hotel when the others went out sightseeing.
‘Only six years older than she,’ Saddlemyer writes,
Lennox quickly became George’s devoted pal. Together they gambled on the sweeps, went to the races (both horse and dog), the opera, the cinema and the theatre; they shared their experiences in gardening and breeding canaries.
And they both drank a good deal, Robinson slowly becoming hopelessly alcoholic.
In London, MacGreevy, much to George’s consternation, also befriended her mother, who immediately began to flirt with him. ‘You make me wish I were your own age,’ her mother wrote to him, ‘we could play a good game.’ By encouraging him to become an artist she seemed to feel that she had become one, too:
Love must be kept firmly in the present, it is a thing without past or future . . . The fact remains that, fundamentally and however painfully, we are artists and artists we shall remain, and we both know that art is the only thing that matters and the one thing that makes the world tolerable.
Soon George’s mother and the young Irish poet were discussing George, much to George’s irritation:
Please please please, don’t mention my name to my mother when you are writing to her more than is consistent with the usual necessities . . . My mother loves to make a whirlpool and especially if she can suck me in to it, and she has probably worked herself up into an annoyance with me in order to amuse herself over the Xmas holidays. That was why I said gaily to you in London: ‘you are not to discuss me with my mother.’
Robinson and MacGreevy, in the early years of their acquaintance with George, thickened the plot by indulging in unrequited love. In 1919, Robinson, whose idol was Yeats, fell for Iseult Gonne, who rejected him despite Yeats’s suggestion that they should marry. Yeats’s sisters invited the unhappy couple to supper, but Lily remained doubtful that Iseult would change her mind. The following year Iseult married the 18-year old Francis Stuart. George, Saddlemyer writes, sympathised with Robinson’s ‘lingering affection for Iseult’.
Both gentlemen then directed their attention towards the artist Dolly Travers Smith, with whose mother Hester, a well-known medium, they were also friends, both having boarded with her at different times. (Hester’s books included Psychic Messages from Oscar Wilde.) Hester and Dolly were to become the third mother and daughter in Yeats’s circle who provoked interest in the same men. George thought Hester ‘the unbending hard essence of everything I loathe mentally, emotionally and temperamentally. She makes me think of lumpy beds, Russian fleas and ipecacuanha wine.’
In the same years that she was getting to know Robinson and MacGreevy, George was also spending time at Thoor Ballylee. In March 1926, she wrote to MacGreevy: ‘I go to Ballylee Thursday morning for three glorious days of solitude & cabbage planting & on my return will write you a sober & sane & reasonable letter.’ But there are also letters of complaint about conditions there, and the amount of hard work required to keep the place going. Yeats, in the meantime, was writing poems which used the tower at Ballylee as symbol and icon. In February 1928 The Tower was published. For the cover of the book Sturge Moore had made an etching of Thoor Ballylee. ‘Now,’ Saddlemyer writes,
with that magnificent volume and A Vision both published, from now on, while still ‘this blessed place’, the tower had become emblazoned on his heraldic shield for all to recognise, assess and debate. Proud as she might be of the poetry she had done so much to make possible, the penalty was an inevitable dissipation of the original magic; by remaking the imagery, Yeats had once again taken possession of the tower itself.
Although Saddlemyer’s possession of grammar is shaky here – she cannot write for nuts – her analysis is probably correct. The tower had served its purpose; like the automatic writing, Thoor Ballylee had delivered him metaphors for his poetry; it had also allowed George to function in the domestic sphere while at the same time empowering Yeats, offering him both comfort and a charged environment. Once the book was published, neither she nor Yeats had any desire to go back there. Despite all the specially commissioned furniture, the letters to builders, the planning and dreaming, after 1928 the tower remained closed, a symbol of the way writers use houses for their magic properties rather than their domestic space. Over the next few years, as Lady Gregory’s health was declining, Yeats spent a good deal of time at Coole and ‘dutifully reported on regular inspections of the rapidly deteriorating cottage and castle . . . When she grew older Anne’ – George’s daughter – ‘tentatively asked whether she might go there to paint, but George’s monosyllabic refusal was so abrupt that she gave up the idea of ever returning.’
