Yeats's Ghosts: The Secret Life of W.B. Yeats


William Butter Yeats, who some critics feel was the greatest English language poet of our century, led a life of many contradictions. He was Ireland's most revered writer and won the Nobel Prize for Literature. But in his private life, Yeats struggled with passionate, if unrequited, relationships with women and was haunted by the spirits of his ancestors. Renowned biographer Brenda Maddox examines the poet's life through the prism of his personal obsession with the supernatural and otherworldly. She considers for...

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William Butter Yeats, who some critics feel was the greatest English language poet of our century, led a life of many contradictions. He was Ireland's most revered writer and won the Nobel Prize for Literature. But in his private life, Yeats struggled with passionate, if unrequited, relationships with women and was haunted by the spirits of his ancestors. Renowned biographer Brenda Maddox examines the poet's life through the prism of his personal obsession with the supernatural and otherworldly. She considers for the first time the Automatic Script, the trancelike communication with supposed spirits that he and his much younger wife. Georgie, conducted during the early years of their marriage. Writing with edge, wit, and energy, she finds the essential clues to Yeats's life and work in his unusual relationships with women, most particularly Maude and Iseult Gonne, his wife Georgie, and his rarely discussed mother.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
From his involvement in Madame Blavatsky's Theosophical Society in the 1880s to his experiments with automatic writing, s ances and mystical literature, William Butler Yeats (1865-1939) maintained a lifelong fascination with the occult (Auden would later describe this tendency as "the southern California side of Yeats"). Maddox, author of much-acclaimed biographies of Nora Joyce and D.H. Lawrence, does only a workmanlike job of linking moments in Yeats's verse to specific episodes from his private life (showing, for example, that the mechanical songbird of "Sailing to Byzantium" may have been inspired by a toy duck the poet bought at Harrod's for his son's third birthday). More important to Maddox are Yeats's sexual demons: she untangles various of Yeats's romantic relationships--with Maud and Iseult Gonne; Lady Gregory; his wife, George; and a comely actress or two--and mulls at length over the consequences for Yeats's later poetry of his vasectomy. But she's most informative when discussing the brilliant autodidact's attitudes toward his own creative process, making liberal use of George Mills Harper's 1992 edition of the notes Yeats made toward his mostly incomprehensible book of spiritualist philosophy, A Vision. While not as comprehensive or brilliant as such other Yeats biographies as Richard Ellman's or R.F. Foster's, Maddox's book nonetheless offers an intriguing glimpse into the dark, sometimes steamy, corners of the poet's singular mind. (Oct.) Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
In this New Age, "the academic world is less embarrassed by the paranormal than it used to be," notes Maddox (Nora: The Real Life of Molly Bloom). Here are two biographies that focus extensively on the psychic interests of renowned poet and playwright Yeats (1865-1939). Both authors acknowledge that spiritualism was popular around the turn of the century as a reaction against scientific developments, and both highlight Yeats's 1917 marriage to the psychic George Hyde-Lees--which Brown terms "one of the strangest acts of imaginative collaboration in all of literary history," with its emphasis on such practices as automatic writing. Brown (English, Trinity Coll., Dublin; Ireland's Literature: Selected Essays) traces Yeats's "Irish instinct for the spooky" to his childhood in a dysfunctional family. Maddox presents Yeats as an eccentric married to a woman shrewd enough to realize that the survival of her marriage depended on proactively supporting her husband's occult obsessions. (Maddox also looks frankly at the Nobel prize winner's relationships with the many women in his life, including patron of the arts, Lady Gregory; the great love of his life, the revolutionary Maud Gonne; and an assortment of mistresses.) While both books are extensively documented and well researched, Brown's is the more academic and analyzes Yeats's major works to a greater extent than Maddox's study. With its conversational style and flashes of wit, Maddox's work is more accessible to general audiences. Brown's book is recommended for academic libraries and Maddox's for both public and academic libraries.--Denise J. Stankovics, Rockville P.L., Vernon, CT Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
With his wife's automatic writing as a guide, Maddox approaches Yeats with the insight and wit she brought to her lives of James Joyce's wife (1988) and D. H. Lawrence (1994). This sly and skeptical biography begins essentially where the first volume of R. F. Foster's official, characterless biography closed: with Yeats pursuing poetic inspiration, unattainable women, and spiritualism. While his spectacularly bad love life, notably pining for Irish nationalist Maud Gonne, had fed his poetry for his career's first part, the second phase commenced with an astrologically approved marriage to a fellow member of the mystic Order of the Golden Dawn, almost 30 years his junior but practical, well read, and well matched. As Maddox observes, the awkward newlyweds needed intimacy quickly, since Yeats had just been rejected by Gonne's daughter, Iseult. When George, as she preferred to be called, began to scribble in a trance, she captured Yeats's imagination on every level. The "Automatic Script," consisting of Yeats's questions and her spirit guides' answers, totaling over 3,600 pages amassed over 450 sessions, was published in full in 1992 and forms the most interesting part of Maddox's biography. That sessions provided Yeats with material for his poetry and his philosophic A Vision is well known, but George's surprisingly detailed instructions on conducting their marriage, including their sex life and the conception of their two children, portrays an intimate folie à deux. Previous biographers, such as Richard Ellmann, accepted George's modest version, but Maddox views George as Yeats's equal in Neoplatonism and occultism and his emotional anchor after so many unstable lovers. OnceYeats got his inspiration out of the sessions, and George her children, the marriage drifted as the new Nobel Laureate pursued more successful love affairs and wrote with renewed energy, and George tended to their offspring and Yeats's literary estate. Even as Yeats experimented with questionable impotence cures and even more questionable eugenics and politics, Maddox never dissociates his superb last verse from his eccentric last years. "The scatty and the splendid" sides of Yeats's personality neatly appraised. (b&w photos, not seen)
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780060985042
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 10/1/2000
  • Series: Harper Perennial
  • Pages: 528
  • Product dimensions: 5.31 (w) x 8.00 (h) x 1.14 (d)

