`A poet's life is an experiment in living,' wrote W B Yeats, and his own life was a heady mix of Irish nationalism, politics and the occult, overlapping love-affairs, passionate friendships and extraordinary poems. Here his official biographer outlines the perils of tackling the titan, with edited extracts from his first volume, `The Apprentice Mage', which goes up to 1914
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Who owns Yeats's life? It seems odd to pose the question more than half a century after his death, but for Irish people it still resonates. His huge international reputation is securely based on the mystery and grandeur of his late verse and the poignancy of his love-poetry, but he first came to fame as the exotically Celtic poet of a "new" nationalist Ireland: almost singlehanded, he made Irishness culturally fashionable. Spearheading a great cultural renaissance, he moved into his maturity as the voice of his country, memorialising her heroes, sitting as a Senator in her independent parliament, winning the Nobel Prize, dying full of years and honours.

Yet throughout his career he sustained an angry, quarrelsome, ambivalent relationship with much of Irish life; and for his first 50 years he lived more in England than Ireland. He was attacked in Ireland for the decadence, occultism and sensuality of his verse and the arrogant iconoclasm of his public utterances - and, indeed, his personal style. His reputation was violently fought over for years after he died, and much of this quarrel revolved around the issue of whether "England" or "Ireland" should claim him. Having completed the first volume of his biography, which takes him up to 1914, I am unsurprised by this. It would certainly not have surprised the poet himself.

The question of contested possession raises itself early on. I am still haunted by the indiscreet but revealing reaction of one soi-disant Dublin intellectual when I referred to Yeats's background as a "marginalised Protestant": "How dare you say that - he was as Irish as I am." There are still those who think Protestant background negates "true" Irishness, even if they are mercifully thinner on the ground than they used to be. Though Yeats's immediate family were strong nationalists, his background was that of the declining Protestant bourgeoisie, civil servants and clerics rather than landowners, with roots stretching back to the centuries of dispossession and ascendancy. This was not only an inheritance he rediscovered in middle age; it conferred a burden which he carried from his youth, and in Ireland it would have been self-evident to anyone he met as soon as he opened his mouth. Much of his early life was spent trying to demonstrate to people that "marginalised Protestants" could be as Irish as anyone else - not always a popular case to make. To write his life is to venture into land-mined territory, in terms of social history; and it is booby- trapped elsewhere too.

Perhaps this is why the project of his authorised biography itself carries a certain history. The idea was first mooted over 30 years ago by his family. Yeats himself expected a full biography: "a poet's life is an experiment in living," he wrote superbly, "and those that come afterwards have a right to know it." At the same time, however, he had taken fairly good care to dictate the form in which posterity would approach it. Joseph Hone's impressive one-volume Life appeared in 1942 and was necessarily discreet. Richard Ellmann's brilliant The Man and the Masks a few years later treated the life in terms of literary criticism, as did A N Jeffares's Man and Poet. What was needed, in the 1960s, was something more like Ellmann's Joyce - linked to personal chronology and the history of the poet's times as well as to his work, and necessarily conceived on a large scale.

Thanks partly to the devoted guardianship of his wife George, who had herself recently died, there was a great archive: partly dispersed in international collections, but substantially still in her son's and daughter's possession. Oliver Edwards had begun a scholarly biography and left only a couple of draft chapters. The great critic Denis Donoghue was asked to take on the task, but relinquished it after a few years, partly because of amicable disagreement over his wish to restrict access to family papers, which the Yeatses have generously always kept open to bona fide scholars, partly through pressure of other work. In any case, it was never going to be easy. Edwards went to interview the late Austin Clarke, a poet who had known Yeats and never liked him - and who had himself considered writing a biography of the titan. Watching this latest prospective biographer disappear out his gateway, Clarke remarked pessimistically to his son: "He'll never do it. He's too honest and he's too nice."

Niceness apart, was it, in any case, a project for a literary critic - or for a historian? The answer came when in 1974 his successor was appointed - F S L Lyons, famous for learned but trenchant studies of Parnell and other late-19th-century politicians, and a monumental history of Ireland since the Famine. There was a brief furore among literary scholars at this invasion from a neighbouring discipline, more or less quelled by the elan with which Lyons began publishing and lecturing on Yeats. Ten years after beginning, he sat down to write, and almost immediately collapsed and died. When I was first approached about taking on the task in 1984 there was a certain air of damnosa hereditas about it, not helped by a cheerful woman I encountered at my first Yeatsian conference. "I wouldn't write about his life if I were you," she counselled. "A friend of mine did and Yeats tried to drown him when he was out swimming." The biographer's notebook was whipped out at once: was this at Rappallo in the 1920s? Cap d'Ail in the 1930s? Not at all, I was told scornfully: only last year, at the Forty-Foot bathing-place in Dublin Bay. "Something grabbed his leg and he knew it was Yeats." The old occultist could still, apparently, cast a long shadow.

The last decade has brought several strange encounters, as well as warnings, veiled and aggressive, about earthbound historians trespassing in alien domains, whether literary or spiritual. It has also seen the appearance of the first three volumes of the Collected Letters, one of the most herculean tasks in the history of modern editing, as well as the publication of Yeats's correspondence with Maud Gonne, and a ramifying bibliography of books and articles (conservatively estimated at 7,000 items when I started, probably double that now).

