Turtle Bunbury

Writer and Historian

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Edited by Ann Saddlemeyer (Oxford University Press, 2011)


‘We poets would die of loneliness but for women, and we choose our men friends that we may have somebody to talk about women with.’ So wrote W.B. Yeats, Ireland’s Nobel Prize winning poet, in the latter years of his life.

Yeats certainly enjoyed the company of women. In his formative years, there was Lady Gregory, the redoubtable dramatist with whom he founded the Abbey Theatre in Dublin. There was also Maud Gonne, the hot-headed Englishwoman who ultimately spurned his advances and instead married the wife-beating John McBride. (He was executed for his part in the Easter Rising.) Iseult Gonne, Maud’s daughter, was also once close although she too rejected his proposal of marriage. And in his latter years, there would be other women with whom Yeats would lie, a devotee of the joys of Tantric sex.

But for nearly a third of his 74 years, there was one particular woman in Yeats’ life. His wife, George Yeats.

Edited by Ann Saddlemeyer, ‘W.B. Yeats & George Yeats – The Letters’ is a new collection of over 600 private letters from the Yeats archive, the vast majority written by W.B. Yeats.[i] The letters are expertly footnoted and this hefty tome instantly becomes an essential part of Yeatsian scholarship.

The letters offer a behind the scenes look at life in Yeats land. At Lady Gregory with a bleeding nose, at famous poems taking shape, at trees being planted at Thoor Ballylee, at the elations and tribulations of everyday life. There is much delicious gossip and spry wit. After meeting Erskine Childers’ overbearing mother-in-law, for instance, Yeats exhaustedly recommends that ‘what she needs as a preparation for Eternity is a Trappist Nunnery.’[ii]

First and foremost, the letters open the reader’s eyes to the always extraordinary relationship which existed between Mr. and Mrs Yeats.

George Hyde-Lees was born in London in 1892. Her father was a Bohemian minded British officer with some wealth from a family cotton business. Her mother was the daughter of a well-to-do milling magnate from near Manchester. The Hyde-Lees marriage fell apart during George’s childhood and her father was destined to die in a private nursing home for alcoholics in 1909.

George and WB Yeats met briefly during a visit to the British Museum in London in 1911. Three years later, they were reunited in the same city when George, a passionate amateur astrologist, sought admission to the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, a Masonic ritualistic society of which Yeats was an elder. Although 28 years her elder, Yeats was instantly impressed by the intelligent, intuitive young woman and began consulting her about horoscopes.

There was soon talk of marriage. In 1917, Yeats wrote to Lady Gregory: ‘I certainly feel very tired & have a great longing for order, for routine & shall be content if I find a friendly serviceable woman. I merely know – we had our talk alone two years ago – that I think this girl both friendly, serviceable & very able.’

‘You found me in crowds but you will lead me to lonely places,’ he predicted. ‘At first you were but a plan & a dream & then you became a real woman,’ he writes a day later.[iii]

And when George accepted his marriage proposal, an elated Yeats wrote to her from Ireland: ‘O my dearest I kiss your hands full of gratitude & affection – do not draw them away while my lips are still hungry. I will live for my work & your happiness & when we are dead our names shall be rem[em]bered – perhaps we will become a part of the strange legendary life of this country.’

The Yeats’s were married in London in October 1917 with poet Erza Pound as best man.

W.B. Yeats knew all there is to know about ‘the legendary life of this country.’ His early reputation rested upon the success of a series of Irish folklore books, published between 1889 and 1893, that would become symbolic of Ireland’s desire to be reborn as an independent republic.

Yeats had always been drawn to folklore and the concept of an Otherworld. As a child on holiday in County Sligo, he was fascinated by Irish mythology. Over the course of his adulthood, this developed into a fully-fledged obsession with the occult and the paranormal.[iv]

By 1890, he was a member of the Golden Dawn, a society which was heavily focused on astrology, magic and esoteric philosophy. Yeats rose from being a disciple to one of the leading figures in the Order, and his poetry took a similarly authoritative leap at this time.

He became one of the leading lights of the Gaelic Literary Revival in Ireland. In 1902, he set up what became the Cuala Press, which produced over 70 books on the theme of the Gaelic Revival over the next four decades. He also co-founded the Abbey Theatre in Dublin; ‘Cathleen Ní Houlihan’, a one-act play he co-wrote with Lady Gregory, premiered on the opening night.