Meet the Author

Brenda Maddox

Brenda Maddox is an award-winning biographer whose work has been translated into ten languages. Nora: A Biography of Nora Joyce, won the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Biography, the Silver PEN Award, and the French Prix du Mailleur Livre Etranger. Her life of D. H. Lawrence won the Whitbread Biography Award in 1974, and Yeats's Ghosts, on the married life of W. B. Yeats, was shortlisted for the Samuel Johnson Prize in 1998. She has been Home Affairs Editor for the Economist, has served as chairman of the Association of British Science Writers and is a member of the Royal Society's Science and Society Committee. She lives in London and Mid-Wales.

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Read an Excerpt

An Astrological Deadline

(January-March 1917)

On an icy spring day in 1917, the year that was to change his life, the poet William Butler Yeats traveled from London to St. Leonard's-on-Sea on the Sussex coast. Yeats was a big man, over 6 feet tall, with a massive frame conspicuously well dressed. At 51, he had masses of gray-black hair slanting over his forehead, brown eyes, and a soft, full mouth that, in photographs, looks ready to cry.

With him were two friends, cultivated men: the orientalist Edward Denison Ross, and the painter and stage designer Edmund Dulac. On March 22, the Great War was in its third year and 231st day. Sixty miles away British troops were massing for an assault on Arras, in St. Petersburg crowds were celebrating the overthrow of Czar Nicholas II, while in Washington Congress was reconvening to endorse the United States' entry into the war. Yet the travelers' minds were fixed on a different reality: a talking machine sometimes known as the Metallic Medium, claimed in psychical literature to speak on spiritualistic matters and to answer questions in several languages.