Above all - and perhaps supplying the excuse for a historian taking on the task - there is the warp and weft of the revolutionary times in which Yeats lived his astonishing life. Born in 1865, he lived out his childhood and youth against a tapestry of failed insurrection, land agitation, and the struggle for Home Rule waged by the magnetic figure of Parnell - whom Yeats would later make an emblem for aristocratic, unmaterialistic Ireland. As a child, he observed both his own family, and the class whence he came, slipping down the ladder of social ascendancy, while a newly self-confident Catholic bourgeoisie began to assume the reins of authority. He himself was preternaturally certain about the course he would try to steer - most of all, that it must not resemble that of his father John Butler Yeats, a charismatic but unsuccessful artist, who never knew how to finish a painting. Dramatic closure would, by contrast, become a hallmark of his son's writing.

The Yeatses' move to London during the poet's early childhood paralleled that of many others; it also happened at a time when, as George Bernard Shaw mordantly recalled, "every Irishman who felt that his business in life was on the higher planes of the cultural professions, felt that he must have a metropolitan domicile and an international culture: that is, he felt that his first business was to get out of Ireland." Yeats knew this, but he also knew the uncertainty of dislocation: though they returned to Dublin for the early 1880s, they were back in Hammersmith by 1887. The sharp pain of emigration suffuses his first novel, John Sherman. So does a background of genteel poverty ("Dr and Mrs Todhunter came to tea the amusing thing about it was that Willie borrowed 3/- from them which they little knew was destined to purchase tea sugar butter and marmalade for their tea"). Yeats, exhausted from copying work in Oxford, was cast further into depression by the proofs of his own long-delayed poems, The Wanderings of Oisin.

He continued to agonise about the directionless, cloudy nature of his poetry; by December, he was preaching the need to "make poems on the familiar landscapes we love not the strange and rare and glittering scenes we wonder at - these latter are the landscape of Art, the rouge of nature." In a letter to Katharine Tynan he enclosed the first draft of "The Lake Isle of Innisfree".

I will arise and go now and go to the island of Innis free

And live in a dwelling of wattles of woven wattles and

wood work made,

Nine been rows [sic] will I have there, a yellow hive for the

honey bee

And this old care shall fade.

There from the dawn above me peace will come down

dropping slow

Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the

household cricket sings.

And noontide there be all a glimmer, midnight be a

purple glow

And evening full of the linnets wings.

This version lacks the dramatic, personal intervention which closes the published poem: "While I stand on the roadway or on the pavements grey, / I hear it in the deep heart's core." But in his Autobiographies Yeats isolated the moment when he wrote "Innisfree", in mid-December 1888, inspired by the same revelation he described in John Sherman, when a Strand window display suddenly transported him to the waters of Sligo. The power of association and memory which swept over him showed him that "personal utterance" might be a way out of cloudy rhetoric. His excitement was witnessed by his sister Lily, who recalled it long afterwards:

"In Bedford Park one evening, Helen Acosta [a friend who also worked at Morris's] & Lolly painting & I there sewing Willy bursting in having just written, or not even written down but just having brought forth `Innisfree', he repeated it with all the fire of creation & his youth he was I suppose about 24. I felt a thrill all through me and saw Sligo beauty, heard lake water lapping, when Helen broke in asking for a paint brush she had not even pretended to listen. None of us knew what a great moment it was. Not that `Innisfree' is one of his greatest, but it is beautiful & perhaps the best known."

Published in 1890, the poem achieved immediate success and still pursued him around the world, to his irritation, 40 years later.

As a young man Yeats was involved in the revival of revolutionary separatism, and then the cultural struggles around the new theatrical movement in the early years of this century. By the midpoint of his career, when my first volume ends, Ireland seemed to be moving towards Home Rule, while the European world lurched into war. In all these struggles Yeats was closely implicated, and they helped condition his life and work. His acute sense of social situation and perceived disadvantage is there from the beginning, as delicately honed as Proust's. "We lived in a villa where the red bricks were made pretentious and vulgar with streaks of slate colour, and there seemed to be enemies everywhere." An astute friend pointed out to me that by reading Yeats's life in this way, Freud is for practical purposes replaced by Foucault: not childhood trauma but social context and youthful power-struggles condition the later life.

Another friend, only partly joking, took it further: for Yeats's life, the only analyst you need is Clausewitz. And Yeats certainly lived as if following the maxims of the great theorist of war. Time and again he defined his enemies, regrouped his forces, rallied an attack on a weak front, and triumphantly snatched a victory. His early journalism, his struggles over the Abbey Theatre, his manifestos about intellectual freedom and the claims of nationalism, his tours of America: over and over the word "campaign" suggests itself.

This is true of his personal relationships too, notably his endless pursuit of Maud Gonne. At the outset of my researches, I half- expected to find that he used her as he did so many others, to provide a theme and a resource for his art. But studying his drafts, his horoscopes, most of all his letters to her, it is clear that from their first meeting he was, as he himself recalled, in a state where agony bordered on excitement, and he was utterly committed. Moreover, though they would come to violent political disagreement (she remained a revolutionary, he did not), his love would be continually recreated, "like the phoenix". She influenced nearly everything he did.

