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Yeats's Ghosts:
Transcribing Voices
from the Anima Mundi

by Daphne Frostchild

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

Brenda Maddox
474 pp.
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When it came to esoteric matters, Brenda Maddox writes in her new, highly entertaining biography, Yeats's Ghosts: The Secret Life of W.B. Yeats, Yeats "knew that he was credulous, willing to believe when others would give up, that he favored supernatural explanations when rational alternatives were available." His spiritual interests had a peripatetic element. In 1914, he traveled to France, for instance, "to see a highly sensitive materialization medium; word of her work with spirit photographs and other physical paraphernalia had greatly excited Yeats," Maddox writes. While there, he visited a medium who played instruments while in a trance, and he also journeyed to meet an abbé who claimed to possess a genuine, bleeding picture of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. They were all frauds, of course, but Yeats never gave up, arguing that "999 mediums out of 1000 never communicate other than subconscious experience," but that remaining single medium who delivers the real stuff makes it all worthwhile.

He attended seances and joined such occult groups as the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn (described by Maddox as "a middle-class, unisex secret society of mystics devoted to the practice of medieval and Renaissance rituals of magic"). Yeats certainly had his fair share of strange experiences. At his first séance (in 1888), for example, Maddox writes that Yeats


was so gripped by the atmosphere that he acted like a man possessed. His body convulsed into a rigid arc, his head banged up and down on the table, and gibberish emerged from his lips. (Later he explained that he was chanting "Paradise Lost"--"the nearest to a prayer I could remember"--to ward off evil spirits.)


But that one-in-a-thousand experience seemed to elude him until he married Georgie Hyde-Lees.


By 1917, the year of his marriage (and the year in which Maddox's biography begins), Yeats was fifty-two and feeling increasing pressure to carry on his family name. (His sisters were unmarried, and his brother was childless after twenty years of marriage.) He'd enjoyed his late-blooming life as a flirtatious bachelor, but now, he told himself, he needed to settle down--and soon. Yeats, who believed fervently in astrology, had been advised that a marriage would be best accomplished in October 1917, "when the number of favorable planetary conjunctions would be quite extraordinary."

Yeats faced only one problem: he didn't have a bride, nor did one seem likely to pop up soon. He proposed to his longtime friend, Maud Gonne (for the fourth or fifth time), but she turned him down. He proposed to Maud's daughter, Iseult (to whom Yeats was powerfully drawn), and she likewise turned him down. Then, just months shy of his self-imposed deadline, Yeats turned to Georgie Hyde-Lees, , a twenty-four-year-old psychic and fellow member of the Order of the Golden Dawn. Yeats proposed, and Georgie readily accepted.

Unfortunately, Yeats still loved Iseult, and he was unable to forget her. He even wrote to her during his honeymoon, and when she wrote a reply, Yeats readily showed it to Georgie. "It was," according to Maddox,


the worst moment of [Georgie's] life. Any illusion that Yeats loved her was shattered. Her mother had been right. She had been taken on the rebound. Just as her mother had foreseen, she thought of walking out. What she did instead, in the afternoon of October 27, 1917, saved the marriage--at a price.


The price? Hours after reading Iseult's letter, Georgie took up a pen and began a course of automatic writing that would continue for several years. Although the messages read suspiciously as if they had been influenced by Marie Stopes's Married Love ("a highly popular book that stressed the husband's duty to give his wife sexual satisfaction"), Yeats was transfixed. He often insisted on at least two sessions a day, with his posing ponderous questions like "Do mortal and immortal share a very different life in dreaming?" and dutifully recording the questions and answers in separate notebooks. (The spirit's answer to the mortal / immortal question: "Not in all cases, but often.")

Over time, a variety of 'individuals' made their appearances in the Automatic Script (as it came to be called), and Georgie helpfully divided them into categories: Controls ("spirits who once were human and who offered wisdom") and Guides (who "bore the names of natural objects and gave advice on practical matters").


Maddox herself doesn't believe for a moment that the Automatic Script was authentically other-worldly, and she points to an ambiguous response that Georgie gave the biographer Richard Ellmann in 1946 when he asked if she were faking the events: she had indeed faked the first session to cheer her husband up, she said. But then she felt her hand "grasped and driven insistently on."

In Maddox's opinion, the Automatic Script was "a circuitous method of communication between a shy husband and wife who hardly knew each other, whose sexual life had got off to a troubled start, and for whom the occult and the sexual were virtually indistinguishable." It also, she writes,


handed Georgie the levers of control over the marriage. The couple had married so precipitately that the basic decisions about their future remained to be taken: where they would live, how they would organize their finances, and even whether they were to have a family. By falling into her stenographic trances, Georgie was doing more than hold her marriage together. She was preparing Yeats to father a child. Whether from her own wish for a baby, from her awareness of his determination to placate his ancestors, or from her eagerness to cement the marriage (probably from all three), her pages gave procreation a high-priority--as if she sensed it was going to be difficult.


That the sessions ended after Georgie gave birth to a son (it was their second child) lends credence to Maddox's argument, of course.

But Maddox is also quick to acknowledge that many of the themes and metaphors that drive Yeats's best poetry (the widening gyre in "The Second Coming," for example) come at least indirectly from the Script sessions. (It was also the subject of A Vision, Yeats's own account of the sessions.) Unfortunately, her criticism of the poems is the book's weak spot, I think. Her readings at times are a bit reductive; at others, a bit too broad and slack (an example, referring to "A Prayer for my Daughter": "These lines can be read as a prediction of the anarchy let loose on the twentieth century by everything from the Russian Revolution and the Treaty of Versailles to the Irish rebellion and the enfranchisement of women.")


Maddox's examination of the Automatic Script takes up roughly the first half of her biography, and it certainly makes for fast, entertaining reading. That she is willing to poke fun at Yeats is a relief, really, given how "very very very bughouse" his ideas could be at times, to quote his friend, Ezra Pound. And her portrait of Georgie seems particularly astute and sensitive.

By comparison, the second half of Yeats's Ghosts--including a short examination of the largely neglected role Yeats's mother had on his life and a considerably longer wrap-up of Yeats's last years--lacks momentum and strong, cohering themes. It's hard to match the entertainment appeal of the first half's seances and voices from the Other Side, and Maddox merely produces a serviceable biography in this back half. But we can't blame her if Yeats the Irish senator--or even Yeats the septuagenarian swinger--is less interesting than Yeats the ghost hunter.


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