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The Living Stream

Warwick Gould


Margaret Mills Harper, Wisdom of Two: The Spiritual and Literary Collaboration of George and W. B. Yeats (Oxford: Oxfrod University Press, 2006), xv + 398 pp.

Denis Donoghue

Texte intégral

  • 1 The title comes from a notebook entry by George Yeats: ‘Wisdom of Two’ (YVP 3.146)

1In Becoming George: The Life of Mrs. W. B. Yeats (2002) Ann Saddlemyer presented that life in its major capacities: wife, mother of two, medium, scribe, editor of her husband’s later writings, and a personage in her own achieved right. Margaret Mills Harper (MMH) approaches much the same biographical and literary material with a different concentration of purpose. Her focus is on A Vision of 1925 and, to a less extent, the revised version of 1937. She prefers 1925 to 1937, ‘the artful occultist of 1925’ to ‘the aged mythographer of 1937,’ and brings to bear on that preference the prestige of her father, George Mills Harper (GMH), and indeed of the entire Harper family in its engagement with Yeats’s occult writings (340). It is not surprising that she writes of Yeats: 1

Ironically, of all the poses, voices, and masks that dominate his work—WBY the lover, the nationalist, the dramatist, the last Romantic, the modernist, the political actor of socialist or fascist leanings, the young dreamer or the wild and wicked old man —the most consistently important to him are the very personae that critics have tended to make the most marginal and capricious: WBY the theosophist, the hermeticist, the Rosicrucian adept, the spiritualist, the occult metahistorian, the seeker after Celtic or Indian mysteries (29-30).

2‘Marginal and capricious’ is unkind to the books and essays by Helen Vendler, Northrop Frye, Neil Mann, Matthew Gibson, Colin McDowell and other scholars in which 1937 has been taken with due seriousness. Perhaps we should settle for the quiet claim that WBY made for 1937 in a promissory letter of 9 March 1934, which MMH quotes, to his publisher Harold Macmillan:

I want it to be taken as a part of my work as a whole, not an eccentricity. I have put many years of work into it (74).

3MMH has also edited 1925, with Catherine E. Paul, as vol. XIII of the current Collected Works of W. B. Yeats and will complete the fourteenth volume with an edition of 1937, again with Professor Paul.

4GMH died on January 29, 2006. His daughter MMH has in many scholarly respects taken up the work he left incomplete, but she has also stepped out on her own. I did not know GMH well enough to find in his conversation or books any special ideological fervour. His investigation of Yeats’s occult pages and notebooks was so arduous that it left little time, I assume, for ideological questions. MMH has taken these up with verve, beginning with an inscription that seems innocuous but apparently isn’t. The inscription in George Yeats’s personal copy of 1925, with her book-plate, reads: ‘To Dobbs in memory of all tribulations when we were making this book | W. B. Yeats.’ MMH has studied this ‘making’ as ‘a unique collaboration.’ She also interprets the inscription as ‘moving toward the ambiguities of authorship that a scholar of my generation tends to see, formed as I am by an interpretative environment changed by poststructuralism as well as technologies and media that emphasize collaborative and anonymous creation’ (15). As if that were not sufficiently portentous, she continues:

GY’s work needs to be put in intellectual contexts that will illuminate its complexities, such as textual theory that regards authority in terms of ‘a social nexus, not a personal possession’, in Jerome McGann’s words; feminist or poststructuralist analysis that would point to its quality of what Gayatri Spivak has called the ‘inaccessible blankness circumscribed by an interpretable text’; revised histories of individual authorship and copyright; rhetorical implications of anonymity and collaboration; attention to the sexual dynamics of its deep structures; and the location of the whole experiment in a time and place in which conjunctions among technology, spirituality, and the structures of perception are defining characteristics (15-16).

5I fear those big names and long words. But I have known several other names and words, just as long and large, that have been brought forward with the same intimidating aim. I have seen them rise, shine, evaporate, and fall. Where are the Phenomenologies, the Structuralisms, the Deconstructions of yesteryear? I turn to the prefatory matter of MMH’s book and find, to my relief, a straightforward legal claim: © Margaret Mills Harper. No ambiguity of authorship or copyright there. The same claim is made ‘by Catherine E. Paul and Margaret Mills Harper’ in vol. XIII of the Collected Works. I wonder does it mean anything that in vol. XIII Paul’s name precedes Harper’s and that in vol. XIV Harper’s will precede Paul’s?