Strikingly, Yeats not only remained friends with most of his past lovers; he also relied heavily on mutually supportive friendships with women. This often involved an implicitly sexual element: extraordinarily attractive all his life, he had a way of lending himself out to the fantasies of others, and then withholding himself while they stayed in thrall. This was true of his relationship with the English tea heiress, Annie Horniman, who funded the Abbey Theatre, and with several of the aristocratic hostesses who took him up in London drawing-rooms. An element of it may have even entered his relationship with Augusta Gregory, who meant immeasurably more to him than almost anyone else, and whose friendship sustained him through years of turmoil. With her, he embarked on the great enterprise of a national theatre, an emblem of Irish culture: a forum where "a mob would become a people". He visualised a cultural initiative which would try to be national but unpolitical: it would, accordingly, distance him from Gonne's revolutionary nationalism and bring him into violent conflict with the nascent Sinn Fein movement, and it is symbolically associated with his attempt to assert a claim on the land through research into folklore and fairy belief. Here too, he and Gregory met each other's needs.

Yeats's friends are a dazzling cast in themselves, and the theme of friendship is celebrated throughout his poetry and his prose; often revolving around the emblematic figure of J M Synge, who died tragically early at the peak of his powers, in 1909. During Synge's lifetime, his relationship with Yeats was often uneasy: in their alliance over the Abbey Theatre, Synge often resented Yeats's dictatorial style, while Yeats felt Synge backed away from necessary conflicts with critics (often Sinn Fein nationalists) who felt that the putatively "national" theatre had been commandeered by a Protestant avant-garde. But in what mattered, he threw himself behind Synge. Though he must have resented his rival's ability to pack a theatre (audiences stayed away from Yeats's own plays in droves), in 1907 he fought the great battle of his early life over Synge's Playboy of the Western World and won. After evenings when the audience rioted, and Yeats "stood there watching knowing well that I saw the dissolution of a school of patriotism that had held sway over my youth", he forced the play onto the repertoire; within a very few years it was quietly accepted. He had also brought the most troublesome actors to heel, or forced them out. One of Lily's inimitable letters to their father puts it best, capturing the self-ironising humour which flashed out in private, and made Yeats an entrancing companion.

"The Abbey would cheer you up to see it. Motors carriages and cabs in a string outside - Willy has won his fight - a hard fight. I asked him the other night how the company was getting on together. `The usual quarrelling,' he said. `But then,' said he, `the founder of the Christian religion had the same trouble with his Company and had to invent the parables to keep them in good humour.' "

Like discipleship, friendship carried its dangers and tensions; Yeats was never more sharply observed than by those who had known him intimately, and then quarrelled with him. One example was his art-school friend, the sage and mystic George Russell, whose letters observe his friend's progress to Olympus with a mixture of uncomprehending exasperation and astounded admiration, as well as recording those summers at Coole Park with Lady Gregory.

A much more savage witness was George Moore, whose masterpiece of autobiography Hail and Farewell came out in horribly funny instalments in the years before the First World War. Even this adversity, however, was turned by Yeats (with Clausewitzian resourcefulness) to the purposes of art: responding with a series of poems about family pride, and the first volume of his autobiography. He knew what he was about. While the personal message of his poetry can be relocated and attributed to different personae, and episodes and encounters put through a prism which changes them, he was quarrying himself for his art long before he meditated on the process in the great late poem "The Circus Animals' Desertion". He defended Synge's artistic freedom with the ringing declaration that chauvinistic nationalism would inhibit "the imagination of highly-cultivated men, who have begun that experimental digging in the deep pit of themselves, which can alone produce great literature". And here he was, as so often, covertly referring to himself as well.

Resentment and even ridicule followed his ascent to Olympus, along with adulation. The private pain is always there, but Yeats's is a public life, layered on many levels; it could not be more different than that of say, Eliot, or Hardy, or Larkin. Even as a little-known ex-art-student in the 1890s, experimenting with hashish and mescalin under the influence of Havelock Ellis, acquiring a beautiful married mistress who inspired his key love-poems of the mid-Nineties, and learning how to drop French names from Arthur Symons, he had a genius for publicity and for meeting (and impressing) some of the most interesting people of his time. From youthful encounters with Oscar Wilde and William Morris in the 1880s he proceeded to the beau monde of Edwardian England, where he dined with Asquith and weekended with the young Winston Churchill, but he never lost his taste for dramatic and outre company, or his ability to juggle different worlds: he could deal with Aleister Crowley in the morning, and Edmund Gosse in the evening. The professions of politician, dramatist, journalist, occultist, jostle with the pastimes of lover, diner-out, traveller. He could draft a poem after breakfast, meet a journalist at lunchtime to plan a political initiative, attend an occultist society in the afternoon, dine out in the evening, and then write several letters giving different angles on it all, according to his correspondent.

