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Now About All These Women

Anthony Roche
W. B.Yeats and the Muses, by Joseph M. Hassett, Oxford University Press, 255 pp, £60, ISBN: 978-0199582907

As Joseph Hassett puts it in his introduction , WB Yeats “made a fundamental choice of the role of lover” and wrote many of his poems and lived much of his life in pursuit of “the old high way of love” (“Adam’s Curse”). Hassett’s book is therefore a study at one level of the various key women in Yeats’s life by whom he was inspired to write some of his best poems and whom he sought to love in a variety of ways, not all of them high, but with increasing inventiveness and complexity. The title indicates that the metaphor of the Muse is going to be used as a means both of grouping the women and of focusing the study. As a result, one key figure is omitted. Augusta Lady Gregory, for all that they worked closely together for over forty years and co-founded an Irish National Theatre, was “not a Muse” since “there is no indication that Yeats was erotically attracted to Gregory”; her feelings for him are not discussed. Maud Gonne naturally occupies a central role. Hassett astutely holds off introducing the chapter on her until almost midway and immediately follows it with one on her daughter, Iseult. But before that he devotes welcome attention to Olivia Shakespear and Florence Farr, attention which serves to highlight the extent to which not all of Yeats’s love poems are solely fixated on Maud Gonne; a goodly number (and those among the most interesting) feature two or three women.

Hassett is not only a lifelong Yeatsian but a lawyer in Washington DC, and he displays forensic skills in discussing the possible identities of the three women represented in Yeats’s poem “Friends”. Drawing on the various identifications made by other Yeatsians, he offers his own views as to who each is but finally declares that there has probably been a fusion of several persons in one. The Maud and Iseult chapters are followed by another major one on Yeats’s wife, George Hyde-Lees. Its sub-title, “Out of a Medium’s Mouth”, is drawn from the poetic question-and-answer: “Where got I that truth? / Out of a medium’s mouth”. This could be a sub-title for the book and is certainly a sub-text since it underscores how central to Yeats’s romantic pursuit of women were his occult interests.

The last forty pages of the book identify and discuss the bewildering array of women Yeats became obsessed with in the last decade of his life, after the “rejuvenating” effect of the Steinach operation. There is no doubt that Yeats conceived of himself as a Muse-driven poet; the frequent invocation of the term throughout his work demonstrates that. But as I headed into reading the book, two related concerns presented themselves: wasn’t the concept of the Muse an old-fashioned one which reinforced the gender positions of the poet as male and the Muse as female? And would Hassett take on the feminist criticism of Yeats that has come to the fore since the publication of his previous Yeats study, Yeats and the Poetics of Hate, in 1986? The answer is not long in coming. The introduction ends with Hassett quoting Elizabeth Butler Cullingford on Yeats’s apparent vulnerability to “feminist criticism … as love poet in a tradition that has stereotyped and silenced its female object”. His answer is that the “distinctive and vibrant women” Yeats sought out were anything but passive and stereotypical and that in his poetry the Muse talks back in a series of sustained dialogues about the creative process.

The first chapter is scarcely under way before Yeats is initiated into the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. His involvement in occult research is intimately bound up in his complex relationships with a series of women who shared these interests. The path to conventional Christianity having been cut off by his father’s apostasy, John Butler Yeats’s son sought an alternative church through the way of the mystic. It led him away from a resolutely patriarchal institution to a heterogeneous melding of belief systems. Yet his mystical pursuit had certain core practices: the belief in symbolism as an active force in human affairs and a hierarchy which worshipped a goddess rather than a god. As Hassett points out, approximately half of the members of the Golden Dawn were women; nor were they debarred from positions of authority. Florence Farr progressed within the order to becoming the officer in charge of rituals (praemonstratix). When Yeats had to take an exam to advance to the second order of the society, his examiner was Farr.