By 1916, aged 51, Yeats was Ireland’s leading poet. His courtship of George Hyde-Lees took place against the backdrop of the European War and the Easter Rebellion after which, in Yeats words, ‘all changed, changed utterly, a terrible beauty is born.’[v]

Yeats was drawn to George because she was similarly intrigued by the Occult. Immediately after their marriage, the newlyweds embarked on their “automatic writing” experiment. Put simply, Yeats asked questions and George, having made contact with various spirits, wrote down her answers as her hand was guided. The results were a highly complex system of characters and symbols that Yeats would ultimately turn into the book, ‘A Vision’, described by one critic as ‘part cosmology, part apocalypse, part psychoanalysis, part poetry, part confusion.’ [vi]

The Yeats kept the experiment going for the first thirty months of their marriage, during which time they had two children, Anne and Michael, and the First World War ended and the Irish War of Independence began.

But the allure of the dark side continued.[vii] As these letters show, both husband and wife liked to attend séances where miscellaneous persons would communicate with the spirits of the dead. In 1923, for instance, Senator Yeats – as he was then – urged his wife to join him at a séance hosted by a Glaswegian medium called John Campbell Sloan. Considered one of the best trance clairvoyants of his age, Mr. Sloan was controlled by ‘White Feather’, an American Indian, who spoke alternatively through Sloan’s vocal organs and a trumpet.

Yeats also attended séances with Evan J. Powell, a former coal miner from Wales, whose spirit guide was called ‘Black Hawk’. He described the occasion to his wife afterwards: ‘Table lifted into middle of circle & many lights. My arm pinched until it was painful.’

At another séance, Yeats was astonished when his late father’s hand appeared from behind ‘some vague luminous object’ and ‘touched me & was there for some time,’ although, he admits, ‘it was like my fathers’ hand but seemed smaller than life size.

Many were sceptical about séances. Harry Houdini was convinced Powell was a fraud. And there was much chuckling when an Italian attempted to summon the spirit of Rasputin, only to be offered a bowl of rice pudding.[viii] But the Yeats’s retained a lifelong interest in the Occult. And there was a practical benefit too as it inspired Yeats to write his powerful drama , ‘The Words Upon a Window-Pane’, where a séance conjures up the spirit of Jonathan Swift.

Séances certainly offered an alternative existence to the often difficult circumstances of normal life during those years. Yeats and Maud Gonne had taken opposing sides during the fall out of the Anglo-Irish Treaty and were by now frequently quarrelling. In November 1922, George alerted Yeats that his former lover was ‘publishing wide and broadcast’ rumours that he wanted the English government back and ‘that you are not even a free stater.’ Tellingly, George advised him that she had taken steps to counter these ‘poisonous’ accusations and ‘set in motion amongst the de Valera feminine branch a contradiction’ of Gonne’s statement. George’s mindset was increasingly one of a businesswoman protecting the brand.

George was in Dublin when the Civil War broke out and regaled Yeats with how she had come out of a Dublin cinema to witness ‘tremendous machine gun fire’ and ‘bullets whizzing down Grafton Street.’[ix] When the Free State government executed Childers and other Republican prisoners, she predicted ‘the country will turn as it did after the Maxwell executions,’ a reference to the brutal execution of the 1916 leaders which had so horrified the people of Ireland.

Late one night, five men arrived at the door of their Dublin home, 82 Merrion Square. George ‘proceeded down the stairs in dressing gown to demand what it all meant’, only to find the men were from Cosgrave’s government and wished to know whether Yeats would accept a nomination to the Senate.

It was to be something of a poisoned chalice. In January 1923, the Irregulars embarked on a campaign to burn down houses belonging to supporters of the Provisional Government. By the end of February, the houses of thirty-seven Senators had been burned. Many belonged to Yeats’ good friends but he was fortunate to escape any such destruction.

1923 was also the year in which Yeats won his Nobel Prize. George took stock of the fact that her husband was now a Nobel-winning Senator and best-selling poet. Her role became ever more secretarial and businesslike.

‘Organizing is like a bumble-bee in a bottle,’ suggested her husband. ‘One tries in all directions until one finds the neck.’ George quickly found the neck and for the next sixteen years she would bring order to Yeats’ chaotic life. In her letters she continually reminds him of upcoming meetings, books appointments with his ophthalmologist, orders his Turkish tobacco, organises his lecture tours in England and the USA. ‘When you get back we can discuss what you are going to do,’ she says. Yeats is always willing to listen and asks for her advice on everything from his poetry to his clothes.