Money was always short - friends like Augusta Gregory, or the homosexual aesthetes Ricketts and Shannon, were astonished and slightly appalled at the rigours of his private life - but he never sacrificed style. Once he achieved freedom from his father's Bohemian household in Bedford Park he lived in transit between his rooms near Euston Station, hired lodgings in Dublin, Lady Gregory's Galway house Coole Park, and sorties to Maud Gonne in Paris and Normandy. Merely tracking his movements sets up interesting conjunctions and puts certain episodes and initiatives in different context. When he intervened in the public controversy over the foundation of the Gaelic League in 1893, it can be read as a covert appeal to Maud Gonne as well as a last salvo in his losing battle to capture a new nationalist publishing venture. His crucially important first visit to America in 1903-4 followed hard on the shock of Maud Gonne's marriage to a resolutely unmystical man of action, the republican activist John MacBride, and the trauma conditioned many of his radical pronouncements there. His first visit to Italy in 1907, which drastically affected his views on aesthetics and social relationships, should be seen against the controversy over Synge's Playboy of the Western World, which had exploded just before.

Nor should the role of his supernatural commitments be forgotten. The rituals of the Order of the Golden Dawn provided a sort of alternative university syllabus to discipline his autodidactic genius, "rectifying" horoscopes were cast to forecast outcomes of struggles and to make sense of past failures; any setback in love was accompanied by a surge in occultist activity. He used psychical research as do-it-yourself transactional analysis. From 1911 he was preoccupied by voices sounding through an assortment of shady mediums, and by the revelations produced by the automatic writing of Bessie Radcliffe - years before his new wife would resort to the practice in order to rescue their disastrous honeymoon. He used Radcliffe's messages to supply guidance at difficult crossroads in his life. His compulsion to seek for patterns led him to produce some of the most disingenuous autobiographies in literature; they also impelled him to a poetry which both relies upon and conceals autobiographical impulse.

That autobiographical charge is often implicit. It is easy to forget that Yeats's first poetic attempts were verse dramas, and that for 10 vital years from about 1900 he was far more involved in writing plays than poetry. This made him an accomplished ventriloquist, adept at creating personae and throwing voices. But certain elements of his personal life keep coming through. The theme of family is always central. He knew he had to get away from his charming, didactic, talented father, hopeless as a provider but aggressively influential as a mentor; he constantly quarrelled with his sister Lolly, whose printing press produced the first version of most of his books from 1902 onwards ; his relationship with his brother Jack, himself to emerge as a great artist, was never easy. But in the correspondence of his sister Lily, in his dependence on his saturnine uncle George Pollexfen, in his increasing fascination with his family traditions, we can trace a deep and sustaining influence.

The Strain of family relationships was counterpointed by the eternal theme of love. Gonne's disastrous marriage in 1903 was one of the great upheavals of his life; her betrayal (as he saw it) was compounded by her commitment to a political creed in which he no longer believed, and by her conversion to Catholicism, which contradicted the mystical and occult dedication he believed they shared.

His yearning for Gonne never drove out other loves. They included Olivia Shakespear, Florence Farr and an obscure Irishwoman, Mabel Dickinson, who consoled him during the years 1908-1913. Dickinson was an amateur actress and "medical masseuse" and their affair was kept secret from his friends; the relationship foundered when she pressed unwisely for marriage on the basis of a claimed pregnancy scare. The spurned lover herself went on to a respectable old age, marrying a barrister and dying in Devon in the 1960s; her influence remains in some poems and plays. But whenever he became involved with another woman, he simultaneously sought out Gonne once more, as if seeking reassurance that she would not, even now, be his. And it was when he had begun his affair with Dickinson that he and Gonne finally, if briefly, became lovers.

Yeats remained engaged with life, experiencing emotion (as Pound put it) from the centre, not the rim; he brought the same intensity to his work. The agonies with which he wrote a poem are well recorded in the manuscript drafts, with their savage scorings and scribblings, as well as in his work's myriad published versions; Russell and others could never understand why he kept on remaking things, never leaving well alone. The brilliant flourishes and glowing patina of his finished work conceal this; sometimes, in his more highly-worked love-poems, the bravura effects conceal something of the emotion too. This is why it is important for the biographer to quote work in the original form in which it was published, rather than the final version, often rearranged years (or decades) later. (The revisions themselves have biographical importance, as when his relationship with Gonne more and more aggressively invades successive versions of "The Countess Cathleen".) And this is why the excisions in the drafts of some of his vital manifestos are worth reproducing; and why the draft of the idea for a lyric, never in the event completed, can show more poignantly than even (for instance) "Adam's Curse", the everyday pain of his unrequited love for Gonne in the early years of their relationship.

Work such as this shows how painfully the shimmering effects of his best verse were achieved, and how hard he worked his passage. But at the point where my first volume ends, apprenticeship is over - in magic and in much else. He is 49, and is finding his way to a new, pared-down authority in his literary voice, helped by his disciple and amanuensis the young Ezra Pound - if not helped quite as much as Pound liked to claim. He thinks he has become distanced from radical Irish nationalism. He has brought his poetry directly into politics, intervening in public controversies by means of public poems on the editorial page of the Irish Times (prepared by lobbying leader-writers behind the scenes). But he is also driven back to his beginnings, as he writes his Reveries over Childhood and Youth, a book originally entitled Memory Harbour after his brother's painting of Rosses' Point in Sligo, which held all the Yeats children's most poignant memories. Spurred to autobiography by Moore and others, Yeats found himself repossessed by his childhood; but he wrote about it in the terms dictated by his life in 1914, and it is all the more revealing for that. Loneliness flooded him, exacerbated by a recent quarrel with Gregory and the loss of Dickinson's consolations; he was deeply stung by Moore's portrait of him as a burnt-out writer taking refuge in snobbery and manipulation. Most of all, he wrote with elegiac passion about the world that had gone by him, and the family and background which had passed through so many changes in the past half-century. The biographer can enclose the first half of his life, therefore, between two views of his childhood: the way it looked to others at the time and the way it looked to the poet as he faced 50. Astrologer though he was, he could not foretell the future - which was to be in many ways even more astonishing than all he had made of his life up to then.