Yeats met Olivia Shakespear after he had fallen for the unattainable Maud Gonne. His rationale for pursuing the other woman shows, as frequently with Yeats, a fair measure of shrewd calculation amid the mysticism. As he wrote in his Memoirs: “ ... after all, if I could not get the woman I loved, it would be a comfort even but for a little while to devote myself to another”. Shakespear was no inconsiderable figure in her own right. When they met, she was about to publish the first of six novels and, as Yeats quickly perceived, she “had profound culture, [and] a knowledge of French, English and Italian literature”. Yeats, by contrast, knew no language other than English and relied throughout his career for access to literature in a foreign language on the women in his life: Lady Gregory for Irish, Maud Gonne for French, George Yeats for Italian, et cetera. When he attended the premiere of Villiers de l’Isle-Adam’s symbolist play Axel with Maud Gonne in Paris, she provided simultaneous translation from the French. As Seamus Deane once remarked, the only foreign language Yeats ever mastered was the occult. If Gonne remained inaccessible, Yeats was sexually initiated by Shakespear, who also readily undertook to become his Muse, adopting a role as priestess of the White Goddess. In using this term, Hassett is consciously aligning his study with Robert Graves’s The White Goddess. This book, originally published in 1948, was to have an immediate and long-lasting influence on a generation or more of Irish (male) poets; but it seems to me outdated in certain of its views on gender and creativity. Hassett wisely uses it as a necessary point of reference rather than an end in itself and updates its views on the Muse with writings by Adrienne Rich and Arlene Croce, the dance critic of The New Yorker.

The second chapter focuses on the actress Florence Farr. She was to collaborate over a long period with Yeats on the chanted recitation of his poetry accompanied by a stringed instrument, the psaltery. What emerges most strongly in Hassett’s treatment is her contribution to Yeats’s nascent interest in the theatre as a medium of artistic expression. The relationship itself is rendered dramatic by the involvement of another powerful personality, George Bernard Shaw. Both Yeats and Shaw first encountered Farr on stage when they went to see her perform in a play, John Todhunter’s Sicilian Idyll, at Bedford Park in May 1890. Both were smitten. (Shaw and Farr became lovers the following year.) Long before Annie Horniman was involved in funding the Abbey Theatre, she was persuaded by Farr to fund a theatrical project in which both Yeats and Shaw were invited to submit plays. Yeats, “with my Irish theatre in mind”, wrote The Land of Heart’s Desire, the first of his plays to be staged, with the part of the fairy child designed for Farr’s niece. Shaw did not finish his play in time and so another Todhunter paired the Yeats; but when Arms and the Man was completed, he cast Farr and subsequently persuaded her to appear in Ibsen’s Rosmersholm. Yeats and Shaw were clearly competing for Florence Farr to embody their very different and still emerging conceptions of theatre: a symbolic drama with a stylised language; an Ibsenian drama shot through with paradox. This clash between the two Irish playwrights would continue through the founding of an Irish National Theatre, with Yeats commissioning and then rejecting Shaw’s John Bull’s Other Island for the 1904 opening; and with the Abbey staging Shaw’s The Shewing Up of Blanco Posnet five years later in defiance of Dublin Castle (Shaw’s play was banned in England). Farr also had a central role in the inaugural year of the Irish Literary Theatre in 1899 in staging Yeats’s The Countess Cathleen. As Hassett makes clear, “Farr organized the production, rehearsed the actors and played the role of Aleel, the Yeats-like poet who is crazed by his love for the Countess.” He goes on to note that James Joyce was in the audience for that production and that he set the lyric “Who will go drive with Fergus now?” to music. But he might also have remarked the further tribute recorded in Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, where the verses from the Yeats play continue to resonate for Stephen Dedalus, “croon[ing] in the ear of his memory”.

