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Yeats's Mask

Margaret Mills Harper
Warwick Gould


W. B. Yeats and George Yeats, The Letters, ed. Ann Saddlemyer (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), pp. xxii + 599. Neil Mann, Matthew Gibson and Claire Nally (eds.), W.B. Yeats’s ‘A Vision’: Explications and Contexts (Clemson, SC: Clemson University Digital Press, 2012), pp. xx + 374.

Lauren Arrington

Texte intégral

1In October 1937, George Yeats (GY) wrote to W. B. Yeats (WBY) mildly complaining of a tedious conversation with the ‘chatterbox’ Colm O’Lochlainn, who – as one of Saddlemyer’s wonderful footnotes tells us – would write in his entry on Yeats for the British Annual of Irish Literature (1939): ‘towards the end his mind was all bemused with strange occult philosophies, theosophy, spiritism; and in play or poem these were given an airing, without even full conviction to defend them’.

2As the most rigorous scholarship makes clear, there was little need for either of the Yeatses to ‘defend’ the system. In Becoming George, published over a decade ago, Saddlemyer discussed frankly the endless ‘debate as to whether the bond that first linked them was her hoax, a joint self-deception, or daimonic intervention’. Margaret Mills Harper, drawing from her monograph Wisdom of Two for her essay ‘Reflected Voices, Double Visions’ in this new volume of essays on A Vision, stresses the Yeatses’ indifference to the truth (insofar as that word refers to scientific verifiability) of their spiritual communicators. GY’s discovery of automatic writing provoked neither full ‘belief nor dismissal’, and neither WBY nor GY were ‘distracted’ by the compulsion to prove or disprove their experience. Their attitude is conveyed in this handsome edition of the letters, in which the couple’s interactions with the occult are relayed matter-of-factly. On 28 August 1924, WBY writes to GY from London, telling her about toys that he bought at Harrods for Michael and Anne, a gossipy dinner with the Dulacs, and a séance with Mrs Cooper: Somebody came claiming to be my mother & spoke apparently of Lolly. I asked if she meant ‘Polly’ & she said ‘O no no no’ & then I was told my father would materialize. In a moment a hand came, quite distinct against some vague luminous object – it was like my fathers hand but seemed smaller than life size. It touched me & was there for some time – very exciting & strange. The sudden appearance of a sollid hand out of nothing – it touched my head on the side opposite to the medium who remained perfectly motionless (141).

3Although his comment on the stillness of the medium may suggest some ᆳity of ‘apparently’ and ‘seemed’. GY’s letter to WBY about the occurrence of ‘strange things’ at their house in Oxford (the emergence of sixty-year-old correspondence from a desk, the smell of incense, and a disembodied voice) is more certain but still interrogatory: ‘It is inconceivable how they got there & how [….] An apport? And why!’ (8 August, 1920, 53). Neil Mann quotes in his useful essay on ‘The Foundations of A Vision’ that opens Explications and Contexts a passage from the drafts of A Vision B, whereYeats tests his responses to inevitable questions about the truth of the system:

‘Some will ask if I believe what I have written & I will not know how to answer, because we all mean different things by the word belief. Who will understand me if I say that I should must & do believe it because it is a Myth’ (NLI MS 30, 757, cf., A Packet for Ezra Pound 32; AVB 24; MYV2 414–15).

4In light of WBY and GY’s lack of concern with proof, and the esteemed body of scholarship that does not regard the legitimacy of the Yeatses’ experiments as appropriate to academic study, the passionate intensity with which some essayists in A Vision: Explications and Contexts engage personally with the system is puzzling. Colin McDowell offers meditations on his own spiritual practices, first asking whether ‘anyone other than the two Yeatses, or perhaps it was only ever one of them, draw succour or solace from the book’s ideas’ before going on to admit that he does not ‘believe in some of these things […] but they do seem to me to be as adequate as any other metaphor that people have come up with to explain life and give meaning to it’. This confessional tone shifts to homily as McDowell concludes,

‘In the end, A Vision serves to remind us that we can never truly know anything. We ply returned to the mind’s own imaginings [….] In short, the book is an invitation to wake up’ (211).

