Poetry and emotion

WB Yeats and George Yeats: The Letters, edited by Ann Saddlemyer, Oxford University Press, RRP£30, 624 pages

The marriages of poets rarely present an encouraging picture. Penelope Gilliatt once wrote one of her lacerating short stories about a poet’s wife in a Northumbrian cottage. She slowly sinks into despair at living with “his visions of moral order in biology and the superior integrity of sap, expressed in a thin precise style like the print of a hopping bird in snow”, until she finally reveals all in a television profile and they separate.

The real-life records of the partnerships embarked upon by Ted Hughes, Ezra Pound, Robert Lowell or TS Eliot (first time round) are hardly more encouraging. And few observers would have given much of a chance to the union between the 52-year-old WB Yeats and 24-year-old Bertha Georgie Hyde-Lees, when they emerged from London’s Harrow Road register office in 1917.

Yet it was the foundation of an enduring and loving partnership, which anchored his life until his death 22 years later, and it famously also brought him new insights and a new kind of collaboration through psychical research. The importance of Yeats’s marriage to his poetry has come more and more clearly into focus with the publication of full and authorised biographies, using a great hoard of family letters as well as Yeats’s correspondence with his vast range of friends and acquaintances, slowly appearing in immaculately edited volumes from Oxford University Press under John Kelly’s general editorship.

But bringing together, for the first time, the full and engrossing record of the marital correspondence clarifies not only various aspects of Yeats’s working patterns, ideas and inspirations and illuminates the private side of his character; it profiles a marriage that starts bizarrely and turns into an unconventional but powerful alliance between two unlikely people.

At the outset, all the auguries were bad: Yeats was on the rebound from unsuccessful marriage proposals not only to the recently widowed Maud Gonne, whom he had loved for two decades, but to her alluring daughter Iseult. George (as she came to be known) was the niece by marriage of the other great love of Yeats’s early life, the novelist Olivia Shakespear, and her relationship with her future husband had been largely limited to joint adventures in psychic research. His Irish life was unknown to her, and he was clearly suffering a crisis akin to a nervous breakdown. “At first you were but a plan and a dream,” he wrote to her a fortnight before their marriage, “& then you became a real woman.” She was probably on the edge of despair when, during their honeymoon, she hit on the experiments in automatic writing that drew them into a shared enterprise of occult philosophy, which had its own erotic dimension. The insights gained are embodied in his book of philosophy, A Vision, and in much of his poetry.

But if this collaboration launched their life together, it quickly became based on other fellow feelings too. Always drawn to unconventional and highly intelligent women, Yeats had dreamt of a wife who would be an intellectual helpmeet. Another of those letters just before their marriage reads: “Am I not Sinbad thrown upon the rocks & weary of the seas? I will live for my work & your happiness & when we are dead our names shall be rem[em]bered – perhaps we shall become a part of the strange legendary life of this country.” It cannot have seemed a particularly tempting prospect but he found this and far more in the widely read and formidably clever George. She not only co-operated in his work as editor, adviser and translator but also took an informed and active part in the theatrical and publishing interests that made up so much of his life. Moreover, she possessed a salty wit, a taste for the dramatic and bizarre, and an unshockable interest in the vagaries of life. This helped make her, as her husband told her, “much the best letter-writer I know”.

This volume does both the correspondents justice. Ann Saddlemyer has also produced consummate editions of JM Synge’s letters and the correspondence of the Abbey Theatre’s directorate. As she and other Yeatsians know to their cost, the poet’s handwriting staggers across the page, as one critic has put it, like a mouse’s electrocardiogram, and his spelling is dramatically idiosyncratic: “leg” is likely to appear inexplicably as “legge”, “moral” confusingly as “morel” and “admirable” is texted into “admuribl”. George, fortunately, was a demon typist but she liked to use slangy contractions and family in-jokes. The notes supplied, richly but crisply informative, help to explain this, as well as identifying the huge cast of characters who intersected with the Yeatses through their fascinating life.

The correspondence also illuminates how George adapted to the Dublin life into which she had been pitchforked, and coped with what she described as “the strange, chaotic, varied and completely unified personality” she had married. For 20-odd years she handled, with aplomb and sound judgment, his obsessions, illnesses, controversies and late love affairs. How much of her own life was suppressed will always be debatable: Saddlemyer’s 2002 biography Becoming George already revealed that George tried to write at least one novel, while her periodic drinking bouts probably indicate an understandable desperation. Her letters to friends such as the playwright Lennox Robinson and the poet and art critic Thomas MacGreevy (not included in this edition) certainly show bursts of forgivable impatience. In 1927 she told Robinson: “I’ve felt for years that life was quite unnecessary & if only a landslide would remove me [the family] could have jointly a nurse, a governess a secretary & a housekeeper & all get on so much better.” No wonder that when she had dispatched her irrepressible husband to adventures in England, she sometimes retired to bed with a bottle.

Nonetheless, she organised the family’s peripatetic and complicated existence between London, Oxford, County Galway, Dublin and Rapallo in northern Italy, while raising two notably successful and well-adjusted children; for 30 years after her husband’s death she handled his complex literary estate and produced invaluable editions of his work.