Yeats was always ‘hungering for a mind that has bite’ and complained ‘I am too dependent on you – I am lost when you are away.’ In May 1921, he sent a memorable outburst from Chelsea where he is ‘be colded in the head, toothachy, out of temper, Saturnian, noise-distracted, examaish, bathless, Theatre-hating, woman-hating, but otherwise well & cheerful.’

Between his Senatorial duties, his writing and his lecture tours, Yeats was flat out all day long. George recognised that he needed to take time out and would send him either to Thoor Ballylee, the 16th century tower house he restored in East Galway, or to nearby Coole Park, the home of Lady Gregory, whom George was fond of.

Shortly before Christmas 1922, George wrote how she had tried to meet Charlie Chaplin in Dublin but ran into 300 like-minded people and gave up. She ‘humbly’ made her way to the nearby Abbey Theatre where she encountered Lady Gregory looking ‘a little triumphant … she had been a little cold about Charlie!!’

Lady Gregory remained a major feature of the Yeats life until her death in 1932. As these letters show, Yeats spent a large amount of his time by her side, trying to making her life easier as she contended with the crippling cancer that killed her.[x]

After her death, both Coole and Ballylee were sold and Yeats became considerably depressed. He was not made any cheerier by recurring bouts of congestion in his tobacco-stained lungs and an increasing awareness of his own impotence.

At the age of 68, W.B. Yeats regained his mojo. This arguably began on a lecture tour of the USA when he started reading the novels of DH Lawrence for the first time. He found himself greatly excited by the ‘often clumsy … almost ungrammatical’ passion of Lawrence’s words.

Such stirrings led him to take a keen interest in the work of Dr. Eugen Steinach, an Austrian physiologist, who had developed a ‘rejuvenation’ operation, a combined vasectomy and vasoligature procedure, which promised to boost male sexual potency. ‘Now is the time to get my body back to normal,’ he advised George.

Performed by Australian sexologist Norman Haire, the Steinach operation greatly renewed Yeats’s lust for life and his poetry showed a marked improvement with such gems such as ‘Supernatural Songs’.

He simultaneously fell in love with Indian philosophy, becoming a close friend of the Hindu yogi teacher Shri Purohit Swami.[xi] The Swami taught Yeats the radical doctrines of Tantrism, specifically in relation to Tantric sex which emphasises sensuality and eroticism as a pathway to emancipation and rebirth. Tantrism stresses that penetration must be non-orgasmic; ‘the man must not finish.’ Considering Yeats was unable to do so anyway, Tantric sex was evidently an appealing concept.

The return of Yeats libido had a downside for George because she was no longer the sharer of his bed. Instead the elderly poet embarked upon a series of sexual relationships with other women. The first was with the young actress and poet Margot Ruddock. The second was with the Irish novelist Ethel Mannin. The third was with the journalist and drama critic Edith Shackleton Heald. He was also closely linked to Dorothy Wellesley, later Duchess of Wellington, although it would appear she was a steadfast lesbian and that their relationship was never physical.

Naturally Yeats did not brag about his affairs in letters to his wife. On the contrary, he made a vague effort to throw her off the scent. He originally described Miss Heald, whom he was with for the last two and a half years of his life, as ‘a queer plain little woman novelist … so conversation was not very interesting.’

George was completely aware of what her husband was up to. ‘I would rather he died in happiness than in invalidism,’ she told his best friend, Oliver St. John Gogarty. She stoically accepted the state of play, exchanging courteous letters with Miss Heald in which she advised her husband’s lover how to make his medicine and requesting her to forward the chemist’s bill.

For his part, Yeats never underestimated his wife’s genius, both as the organiser of his business affairs and as the woman who’s opinion he valued above all others when it came to reviewing his new works.

W.B. Yeats died in Menton, France, on 28th January 1939, with George by his side. Dorothy Wellesley was staying nearby and Edith Heald arrived just after he slipped into his final coma. Widowed at 47, George moved to a house on Palmerston Road, Rathmines, where she looked after her husband’s massive literary legacy until her death in 1968. She was survived by their son Michael, who served for a period as Vice-President of the European Union, and their daughter Anne, who enjoyed a successful career as an artist.

Ann Saddlemyer, ‘W.B Yeats and George Yeats: The Letters’ (Oxford University Press, 2011).