5Such an assertion ignores the Yeatses’ use of the system as a means of explaining the world and the self. Their psychic experiments and experiences are frequently connected to moments of personal crises. Both distraught over Francis Stuart’s abuse of Iseult, WBY wrote to GY of the comforting scent of violets (see above 87–88), which brought a calming perspective (‘He does not drink or smoke, & so it must be insanity’) and the hope of spiritual assistance ([30 July, 1920], 39). In a letter from early August 1920, WBY discusses at length Stuart’s position at Phase 14, which seems to be a means of intellectually reconciling Iseult’s inexplicable attachment to the sadist (4 August 1920, 46). GY divined through horoscope that Iseult’s child would not live, but she expressed greater concern for WBY than the Stuarts ‘because the spectator suffers more poignantly than the victim; his redering comprehensible private and public cataclysms, the mundane was also described according to the system. GY and WBY referred to her mother, Edith Ellen Tucker, by the name ‘19’, the phase of A Vision to which they imagined her to correspond. Work on the system was cathartic; WBY wrote finishing the philosophy getting all that abstraction put in concrete form makes one better. Perhaps I too am a medium & my force is used’ ([c. 2 September, 1924], 144).

6Of course, the system was never fully completed, which calls into question Rory Ryan’s claim that his essay ‘The Is and the Ought, the Knower and the Known: An Analysis of the Four Faculties in Yeats’s System’ is part of a larger project to show that ‘the system is internally self-coherent’. Ryan focuses on the ‘skeleton’ of A Vision since the ‘flesh’ is ‘beyond the scope’ of his study (22–54). This is unfortunate, since the working out on ‘a practical level’ of the rules governing the Faculties is precisely why so much of the system is explained in WBY’s prefaces. As he prepared the manuscript of A Vision B, he expressed what Mann terms his ‘dramatic philosophy’: ‘I cannot prove that this drama exists … but I assert that he who accepts it though it be but as a Myth like something thought out upon a painted stage sees the world breaking into life’ (18). The intimate relationship between the plays and WBY’s seemingly tangential esoteric notes to them may be why GY was ‘discontented at the thought of separating the “Introductions” from the plays’ as she arranged Plays II for publication in the planned Dublin Edition (12–13 June, 1937, 472–73) In an earlier letter, of 24 November [1931], GY wrote at length about the commentaries for Fighting the Waves and The Words Upon the Window-pane, expressing her disagreement with the ideas in the latter since WBY suggested that spirits were ‘impersonations created by a medium’, projections akin to ‘wireless photography or television’ (270; see also above, 194 & ff.). GY’s objection to his description of the séance as a dramatisation provoked a reply in which he explained that the dead were separated from their ‘acquired faculties’ and could see in the ‘Passionate Body’ but all names, all logic, & all that we call memory is from us’ (25 November 1931, 271). Dogged by the idea, he wrote to her again, describing the individual as a dramatisation of his or her Daimon and the séance as a collaborative performance between the living and the dead. The preface to Explications and Contexts expresses the editors’ objection to critics’ tendency to simplify A Vision in order to make it more intelligible and more obviously relevant to the rest of the Yeats corpus. The fruitlessness of disentangling the authorship of A Vision is acknowledged here, but as Saddlemyer’s biography and her edition of the correspondence shows, the isolation of A Vision from its sources – which must include the poems, plays, and prefaces – is equally inadequate.

