Female muse

George's Ghosts: A New Life of W B Yeats

Brenda Maddox <em>Picador, 444pp, £20</em>

In October 1917, at the age of 52, W B Yeats finally married. For almost 30 years he had pursued the impossible dream of a lasting liaison with Maud Gonne. Lately he had transferred his affections to Maud's talented and beautiful daughter, Iseult. Like her mother, Iseult teasingly entertained the poet's affections; like her mother she turned him down. Time was running out for Yeats if he wanted to start a family to carry on his name. Besides, the occult sources he assiduously consulted had informed him that the autumn of that year was a propitious time for him to produce a son and heir. Casting around on the rebound for a suitable bride, he settled on an unprepossessing young woman just turned 25, Bertha Georgie Hyde-Lees, who was a member of the circle of psychics he frequented in London. Yeats married Georgie on Saturday, 20 October, just five weeks after Iseult had definitively refused him. Ezra Pound, who had married Georgie's best friend three years earlier, acted as his best man.

Yeats's correspondence from this period with trusted friends such as Lady Gregory reveals him openly treating the liaison with Georgie as therapeutic, a restorative and remedy for his failing faculties. She would bring him peace and strength, read to him and help his tired eyes. Deprived of the possibility of a grand passion, he settled for a companionate emotion-free relationship. "On Woman", a poem from this period, confirms this thoughtlessly patronising attitude to such a partner. The merit of a good woman is her capacity to obliterate herself in the interests of the well-being of the man: "May God be praised for woman/That gives up all her mind,/A man may find in no man/A friendship of her kind/That covers all he has brought/As with her flesh and bone,/Nor quarrels with a thought/Because it is not her own."

Hardly surprisingly the wedding night was not a success. Yeats arrived at the honeymoon hotel "weak and despondent, complaining of neuralgia and a total lack of energy". He confessed to his bride that he could summon up no desire for her; he couldn't, he admitted, get Iseult off his mind. Seven days after the wedding Georgie took matters into her own hands. She suddenly discovered that she had a psychic gift for automatic writing - if she took a pencil and let her mind float free, the spirits spoke through her, guiding her pencil to the answers to the mysteries of other worlds. Over the next week she wrote 93 pages of supernatural messages.

Yeats wrote to Lady Gregory, on 29 September, that his relations with George (as she was now known) had been transformed. It is not entirely surprising that the sex seems to have improved, too, since a good deal of what George's ghostly voices were communicating to him reads like an extract from Marie Stopes's popular sexual therapy book Married Love. More than the couple's private life was rejuvenated in the ensuing long period of mutual contentment: as creative and intellectual inspiration poured from George's pencil, Yeats's poetic output also picked up significantly.

He openly acknowledged the transformation that George effected as medium and muse. Shortly before the wedding, he was glumly referring to the onset of "old age" and the accompanying diminution of poetic inspiration. Six years later, accepting the Nobel prize, he referred to the way in which the vital forces of his ageing spirit had been replenished via his "young Muse". "I was good-looking once, but my unpractised verse was full of infirmity, my Muse old as it were, and now I am old and rheumatic and nothing to look at, but my Muse is young."

When Lady Gregory complimented him on being a better- educated man than before his marriage, he replied that this was "very true": he owed it all to "an incredible experience" immediately following his marriage. Therein lay the secret of his greater intellectual understanding. "I have a great sense of abundance," wrote Yeats; "George's ghosts have educated me."

The question is: who was duping whom? The answer, as Brenda Maddox astutely shows in this compelling book, is that both partners stood to gain so significantly from accepting the arrangement that neither cared to scrutinise it too closely. The timely discovery of George's powers kindled the emotional interest in her on Yeats's part which was missing from his marriage of convenience. For George, in her turn, the 3,600 pages of automatic script she produced, followed by the messages she produced in her sleep (recorded in Yeats's Sleep and Dream Notebooks) gave her a significant, defining role in their shared intellectual life. She could channel her own personal erudition, her wide reading and lively mind in a thoroughly productive direction. She could continue to appear utterly compliant and accommodating, while actually achieving a significant measure of control in the relationship.

The bargain once made, both partners stuck to it during the 22 years of their marriage. George bore Yeats the children he yearned for and tolerated his monotonously regular infatuations with other women. Yeats followed to the letter the instructions George's "ghosts" issued him, absorbed their mystical ambience and incorporated their arcane intellectual "system" into his later poetry. Yeats had the comfort of a lifelong carer. The "selfless" wife had the satisfaction of being the laureate poet's official muse.

We are often told that, given women's natural creativity, history has produced surprisingly few successful women artists. In a period that severely restricted women's visible intellectual independence, George Yeats seized her opportunity and ventriloquised her talent; an established male public figure became her mouthpiece. Maddox's perceptively and vividly written George's Ghosts gives new meaning to the idea that behind any great creative man stands a magnificent female inspiration.