`W B Yeats, A Life I: The Apprentice Mage 1865-1914' (OUP pounds 25) is published later this month.

R F Foster, 1997


In WBY's great personal myth January 1889 was not only the month that saw the publication of The Wanderings of Oisin. On the 30th "a hansom drove up to our door at Bedford Park with Miss Maud Gonne", and "the troubling of my life began".

"As I look backward," he wrote long afterwards, "it seems to me that she brought into my life in those days - for as yet I saw only what lay upon the surface the middle of the tint, a sound as of a Burmese gong, an overpowering tumult that had yet many pleasant secondary notes." The 22-year-old English ex-debutante with a passion for Irish nationalism and romantic poetry invaded Bedford Park with an introduction to JBY, but "really to see Willy", as Lolly acidly pointed out. The Yeats girls "hated her royal sort of smile" and noted that she was wearing slippers; the whole family was probably impressed by the fact that she extravagantly kept the cab waiting throughout. She told WBY that "she cried over `Island of Statues' fragment but altogether favoured the enchantress and hated Nachina". Thus she cast herself precisely as the fatal, capricious beauty of whom the poet had dreamt.

He could not but succumb. In a letter of August 1887, he had tried to itemise poetic types of beauty. Swinburne's were "passionate and gorgious [sic] animals"; the neo-Romantics created "essentially men's heroines with no seperate [sic] life of their own in this different from Brownings". Maud Gonne, by contrast, was majestic, unearthly, appealing all at once; and her classic beauty came straight out of epic poetry. Immensely tall, bronze-haired, with a strong profile and beautiful skin, she was a fin- de-siecle beauty in Valkyrie mode: both her appearance and her character represented tragic passion. But there was also a vulnerable side, shown to few, which struck an immediate chord with WBY. He at once saw her as a "goddess", and remembered her standing luminous as "apple blossom through which the light falls ... by a great heap of such blossoms in the window". In January the blossom must have been almond, not apple: but the image remained, and the recognition. Implicitly, in his work, he had already cast a woman like this for a part in his life. Yet at the same time there was something curiously self-conscious in his immediate idealisation of her. Even as he cast himself into thrall, like a Shelleyan hero, the writer in him was conscious of what he was doing.

After the meeting on 30 January, they saw each other incessantly. WBY dined with Gonne, her sister Kathleen and her cousin May the very next day, where he was dazzled by the vehemence with which she baited a young military suitor of Kathleen, home on leave from India. WBY had dreamt of women like the girl in The Revolt of Islam "lawless women, without homes and without children". He himself had conjured up dream-women of epic beauty, sadness and mystery: Gonne represented them all. And the fact that she saw him (or so he remembered) every evening for the next week could only be construed as encouragement.

Gonne's background was peripatetic and unstable. Losing first her mother and then her adored father, brought up between London, France and his military postings in Ireland, she identified with that country as the one fixed point in her unhappy early life. She stressed her father's alleged Kerry ancestry, along with the much more questionable supposition that he nurtured Home Rule ambitions. She and her sister possessed pounds 40,000 capital, around two million in today's terms; she was well bred and beautiful; but she resolutely repudiated conventional "society". The Dublin establishment would come to view her with alternate alarm and derision ("a great red- haired yahoo of a woman", in the words of the timid Trinity don Louis Purser). This too appealed to WBY.

From the start Gonne had sought out nationalists, who were initially suspicious of her. Her identity with "the people" of Ireland was based (as with many upper-class rebels) on memories of servants who had been kind to her: nationalism gave her restless and insecure spirit a conviction and a base, as well as a focus for her independent and feminist predilections. Her capacity to inspire devotion, and deep belief in self-sacrifice for public causes, would create for her a unique place in Irish public life.

There was another reason also for her passionate interest in extreme politics. In the summer of 1887, at the French spa of Royat, she had met the much older Boulangist journalist and politician, Lucien Millevoye, who was already married, and begun her long liaison with him. In April 1889, less than three months after meeting WBY, she conceived Millevoye's child.

Her Irish suitor would not learn this for many years. But part of Gonne's attraction was her flouting of convention, and she never believed in marriage: when she eventually capitulated, it would only be as a sacrament (and a sacrifice) to the national cause. Partly, this may have been because sexual relations did not greatly appeal to her; but she was also a New Woman, and came from a family whose women believed they were foredoomed to unhappy marriages. (At an early age she had to cope not only with her own secret liaison, but with an illegitimate half-sister; Gonne sent the mother off to Russia as a governess and kept the child herself.) Faced with WBY'S relentless adoration, she took refuge in her Paris house, and in admonishments that dedication to the national cause must transcend all selfish passion.

