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Essays in Honour of Eamonn Cantwell

Warwick Gould

'Mastering What is most Abstract': A Forum on a Vision

Winifred Dawson, The Porter’s Daughter: The Life of Amy Audrey Locke (Published by the author: Winchester, printed by Sarsen Press, 2014), pp. xiv + 138

Jad Adams

Texte intégral

1Amy Audrey Locke is best known as the muse for William T. Horton, Yeats’s illustrator and his companion in the esoteric. Now for the first time, she has her own biography, written by a woman who herself was a poetic muse—five of Philip Larkin’s poems were written to Winifred Dawson. She does not mention it here, but her friendship with Larkin, who she met when both were working at the library of Queen’s University, Belfast in the 1950s, may have been part of her inspiration for writing this book. Another point of connection is that both she and Amy Locke always worked in archives and libraries. Dawson stumbled across Locke while working as a specialist librarian in Winchester.

2Locke was born in Winchester in 1881, the daughter of a butler at Winchester College who became the College’s porter. The bookish Amy won a scholarship to Somerville and started on a lifelong career as a writer of local and aristocratic family histories. She often worked in the British Museum reading room, in the ‘ladies section’ until 1907 when segregation ended. Here, she met Arundell Esdaile, who at this time was the Assistant Keeper (Second Class) of Printed Books. They fell in love—a problem, as he was already married to Kitty, a relative of the famed Benson family. Esdaile and Kitty both make an appearance in Arthur Benson’s diaries. Esdaile wrote Locke a slim volume of, it must be said, indifferent verse. Kitty, who bore him three children, wrote a rather better volume of her own, in heart-breaking distress at her husband’s unfaithfulness. Kitty Esdaile was to become the leading authority on post-mediaeval sculpture in England.

3Esdaile and Locke’s relationship stopped short of sex, as he was to record, though

several times we were mortally near it. But I might have got her with child, and not only made my own home impossible, but broken the hearts of her poor parents. Her thought for them was her main motive for withholding the last favour; she practically said as much.

4That ‘practically’ suggests a woman of considerable reticence.

Esdaile brooded over Amy Locke’s labours at the British Museum, surveying with contempt some of the characters he saw reading there. He respected Yeats, but with reservation, Great poet that he was, Yeats was utterly uncritical, and anybody, however intellectually or morally empty, could impose on him by claiming to be a mystic… The Room at one time abounded in such riff-raff, who had no legitimate occasion to be there at all.

5Esdaile’s harsh tone is doubtless because one such, William Thomas Horton, was to supplant him in Amy Locke’s affections. Horton had experienced a lonely childhood and solitary youth and as a man was seeking a Vision of the Spirit, which Locke provided, becoming his ‘human Messenger’ who inspired the ‘legend in line and verse’ that became The Way of the Soul, published in 1910. A more prosaic way of expressing it is that he fell in love with her. She responded in true bibliophile fashion with a review of this book in the Occult Review for December 1910.

  • 1 See also LTWBY 268–69, and George Mills Harper, W. B. Yeats and W. T. Horton: the Record of an Occ (...)

6Locke and Horton both lived in the Vale of Health, Hampstead, not far from each other, then moved in together early in 1915, to 63 Cartwright Gardens, just south of the Euston Road, and of course very close to Yeats’s own rooms in Woburn Buildings. Yeats visited for occult conversations, responding to invitations such as Horton’s ‘if you could manage it, stay for supper which would be of fruit as our friend [Locke] & I are practically fruitarians’ (p. 81).1

7Locke and Horton worked together on a children’s story called Tiny Tim’s Flyship with 22 typed sheets by Locke and 18 black and white illustrations by Horton. Unpublished except for the sections reproduced here, it is now in the Horton papers in Reading University Library.

8It was Yeats’s belief that they ‘lived together Platonically’, but he provided little by way of evidence for this view. The summoning of the ghost of Horton in ‘On All Souls’ Night’ is of course very familiar.

