Title:      George's Ghosts: A New Life of W.B.Yeats
Author:         Brenda Maddox
Publisher:      Picador, Pan Macmillan (July 2000)
ISBN:           0 330 37656 X
Cost:           A$25.16 (paperback)     464 pages

Reviewed by Ann Skea

                 “All, all those gyres and cubes and midnight things
                 Are but a new expression of her body
                 Drunk with the bitter sweetness of her youth.
                 And now my utmost mystery is out.”
                                        From ‘Harun Al-Rashid’ by W.B.Yeats

This poem, as Brenda Maddox notes, expressed the debt which Yeats owed to his wife George, and it was a huge debt. Not only did she, at the age of twenty-four, marry the fifty-two-year-old poet knowing that she was not his first, or even his second choice; not only did she agree to marry him in haste in order to meet an astrological deadline he considered to be important; but, through her psychic abilities, her intelligence and (as Brenda Maddox would have it) her instinct for keeping the marriage intact, she also provided him with ideas, images and a complete visionary system from which his poetry flowed for the rest of his life.

George's ghosts, the spirit communicators who dictated to her and whose words she recorded first in Automatic Script, then in Sleep-talking, were the source of the complex occult “System” which Yeats published as A Vision in 1926. And it was this System which fed his imagination and directed his life.

But the benefit was not all on Yeats's side. Maddox, drawing on the most recent work of Yeats scholars, and particularly that of feminist writers, argues strongly that there was nothing occult about the origins of George's automatic script. That it was, in fact, “an oblique form of communication between a young wife and an ageing husband who did not know each other very well” and that George was adept at building instructions for her own well-being, especially her sexual well-being, into the Spirits' messages.

“The more you keep this medium [George] emotionally and intellectually happy the more will the script be possible now”

So George wrote at the dictation of one ‘Control'. And often, it seems, the directions were more explicitly sexual, especially when the couple were trying to conceive their second child.

George's ghosts worked hard not only for Yeats (producing some 36,000 pages of script in various styles and languages, upside-down, reversed, sideways and the right way up) but also for George. “Was George faking?”, asks Maddox. Examining all the evidence, and confessing herself to be an unbeliever in the existence of a “phantasmal cast” of Controls, she concludes that if all this was not deliberate deception it can at least be interpreted as an act of love on George's part.

Yet, yet, yet.........Georgie (Bertha) Hyde-Leese was considered to be psychic by her family from a very young age. She believed in clairvoyance, poltergeist and spirit communicators, and she was a serious student of the occult. She joined the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn in 1914 and worked her way up to the degree of Adeptus Major (6=5), the same degree as Yeats, by the time of their marriage. Such a depth of commitment argues for at least a willingness to believe in occult phenomena. And even if at times her own subconscious energies and desires controlled the messages, this is not the same as conscious deception.

George's ghosts, however, are only part of Brenda Maddox's book. Her own outline describes its four parts thus: Part 1, tracing the events leading up to Yeats’ marriage; Part 2, the Script, the ‘Sleeps’ and the birth of the Yeats's two children; Part 3, the women who shaped Yeats’ character, especially his mother; Part 4, the family man, the public man and “the wild old wicked man”.

Of these four parts, I found Part 3 the least persuasive, perhaps because it is the most psychologically speculative. It begins with the statement: “The secret of Yeats is that his mother did not love him”.

However, this is not the sum of the book. In many ways Maddox has done a superb job of combining huge areas of ‘Yeats Studies' into a very interesting, easily readable book. She gives a fair and enjoyable account of the man and his life, and she writes fluently and well and with, at time, a dry irony which is very refreshing. She clearly loves Yeats’ poetry and she uses it sparingly and well to illustrate some of the ways in which it has recently been interpreted as a reflection of Yeats’ character and beliefs. And she is admirably objective in presenting a variety of views.

If you disagree with the feminist outrage against ‘Leda and the Swan', then you must at least acquiesce to Maddox's view that the richness of Yeats’ poem lends itself to many different readings of it. If you are distressed by the frequent discussion of Yeats’ sexuality (and Yeats apparently was never shy about such revelations), then there are perhaps compensations in reading about the early use of vasectomy as a method of increasing male potency. Yeats subjected himself to this method at the age of sixty-nine in order (as Maddox says) to “stimulate his muse”.

Maddox deals fairly, too, with Yeats’ involvement in Fascism, eugenics, politics, Irish patriotism and his vision for Ireland.

Overall, this is a life of Yeats which reflects modern views and sensibilities whilst acknowledging that times and opinions change. And it accepts, above all, the frailties of human beings, especially those like Yeats whose work still conveys vision and imagination.

© Ann Skea 2000. For permission to quote any part of this document contact Dr Ann Skea at ann@skea.com

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