Why are there so many letters between them? Largely because the marriage began as it would continue: in constant flux. The Yeatses started off by living in rented houses in Oxford and the Thames Valley, Yeats’s old rooms near Euston Station in London, and a borrowed house in Gort, County Galway. Even when settled in Dublin, life was punctuated by visits to Italy and America and sojourns in Irish hotels and country houses before settling in Riversdale at the foot of the Dublin mountains. They were often apart, as Yeats continually went back and forth to London, leaving a trail of belongings in his wake. But the letters are also about sharing stories, retailing gossip, airing mutual dislikes and, intriguingly, discussing Yeats’s work, of which George always remained a close and penetrating critic. “To re-write an old poem,” he confesses to her at one point, “is like dressing up for a fancy-dress ball”, and she knew when the costume became too affected. His dependence on her judgment becomes compellingly clear, as does her intimate knowledge of his work processes.

Conventionally expressed love does not feature much, though at the very beginning Yeats attempts some curiously stiff and unconvincing declarations, which indicate just how uneasy they are with each other. (“My work shall become yours and yours mine & do not think that because your body & your strong bones fill me with desire that I do not seek also the secret things of the soul.”) But as early as 1918 his signature changes from “Yours with Love” to “Yrs affly” or “Yrs ever, WB Yeats”, and she is invariably “Dear Dobbs” (a family pet name). The tone rapidly becomes light and bantering: so when a deeper note comes through, it strikes to the core.

In February 1923, persuading him that they should stay in Dublin despite the terrors of the civil war, she ends a letter: “It seems strange to me that I have no feeling of fear over the future, but this very lack of anxiety increases my belief that there is no need for fear, for if I do not fear for you when you are my whole world surely my instinct is right?” His reply is equally striking: “I realized how rarely you express emotion from the great pleasure that last sentence of your letter gave me. Years have past [sic] since you have written me, if endeed [sic] you ever did write me such a sentence. It has filled my heart full.” And even when he is with his late loves Ethel Mannin or Dorothy Wellesley or Edith Shackleton Heald in England, his wish “to be back home with you drinking a bottle of Muskatel & telling you all the news” is palpably true. Though friendship replaced passion he remained, as he told her more than once, lonely for her and bored by other people. And he loved her letters.

The earlier letters reflect their joint interest in supernatural matters, notably via the automatic writing experiments and their membership of the Order of the Golden Dawn, though this deeply personal lingua franca tends to fade, replaced by other common interests such as drama. The centre of his Dublin life remained the Abbey Theatre, which he had helped found in 1904, and which became a national institution; the letters record delectable asides on the players: “Miss [Sara] Allgood acts exactly as before – no change at all – but has acquired in private life a desire to slap old friends on the back which I find an embarrassment. It is the effect of prosperity.” The lives of Bohemian friends are observed with a beady eye, as when Yeats records the composer Walter Morse Rummel bemoaning discovering sexual promiscuity too late in life: “O why did I spend my life with pure American girls till I was twenty-two? I might have got all this over & been able to attend to my work.” George’s descriptions of grisly Dublin social occasions, or being caught up in an Orange march in Liverpool, are brilliantly and savagely funny. They also demonstrate her determined independence, refusing to be drawn into cosy luncheons with her husband’s lady friends when she comes to London to look after him (though she sends them brisk notes about his medication).

Besides new insights into his work, including revisions, inspirations and reactions to what he is reading, these letters establish Yeats’s often discounted interest in his children, particularly his daughter Anne as she begins her own career as a set designer and painter.

All in all, the correspondence makes a Dublin psychology professor’s recent assertion that Yeats suffered from Asperger’s syndrome even more asinine than it first appeared. As George tells her husband, he “has a genius for remaining the friend of people to whom you say the most abominable things”, and the letters demonstrate that genius for friendship as well as a devouring interest in other people, and an irrepressible sense of the humour of life. They also show what Yeats, in another context, described as the joy of untroubled communication between “mind and delighted mind”.

George was never a beauty, though in her youth she was handsome, presented herself strikingly in “artistic” clothes and could exercise a magnetic effect. In later life she seems to have given up the effort but the letters show her good-humoured collusion with the presentation of Yeats the public man to the end. “Could you send me that brilliant shirt ... I have a ‘pullover’ which is I think exactly right – it is dull read [sic] – to harmonise that bright red shirt with the rest of me.” This was in March 1937. Less than two years later he died on the French Riviera, with George, Dorothy Wellesley and Edith Shackleton Heald all in attendance. While his letters to Wellesley and Heald express passion and infatuation in different ways, he could still write to George on October 20 of that year a bizarre but oddly moving missive that is, in its way, a love letter. It might also suggest that he sensed something of the trials of being a poet’s wife. “If a certain date is given correctly in A Vision this must be the Anniversary of our marriage. Last night I had a nightmare. I was in a crowded house of horrible people who all said you were dead (I have been anxious about your cold). Then I found you in the form of a large cold cooked chicken. I took you up & then bit by bit you came to life. I woke up very content.”

Roy Foster is Carroll Professor of Irish History at the University of Oxford and author of two Yeats biographies: ‘The Apprentice Mage, 1865-1914’ and ‘The Arch-Poet, 1915-1939’ (OUP)

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