The course of their relationship was quickly set. WBY much later recalled his obsessiveness, his neurosis, his fear of making a fool of himself: all connected with an ideal of passionate asceticism, keeping his heart pure for love or hatred, like the mythical figure of Proud Costello. A hopeless love, in fact, freed him to work. But WBY also, as ever, turned adversity to advantage: within a year he was presenting himself to Gonne as her cicerone, in occultism as well as in national revivalism: his need to dominate and his literary genius seemed to confer that advantage. Gonne, on the other hand, possessed only a talent for oratory; she dabbled in art and wrote awkwardly. But it turned out he could not lead her: the force of her personality matched his own. Some photographs emphasise not so much her legendary beauty as a large and determined chin, and a mouth set hard at the corners.


Gonne had retired to a French convent for instruction; from there she wrote soothingly to WBY that their friendship need not change. As to Catholicism, " our nation looks at God or truth through one prism, The Catholic Religion." In other words, to be Irish required being Catholic, the very conclusion WBY had devoted years of concentrated activity to disproving. And as for social superiority: "You say I leave the few to mix myself with the crowd while Willie I have always told you I am the voice, the soul of the crowd." This indeed was the kernel of the ancient difference between them. It was now exacerbated by her adoption of Catholicism. As one friend put it tersely to another: "[Gonne] hates marriage & all sex. They had a sort of understanding to be together in old age. Now he contemplates an onslaught on the Church."

On 21 February 1903 Gonne married John MacBride at the Church of St-Honore- d'Eylau in Paris, attended by nationalist delegates from Ireland and old comrades from South Africa. Like her stage performances, the ceremony was transmuted into a new form of political theatre. She assured WBY three days later that when called on to abjure all heresies, "I said I hated nothing in the world but the British Empire which I looked on as the outward symbol of Satan in the world ... in this form I made my solemn Abjuration of Anglicism & declaration of hatred of England." The marriage of the two "irreconcilables" was viewed by their friends with grave misgivings, partly because of MacBride's conventionality (though he had his own illegitimate family in South Africa).

Those who were principally interested in WBY thought it might be a turning- point, but their hopes were quelled by the disastrous course of the Gonne- MacBride marriage. As early as the honeymoon (in southern Spain, allegedly reconnoitring assassination arrangements for an impending royal visit to Gibraltar), the couple's incompatibility and MacBride's drunkenness were spectacularly evident. Gonne returned to Paris alone, and, significantly, headed for London, where WBY met her, as so often before, at Euston. Though a son (Seaghan, later Sean) was born the next year, there was little hope for the union; and, by a terrible irony, the precipitating cause for its dissolution would be MacBride's molestation of his step-daughter Iseult, for whose protection Gonne had sought refuge in marriage. By early May, less than three months after the wedding ceremony, she was confessing that she had made a terrible mistake. As for WBY, his distant princess was now unattainable in a different way: a Catholic wife and mother of two children.


In 1896 Augusta Gregory was 44, and had been widowed for four years. When she married the much older William Gregory at the age of 28, she had moved from the philistine, horsy and hard-line Protestant world of Roxborough into the Gregory milieu of retired colonial governors and liberal Tory politicians in London and "abroad". Plain, decisive and masterful, she never lost a certain air of the evangelically-minded county lady; but this was only one side of a complex personality. After her death an old Galway acquaintance, who as a young girl had known her well, wrote: "She was the most complicated woman I can think of ... Loving - cold. Womanly - cold. Patriotic - cold. Very calculating, dutiful, courageous, purposeful, and all built upon a bedrock sense of humour and love of fun and a bitter sarcasm with a vein of simple coarseness of thought and simple inherited Protestantism."

From childhood she had nurtured a romantic literary ambition, as well as an attraction towards romantic nationalism; as a young bride she had taken up the cause of the Egyptian rebels, defending Arabi Bey in a long pamphlet. While her husband was still alive, she had a passionate affair with the professional philanderer Wilfrid Scawen Blunt; rumours persisted about the parentage of her only son, Robert, who arrived when Sir William was 64.

Widowhood liberated her, and by the time she met WBY in 1896 she had discovered an interest in "Celtic" folklore, had already begun to write and to learn Irish. Within a year she would publish articles on fairy traditions, folktales and language revival. Her political views would (with characteristic independence) change throughout her life, tending more and more to separatist nationalism. In the 1880s she had opposed Home Rule, and as late as November 1898 she could privately confess her doubts about joining "ruffians" like Michael Davitt, William O'Brien and Archbishop Welsh on the council of the Gaelic League; but, like WBY, she had chafed under the dead hand of conservative Irish Protestant society and was conscious that change was afoot. As she later remarked, "we are all born bigots in Ireland & want a great deal of grace to get us out of bondage". In an article for the Cornhill, May 1900, she finally (and cautiously) "came out" as an Irish nationalist. She had found her role.

For WBY, she provided access to local Galway tradition, through the Irish language but from a Big House perspective; it was a heady combination. As with nearly all the women who meant something to him, their friendship quickly coalesced around an idea for collaborative work, in this case a large-scale survey of folklore and fairy tale which eventually took the form of six long essays by WBY. In exploring the mythological origins of folklore, WBY showed himself less and less chary of offending Catholic sensibilities. "The Tribes of Danu", published in November 1897, aroused clerical criticism by dismissing the philistine aspects of modern Catholicism, and comparing the doctrine of transubstantiation with sighting fairies; a year later his generalisations about pagan beliefs among the Irish peasantry would be considered equally offensive. In old age, he recalled:

"My object was to find actual experience of the supernatural, for I did not believe, nor do I now, that it is possible to discover in the textbooks of the schools, in the manuals sold by religious booksellers, even in the subtle reverie of saints, the most violent force in history ... when we passed the door of some peasant's cottage, we passed out of Europe as that word is understood." "I have longed", she said once, "to turn Catholic, that I might be nearer to the people, but you have taught me that paganism brings me nearer still."