The bachelor Yeats was an animated, loquacious traveling companion, running his hands through his hair as he talked unstoppably on. If his listeners did not get many of their own words in, they rarely minded. Yeats was the best conversationalist many had ever heard--often (with due respect to his audience) ribald in his flow. For those not being preached at or patronized, he was fun.Anyone who had been long in his company, moreover, knew the excitement of the supernatural world, especially when conveyed with hints of Arabian nights anddesert sands. On such Eastern esotericism, Denison Ross, director of the London School of Oriental Studies, was expert. His school advertised on the front page of the Times, for applicants to its courses "in the Principal Languages of the Near, Middle and Far East, and Africa. Also Oriental Religions and Customs."For his part, the artist Dulac shared Yeats's enthusiasm for the plays of Japan; the previous year he had designed the costumes and masks for At the Hawk's Well, Yeats's first Noh play.

At St. Leonard's, the robot's owner, David Wilson, happily showed off his invention: a square, copper-lined wooden box, containing a brass drum and a short brass tube with a lens called "the eye," which revolved around the drum. The visitors were invited to try experiments with cards; Yeats had brought his own pack for the purpose. But the machine did not cooperate. Wilson thereupon sat himself in front of it and dictated syllables that Ross vouchsafed could be transformed into Turkish. These elicited a long string of livelier responses, such as "MASALA KOUM/KOUM TOUM BOULA BLI YESH."

Yeats then offered to use his mystical symbols to clear the room (presumably of interfering spirits), but the box needed no assistance. It kept spewing out words, switching to English. Asked to identify "the excellent one," it responded with some scorn: "Who are you when knoweth not that the excellent one is he whose name may not be branded upon the camel's neck?"

The visitors were not impressed. After more attempts with cards and envelopes, they left disappointed that the machine was not scientific. Yeats, however, who had made the journey to St. Leonard's once before on a similar quest, felt he had to try again. He went back, and this time, alone, got better results. At about eleven o'clock the tubed box began to speak. At first all it said was "Leo," a name Yeats knew well from seances. Then it confessed that it was not sure who it was possibly Yeats.

"But I am Yeats," Yeats contradicted. Homunculus Metallicus was unconvinced, insisting, "No, Yeats has gone." Yeats tried another tactic. Sitting at a table with his long arm stretched out before him, he bent down to try to communicate through telepathy. Suddenly his arm began to tremble and throb as if under the influence of the machine, which gratifyingly appeared to obey commands to stop and start. But no more words emerged. Yeats went back to London, disillusioned. In the notes he kept of such investigations, he concluded, much as Dulac had, that the robot's owner was somehow behind the voice. Indeed, he believed, drawing on nearly 30 years of ventures into the paranormal, "999 mediums out of 1000 never communicate other than subconscious experience."

But the one chance in a thousand was, for him, worth pursuing. Long experience had left him convinced that the images that welled up before what he thought of as "the mind's eye" came from a source deeper than the individual memory or unconscious. Images came, he was convinced, from a universal store that he (and not he alone) called the Anima Mundi, the world soul. The chance to draw on this pool of accumulated imagination and wisdom offered a way out of the solitariness of the self and, not incidentally, a rich source of poetry.

Yeats's concept of "the age-long memoried self"' suggests Jung's collective unconscious. Yeats had read Jung--just as he had read Freud, Nietzsche, Pythagoras, Plotinus, Swedenborg, and Buddha--randomly, with the voraciousness of the autodidact. The new psychoanalytic theories floated in a warm bath in his mind with Platonic and Neoplatonic ideas that reality is hidden, that image is an we see.

A more sustained influence was William Blake. In the early 1890s, in collaboration with Edwin Ellis, a Pre-Raphaelite artist and London neighbor, Yeats poured enormous energy into mastering and editing Blake's prophetic and mystical writings, which appeared as The Works of William Blake in 1896. His own mysticism, Yeats felt, helped him to understand Blake and see that Blake was not mad. Yeats, having rejected scientific rationalism as well as the religion of his childhood, was seeking to make his own creed out of poetic tradition and "imaginary people...created out of the deepest instinct of man."And the unschooled, Swedenborgian Blake, he found, had done so before him, discovering in his humble London surroundings a vision of the eternal world "of which the Vegetable Universe is but a faint shadow."

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