W.B. Yeats & George Yeats: The Letters
Edited by Ann Saddlemyer
(Oxford University Press, 599 pp., $49.95)
Words Alone: Yeats & his Inheritances
By R.F. Foster
(Oxford University Press, 236 pp., $29.95)
IT WAS CERTAINLY an odd marriage. The groom, already a well-known Irish poet, was fifty-two, the bride twenty-four. The groom had proposed to two other women immediately before settling for the bride, a well-bred young Englishwoman whom he had known for several years and with whom he shared occult interests. The bride was distraught when, on the honeymoon, her new husband turned gloomy with regret. She then decided to “fake” (her word, later repented of) sessions of automatic writing that would distract her melancholy companion. For five years—while the marriage was becoming solidly confirmed by daily life—the automatic writing continued, eventually yielding four thousand pages of script, until the exhausted wife called a halt.
After at least two miscarriages, the union produced two children, and it endured as a cooperative endeavor throughout an unrelentingly busy joint life. In the poet’s declining years, he engaged in late affairs and friendships with well-off women living on comfortable estates, affairs known about and condoned by his wife, who now appreciated help in taking care of her increasingly fragile and increasingly famous spouse. When he died at seventy-three of congestive heart failure, his wife and his last lover were at the bedside.
That is the quarter-century union made visible by the scores of letters exchanged between William Butler Yeats and his wife George (reduced from the hated “Georgie”), letters that enlarge our sense of the poet’s life in part by enlarging our sense of George. In 1939, directly after Yeats’s death, Auden wrote an elegy that perplexed me when I first read it as a girl. What did the younger poet mean by saying to the great Yeats, “You were silly like us”? What did he mean by that curiously ecclesiastical allusion to “the parish of rich women”? As time went on, biographies of Yeats became more candid, and Richard Ellmann’s The Identity of Yeats (1964) and Yeats: The Man and the Masks (1979) presented accurate information, much of it transmitted by George herself, about Yeats’s trafficking with the occult, and about his late-life associations with various “rich women,” from the lesbian Lady Dorothy Wellesley to his last lover, Edith Shackleton Heald, in whose houses he received—as might a visiting parish priest—a reverent welcome.
But even after Ellmann’s work, much about Yeats’s life and acquaintance remained obscure, and it seemed as though a biographer would never be found who would investigate and summarize such a massively documented existence. Many potential biographers—whether poet or critic, scholar or historian—withdrew, or fell by the wayside abandoning their contracts, or died. The project seemed doomed until the Anglo-Irish historian R.F. Foster, who had inherited the historian F.S.L. Lyons’s papers toward a biography of Yeats, assumed the intimidating task of assembling, interpreting, putting in order, and annotating the life-events and literary history of a poet so energetic, so contentious, and so confident of Ireland’s cultural potential that the rapid appearance over six years of Foster’s excellent two-volume biography put all Yeatsians in his debt.
But Foster’s necessary emphasis on the public life and writings of the poet left the marital life somewhat in the shade. Then, in 2002, there appeared Becoming George: The Life of Mrs. W.B. Yeats, a magisterial biography of George Yeats equal to Foster’s in scholarly depth and wealth of annotation. The author was Ann Saddlemyer, a Synge expert at the University of Toronto (and now the co-general editor of the Cornell edition of Yeats’s poetic manuscripts). From the eight hundred pages of Saddlemyer’s life of George, there arose, resurrectively, the many social worlds of the Yeatses, with rich footnotes identifying the extraordinary set of family members, fellow writers, hangers-on, theater people, eccentrics, politicians, and, not least, “rich women” among whom the Yeatses moved. In the biography Saddlemyer included tantalizing quotations drawn from George’s frequent letters to many correspondents, letters that ratified the biographer’s forcefully presented brief for George’s character, actions, and literary judgment.
Now Saddlemyer completes the portrait of George by publishing (at the urging of Michael Yeats and with the permission of John Kelly, the general editor of the Letters of W.B. Yeats, still under way) this subset of marital letters. They constitute a particular genre among Yeats’s letters—less literary than his exchanges with fellow writers, but in every way the most unbuttoned utterances of Yeats the man, whom George knew as no one else could. Yeats was the most hardworking of poets and George the most hardworking of wives, as she eventually became conscripted into every part of her husband’s complicated life—his dealings with family, publishers, writers, accountants, and the Abbey Theatre, as well as his travels, illnesses, and affairs. As his health failed, she took over more and more duties, and after he died she found herself serving as his de facto literary executor for the thirty years of her widowhood.