7However, the best do not lack all conviction but go about answering other questions. Charles I. Armstrong reads A Vision as text rather than doctrine and sees in it the same ‘irony and ambivalence found in Yeats’s literary work’ (97). One of Armstrong’s most compelling arguments is his assertion that Classical philosophy provided WBY with ‘a mode of thinking flexible enough to question its own verities through generic multiplicity, scepticism, and sheer ludic energy’ (100). Elements of play are also present in Matthew DeForrest’s ‘W. B. Yeats’s A Vision: Dove or Swan’, which focuses on WBY’s regard for the system as a useful abstraction as described in the revised ‘A Packet for Ezra Pound’: ‘now that the system stands out clearly in my imagination I regard them as stylistic arrangements’ (AVB 25). DeForrest’s attention to the poems that were integrated into the text of A Vision elucidates the system’s function to provide ‘metaphors for poetry’ and brings clarity to the system itself. For example, in both A Vision A and B, Leda undergoes a titular divorce from the embodied Zeus. The poem’s title is given as ‘Leda’ only, with the swan standing alongside another symbol of annunciation in the title of the book, ‘Dove or Swan’ (CVA 179, AVB 267). The placement of the avatars Helen and Christ in the system seems counter-intuitive; as heralds of antithetical and primary ages, the reader of A Vision would expect for the avatars to occupy opposite phases. (Christ, as avatar of the primary, should be born at the height of the antithetical.) Yeats struggled with this perceived anomaly, but the communicators insisted that the avatars are ‘independent of all’. The Thirteenth Cone – WBY’s ‘phaseless sphere’ – resolves the antinomies of primary and antithetical; this concept, which Mann describes as the figuring of ‘the Absolute in a state’, facilitates unified thinking about beings as representative of primary and antithetical ages. Wayne Chapman’s essay ‘Metaphors for Poetry’ considers the way in which WBY’s poetry and dance plays embodied abstraction and were part of the making of A Vision. An unfinished Noh play, to which Chapman refers as ‘The Guardians of the Tower and the Stream’ (see YA17 95–179), doubles the local legend of Blind Raftery and the beautiful Mary Hines with the story of Homer and Helen. Chapman suggests that the marriage of spirits in the play may be a tribute to GY, especially since somnambulism is central to the plot. WBY’s work on the play was accompanied by GY’s sleep-talking: in the autumn of 1923 WBY abandoned the play, and GY’s sleeps ended.

8In Becoming George, Saddlemyer suggests that GY ‘would not have approved of’ the biography, since her life was frequently an exercise in the subversion of ‘her own voice’ (BG xix). The nature of the Yeatses’ implicit collaborations, such as the relationship between the writing of the Noh play and the sleep-talking, arises in the early correspondence and becomes more explicit over time. Readers who rely on the Oxford University Press Collected Letters of W. B. Yeats published only to 1907) and do not have access to the InteLex database may be astonished at WBY’s first full love letters to GY: ‘at first you were but a plan & a dream & then you became a real woman, & then all in a moment that real woman became very dear’ (5 October [1917], 10). Two earlier letters of 3 and 4 October begin ‘My beloved’, and in the first of these there may be a hint of psychological transference when WBY writes‘ [I] think of the time when I shall find you, when my work is over, sitting at the gass fire or dealing firmly with Mrs Old’ (8). George Hyde-Lees is now the ‘beloved’, replacing Maud Gonne for whom he wrote, ‘When you are old and grey and full of sleep, | And nodding by the fire, take down this book, And slowly read’ (VP 120). As Gould and Toomey write, that poem, included in the manuscript book The Flame of the Spirit, was both ‘love token’ and ‘down payment’ (YA11 124–32, 125). The material text was often a site of frisson between WBY and Gonne; during their period of experiments in astral travel she wrote to him,

‘Yesterday evening however somewhere about 9 o’clock I was sitting in the drawing room of this hotel with several persons when suddenly I became conscious that you were there, standing near a table on which your book which I had been reading lay. Those in the room knew nothing of occultism & would not have understood. So mentally I gave you rendezvous for midnight when I knew they would be gone & said when sleep had set my soul free I would go with you where you liked’ ([November 1895], GYL 53).

