Books: Weary Willie's wayward phallus

George's Ghosts: A New Life of W B Yeats by Brenda Maddox Picador pounds 20
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The Independent Culture
It was typical of the male chauvinist W B Yeats that he should marry a woman called George. Georgie Hyde-Lees was an emancipated young socialite who smoked and drank, peppered her conversation with "Christs" and "damns", and favoured dramatic capes and turbanned headpieces. She and Yeats were both high-ranking members of the Order of the Golden Dawn, a mystical outfit in fin de siecle London in which Georgie was known as Sister Nemo and the Irish poet as Frater DEDI, short for "Demon Est Deus Inversus". They were both enthusiasts for magic, spiritualism, astrology and astral bodies; in fact Yeats had celebrated a marriage with the fiery Irish radical Maud Gonne on the astral plane, which is more than he ever achieved on the physical one. Instead, Maud married the boneheaded Irish layabout John MacBride, who once gave a speech in Paris in such atrocious French that his audience thought he was speaking Dutch. After drunkenly beating his new wife up, MacBride was finally shot by the British army for his part in the Dublin insurrection of 1916.

Of all great writers, Yeats was one of the silliest. "Very, very bughouse" was Ezra Pound's judgement on him, suggesting perhaps that it takes one half-baked poet to recognise another. Wherever he went he was pursued by ghostly smells, thumps and whistlings. In fact there was hardly a brand of high-society spookiness, from table-rapping and theosophy to seances and Oriental mysticism, in which this otherwise astute, hard-headed cultural operator did not indulge. As such, he was a true son of his Anglo-Irish Ascendancy background, as the offspring of a class which produced ghost stories, Gothic novels and Dracula, probably the most famous Irish character of all.

Victorian biographies of great writers tended to leave out the sex. Brenda Maddox's approach to famous authors is almost the reverse, leaving out almost everything but the sex. It is as though Samuel Johnson's celebrated Lives of the Poets has become, in our own erotically obsessed era, Sex Lives of the Poets. Having published on the married lives of James Joyce and D H Lawrence, Maddox has here turned her spotlight on a lofty poseur who revelled in dirty stories, masturbated to the point of utter exhaustion, and had an operation to restore his sexual potency in middle age. An American medic of the day had achieved fame by packing goat-glands into the testicles of 16,000 impotent males; Yeats himself settled for a vasectomy, which, so his wife reported, failed to restore his capacity to have erections. But his wife, as Brenda Maddox darkly observes, "may not have been the best judge": one would need rather to ask the four women with whom Yeats had "a succession of senescent love affairs" in the years following his sexual fix.

Much of what this book has to say of Yeats is wearily familiar, not least since the appearance of the first volume of R F Foster's official biography two years ago. But Maddox has one fascinating revelation. George has gone down in literary history as the woman who gave Yeats much of his mystical symbolism by way of so-called automatic writing, in which she apparently lapsed into a trance while the spirits took over her pen. Yeats was not the only writer to be inspired by spirits, though with him, unusually, they were of the non- alcoholic variety. Maddox's revelation is not quite that George's trances were bogus, a fact which Yeats scholars have been cynical enough to suspect. It is that her automatic writing was essentially a technique by which this powerless young wife could control her wayward, autocratic husband, and not least to cajole more sex out of him. The word "dictation" takes on an intriguing new meaning.

Yeats had stumbled into wedlock with George while still pining for Maud Gonne's daughter Iseult - a potentially incestuous liaison, literally as well as metaphorically, since Maud once surmised that Iseult might be the poet's child. George's mystical writing was thus a desperate stratagem to bring this "phallically challenged" great man to heel, instructing him when to have sex, organising his finances, and preparing him for fatherhood. While the credulous Yeats insisted that George perform her magic for him twice a day, George pressurised him in return. The only problem was that Yeats's passion was more for script than the sex, so that George's project threatened to be counter-productive. It was also a fatiguing pursuit, which risked leaving her too tired for the sex it was trying to provoke. The poet ended up putting as many as 57 eager questions a night to his exhausted "interpreter", forcing her visionary utterances to grow steadily more coarse and explicit.

Far from being a Nemo, then, Georgie Hyde-Lees was a kind of latter-day Lysistrata, trading script for sex in a way that the deconstructionists would find irresistably appealing. Yeats wasn't much good in bed, but regarded himself as far too important not to have an heir, and thus, in Maddox's words, "had to catch a fertile, well- off young woman quickly". George was not especially attractive, but Yeats was stirred by her strong bones, "bone" being a key poetic word for him. Torn between a deep reluctance to have children and a megalomaniac fantasy that he was destined to father a Messiah, Yeats was finally bounced into parenthood by George's mystical instructions. He proved a predictably dreadful father, who once failed to recognise his own son in the street.

George's Ghosts recounts this poignant farce with a dismal lack of irony. Yeats is one of the most ludicrous figures of our age, as well as one of the mightiest, and there is rich material here for high comedy. It is supremely fitting that the Irish grave which supposedly contains the poet's bones may not do so at all: rumour has it that the wrong body was dug up and sent over from France. If this book was a little less pokerfaced about its hilariously absurd subject-matter, it would have been scintillating as well as fascinating.