WILLY (AS HE WAS known from youth) and George began the marriage in a stilted way. Although they had been acquainted since 1911, and had moved in the same social circle, and had shared an interest in the occult, the first half-century of the poet’s life had been lived without George. By the time he married in 1917, he was already a “finished man among his enemies” and was supporting his irresponsible old father and his two unmarried sisters (who, as proprietors of the Cuala Press in Dublin, published limited editions of his works). Since his twenties, Willy had been in love with the beautiful political activist Maud Gonne (who had steadfastly refused to marry him, while secretly bearing two illegitimate children to her French lover); after her last refusal, in 1917, he proposed to her daughter Iseult, who also refused him.
A few years earlier there had been a (false) pregnancy scare from one of Yeats’s previous lovers, Mabel Dickinson, and the poet’s friends, including Olivia Shakespear (his first lover) and his patron Augusta Lady Gregory, were eager for him to find a wife. Olivia Shakespear’s brother Harry had married George’s widowed mother, Nelly, and Olivia Shakespear’s daughter Dorothy would become the wife of Yeats’s friend Ezra Pound, so Yeats was bringing into his life—when he proposed to George and was accepted—someone already approved of by his friends. Pound acidly remarked to a correspondent that George was rich; and early in the marriage George was indeed the one who paid for the restoration of the ruined tower at Ballylee that Yeats took as his personal symbol. (In the longer run, according to Saddlemyer, the partners contributed approximately equal amounts to the household.) But in spite of the persuasive powers of his friends, Willy was still of three minds when he took on a life with George instead of with the romantically preferred Maud or Iseult, both of whom still loomed large in his psyche.
Yeats’s first letters to his bride-to-be are full of “precedents out of beautiful old books”: he addresses her as “My beloved” and closes with “I kiss your hands.” Hardly knowing how to convince her of his love (since he was hardly convinced of it yet himself), he draws on their mutual interest in horoscopes, two weeks before their marriage, to frame what must be one of the oddest love letters ever written:
Years ago knowing that I had ♂ in my VII I feared your strong magnetism. I know now that the strong magnetism is not a thing to dread but a foundation for lasting love. Did you notice that ♀♂ and ∆ ♄ & ♀ [is] in mutual reception with ♃?
To the relief of the reader unschooled in the astrological and occult lore to which both Yeatses were so attracted, Saddlemyer’s text and footnotes interpret this and all other such obscure passages. Here, she explains, Yeats displayed
astrological symbols for Mars in his seventh house; Venus conjoining Mars and trining Saturn and Venus in mutual reception with Jupiter.... This reading promised a union of good fortune: the Venus Mars conjunction with Venus and Jupiter ... harked back to horoscopes ... when marriage had been discussed earlier that year.
George’s first extant letter to Willy, from 1920, was written from Oxford when Yeats had gone off to Dublin to try to straighten out hideous troubles in Iseult Gonne’s marriage. This letter is also horoscopic, and concerns the fate of Iseult’s infant daughter who had already, unbeknownst to George, died. Readers of these letters repeatedly must confront the strange beliefs uniting the pair: George died believing in reincarnation. Yet George’s practical side appears even in that first astrological letter, as she advises her husband to “go to the best possible lawyer” in seeking a financial settlement for Iseult, because “no settlement can be very satisfactory that is made after marriage.”
Early in this collection, we see occult exotica dominating the first five years of the marriage, as George becomes a medium, goes into trances, has dialogues with “controls,” and, by self-hypnosis, induces “sleeps” in which she speaks aloud lessons from mysterious “Instructors.” After those five early years, the occult sessions are replaced by more practical things. Willy requests that underwear be mailed to him in London or that books be mailed to him in France, or that messages be conveyed to people at the Abbey. George’s responsibility for the two children, Michael and Anne, meant that most of Yeats’s travels in the earlier years were done alone, necessitating frequent communication by mail: the collection includes 436 letters by Willy, 149 by George, and 29 written to their children.