With her knowledge of the world, Jamesian apercus, and tendency to artistic lion-hunting, Gregory provided a sophisticated sounding-board for analysing Yeats's complicated relationships with interesting people. How he appeared to her at the outset of their long relationship is conjectural. His humour appealed: and WBY presented himself to her, through letters and anecdotes, in a feline and amusing way. His genius and charisma were electrifying. And so were his good looks. In his relationship with her, as with many others (men as well as women), WBY used his gift for fascination to "loan himself out". He slipped easily into the fantasies of others, rather like one of the succubi he read about in treatises on magic. But Gregory's firm grasp on reality meant that their friendship, unlike many others, never soured, though it may at the outset have rested on some unfulfilled hopes. They were mentor and artist: while she addressed him as "Willie", his letters to her remain to "Lady Gregory". The formality is surprising even for the time: yet they rapidly became each other's closest friend and confidant, and remained so - with only an occasional slight passage of annoyance - until her death nearly 40 years later.

Yet at first, in the later 1890s, her letters to him carried a tentative air of gaiety and romance. Given Gregory's capacity for affairs with younger men, Maud Gonne's malicious belief that she was in love with WBY may not have been far off the mark. For his part, he quickly confided in her about Gonne: possibly as a tactful warning. When Gregory finally met Gonne, in December 1898, her reaction was revealing: "a shock to me for instead of beauty I saw a death's head & what it says to him I know not".

Gregory moved centrally into his world, and into that of his family. She plotted to arrange an exhibition for JBY. She bought Jack's early work, organising a successful Dublin show in February 1900. She measured WBY's rooms in Woburn Buildings for furniture and curtains, which he worried about ("I wish I saw clearly in the matter"). When he was ill she turned up morning and evening to care for him. She provided items like an enormous leather easy-chair; she helped turn his rooms into something like the stylistic triumph desired by their inhabitant (dim blues, tall white paschal candles, walls hung with brown paper, painted furniture, mystic hangings, prints and engravings by Blake, Rossetti, Beardsley). She sent him Bovril, port, pies and champagne; from London he reported about his health, digestion, eyes, teeth.

Before long, friends who worried about his eyesight (and the financial stringency that exacerbated it) knew to approach her. She traced folk- remedies for his eyes (dog-violet, boiled in milk; it did not work). And she wrote to him in tones of familial intimacy and firmness. "How bad of you to get ill just when I am not there to look after you. Do take care of yourself now, & feed yourself properly -& with any threatening of rheumatism you should look to your underwear."


WBY had visited Coole briefly the year before, but the summer of 1897 was his first real immersion in what would become the centre of his Irish life. "I found at last what I had been seeking always, a life of order and of labour." Driving to the small Georgian mansion up its long avenue past woods and lakes, he felt he had found sanctuary. Paths through woods led down to a mysterious lake; a great walled garden was set with classical statuary and rare trees. On his first visit, he later recalled, he did little work - and then discovered that this was a disappointment to his hostess. By the following summer, a routine had been established and Russell could write to Gregory: "he ought not to get dinner until he has produced a specified number of lines every day". But WBY's standard rate at this time was about half a dozen lines a day, produced with racking effort. The point was, as he put it more than once, to treat the creation of those five or six lines as hard labour, redrafting them until he could bear no more; the process passionately outlined in his poem "Adam's Curse" seems to have been an accurate representation.

Coole may have been a refuge, but even the chance of uninterrupted work did not make him happy in the summer of 1897, "the most miserable time of my life". "I was tortured by sexual desire and disappointed love. Often as I walked in the woods at Coole it would have been a relief to have screamed aloud. When desire became an unendurable torture, I would masturbate, and that, no matter how moderate I was, would make me ill." Guilt was implicit in his sexual frustration and his attempts to relieve it. A good deal of time was spent in a dejected daze, probably not helped by the supply of hashish pellets from Paris. But, for all his private unhappiness, he produced "brilliant conversation" in the evenings, Gregory remembered, "pouring out his ideas in rapid succession - hair-splitting, fanciful - full of wit & poetry, deep & subtle thought - his stories of his London friends wd make us laugh till we cried."

Possibly these swings of mood were accentuated by drugs, but what he brought to Coole was not illusory. His friends, like Synge and Russell, became regular visitors too; their conversation and interests illuminated Gregory's life. That wet summer, she and WBY began collaboration on the folk-tale collections, and one afternoon in August the conversation `revived an old project for an Irish theatre.'


In April 1913 WBY was attending seances in Dublin with a non-professional medium called Mrs Mitchell - requiring information, among other things, about the prospects of a theatre venture. On 1 May he told Gregory he had to be back in London for seances on 12 and 13 May, "the only vacancies I could get: I want to try a very important experiment". But far more important was his exposure to the automatic-writing of Elizabeth Radcliffe.