This article first appeared in the 21 June 1999 issue of the New Statesman, Better to shop than to vote

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How will future videogame makers design a grand strategy game about the 21st century?

With the diminishing power of nation states, and the lack of conventional warfare, what would a 21st-century grand strategy game look like?

In the world of historical strategy games, it always seems clear how to win. Paint the map your colour. Raise your flag over the capitals of your rivals. Pave the streets of your cities with gold. Games based around statecraft in olden times will tend to have diverse objectives, they usually focus on the greatness of a nation in the traditional senses of the word: military might, technological advancement, religious and cultural hegemony. These same priorities hold up from the times of the Roman Republic to the Cold War.

Yet if games designers in the future were to look at the world of today, how would they interpret the actions of modern governments? Do the same goals as before apply or have we moved on? Are the objectives of contemporary societies different, and if so, just what would a player in a game of 21st-century grand strategy be trying to achieve?

One thing is for sure, the conventional measures of success in historical grand strategy games don’t stack up so easily in a modern setting.

War, for instance, has always been a staple part of historical games and it remains a preoccupation of contemporary society too. In the 15 years of the 21st century, Britain has invaded two countries, conducted armed interventions in three more and is even now lining up the procurement of new fighter jets, new aircraft carriers and new nuclear weapons at incredible expense. So we can safely say we do not live in a peaceful age.

But despite having all this firepower and the political will to bring it to bear at the drop of a dossier, war doesn’t seem to serve Her Majesty’s Government in the way it does in either the history books or the strategy games. There is no territory to be won and no rival great powers being thwarted – only air strikes, occupations and teetering puppet governments.

Indeed the only country whose military adventures bear any resemblance to the old-timey way of doing things is Russia, with Putin perhaps the last of the breed of world leaders who still thinks swapping out the flags on municipal buildings constitutes a legitimate redrawing of national boundaries. Given his famous distrust for technology it seems quite likely he didn’t get the tersely worded Tweet from Obama about how that kind of thing isn’t supposed to work anymore.

On the economic side of things the approaches opted for by governments today don’t fit with the historical mind set either. Nations are no longer trying to get rich for their own sake. Privatisation relinquishes the assets of the state in return for a temporary financial gain and long term loss of revenue. Deregulation and poor tax enforcement bleeds capital overseas. It is here we see perhaps the key difference between games where you play as The State itself and real countries, countries run by people who have bank balances of their own and competing party financiers to appease.

The idea of running a country for the purpose of making that country wealthier and then reinvesting that wealth back into the country by developing assets and infrastructure has gone out of the window. Simultaneously both the leftwing model of a state run for the benefit of its citizens and the rightwing ideal of a country mastering its economy to become a more powerful force on the world stage have been quietly phased out. Outsourcing and tax havens suggest that there is no longer room for patriotism in economic policy – unless you’re China, of course, but it wouldn’t be much of a game with only one nation playing it.

On a technological front there was the space race, and there have even been games built around it. But in the 21st century, the urgency and the sense of competition has been lost. Rovers on Mars, probes on comets and space stations tend to be viewed in a spirit of collective human achievement, partly because of the collaborative nature of modern space exploration, and also, I suspect, because lots of people in those fields are Star Trek fans.

The idea of going to Mars so you can stand on the surface of another planet and tell the Communists to stuff it no longer appeals as much as that whole "pushing back the scientific boundaries for the benefit of all life of Earth" deal. It is laudable, but not ideal for games built around competing with other countries.

In the 21st century grand strategy game, we wouldn’t be looking to conquer the world, we wouldn’t be looking to buy it and we wouldn’t be looking to leave it in our technological wake either. So what does that leave? What would 21st-century grand strategy look like?

It could be argued that we’ve moved beyond the era of nation states as the bodies driving world affairs, and such a game might reflect that. Maybe something more akin to a Crusader Kings game would be the way to go, with the player taking the role of an individual – a connected political blueblood, perhaps, like an oligarch, a CEO, an activist turned politician, a drugs baron or a terrorist leader. Or maybe we would play not as an individual, but as an organisation, for example the CIA, ExxonMobil, Isis, Amnesty International or the Solntsevskaya Bratva.

It may be that we never see the present day immortalised in a strategy game, at least outside of that passing phase in Civilization where everything is either settled down or exploding in nuclear fire. Perhaps we’re destined to nestle into a historically obscure crack between the tumult of the 20th century and something spectacular or horrible yet to come. It is nice to think, however, that the times we live in are at least interesting and that maybe we’ll get to see it all laid out in a game one day, if only to find out what winning the 21st century would look like.

Phil Hartup is a freelance journalist with an interest in video gaming and culture