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The unknown side of WB Yeats

Clare-based Professor Margaret Mills Harper talks about her life-long obsession with the dark side of WB Yeats.

By John Rainsford


HE MIGHT have caricatured himself as an ‘old scarecrow’ but William Butler Yeats, the antediluvian gentleman of our Leaving Certificate years, was, it appears, anything but.

Indeed, an hour-long RTÉ documentary by award-winning director Maurice Sweeney recently lifted the lid on the Irish poet’s salacious private life – an area hitherto thought to be taboo.

Professor Margaret Mills Harper, an American-born academic living in Parteen, has spent much of her life studying the darker margins of the great man’s career.

The current Glucksman Chair in contemporary writing in English at the University of Limerick (UL) participated in the RTÉ production WB Yeats: No Country For Old Men, which was aired last November.

She explains, “My father, George Mills Harper, who was a Yeats scholar, met Michael and Anne Yeats, Yeats’ children, just after their mother, George Yeats, had died. They were figuring out what to do with the huge trove of manuscript material they had inherited.

“What they decided to do was to find scholars who could look into the papers to see what should be done with them. Since my father was a scholar of Neoplatonism and also a Yeatsian, they chose him to study the occult material. That changed his life. Indeed, he worked on publishing it for the rest of his career until his death.

“Yeats’ ancestors were certainly stern Church of Ireland rectors and business people, but his father John Butler Yeats (1839-1922) was not puritanical at all. He was an avant-garde artist and free thinker. WB’s ideas ran on different lines from his father’s but, being in that household, was an important model for him. I do not think he was a traditional religionist, however. Indeed, from an early age he was exploring esoteric spiritual movements,” she said.

WB Yeats (1865-1939) was one of the greatest poets of the 20th century, founding the Abbey Theatre in 1899, together with Lady Gregory and Edward Martyn. He also maintained a lifelong interest in the supernatural, which Professor Harper finds fascinating.

“My current project involves WB Yeats’ occult work, specifically his occult book of philosophy called A Vision (1925 and 1937). I am editing the version he published in the 1930s, a task that involves reading all the works he was reading and trying to follow his mind as he tried to explain his philosophical theories.

“He arrived at these theories through automatic writing, a sort of spiritualist experiment, with his wife, George Yeats. I am not an occultist myself, but I do find issues of belief fascinating and the occult lives of Yeats and his wife are intellectual gold mines. I am also trying to understand why the occult was so popular in that period, how it was linked to technological advances, war, sexuality, ideas about the self, the rise of disciplines like anthropology, comparative religions and so on.

“Yeats was fascinated by the question of what else there might be besides what people can perceive with their senses. He ‘believed’ in fairies and spirits in the sense that he was more than willing to entertain them as possibilities and become knowledgeable about traditions that assume their reality. However, he reported what others experienced much more than what he had experienced himself.”

Yeats, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1923, had a tense relationship with the leaders of the 1916 Rising, describing Pádraig Pearse as being ‘half-cracked’. He also despised Major John MacBride who was the husband of his great love, Maud Gonne.

“He had a complicated view of the leaders of the insurrection, but he was absolutely a nationalist and respected most of them tremendously,” Professor Harper said.

“His famous poem, Easter, 1916, ponders their courage and wonders what happens to such people when they give themselves totally to a cause. The Second Coming (1920) anticipates the kind of chaos we seem to see around us today.

“These poems doubt what role a poet has in the wake of such single-minded commitment. Yeats was a nationalist to the end of his life. However, after the establishment of the Irish Free State, he was also a critic of a lot of what happened to those ideals that he and others had expounded. That was a mark of his loyalty,” she continued.

The Irish poet supported Maud Gonne through her divorce case with Major John MacBride, held in Paris, in 1905 and although she refused several proposals of marriage from him, they remained friends for the rest of their lives.

Later, he married the 25-year-old Georgie Hyde-Lees (1892-1968). In the last years of his life, their marriage seems to have become what we might call “open” and he began relationships with several younger women here and abroad.

In middle age, in order to restore his sexual prowess, he undertook a, then, pioneering surgery called the ‘Steinach Operation’ (basically a vasectomy), which he claimed led to a sort of second puberty, after 1934.

During this period he conducted a series of romances with women like actress Margot Ruddock, novelist Ethel Mannin, Edith Shackleton Heald and Dorothy Wellesley.

Heald was present at his death and remained on good terms with his wife George, who accepted these relationships in terms of promoting his creativity.

“Yeats had an unconventional marriage, in many ways, but one that gave them both considerable interest and a good degree of happiness,” according to Professor Harper.

“George was tremendously influential on his work especially but she was a very private person and did not want him to talk about her. He did not, out of respect.

“Was he loyal to her? That is a complicated question. On the one hand, he had various relationships with a few British women in his last years but they were not what you would call affairs in any ordinary sexual sense. George knew about them all and was supportive of anything that would be good for his writing.

“The older Yeats [the younger one was too shy and insecure] would have loved chat shows but he would probably want to talk about how awful the Celtic Tiger was and Savita Halappanavar’s death, things like that.

“He would not want to talk about whether he was a sex addict and in fact he was not one. He believed that sex is related to creativity and that it is damaging to separate the body from the mind, but that is hardly shocking anymore,” the professor said.

WB Yeats also maintained an uneasy relationship with the Catholic Church throughout his life. He clashed with the latter over the issue of divorce and feared that the church’s growing power would make the unification of Ireland impossible.

“He did hate the involvement of the State with the Catholic Church and he hated the partition of the North but he railed about these things because he loved Ireland,” said Professor Harper.

“After all, he served two terms in the Senate in the 1920s, hardly something a person would do who was not committed to his country. It is interesting to note that contemporary Ireland struggles with some of the same issues that bothered him then, for example, birth control, divorce and thinking that people who are not Catholic are less Irish than those who are.”

WB Yeats died at the outbreak of WWII and therefore his body was not repatriated to Ireland until after the war was over. However, controversy continued to rage even after his life had ended.

Ironically, his body was escorted to Ireland by the son of Maud Gonne and Major John MacBride, Seán MacBride. There was also a question mark over whose remains were actually taken from France.

Professor Harper comments, “We are not sure, at all, that Yeats’ body is buried in Sligo. He died just at the start of a war with horrible numbers of deaths. So there was lots of confusion about just which body was which in the cemetery where he was originally interred.

“I actually like the idea that we will never know. Yeats would have loved that his grave, in Drumcliffe Churchyard, today, might just be a symbol or an idea, not a body defined by the material world, as such.

“It makes me laugh, that the Irish Times described Yeats’ late poetry as ‘filth’ in their obituary of him. That is just what a pretty conservative newspaper would have thought at the time.

“Most readers, now, would say that Yeats was a first rate poet when he was a young man, but as he got older, he became one of the truly great poets. His late poems about taboo subjects like human sexuality or the attraction of violence are part of what makes them so powerful even today,” professor Harper concluded.

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