Bessie Radcliffe's background was upper-middle-class, unusual for a medium. Her speciality was automatic-writing in foreign or ancient languages not known to Radcliffe herself (though on at least one occasion they were quotations from schoolbooks in her parents' house). WBY was ready to be convinced - especially when authorities at the British Museum (rather guardedly) attested to the correctness of the various languages reproduced in her script. A sceptical observer described one of the first encounters, with WBY looking "like a gross exaggeration of the Idea of a Poet, as laid up in heaven". The "control" produced furious scribblings which were deciphered as violent abuse of Radcliffe herself:

"Yeats at once took charge. `Leave this spirit to me,' he said; `I will exorcise him.' He then rose to his great height, and taking a stick - or was it the poker? - he drew a complicated pattern on the carpet (`Would you mind moving the tea-table a trifle? Thank you.') while muttering incantations. `There,' he said; `that will settle him. He cannot harm you now.' [Radcliffe] took up her pencil and wrote: `Ha! ha! if you think that folly can stop me, you will find you are badly mistaken.' The deflation of Yeats was complete. He had the beaten look of a defeated boxer in his corner."

This control was identified as the 17th-century classicist Thomas Creech, easily traced in the Dictionary of National Biography.

By May 1913 he was agonisedly anxious to solve a sudden crisis in his private life. He had continued to see Mabel Dickinson; now - aged 38, and probably becoming impatient - she wrote telling him she was pregnant. Something must have made him feel he had cause to wonder. He told Gregory of the crisis, and she emphasised that if Dickinson was pregnant he had to marry her. But he looked for occult guidance too. He consulted Radcliffe's controls, and decided they gave him reason for delay. On 8 June he pressed Radcliffe to "interpret the Greek which you sent me ... it is very obscure. I doubt if the spirits got all their messages through." Finally, as he recorded, "they said I was deceived & that I should not take the action I had all but decided on."

He must have received a corroborating admission from Dickinson at the end of June. She was apparently not pregnant at all, if she ever had been. His faith in the investigations with Radcliffe had been, in his eyes, vindicated; "spirit identity had been proved, and the existence of ghosts who could guide him. By the time he lectured to the Dublin Society for Psychical Research on 31 October, he was prepared publicly to state his conviction: "he had the strongest reasons to believe that the soul survived death, very little changed".

What is most striking is his need to believe, and his determination to present leading questions and suggest likely interpretations, until a pattern or "message" shaped itself. Equally impressive is the dividend paid in creative work. The seances of 1912 and 1913 helped inspire his most sustained burst of poetic activity for many years, and the collection of poems called Responsibilities. Under the elliptical, pared-down, colloquial style (encouraged but not, for all his claims, inspired by Pound) ran a stream of obscure reference not only to WBY'S personal history but to his supernatural investigations. "The Cold Heaven", first published in 1912, concentrates these influences: staring at a winter sky, desperately looking back at where his life had gone, the lacerating memory of his failure with Gonne and his theories of death, ghosts and dreams come together in a passionate fusion.

Suddenly I saw the cold and rook-delighting Heaven

That seemed as though ice burned and was but the more ice,

And thereupon imagination and heart were driven

So wild, that every casual thought of that and this

Vanished, and left but memories, that should be out of season

With the hot blood of youth, of love crossed long ago;

And I took all the blame out of all sense and reason

Until I cried and trembled and rocked to and fro

Riddled with light. Ah! When the ghost begins to quicken,

Confusion of the death-bed over, is it sent

Out naked on the roads, as the books say, and stricken

By the injustice of the skies for punishment?


Since early 1902, Lily and Lolly had been negotiating with Evelyn Gleeson, a well-off woman who wanted "to find work for Irish hands in the making of beautiful things", about a manufacturing and retailing centre for fabrics, rugs, embroidery and printing. With a Dublin friend Augustine Henry, finance was arranged: too vaguely, as it turned out. But Lily's training at William Morris's, and Lolly's enterprise with brushwork and graphic design, had found an outlet. By July arrangements had been made to set up "Dun Emer Industries" in Dublin. Lily would take responsibility for embroiderywork, and Lolly for printing.

By the autumn the Yeatses had left Blenheim Road,the backdrop to their youthful memories of material deprivation and artistic ambition, but the values of Bedford Park were exported to the house in Dundrum where the "industries" were begun, along with the Yeatsian domestic atmosphere - sociable, volatile, relentlessly self-analysing. From the beginning WBY was involved, slightly to the consternation of those backing the venture. "He is a genius," Augustine Henry warned Gleeson, "and his ways in society are to be excused completely and you must not blame him, he is probably in the clouds. Of course he is much spoiled by admiration of women." These women did not include his younger sister, though in Lily's view the fault was not all on his side. "WB was also working very hard for very little and had all the troubles over the theatre, such bitter disappointments, and the infernal Maud through it all."

For all the disagreements between Lolly and WBY, the business was under way by October. Working at Dun Emer became almost a rite of passage for many young women involved in nationalist cultural enterprises: future writers, painters, Sinn Fein activists and Abbey actresses. "100 years ago [Lolly and Lily] would have wanted to make them loyal & Protestant," JBY remarked ironically, "now they only seek to make them happy & rational & healthy, sleeping with their windows open & not knuckling down to brothers or anybody else... this marks the `Progress of the Ages'."