WHAT IS THE interest in these letters? At the beginning, we see Yeats enjoying his role as the elder and wiser (as he thinks) of the pair. He has begun—through the Instructions mediated by George—his elaborate scheme of human psychology, placing each person under one of the twenty-eight phases of the Moon. Iseult, for instance, is a 14. Each phase lies opposite another phase. The scheme becomes a shorthand for reference, as “14s, according to [the Instructor] Dionertes commonly marry 14s.... As Anti of 14 is the Fool all 14s should be in danger of marriages with deranged or deficient persons.” I flinched at this degree of credulity when I first encountered it. Now I am convinced that nobody could have been a satisfactory wife to Yeats who was not willing to become an active partner in his enduring fascination with the occult. (There exist two studio “spirit portraits” of Yeats in late life, taken presumably by a photographer specializing in such things, which show ectoplasmic figures of female faces emerging in a sort of cloud from Yeats’s head; one of the faces has appropriately disheveled hair, while the other has a flapper hairdo in marcelled waves.)
The Instructors wisely said, through George, that “we have come to give you metaphors for poetry”—and so they did, to very good effect. The end run around the critical intellect achieved by other writers through drugs or alcohol was brought about, in Yeats, by the years of receiving messages via George from another sphere. Ann Saddlemyer dryly remarks, “Whether you choose to call the extraordinary phenomenon [of George’s automatic writing and sleep-speaking] ... subconscious direction, cross-dreaming, extrasensory perception, subliminal consciousness, split subjectivity, telepathy, clairvoyance, channelling, psychic transcription ... or plain hocus-pocus, the results are obvious.... George’s place in Willy’s affections was assured and their marriage forged with a confidence and trust in each other’s frank responses which would last until death.”
The sessions of automatic writing also served George’s own purposes, as the Instructors repeatedly emphasized to the poet the intimate connection between sexual pleasure and imaginative creativity, bestowing on the “geometrical abstractions” of his “System” a sustaining connection to bodily reality, and enabling Yeats’s embrace of coarseness in the service of truth (see “News for the Delphic Oracle”). Since George herself had spent her youth reading omnivorously in both classic authors and occult arcana, she could be regarded by her husband as a worthy partner in learning and practice. In fact, after reading Saddlemyer’s account of George’s literary range and mastery of several foreign languages, and after seeing not only the wit and liveliness of her letters but also her literary confidence in judging various productions at the Abbey, one wonders whether there could have been any woman better suited to accompany Yeats through life.
George’s letters are, whenever possible, full of what she and her husband called “newses”—gossip, anecdote, scandal. She has a gift for storytelling, a keen sense of absurdity, and a perhaps unconscious tendency to find humor in the behavior of the lower orders. Most of George’s anecdotes are too long to be quoted, but here is part of one, from 1930, when McCoy, the caretaker, found that the Yeatses’ dustbin was missing, and insisted that George call the police. George describes, and acts out for her husband, the subsequent interchange with the policeman:
Of course it was only from, out of, or because of, the worst kind of moral cowardice that I telephoned to the police; but there was McCoy, so eloquent,—if this sort of thing was allowed to pass unnoticed ALL the Dustbins on the Square might be stolen.... “There’s a lot of police regulations that are never enforced” says the police at the other end of the telephone “but there’s a regulation that bins shouldn’t be put out as early as that”. “Do you think the police took it” says I. “O no” says he “They wouldn’t take it. They’d notify.” Then “When they [stealers of dustbins] take them they generally empty them out on the pavement, did they empty out yours?” “They did not” says I.
George concludes that dustbin-stealing “is evidently one of the unregistered occupations like the stealing of doormats, washbaskets and umbrellas,” and Yeats, in London, writes her that he dines out on the story, “saying solemnly, ‘I have just had news that my dust-bin has been stollen [sic] with all its contents.’”
Willy lobs back crisp anecdotes to George—this one in 1932, with its leap into comic fantasy, from a hotel in Glendalough:
This hotel is full of children who keep running up & down stairs & past my door. There are, I think, three families. The worst consists of six so much the same in size & voice that I am certain all six were born at a single birth. They are very good children but intolerable.
Both write in the tone of household conversation, and it is often hard to believe that the amusing husband—who occasionally remarks, always laconically, that he has written a poem—is the person who composed “Byzantium” or “Vacillation.” Nor would one guess from many of George’s letters how learned and literary she is, but her descriptive zeal—here on the aged females in the Abbey audience—makes her a real presence on the page:
The pettest old things have erupted into the Abbey—the Lord knows from what suburb or province of Dublin. Ancient white haired, fearfully eighteenth century old things, with diamond stars in their hair, or white lace caps (diamond stars and brooches in them also) and lorgnettes, and faces marvellously made up in the fashion of fifteen years ago, the fashion that wanted to deceive.