6It is true that George Yeats’s part in 1925 and 1937 has been (before Saddlemyer, that is) meagerly acknowledged. Most reviewers have merely reported the circumstances of the Automatic Writing and treated George Yeats as a medium without asking what her mediumship entailed. The trouble is that the English language does not provide a satisfactory phrase to describe the entailment. MMH does not propose that future editions of 1925 and 1937 should assign them to ‘GY and WBY’ or to ‘WBY and GY.’ But it is hard to see what would satisfy her: talk of joint authorship or of collaboration doesn’t seem enough to her. ‘You are part author,’ Yeats wrote to George Yeats in a letter of September 29, 1937, quoted by Saddlemyer and also by MMH (15), but that apparently doesn’t resolve the issue to MMH’s satisfaction. As the book proceeds, she keeps raising the bar of demand. In its final pages she quotes a cancelled passage from ‘Robartes & Ahearne discuss philosophy’ (YVP 2. 485-86). Robartes says:

I think his quotations very appropriate…Some of the authorities he gives & others I know but there is one authority he quotes without acknowledgment (341).

7MMH takes this ‘one’ to be George Yeats and comments:

This authority has given WBY more than the exposition that this passage introduces, but all that is left to indicate the complete wisdom, of which ‘little hints & half statements’ remain and of whose entirety WBY himself seems ignorant, is ‘the doctrine of the Antithetical self ’. That antithetical self, robed in swathes of ambiguity, not the least of which is the system that purports to explain it, is of course a symbolic parallel for GY and the ‘incredible experience’ that she embodied. She brought the unimaginable whole, images, diagrams, voices, dreams, desires, daily life, children, emotional intensity, conceptual challenges, that could only inadequately be described with the phases, tinctures, cones, spheres, Faculties and Principles, after-death experiences, Great Year, daimons, and other ideas that crowd the thousands of pages of documents, unpublished and published, that came from the occult work (342).

8I don’t understand ‘of course’ or why Yeats is thought to have quoted George Yeats without acknowledgment. I have supposed that he regularly acknowledged her part in the whole project and urged her to accept a public tribute.

9I have referred to the beginning and the end of MMH’s book. Between these poles, she deals at large with the motifs one would have expected her to concentrate on, and some few that one would not have thought of: collaboration, the theory and practice of mediumship, Nemo Sciat—George Yeats’s motto in the Golden Dawn—spiritualism, George Yeats becoming Interpreter, Swedenborg, automatism, authorship, masks, sex, reincarnation, gyres, daimons, folklore, magic, the Frustrators, script, and typewriter. MMH’s explications of these are tough-minded and continuously rigorous. I only wish she did not regard her arguments as addressed mostly to sullen readers. She is unnecessarily querulous. She also explicates, using a postmodernist and feminist terminology, Calvary, Purgatory, The Dreaming of the Bones, The Only Jealousy of Emer, and—most helpfully—Michael Robartes and the Dancer.

10The only large question she skimps—perhaps because she has wearied of it—is the political bearing of 1937. She remarks that by 1937, ‘in the new section of ‘The Great Year’, correspondences with the historical systems of Gerald Heard, Adams, Petrie, Spengler, Vico, Marx, Sorel, and Croce dot the page (AVB 261-62), although the book’s enthusiasms for 1920s Italian fascism have been modified to sound like weary confusion: ‘Perhaps I am too old. Surely something would have come when I meditated under the direction of the Cabalists. What discords will drive Europe to that artificial unity—only dry or drying sticks can be tied into a bundle— which is the decadence of every civilization?’ (AVB 301-02) (339) She adverts, ‘of course’ to the ‘gauntlet’ that Conor Cruise O’Brien’s threw down in 1965, ‘[Yeats’s] greatest poetry was written near the end of his life when his ideas were at their most sinister’,’ and she says rather cryptically that it ‘can still seem to lie where he threw it down’ (339-40). That is hard on Elizabeth Cullingford, Paul Scott Stanfield, Michael North and other scholars who have evidently taken it up. MMH adverts, but only adverts, to Stephen Spender’s review of 1937 in which he touches on the Fascist affiliation:

  • 2 Stephen Spender: review of A Vision (1937), The Criterion, vol. XVII, No. 68, April 1938, 536.

Later on, Mr. Yeats’s ‘instructors’ dropped their secondary role of giving him metaphors and supplied him with what one can only call an Encyclopedia of knowledge, life, death, the universe, history, etc.—an Encyclopedia Fascista, edited by Spengler, would perhaps be the best account of it, had not Spengler written his own.2

11But she has not quoted Spender’s last paragraph, which seems to me so farreaching that I wish the grammar of the last sentence were more perspicuous: it evidently lacks punctuation:

  • 3 Ibid., 537.

Spengler, Stefan George, D’Annunzio, Yeats: is it really so impossible to guess at the ‘instructors’ who speak behind these mystic veils? It is interesting, too, to speculate whether Fascism may not work out through writers such as these a mystery which fills its present yawning void of any myth, religion, law, or even legal constitution, which are not improvised.3

12Improvisation strikes me as the only motif that MMH has not examined in its bearing on 1925 and 1937: a surprising omission, since it is itself a kind of automatic writing.


1 The title comes from a notebook entry by George Yeats: ‘Wisdom of Two’ (YVP 3.146)

2 Stephen Spender: review of A Vision (1937), The Criterion, vol. XVII, No. 68, April 1938, 536.

3 Ibid., 537.