9While there may have been a sense of security in imagining GY in the domestic sphere, that image was no less charged with intellectual and sexual energy that was also, in the end, related to the power of texts. In the same letter in which WBY asserts, ‘Let us begin at once our life of study, of common interests & hopes’, he tells her that Gregory does not want them to visit Coole until after their marriage, anticipating the potential for scandal over ‘the possible number of our candles’ (4 Oct [1917]).

10A major theme that emerges through reading The Letters is the emergence of a collaborative process that grows more overt as GY takes responsibility for arranging WBY’s talks for the BBC, negotiating with editors, and compiling the planned Dublin Edition. A series of letters in the aptly named section, ‘Changes 1928–1933’, illustrates the Yeatses’ collaborative process. On 13 October 1931, WBY writes to GY, sharing a new poem that will become ‘Old Tom Again’, which will stand as a reply to ‘The Dancer at Cruachan and Cro-Patrick’ in Words for Music Perhaps: ‘Things out of perfection sail | And all their swelling canvas wear; | Nor can the self-begotten fail, | Though man’s bitter heart suppose | Building yard, storm beaten shore, | Winding sheet & swadling clothes’ (253). GY replied to say that she ‘like[d]’ it but was unsure whether she had misread the fourth line. This may have been a straightforward difficulty in interpreting WBY.’s scrawl, or it may have been a subtle way of suggesting a disharmony in the poetry. He responded ‘Is it wrong? I felt a doubt’ and suggested a revision to the fourth and fifth lines, ‘Though fantastic men suppose | Building-yard & stormy shore’, which were retained in the final version (VP 530). This is a telling moment in poetic practice (255, 7). The elimination of ‘bitter’ changes the alliteration from the b in self-begotten in line three through the ‘Building-yard, storm beaten shore’ of l. 5. With the substitution of ‘fantastic’, the line not only loses a beat (which may have been regarded as extraneous) but the sibilance of sail, swelling, self, fantastic, suppose, stormy, shore, sheet, and swaddling-clothes are brought to the fore, resulting in a more unified sound to the sestet.

11A change in the tone of the collaborations accompanies the changing sexual dynamic of their relationship in ‘Endings 1937–1939’. In a letter of 9 June 1937 informing GY of a pleasant journey to London, WBY appended a question that appears to have nagged him during his travel: ‘You did not like the two “himselfs” at the end of first verse of ‘How goes the Weather’.’ He suggested substituting the lines, ‘He himself wrote out the word | And he was christened in blood’. The truncated rhythm of ‘And he was’ is less pleasing to the ear and was indeed less satisfactory to GY who preferred ‘the two “himself ”’ and replied to say that she had left the poem unchanged when she posted the manuscript to Watt. She added, ‘I concluded you wanted the second version of the Casement poem (Alfred Noyes name left out)’ (11 June 1937). The prominence of underlined words, capital letters, and the repetition of her requests in the letters from this period indicate that GY’s labour on WBY’s work was both pleasurable and frustrating. In an impatient letter of 22 June 1937 GY begins by scolding WBY for writing to a correspondent at the wrong address, then reprimands him for writing directly to Watt about ‘Plays II’ (for the Dublin Edition) ‘and you have not replied to my question’ (478). In a rare intervention in the body of the text, Saddlemyer includes a parenthetical note, ‘[heavily inked ms in margin: Please do not lose the one I sent you].’ One effect of reading the correspondence from this period is its demystification of the ageing Yeats – who seems more neglectful than intellectually preoccupied – and the unconcealed personality of GY, who was not always the Angel in the House, pleasing a man and condoling his necessities. As much as an essential work of reference, W. B. Yeats & George Yeats: The Letters is immensely readable, providing just the right level of context to inform our understanding of the private and professional, the domestic and esoteric lives lived in unity.


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