Such flashes of vivacity are more than matched by Willy’s epigrammatic sentences. After reading Maud Gonne’s autobiography, he comments to George on Maud: “Very much herself always-remarkable intellect at the service of the will, no will at the service of the intellect.” Yeats, so conscious of the quarrels of himself with himself, of Self with Soul, could not imagine living as a single-minded political ideologue—and yet he came to a grudging respect, in “Easter, 1916,” for the way the accidents of history (in this case the decision of the British to execute the Irish rebels) can elevate political hotheads (as he saw them) into national martyrs.
AS TIME GOES ON, the letters darken with the onset of Yeats’s many physical setbacks. Sometimes he is merely suffering from indigestion or a bad cold, but increasingly there are signs of serious high blood pressure and heart disease, causing prolonged illnesses, depressions, and prostrations rendering him at times unable to walk. (George pushes him in a wheelchair.) And yet he rallies, announces that he is getting better, or feeling well, or writing again, keeping up the deception until his precarious situation becomes unconcealable, and George rushes from Dublin to Spain or France to take care of him. George is taxed as she needs to handle more and more aspects of their life, from finances to medicines to “theatre business, management of men”—and the family and Abbey affairs needed much managing.
Yeats is increasingly grateful as George sturdily and intelligently rises to every occasion, and continues to make his life as comfortable as possible. “Nothing has happened,” he writes from Lady Gregory’s house at Coole, “except that I miss you greatly”; “I hate not seeing you.” For her part, she does not let his weakness exempt him from her teasing. He seems to have asked, from Coole (where he was attending on Gregory’s last months as she died slowly of breast cancer), what sort of oil he should put in a lamp George had dispatched, and she extravagantly, with characteristic comic exaggeration, replies:
The lamp of course consumes lamp oil, paraffin. What in Heaven’s name else could it consume?! Its very form shouts paraffin oil; you could surely not have imagined that it demanded Sanctuary oil, or olive oil?
Behind the scenes, as Yeats’s health becomes a constant concern, George watches over Willy’s travels from a distance. Before one of his visits to Dorothy Wellesley, she writes an anxious letter giving his diet and his daily routine, emphasizing the necessity for frequent rest. On another occasion she wrote to his lover Edith Heald explaining the necessity of his daily doses of digitalis. Apprehension is a constant note: “I am glad he can go to England now, because I doubt very much if he will be able to go over again, at any rate unaccompanied.” He was no longer able to spend winters in the cold climate of Ireland, and George (now that the children were old enough to be in boarding school) had to set up housekeeping—or hotel living—in various warmer spots, from Rapallo to Roquebrune (where he died).
GEORGE’S MORAL generosity was impressive. Yeats, after a vasectomy had failed to cure him of impotence, complained to his urologist that George was no longer a wife, but rather a mother. Always feeling that his poetry depended upon desire, he sought out flirtations and affairs with younger women. George understood his longing, although at first she felt his desertion keenly. Yet the staunch friendship between husband and wife did not falter, and the mutual freedom of expression remained unaltered. But George, who used to sign her letters by her husband’s nickname for her, “Dobbs,” gradually reverted, as Saddlemyer notices, to “George.”
When he was out of Dublin, Yeats relied on George’s uninhibited reports on the Abbey: in 1938, after the revival of Shaw’s The Shewing-up of Blanco Posnet, George writes that she rode home on the bus “cursing and swearing all the way about noisy productions, noisy to the eye and to the ear, screaming yelling howling shouting gesturing—booo. But I suppose the only alternative is contained in that horrible word ‘restrained.’ Certainly when the stage yells and shouts the audience takes its cue.” “That horrible word ‘restrained’” stands for the English notion of good stage manners; the riots at the Abbey mark the anarchic moments of the Irish spectators. Yeats and George had an equal distaste for both extremes, and their shared literary standards, along with their ready wit, made them true friends.