[i] WB writes far more often, or ‘oftener’ as he might say, than George. He is sometimes hurt that she does not write but she is clearly too exhausted with the children, Michael and Ann. Yeats urges her to place them in a nursing home for a few days ‘for you are in need of a rest.’ They are also contending with the private horrors which all parents go through – the bouts of illness, a fear that Ann is deaf and such like.

[ii] War and revolution aside, the sideshows which play out in these pages include the fate of Sir Hugh Lane’s art collection, the rows over de Valera’s censorship bill and the unhappy marriage of Iseult Gonne, daughter of Maud, to the Irish-Australian writer Francis Stuart. Yeats adopted the role of father and attempted to steer Iseult on the right course, holding Francis Stuart to be ‘a Sadist [who] cannot love without torturing.’

In February 1923, Yeats reads ‘a very defiant interview’ with de Valera in the Daily Mail and concludes ‘he is a theologian turned politician & could take for a motto a saying of [Cardinal] Newman, “better that the human race should perish than that one sin be committed.’

Also of note are remarks about Lady Gregory’s son Robert – subject of ‘An Irish Airman foresees his Death’ – was far from being ‘our perfect man.’

Amongst the legions who trot through these letters are educational pioneer Rudolf Steiner, Suffragette activist Sylvia Pankhurst, society hostess Lady Cunard, the ballet dancer Ninette de Valois (‘inventive genius’), James Joyce’s ill-fated dancing daughter Lucia, author Aldous Huxley and Yeats good friend, Oliver St John Gogarty who vows his ‘two swans to the Liffey’ when he escapes an abduction by swimming in the Liffey.

[iii] ‘O my dear child if you can add your eyes to mine we will do together fine & stirring things.’

[iv] In his twenties he threw his lot in with Theosophical Society, a religious society which holds that everything we do is predestined but that spiritual evolution will lead to greater perfection and one day conclude with the freedom of our souls. Yeats was rather more taken with the magical aspects of theosophy but his infatuation with phenomena resulted in his expulsion from the Theosophical Society in 1890.

[v] The stages upon which the Yeats romance played out included are Thoor Ballylea (the house Yeats does up), Coole Park (the Gort mansion where he stays by Lady Gregory’s side as she, increasingly wracked with cancer, advances ever closer to her death in 1932, check), 82 Merrion Square (their Dublin townhouse), Renvyle House (Gogarty’s Connemara retreat), the Saville Club in Piccadilly, the Arts Club in West London and the Chantry House in Sussex (home to his last mistress, Edith Shackleton Heald).

[vi] In 1925, he finally produced ‘A Vision’, complete with drawings and diagrams by George. That same year, the couple enjoyed their first child-free holiday together in Sicily, Rome and Naples.

[vii] Between 1911 and 1917, Yeats attended numerous séances and became something of a professional miracle investigator. In 1914, for instance, he went to France study some holy pictures in Mirabeau that allegedly produced drops of liquid blood, but he came down against the miracle. He also spent a large amount of time and energy analysing the words of a young woman called Elizabeth Radcliffe.

On a visit to Muckross House, the view from which he describes as ‘pure Santa Barbara,’ he enjoys the company of the eccentric, kilt-wearing Shane Leslie who shared his interest in the paranormal.

W.B. Yeats was a lot weirder than most people think. He and his wife constantly parlay with astrological symbols, are paranoid that their children will succumb to witches spell. The symbol for crescent moons means creative, Mercury means communicative, Venus means pleasure-loving.

[viii] This was reputedly the Italian-born London café proprietor Emilio Scala who held a séance ‘to enquire of the spirits whether he had a winning ticket’ for the upcoming Irish Hospitals Sweepstake. As it happened, Mr. Scala did have the winning ticket.

[ix] She is full of useful gossip – when four Republican prisoners are executed, she suggests that one had ‘betrayed Collins into the ambush’ and that another fought ‘in the raid during which Cosgrave’s uncle was killed.’

[x] 'I am Lady G’s sole link with her old interests but it may be the link will break as she grows older,’ he writes.

[xi] Yeats and the Swami worked together on a translation of Upanishads between 1932 and 1936.

Yeats’s dyslexia is often apparent. For instance, he writes ‘whole’ for ‘hole’, ‘lier’ for ‘liar’ and ‘Geogurty’ for his best friend Oliver St. John Gogarty.

They lived with a menagerie of animals including angora cats, canaries and hares.