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