And so to Maud and the “troubling of his life” which began when Yeats met her. It was a “troubling” he appeared to welcome and need. For Yeats, Hassett argues, Maud most completely incarnated the necessary Muse figure because she fused it with the beloved woman of the courtly love tradition, not least in her unattainability. The result for his poetry made her “the most sustained and fully developed tribute to a Muse in the history of literature in English”. She had the requisite beauty, but what made her both unique and compelling was that this was joined to a passionate involvement in Irish nationalist politics (his one real rival for Maud, as Yeats accurately recognises). They met, after all, at the house of the Fenian leader John O’Leary; and their relationship throughout the 1890s drew Yeats into an increased involvement in nationalist politics, best incarnated when Maud played the title role in Yeats and Gregory’s Cathleen ni Houlihan of 1902. The third element Yeats was attracted to, in Hassett’s view, was her Ascendancy pedigree, as strongly emerges when he berates her for converting to Catholicism in order to marry Major John McBride. Their relationship survives not only the marriage and break-up with McBride but the revelation of her affair with Lucien Millevoye and the birth of two children, only one of whom (Iseult) survived. Hassett traces a fascinating mutation in Yeats’s poems about Maud, from praise to blame. “No Second Troy” opens with the rhetorical question: “Why should I blame her?” Why, indeed? In the 1912 poem “The Cold Heaven” he takes the blame himself. But the most powerful dramatisation of this is the 1915 poem “The People”. Yeats draws on “what seems almost a direct quote from Gonne’s conversations and letters” to construct a dialogue between them in which Yeats is chastised for his critique of Irish nationalists. Maud ringingly declares that, though she has greater cause, “never have I, now or any time, / Complained of the people.” This underwrites Hassett’s point: Maud Gonne may project qualities which the male poet idealises but she is represented as neither silent nor quiescent. Far from it. In Yeats’s poems, as in life, Maud Gonne is given to political oratory which inspires her followers to hurl “the little streets upon the great”. The debate in the poems centred on her articulation of their differing ways of serving Ireland. Maud was also conscious of her role as Yeats’s Muse and active in its construction and maintenance. “Poets,” she noted, “should never marry.” Yeats remained keenly aware, as he put it, of “how much of the best I have done and still do is but the attempt to explain myself to her”. She in turn claimed credit for the active role she played in the writing of his poetry by switching traditional gender positions, assigning to herself the role of father “sowing the unrest and storm which made them possible”, with Yeats identified as “the mother who brought them forth”.

In 1916, as is well known, Yeats proposed marriage to three women virtually in succession. The first was Maud Gonne, freed to marry again (if she wished) by the execution of her husband for his involvement in the Easter Rising. The second was Maud’s daughter Iseult, who was twenty-four to the poet’s fifty-one. When they both refused, he proposed to and was accepted by George Hyde-Lees, at twenty-six barely two years older than Iseult but free of the quasi-incestuous associations attaching to her. Hassett rightly describes Yeats’s relationship with his Muse’s daughter as an “obsession”. Photographs of Iseult Gonne have always shown a more modern kind of beauty than the nineteenth century form embodied by Maud. She smoked to convey an image of sophistication (Yeats felt it was childish). This catches the two roles in which he was caught with regard to her. One was paternal, not just because he was old enough to be her father, but because her occluded paternity and the rapid disappearance of Major John McBride from her mother’s life left the role vacant. And Yeats had frequently gone to visit Maud in France while she was growing up. He also occupied a role of tutor-mentor, discussing with her ideas about art and literature. But he was also drawn to her by desire, and the invocation by Hassett of Vladimir Nabokov’s Humbert Humbert seems appropriate. The further temptation was that Iseult would serve as a younger version of her mother, in which all of Yeats’s earlier ardour could be relived and carried further. He was genuinely taken with her literary talent, writing to Gregory that “she has probably genius, at any rate, I have not met anybody of her age that has so delicate a gift”, but “unhappily she has no confidence in herself”. Hassett quotes one of Iseult’s poems, “The Shadow of Noon”, published in the English Review in April 1918, which is impressive on its own terms and as he says “deeply touching”. In it, Iseult describes herself as “A strangely useless thing” who “neither rule[s[ nor obey[s]”. He then goes on to show how Yeats rewrites this line from Gonne as “A strange, unserviceable thing” to describe beauty and to give it a more positive interpretation in one of the lyrics for his play The Only Jealousy of Emer, in which the three women characters can be readily identified as Maud, Iseult and George Hyde-Lees. Iseult’s rejection of Yeats’s proposal is perfectly clear as to her reasons: she does not love him and (even if she did) “I would not marry you because it would distress [Maud] so deeply.” Yeats may have gone on to marry George but the Iseult complex would reassert itself some years later with the young, beautiful and even more troubled Margot Ruddock.