Horton’s the first I call. He loved strange thought
And knew that sweet extremity of pride
That’s called platonic love,
And that to such a pitch of passion wrought
Nothing could bring him, when his lady died,
Anodyne for his love.
Words were but wasted breath;
One dear hope had he :
The inclemency
Of that or the next winter would be death.

Two thoughts were so mixed up I could not tell
Whether of her or God he thought the most,
But think that his mind’s eye,
When upward turned, on one sole image fell ;
And that a slight companionable ghost,
Wild with divinity,
Had so lit up the whole
Immense miraculous house
The Bible promised us,
It seemed a gold-fish swimming in a bowl. (VP 471)

9Yeats supplemented this with a very touching picture of Horton in the ‘Dedication’ to Moina Mathers (‘Vestigia’) of the 1925 version of A Vision. There Horton, though unnamed, is fully described as the third of his fellow-students with whom early conversations provide occasion for ‘commendation’ or ‘expostulation’ in his more mature writings, even when those fellow-students are ‘estranged or dead’.

A third lived through that strange adventure, perhaps the strangest of all adventures—Platonic love. When he was a child his nurse said to him—” An Angel bent over your bed last night”, and in his seventeenth year he awoke to see the phantom of a beautiful woman at his bedside. Presently he gave himself up to all kinds of amorous adventures, until at last, in I think his fiftieth year but when he had still all his physical vigour, he thought “I do not need women but God”. Then he and a very good, charming, young fellow-student fell in love with one another and though he could only keep down his passion with the most bitter struggle, they lived together platonically, and this they did, not from prejudice, for I think they had none, but from a clear sense of something to be attained by what seemed a most needless trampling of the grapes of life. She died, and he survived her but a little time during which he saw her in apparition and attained through her certain of the traditional experiences of the saint. He was my close friend, and had he lived I would have asked him to accept the dedication of a book I could not expect him to approve, for in his later life he cared for little but what seemed to him a very simple piety (CW13 liii).

  • 2 See above n. 1. See Harper’s item 43, p. 124, where this letter can now be inserted. Copyright rea (...)
  • 3 CL InteLex 2584, 2597, 3 February [1915].
  • 4 CL InteLex 2638, to Lady Gregory, 27 April 1915. The play can be found in Ann Saddlemyer (ed.), The (...)
  • 5 See CL InteLex, 2781–82, 2788, 15 October, 1915, to Horton and 16, 25 October to Schepeler.

10Winifred Dawson does not explicitly state that Locke was adored by men but died virgo intacta, but that is the implication of her quotes on the intimate side of Locke’s romantic life. Virginity may well have had some esoteric meaning in Horton’s cosmology, but Dawson does not explore it. However, she does provide a great service in recovering a letter from Locke to Horton in response to a request from Yeats (via Horton) of 18 January, 1915. That letter from Locke (of 1 February 1915) is absent from George Mills Harper’s W. B. Yeats and W. T. Horton: the Record of an Occult Friendship,2 but Dawson prints it in full. It offers the fruits of her research for Yeats on the usurer Joseph Damer (1630–1720), including a transcription of Swift’s epitaph and his (and Stella’s) longer ‘An Elegy on the death of Demer [sic] the Usurer; who died the 6th of July 1720’, a family tree, and extracts from two letters of Horace Walpole’s on Damer’s heir. Yeats had been preoccupied by the story of Damer, a subject of the scorn of William Dall Heffernan (the Blind, c.1700–60), if fitfully, then certainly since late 1888 (see CL1, 115–16). Now Locke had undertaken some research for him on Damer in the British Museum, and at a time when he was preoccupied by Spiritualism. On 3rd February Yeats thanked her through Horton from Coleman’s Hatch, inviting Locke and Horton to one of his Monday evenings and acknowledging her ‘invaluable letter about Daimer [sic]. He was just the sort of person to be still walking’.3 He was shortly to write to Lady Gregory about the representation of ghosts on stage and to urge the revival of her Damer’s Gold.4 There can be little doubt, too, that Yeats was attracted to Audrey Locke’s physical type, for on 15th October 1915 he invited Horton and Locke to meet her ‘double’, ‘Seraphita’, i.e., his current mistress, Alexandra (‘Aleck’ sometimes ‘Alick’) Schepeler with whom he was discussing visions as he prepared to write to his own ‘double’, ‘Leo Africanus’.5 It becomes clear from subsequent letters to Schepeler that neither she nor Yeats was in doubt as to Horton’s instability of mind:

  • 6 See CL InteLex 2788, to Alick Schepeler, 25 October [1915] which encloses Horton’s mad letter of 2 (...)

Here is the usual Horton prophesy or rather evangelization. He left it next day. So I am not the only dark man in your tortuous existence. He leaves similar anouncements for me from time to time but much more denunciatory. I wonder when I am to see you.6

11Early in 1916, Yeats issued an invitation to Horton and Locke to visit him, only to receive a reply that Locke was in a private nursing home. She was suffering from acute mastoiditis, a serious bacterial infection of her inner ear, which was to kill her on 19 June 1916 at the age of 35. Horton believed he continued to be ‘in communication’ with her, until his own death three years later. Esdaile, who eventually became Secretary of the British Museum, continued to pine for Locke, until he died in 1956.

12Dawson died in 2014. She was not a natural writer of narrative, and the movement from fact to fact is rather jerky, rather than a fully digested flow that a natural biographer would provide. Locke never really comes to life as she would in the hands of a writer with more imagination; the images of her in this book by Horton are the most vital evidence of the spirit she possessed. Still, it is valuable that Locke has a book bringing together all the information which can reliably be known about her, and Dawson’s labours must be applauded. Yeats scholars will value this book for what it fills out for them.

13This biography falls into that category of book on more obscure subjects which now have to be self-published because small publishers have virtually ceased to exist. Nonetheless, it is of an extremely high standard, on acid-free paper, with a good level of copy editing and well produced illustrations, with many in colour. There are no notes but an adequate bibliography and index.


1 See also LTWBY 268–69, and George Mills Harper, W. B. Yeats and W. T. Horton: the Record of an Occult Friendship (London: Macmillan, 1980). The letter is of 20 July, 1914.

2 See above n. 1. See Harper’s item 43, p. 124, where this letter can now be inserted. Copyright reasons prevented Harper, who prints Horton’s extant letters, from doing more than summarizing the Yeats side of the correspondence, which is now fully available in CL InteLex.

3 CL InteLex 2584, 2597, 3 February [1915].

4 CL InteLex 2638, to Lady Gregory, 27 April 1915. The play can be found in Ann Saddlemyer (ed.), The Comedies of Lady Gregory, being the First Volume of her Collected Plays (Gerrards Cross: Colin Smythe, 1971), 133ff. The letter can also be found in App. 1 of the third volume, pp. 413ff.

5 See CL InteLex, 2781–82, 2788, 15 October, 1915, to Horton and 16, 25 October to Schepeler.

6 See CL InteLex 2788, to Alick Schepeler, 25 October [1915] which encloses Horton’s mad letter of 22 October, which is not in Harper, op. cit. See also CL InteLex 2838, also to Schepeler [26 December 1915].


An historian working as an author and an independent television producer. He specializes on radical characters from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and the Decadence of the 1890s. His books include biographies of Tony Benn, Gandhi, Emmeline Pankhurst and of the Nehru dynasty. His literary work includes a biography of Kipling, Madder Music, Stronger Wine: The Life of Ernest Dowson (2000) and Hideous Absinthe: History of the Devil in a Bottle (2004). His television work includes biographies of Kitchener, Bill and Hillary Clinton and of characters from London’s East End. He is an Associate Research Fellow of the Institute of English Studies, University of London


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