The reader of this exchange of letters is privy to accounts (unbelievable, except that they are true) of prolonged soap operas, comic and tragic: the travels by Yeats and his friend Shri Purohit Swami with Mrs. Foden, a mad admirer of the Swami; the madness of the young dancer Margot Ruddock, whom George had to go to Barcelona to rescue; the worrying growing-up of the (often ill) children. The letters unfold in real time, with the felt anxiety and the grating exasperation attendant on the day-to-day uncertainties of a shared existence almost always in crisis for one reason or another. The only real disappointment in these entertaining pages is the taciturnity of the poet about his writing. He says (in his ever-uncertain spelling) such provoking things as “I can write the lyrics previsionally in a kind of free-verse to be spoken or sung, & put them into a elaborate form later.” We have learned more about Yeats’s compositional practice since the publication of the extant manuscripts of his poems, but what was he contemplating when he composed “provisionally” or invented the “elaborate form” he would “later” put his free verse into? There is at times something almost childlike about the poet when he writes to his wife about his poems. Deciding on the title (eventually The Winding Stair) for a late volume, he thinks perhaps it should be called Byzantium: referring to two of his greatest poems, he says to George, in the most offhand way,
In that case I can send [the cover artist] Sturge Moore the new Byzantium poem (I have it here) which will give him a mass of symbols. “Byzantium” would follow up my old “Sailing to Byzantium” which people liked.
“Which people liked”: such an artless comment on a poem that condenses, in irreproachable form, the bitter and ironic reflections uttered by a heart “sick with desire/And fastened to a dying animal.” Yes, the poem is still “liked.”
Just before his marriage, in a somewhat mawkishly prophetic moment, Willy vowed to George, “I will live for my work & your happiness & when we are dead our names shall be rem[em]bered—perhaps we shall become a part of the strange legendary life of this country.” Three years before his death, realizing that no accomplishment, “legendary” or not, could satisfy desire, he ironizes in “What Then?” his earlier dream of greatness:
Everything he wrote was read,
After certain years he won
Sufficient money for his need,
Friends that have been friends indeed:
“What then?” sang Plato’s ghost, “what
All his happier dreams came true—
A small old house, wife, daughter, son,
Grounds where plum and cabbage grew,
Poets and Wits about him drew;
“What then?” sang Plato’s ghost, “what
“The work is done,” grown old he
“According to my boyish plan;
Let the fools rage, I swerved in nought,
Something to perfection brought”;
But louder sang that ghost, “What then?”
YEATS DID BRING “something” to perfection—many things, in truth, all of them influential, for good or ill, on the writers who followed him. Much attention has been paid to that living afterglow from the poet’s life and writing. But R.F. Foster, Yeats’s biographer, has now, in Words Alone, looked backward from Yeats’s achieved life and work, asking about the contexts that influenced Yeats. Foster wishes to free the words of literary tradition “from the excess political baggage with which so many Irish nineteenth-century writers were freighted—first by opponents in their own day, and subsequently by present-minded commentators in later eras.” Although Foster does not name names of the living (except in footnotes), it is the “present-minded commentators” of our own day who are the chief objects of his suavely expressed critique of modern literary criticism. He urges us to read the past within its own contexts rather than impose upon it constructions derived either from putative analogues (Irish literature as “post-colonial”) or from literary theory (Irish literature shorn of authorial and historical context):
To read ... Yeats’s predecessors, in their full and complex contexts, reimagining contemporary preoccupations and implications, cross-referencing them to the realities that surrounded and linked them, can help convey what Yeats absorbed from them.... The bulk of this book is concerned with the traditions of Irish literature that lie behind him, rather than with his own work.
And what, as Foster identifies them, were “the traditions of Irish literature that lie behind” Yeats? The jacket copy briefly enumerates the literary traditions traced in Foster’s four chapters. They are: romantic history and fiction; the poetry and polemic of the “Young Ireland” movement; the occult and supernatural novels of Sheridan Le Fanu; and William Carleton’s “peasant fictions,” as well as fairy-lore and folktale collections. As far back as 1989, Foster was publishing arresting reflections on the role of the occult in Irish Protestant culture, and this subject generates the most original chapter in his new book, tracking the Irish sources of Yeats’s interest in magic, secret societies, séances, and the supernatural.
“Twenty years ago,” Foster writes, “I suggested some patterns behind the attraction of the occult for Irish Protestant writers,” ascribing that attraction in part to “Protestant insecurity and self-interrogation” in a country where elaborate Catholic and folk supernatural beliefs dominated. Foster’s chapter takes the reader on a rapid ride from stories of the supernatural to Swedenborg to the (adult) Irish fairies, establishing the theme of “a parallel world which can be entered by concentrated mental and spiritual exercise, and whose denizens engage in activities which both mirror and illuminate our own—and affect our destinies.” There exists (profitably for Yeats’s poetry) “the idea of a thinning membrane between the living and the dead.” In Yeats’s “System,” the collective unconscious, Anima Mundi, is separated by a permeable membrane from the minds of the living.