The abandonment of the tower may also be bound up with an essential change in the relationship between George and Yeats. Around 1928 and 1929 she ceased to have a close sexual relationship with him and became his nurse, the devoted mother of his children and a great worrier on his behalf. Both Yeats and their children seemed to suffer from great numbers of illnesses, which Saddlemyer lists in detail. From the time George and Yeats went on holiday to Spain in November 1927 until he died in January 1939, the state of his health and her children’s health became George’s main preoccupation; her tone in letters is often exhausted as well as bitter and disappointed. In 1928 she wrote to MacGreevy: ‘had I known that all this might happen I should certainly never have had a family.’ She added ‘burn this when read’ at the top of the letter. When in the south of Spain Yeats’s lung began to bleed, they made their way with difficulty to France and from there to Rapallo. Yeats wrote to Olivia Shakespear that George was ‘all goodness and kindness’. George, as she tried to get the children to Italy, wrote to Robinson: ‘I felt for years that life was quite unnecessary & if only a landslide would remove me they could have jointly a nurse a governess a secretary & a housekeeper & all get on so much better.’
In March 1928, George signed a lease on a large flat close to Ezra and Dorothy Pound overlooking the bay at Rapallo, where they spent two winters. Anne and Michael were sent to school in Switzerland. Yeats was released from being a ‘60-year-old smiling public man’ in Ireland. The company in Rapallo included the German poet Gerhart Hauptmann and the French composer George Antheil; others such as Max Beerbohm, Richard Aldington, Siegfried Sassoon and Basil Bunting passed through. In Rapallo Yeats recovered and relapsed and needed constant care. ‘Never was his dependence on George greater, or more pathetic,’ Maddox writes. ‘When told he needed a night nurse so that his wife could get some relief, he wept.’ Mostly in these years she was patient, but his helplessness sometimes exhausted her even temper. When she sent him a lamp to Coole in 1931 and he wrote to ask what oil to put into it, she replied: ‘The lamp of course consumes lamp oil, paraffin. What in Heaven’s name else could it consume?! Its very form shouts paraffin oil; you could surely not have imagined that it demanded Sanctuary oil, or olive oil.’
In Ireland, the Yeatses gave up the house in Merrion Square for a flat in Fitzwilliam Square, and then in 1932 moved to a large house with a garden south of Dublin. When de Valera came to power Yeats flirted briefly with the Blueshirts, a semi-comic Irish Fascist group. George did not share his sympathies. She hated the Blueshirts. Unlike her husband, she was a de Valera supporter and voted Fianna Fail.
After the Rapallo sojourn he bounced back, writing to Olivia Shakespear in 1933 that the writing of the Crazy Jane poems was ‘exciting and strange. Sexual abstinence fed their fire – I was ill yet full of desire. They sometimes came out of the greatest mental excitement I am capable of.’ Two years later he told Iseult Gonne, who told Richard Ellmann, that ‘everything was terrible. He and his wife had gradually been alienated – he said she was a mother rather than a wife – that she had humiliated him in public.’ By then he had had a vasectomy, and began to receive injections which increased his sexual desire in the very years when he was mourning lost sexual opportunities in his youth. ‘Wonderful things have happened,’ he wrote to Olivia. ‘This is Baghdad. This is not London.’
The old poet began then to make up for lost time. Just as in the 1890s he had moved between Dublin and London, reinventing himself at each crossing, now forty years later London was once more a place which offered freedoms not available in Dublin. In his seventies, with a few years left, he began to have love affairs. George nursed him when he returned exhausted, and seemed concerned that his friends in London should hear regular news about his condition before he set off again. In January 1935 she wrote to Gogarty: ‘I would rather he died in happiness than in invalidism. He may not have told you of all his past 18 months’ activities. One of them is that he has been very much in love with a woman in London.’ She told Richard Ellmann that she said to him: ‘After your death people will write of your love affairs, but I shall say nothing, because I will remember how proud you were.’ In June 1936, having left Yeats with Dorothy Wellesley, with whom he was having an affair, she returned to Dublin. Robinson wrote to Dolly: ‘W.B. is not coming back at the moment to G’s relief, though Olive says she wants him back as soon as possible (she knows). I think I know that G at any rate wants to play roulette on Sat – and not have Willy.’ Earlier, however, when she went with him to Liverpool, but did not see him off on the boat for Spain, she wrote: ‘I felt too like the dog who sees his masters going for a walk and leaving him at home.’
In other words, her response to his affairs was ambiguous. She drank and was often ill; she was also lonely as Anne left home and Michael went to boarding-school. Nonetheless, she was practical and managerial and full of understanding, even writing to his new loves various accounts of his medical needs. She seemed to have encouraged his regular decamping. When he read out loud to George a paragraph of one girlfriend’s letter which suggested that he and the woman might not travel to France alone, ‘she laughed at the idea of our not going alone. That means her blessing . . . Other people’s minds are always mysterious and I wanted that blessing.’
