Yeats Jamie L. Olson Margaret Mills Harper. Oxford: Oxford University Press, In a certain sense, Harper's study of the Yeatses' automatic writing sessions and their role in shaping the Irish poet's aesthetics has been a lifetime in the making: as she notes in her preface, both her mother and her father, the recently deceased Yeatsian scholar George Mills Harper, spent most of the years when she was a child "working with the Yeatses' occult papers, composing and compiling various books and articles along the way" p.
Indeed, scholarship on Yeats, and on the book A Vision in particular, became [End Page 93] a family affair in the Harper household. It was almost inevitable that Margaret Mills Harper, having grown up surrounded by Yeatsiana, would end up working in this field. Her initiation into Yeats studies, in fact, came when she helped her father edit the third and fourth volumes of Yeats's Vision Papers , , and her new book is at once a continuation of her parents' work and a response to it, especially to her father's Making of Yeats's A Vision It is fitting, then, that here she focuses her lens on the Yeats family's collaboration.
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Among Harper's key objectives in Wisdom of Two is to reassess the role that George Yeats, the poet's wife, played in composing A Vision and in developing or discovering the vast "system" that influenced virtually all aspects of William Butler Yeats's life, public and private, during his final decades—a role that Harper says has generally been "understated or misrepresented" p.
Indeed, the collaborative, spiritualistic process that led to the publication of A Vision , the book-length essay that strives to elucidate the arcane system, lies at the heart of Harper's book. In all probability, readers of Magic, Ritual, and Witchcraft will be primarily interested in the collaborative process itself, dependent as it was on frequent and extensive communication with the spiritual realm.
The systematic philosophy that is presented in A Vision grew out of automatic writing sessions, during which the Yeatses made contact with numerous "spirit communicators": daimons, controls, guides, and prior incarnations of their own selves. These sessions began in during the couple's honeymoon, in fact, when W. Yeats had fallen ill and continued well into the s, although their frequency had begun to wane by the mids, once the Yeatses had come to understand the basic contours of the system and no longer needed as much external guidance.
During the sessions, George Yeats was the medium through which the spirit communicators conveyed their messages, most of which were typically responses to questions or prompts that her husband had voiced, but rather than speak aloud the messages of the communicators, George always put them on paper—in the early years, with a pen, and later with a typewriter. Though the role of medium may seem a passive one, Harper argues throughout her book that it does entail agency, even going so far as to say that the "power politics" p.
His involvement in occult research is intimately bound up in his complex relationships with a series of women who shared these interests. It led him away from a resolutely patriarchal institution to a heterogeneous melding of belief systems. Yet his mystical pursuit had certain core practices: the belief in symbolism as an active force in human affairs and a hierarchy which worshipped a goddess rather than a god. As Hassett points out, approximately half of the members of the Golden Dawn were women; nor were they debarred from positions of authority.
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Florence Farr progressed within the order to becoming the officer in charge of rituals praemonstratix. When Yeats had to take an exam to advance to the second order of the society, his examiner was Farr. Yeats met Olivia Shakespear after he had fallen for the unattainable Maud Gonne. His rationale for pursuing the other woman shows, as frequently with Yeats, a fair measure of shrewd calculation amid the mysticism. Shakespear was no inconsiderable figure in her own right. Yeats, by contrast, knew no language other than English and relied throughout his career for access to literature in a foreign language on the women in his life: Lady Gregory for Irish, Maud Gonne for French, George Yeats for Italian, et cetera.
As Seamus Deane once remarked, the only foreign language Yeats ever mastered was the occult. If Gonne remained inaccessible, Yeats was sexually initiated by Shakespear, who also readily undertook to become his Muse, adopting a role as priestess of the White Goddess.
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This book, originally published in , was to have an immediate and long-lasting influence on a generation or more of Irish male poets; but it seems to me outdated in certain of its views on gender and creativity. Hassett wisely uses it as a necessary point of reference rather than an end in itself and updates its views on the Muse with writings by Adrienne Rich and Arlene Croce, the dance critic of The New Yorker.
The second chapter focuses on the actress Florence Farr. She was to collaborate over a long period with Yeats on the chanted recitation of his poetry accompanied by a stringed instrument, the psaltery. The relationship itself is rendered dramatic by the involvement of another powerful personality, George Bernard Shaw. Both were smitten. Shaw and Farr became lovers the following year. Long before Annie Horniman was involved in funding the Abbey Theatre, she was persuaded by Farr to fund a theatrical project in which both Yeats and Shaw were invited to submit plays.
Yeats and Shaw were clearly competing for Florence Farr to embody their very different and still emerging conceptions of theatre: a symbolic drama with a stylised language; an Ibsenian drama shot through with paradox.
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For Yeats, Hassett argues, Maud most completely incarnated the necessary Muse figure because she fused it with the beloved woman of the courtly love tradition, not least in her unattainability. She had the requisite beauty, but what made her both unique and compelling was that this was joined to a passionate involvement in Irish nationalist politics his one real rival for Maud, as Yeats accurately recognises. Their relationship survives not only the marriage and break-up with McBride but the revelation of her affair with Lucien Millevoye and the birth of two children, only one of whom Iseult survived.
Far from it.
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The debate in the poems centred on her articulation of their differing ways of serving Ireland. In , as is well known, Yeats proposed marriage to three women virtually in succession. The first was Maud Gonne, freed to marry again if she wished by the execution of her husband for his involvement in the Easter Rising.
When they both refused, he proposed to and was accepted by George Hyde-Lees, at twenty-six barely two years older than Iseult but free of the quasi-incestuous associations attaching to her. Photographs of Iseult Gonne have always shown a more modern kind of beauty than the nineteenth century form embodied by Maud.
She smoked to convey an image of sophistication Yeats felt it was childish. This catches the two roles in which he was caught with regard to her. And Yeats had frequently gone to visit Maud in France while she was growing up.
He also occupied a role of tutor-mentor, discussing with her ideas about art and literature. Clearly, the ghost-memories of Maud and Iseult Gonne accompanied the newlyweds. The honeymoon was not apparently going well until the resourceful George came up with a strategy, the use of automatic writing as a marital aid, a stimulus to both sexual and poetic activity.