Yeats’s “abrupt decision to seek refuge in marriage”, as Hassett aptly describes it, did not augur well. Clearly, the ghost-memories of Maud and Iseult Gonne accompanied the newlyweds. Yeats wrote to Gregory to confess that he had “betrayed three women”. The honeymoon was not apparently going well until the resourceful George came up with a strategy, the use of automatic writing as a marital aid, a stimulus to both sexual and poetic activity. Like the other Muses in Yeats’s life, George Hyde-Lees had been involved with Yeats in occult researches for over five years already – “a very flirtatious business”, as he perhaps rather unwisely remarked to her mother. All Yeats scholars stand indebted to the two scholarly versions of A Vision by George Mills Harper and to his daughter, Margaret Mills Harper, for the fascinating account of the relationship in her 2007 study, Wisdom of Two: The Spiritual and Literary Collaboration of W.B. Yeats.

George’s creative output was prodigious: “inspired” by the instructors who came to convey messages from the spiritual world to which Yeats had always sought access, she responded to her husband’s eager questioning with a total output of 3,600 pages of automatic script and related documents. Those five years must have been exhausting. But they corresponded with Yeats most fully embracing the role of married man .He became a father when he and George had a daughter, Anne, in 1919, followed by a son, Michael, in 1921. He had his first permanent home in Ireland or elsewhere when they moved into and restored Thoor Ballylee in the west of Ireland, settling in the country when a great many Anglo-Irish were leaving it. This revealed the other aspect which Yeats valued in George: if she was a young, attractive, creative woman interested in the occult, she also brought order and comfort to his life a role akin to that of Lady Gregory when she rescued Yeats from his obsession with Maud Gonne in the late 1880s. But the role of a home-maker is not compatible with the role of a Muse, and as the automatic writing declined, so it seems did the sexual excitement. George depressingly outlined her situation in a letter cited by Hassett from November 1927 expressing her view that her role in the family could easily be filled by “a nurse a governess a secretary and a housekeeper”. He goes on to quote Roy Foster’s conclusion that “by 1931, George’s frustration with her life was apparent in her letters to her friends”. Whether wittingly or no, the emphasis on sexual excitement in the automatic writing – when Yeats was told that the “moment of sexual union” is the locus of the “supreme activity of the daimons” – first designed to stir her husband’s interest, worked against her increasingly as the years passed. While one can still just about agree with Richard Elllmann’s conclusion in his 1968 obituary of George in the New York Times that “Yeats’s greatness stems from ‘the great exfoliation of his talent’ that followed his marriage and was a shared achievement with George”, that judgement has had to accommodate the painful details of the marriage brought out in Roy Foster and Ann Saddlemyer’s biographies, where the primary emphasis is not on the work but on the life.