Blessings might have come easy, but perhaps the most extraordinary aspect of her self-sacrifice was her willingness to cross the Irish Sea with him as far as Holyhead, accompany him through customs, get him on the train in the direction of one of his liaisons, and then return alone on the same day to Dublin. ‘It was,’ Saddlemyer writes, ‘a long day: an 8.25 train in order to catch the mail boat at Kingstown (now Dun Laoghaire), landing at Holyhead at 11.45, and departing again at 2.30 for arrival in Ireland at 5.25 p.m. This would become a regular routine.’ No wonder she was drinking.
By the beginning of 1939, Yeats was in the South of France with George; Dorothy Wellesley and her friend Hilda were close by; and Edith Shackleton, another of his lovers, soon arrived. On Friday 27 January, when he lapsed into a coma, Dorothy saw him for a few minutes, then Edith sat by his bedside; the following day, watched over by George, he died. All three women attended the poet’s burial at Roquebrune near Menton on 30 January.
As George returned to Ireland, she must have known that she was depriving the nation of one of its greatest joys – a big funeral. There was always something wonderful about the way she kept apart from Irish patriotism and fanaticism and puritanism; her arrival home now without the body of the great poet was almost heroic. As she set about comforting her family, however, the country went into spasm. Maud Gonne wrote to de Valera, the President and the Abbey Theatre, urging that Yeats be buried in Ireland. The poet F.R. Higgins, representing the Board of the Abbey Theatre, replied: ‘We are making every endeavour to have the remains brought home to Ireland . . . I know personally he had a passionate desire to rest in Sligo.’ The Theatre’s message to George about the matter was, as Saddlemyer says, ‘aggressive in its urgency’. The Dean of St Patrick’s in Dublin offered a grave in the cathedral. De Valera hoped ‘that his body will be laid to rest in his native soil’. What was interesting about all this, besides the national ghoulishness in full flow, was that, since George Yeats had remained so private and reserved and in the background during her twenty years in Ireland, no one felt a need to mention her in their statements. Clearly, the Englishwoman Yeats had married was not cut out to become the national widow.
Yeats did indeed wish to be buried in his native soil, but he had witnessed the funeral of George Russell, the poet Æ, in 1935, and been appalled by the level of pomp. Five months before he died he had written to Dorothy Wellesley: ‘I write my poems for the Irish people but I am damned if I will have them at my funeral. A Dublin funeral is something between a public demonstration & a private picnic.’ In March 1939, George wrote to MacGreevy that Yeats had asked to be buried in Roquebrune ‘and then in a year’s time when the newspapers have forgotten me, dig me up and plant me in Sligo’. George waited until Richard Ellmann came to Dublin in 1946 to repeat what her husband had also said: ‘I must be buried in Italy, because in Dublin there would be a procession, with Lennox Robinson as chief mourner.’
Four years later when the first biography appeared, she wrote to Frank O’Connor that she was ‘afraid now that it is on the market I will meet people in Dublin who will ask me what I think of the book, so I will slink as I did after Yeats’s death round back streets to avoid the people who said: “You will bring him back, won’t you.”’ His body was finally brought back in 1948, but, after much confusion in the graveyard in France and many versions of the story, it seems unlikely that the bones in the casket brought to Ireland did in fact belong to Yeats.
In 1965, the year of Yeats’s centenary, three years before the death of George, Frank O’Connor made an oration over the grave in Sligo. He said: ‘Another thing he would have wished me to do – and which I must do since none of the eminent people who have written of him in his centenary year has done so – is to say how much he owed to the young Englishwoman he married, and who made possible the enormous development of his genius from 1916 onward.’
In the same year, when Pound came to London for Eliot’s memorial service, he announced that he wished to fly to Dublin on his way back to Italy. George, by then, only answered the phone at ten o’clock in the morning. On this day, by some miracle, she answered it when it rang at three o’clock in the afternoon, and took a taxi to the Royal Hibernian Hotel to meet Pound, who was travelling with Olga Rudge.
They had known one another for 55 years. During the war, George had often listened to his broadcasts ‘in a humorous, half-conspiratorial sort of way’. Now they sat in silence. When Anne Yeats arrived she could feel the affection between them, but neither said a word. There is a wonderful photograph of them in the hotel that day, Pound gazing at George fondly, almost adoringly, and she, an old lady wearing glasses and a battered hat, taking him in, her expression placid and candid and wise.
When she died in 1968, she was buried in the grave with her husband’s bones, or others like them, under Ben Bulben in Sligo in the country she’d lived for more than half a century. Her husband had been, as Frank O’Connor put it, ‘most fortunate in his marriage’.