Yeats's Ghosts


The Secret Life of W.B. Yeats
by Brenda Maddox
published in 1999

When I first read the poem, "The Second Coming," in high school, I was captivated. It was the first time I had sat and pondered the words and meaning of a poem for hours; memorized it so that I could pull it out of memory at will; and felt that somehow the poet had found a way to combine words that was literally magical. If you've not read it, I'll quote it here:

The Second Coming
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

After reading this book, I'll admit to a little disappointment in the actual man - though he is fascinating - but I have also learned that even artists eat, drink, and well, you know. We have to allow for their humanity, even when their words or pictures are sublime.

But Yeats, like Byron, is in a category of strange that is all by itself, or at least that is what the research of author, Brenda Maddox, seems to suggest.

Yeats was an Irishman, and liked to think of himself as having some noble blood through the Butler family. He lived a bit more like the bards of old, at the largesse of those who admired him.

And he evidently had two significant issues: he believed deeply in the occult, and he had a problem with sex.

One might say, as has been written brilliantly by, I believe, Joseph Conrad, "funked women." Perhaps that is too heavy-handed: he did not exactly hate women, but he did appear to fear them.

He seems to have had a fascination with young girls, though there is no indication that he necessarily acted on it, and he had lengthy love affairs with women who were unobtainable (married) or inappropriate (too old or too young). His frustrated love for Maude Gonne (and no, the name is not invented!) is the stuff of much speculation and romantic fancy, and much of his poetry is supposed to reference her. It is certain that she fed into his Irish Nationalism and idealization of all things Irish - particularly its legends and mythic figures.

His personal journals, according to Maddox, reveal his struggle with his own sexual urges, and even ambivalence toward these urges. But ultimately, it was up to him as the single surviving boy of the family to have an heir. So he marries Georgie Hydes-Lee, a clever and very young woman who appears to know exactly what she's bought into, and how to manipulate her man.

And this introduces what is the greatest part of Maddox's book: Yeats' fascination with, even thrall to, the occult.

It appears that Yeats was involved in several metaphysical organizations, such as Madame Blavatsky's Theosophical Society, as well as Eastern religions and spiritualism. In this, he was not alone during this period. This part of the state experienced a spiritualist surge, which survives to this day in Lilydale, New York - a spot where mediums gather and the curious visit to peer into the future.

Medium is what Georgie purported to be, though it is Maddox's theory that Georgie was using her "powers" in order to control a gullible Yeats. Through automatic script - another popular activity of the period, along with tea leaf and card reading - she channels a number of "guides," among whom "Thomas" figures most prominently, but all of whom seem to give Yeats' detailed instructions on how to treat his wife, where they should live, when and how to have sex (often, apparently), and when to leave her alone.

There is much, much more in this richly detailed and very personal book - unlike many a biography, the writers interjects a great deal of interpretation and speculation, even wry commentary, as she examines her subject and his brilliance, antics, silliness and passions.

I still love Yeats' poetry, though I do find, having read the book, that I have to deliberately put the goofy, gawky, petulant fellow that she has exposed out of my mind and concentrate on the shimmering imagery and unexpected word choices, and merely relish the music of it. So reader, beware. He's only human.


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