Foster reminds us that Yeats was a nationalist as well as an occultist. The nationalist novel in Scotland and, in Ireland, a subversive historiography are provocatively described in Foster’s chapter on the formation of national self-consciousness. He rebukes contemporary critics for wishing to see in the nineteenth-century Irish novel a precursor of modernist fiction: he proposes Scott’s Antiquary as the true early example of fictional techniques now hailed as “modernist.” Yeats said of his own modern generation, “We were the last Romantics,” and Foster argues that we should see in their Victorian predecessors (such as the Young Ireland poets) the “first Romantics,” living in an “optimistic moment of Irish experience which awaits its literary history.” He persuasively reproaches current critical efforts to place nineteenth-century Irish writing under the rubric of “the marginal” or to see it as victim literature. (I am coarsening Foster’s expression, but not, I think, misrepresenting his critique.)
Foster is at his most eloquent in his sparkling final chapter, “Oisin Comes Home: Yeats as Inheritor.” Although earlier critics have often treated Yeats as either the last Romantic or the first Modernist, Foster sees him as both. For him, Yeats is an inheritor vigorously reshaping past traditions into new forms while neither forsaking nor repudiating them. Critics (myself included) have often concentrated on Yeats’s later and greater work, but Foster would remind us how ardently, in his first literary productions, Yeats went about gathering and assimilating material from the Irish past, publishing in succession, in his twenties and early thirties, Fairy and Folk Tales of the Irish Peasantry (1888), Stories from [the Irish novelist] Carleton (1889), Irish Fairy Tales (1892), The Celtic Twilight (1893), A Book of Irish Verse (1895), and a collection of his own “supernatural short stories” in The Secret Rose (1897). Such books could not have been written without the influence of the passionate nineteenth-century nationalist period in Irish literature. As Foster remarks,
Current criticism tends to read the effusive literary productions of this era through theses such as the picaresque, or racial “othering,” or a colonized discourse which can be paralleled elsewhere in the British Empire. It might be more profitable to look at what the Irish Romantics wanted to do, what they thought they were doing, whom they admired, and how they expressed their nationalism, or sense of nationality.... And these texts, written by Protestant Unionists determined to claim an Irish identity, were key influences on the young Yeats.
In this way the historian strikes back at inadequate interpretation, and Foster’s derision is contagious and thoughtprovoking. It is not only current political fashions in literary criticism that repel him; he also finds absurd the cult-like reverence that some Yeatsians extended to occult materials. Rightly seeing, in Yeats’s The Celtic Twilight, an “organizing intelligence” and a “musing, deliberate, and emphatically personal tone,” Foster comments that “what [Yeats] had learned from earlier compilers and retailers was exactly what to avoid: whimsy, dialect, prosy moralizing.” He mocks the credulity that accepted the poet’s mediation of folktale and legend without appreciating his intellectual distance and literary re-shaping. The Celtic Twilight, Foster says with considerable irony, “could have an enduringly magnetic effect on the credulous (Kathleen Raine’s lugubriously reverent introduction to a 1981 reprint is hard to read with a straight face).”
Yeats is too capacious a writer to be circumscribed, whether by his own amusing self-portraits in these day-by-day domestic letters or by any school of literary criticism or historiography. Readers have seen, by now, the stunning extent of his work: poems, anthologies, and editions; letters (not yet edited in full); torrents of prose in memoir, essays, and public statements; and, most recently, the occult notebooks and the manuscript versions of the poems. Interpretation shows no sign of abating. Auden said, in that early elegy, that Yeats had become his admirers. True, but admirers are not enough; we need scholars and critics too. R.F. Foster has made us more strongly aware of Yeats’s inheritances from that Victorian Ireland so brightly and distinctly evoked in Words Alone. And Ann Saddlemyer has displayed George Yeats, in life and letters, as a far more learned, humorous, and expressive presence than we had realized, admirable in her morals, brave (when shooting erupted in Galway and Dublin), solicitous as a (virtually single) mother, and a brisk, honest, and sympathetic friend to her remarkable and erratic husband.
Helen Vendler is the A. Kingsley Porter University Professor at Harvard University. This article originally ran in the September 15, 2011, issue of the magazine.