The final phase of Yeats’s life and career is marked by what Yeats himself called a “second puberty” brought on by the Steinach operation – the term itself was used as title in a brilliant late essay by Ellmann. As Hassett makes clear at the start of his seventh chapter, in April 1934 Yeats confided to the London surgeon who was to perform the operation “that for about three years … he had lost all inspiration and had been unable to write anything new”. The operation was what we would now call a vasectomy, but was then widely believed to improve erotic performance. Yeats also looked for it to renew his poetic creativity. As far as he was concerned, the operation was a success. It led to the poetic fecundity of the last years of his life, a rebuke to what he perceived as the withering away of Wordsworth’s talent in old age, as he took on the persona of a “wild old wicked man” and wrote a poetry spurred on by rage and lust. But it equally led to an apparently insatiable desire for new romantic liaisons. Hassett devotes his last three chapters to five of these but these relatively brief chapters grow increasingly shorter (seventeen, thirteen and nine pages respectively) and might better have been reorganised as one; that at any rate, is how I will consider them here. The first, with the young poet Margot Ruddock, has already been glanced at, as a replay of the Iseult Gonne fascination. An actress reciting his lines, she also seems destined to replay the Florence Farr role. As Hassett shows, the poem “Margot” reflects the hope of renewal attendant upon the Steinach operation: “The Age of Miracles renew, / Let me be loved as though still young / Or let me fancy that it’s true!” The last line may well demonstrate Yeats’s own awareness that the “second puberty” was more fancy than fact, but that what counted was the belief and what it enabled. Margot’s fragile mental condition adds a disturbing layer to the relationship, and when she runs amok in Majorca, where the Yeatses are staying, she appears to have crossed over a line in embodying Yeats’s muse. The poet’s coldness to the human cost emerges in Hassett’s line: “Yeats did not hesitate to use these terrible events as part of the passionate life in which he would find the emotion necessary to inspiration.”

Ethel Mannin couldn’t have been more of a contrast. The author of over a hundred books, she was standing by, seductively dressed, after the operation for “the purpose of testing its efficacy”, as Hassett puts it. Regarding herself as an “inveterate materialist” she delighted in supplanting the “Celtic Twilight” Yeats with the “Yeats full of burgundy and racy reminiscence”. What Yeats enjoyed with Dorothy Wellesley can only be described as “sex in the head” since Lady Dorothy was a lesbian, living on her Sussex estate with her lover, Hilda Matheson (a BBC producer). Hassett is right in seeing the liaison as “an opportunity to explore the relationship between masculine and feminine in the work of the Muse”. The gender reversal Yeats explored had him responding to her “masculinity” with the “woman in me” and evidenced the extent to which his relationship with these Muse-figures increasingly helped him to develop his psychological theory of self and anti-self. The final relationship was with another English woman of at least ambivalent sexuality, Edith Shackleton Heald. The Muse is now unattainable because lesbian. Yeats wrote Heald intensely erotic letters, but as Hassett demonstrates there is simultaneously a longing for peace, stillness and death as Eros and Thanatos converge and coalesce.

And where was George Yeats in the midst of all of this? The Foster and Saddlemyer biographies give the details of how she managed her husband’s complex entanglements , in both the practical and emotional sense. Hassett argues that George Yeats “countenanced more than she discountenanced” her husband’s late relationships with other women and quotes a revealing comparison by Yeats where he figures himself as Odysseus and George as Penelope: “Odysseus returning to Penelope through ten years’ heroic toil (though frequently unfaithful on the way), Penelope’s patient waiting, was the classical ideal of man’s and woman’s wisdom.” The edition of the letters of WB and George Yeats which Ann Saddlemyer has edited and which Oxford University Press published earlier this year does much to bear out her husband’s claim that she was “much the best letter writer I know, or have known”.

In a late poem, “The Choice”, Yeats pitched the life/art dilemma in absolute terms: “The intellect of man is forced to choose / Perfection of the life or of the work.” Joseph Hassett’s beautifully written study follows a strong yet subtle argument through widely researched and scrupulously detailed individual chapters. The Yeats who emerges from it is clearly driven by the needs of his work as a poet; to that end all others are subservient. If this leads to an occasional coldness or even callousness in his remarks, it is no less true that Yeats rarely breaks with the women in his life – and they rarely break with him. When one of the beautiful women no longer serves the role of Muse to the poet, the relationship usually mutates from that of lover to friend – or reverts to the friendship with which it began. When Yeats died his wife arranged it so that Dorothy Wellesley and Edith Shackleton Heald were also present at his death-bed. The Muses in Yeats’s life were extraordinary women, as Hassett’s important study clearly demonstrates.

Anthony Roche is an Associate Professor in the School of English, Drama and Film at UCD. His Brian Friel: Theatre and Politics has just been published by Palgrave Macmillan.