Tuesday Book: New look at the wild old wicked man

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IN A famous poem, WB Yeats asked his ancestors' pardon for having reached 49 without a child to carry on the family line. Two years later he was convinced that 1917 was the optimum astrological moment for him to marry. He clearly needed the assistance of the stars, hitherto having fixed his amorous desires on unmarriageable partners: eloquent proof of his fear of conjugal commitment.

Everyone knew of his unrequited passion for the beautiful Maud Gonne, but fewer knew of his attraction to her half-French daughter, Yseult. The solution to it all was Bertha Georgie Hyde-Lees, an independent but relatively homely young woman half his age. She, like Yeats, was an adept of the Order of the Golden Dawn, an occult form of freemasonry for the Edwardian intelligentsia.

Five days into the honeymoon, at a golfing hotel in Sussex, George (as she was always known) learnt of Yeats's feelings for Yseult. Shocked, but also fighting back, she at once transformed herself into a medium by means of "automatic writing" from spirit messages in the astral realm. The credulous poet was instantly hooked, and the marriage secured.

Thereafter, on an almost daily basis, he prepared questions for "George's ghosts" - Ayumor, Thomas, Dionertes and the rest - on matters cosmic and practical. Do mortal and immortal share a different life in dreams?; give me a diagram of individual cycles showing how one life influences another; will it suit your plans if we go to Ireland at the end of March?

Yeats's daft devotion to the paranormal, from fairies to thought transference, was never secret, but the transcripts of George's scrawled and then verbal spirit messages were only published in 1992. Reading their 3,600 pages, with WBY's notes, Brenda Maddox - the author of an invaluable life of Nora Joyce - chides those scholars who write as if the various "controls" were independent beings.

Reasonably, she perceives George as the active agent who. consciously or not, used the sessions to communicate domestic and sexual requests (with instructions, for example, as to when it was desirable for the male "sun" to enter the female "moon"). It is equally obvious that WBY used the hermetic process to validate his crackpot cosmological system (cyclical time, widening gyres, parallel planes, reincarnation and so on) and to excavate his own confused emotions. "Why had I that crazy passion for MG?" he asked on one occasion.

According to the spirits, the Yeats's child, conceived in 1918, was the reincarnated son of Anne Hyde, the Duchess of Ormonde, who died in 1684. The spirits lacked foresight, however, for the baby born in February 1919 was a girl. It would be tedious to summarise even part of the supposed communications relating to this, though one of Maddox's funnier acts is to read "The Second Coming" obstetrically, as revealing a "universal male terror of pregnancy". The whole silly business soon began to decline, ending in 1921 after the birth of a son, Michael.

So far, so richly comic. Maddox's prose wickedly debunks the mystical pretensions that led Yeats to lament he might never again see "the dark leopards of the moon" with their round green eyes and wavering bodies. But she has bigger ambitions and so continues with WBY's later life.

Effectively, this anticipates the second, as yet unpublished, volume of Roy Foster's "official" biography. It fails, however, to justify her subtitle, being the biographical equivalent of a clippings job in which Yeats's poetic and political activities in the fearful years of the Irish Civil War are a pretext for details of a more private nature. Interest in George fades in favour of the late amours of a foolish, fond old lecher, with aristocratic Dorothy Wellesley, radical Ethel Mannin, mentally unstable Margot Ruddock and lesbian Edith Shackleton (later the partner of the handsome Gluck).

In 1934, Yeats had a vasectomy, which, combined with monkey-gland injections (a topic of much ribaldry in Dublin), was designed to restore virility but perhaps aimed rather at deferring mortality. Yet it is hard to see these as serious sexual affairs, though that does not make them less reprehensible in a "60-year-old smiling public man", a Nobel laureate and former senator. However, the chronicle of Yeats's ongoing idiocies, including ridiculous capers in Majorca with a plump Indian swami and his English female sidekick, paradoxically arouses the reader's sympathy.

Normally welcome, warts-and-all biography sometimes induces nostalgia for a flattering soft focus. Yeats's vanities were many, but the tabloid taste for catching celebrities in undignified flagrante is not appetising.

Ezra Pound - himself no stranger to loony ideas - wondered why his witty and sensible friend lost his "usual quality of mind" only when it came to the occult. It has always been hard to reconcile Yeats's fine verse with its esoteric and reactionary content. Oddly enough, the belittling of a great poet makes this less, not more, difficult. Life and art were never more different things.

Jan Marsh