Margaret Mills Harper, Wisdom of Two: The Spiritual and Literary Collaboration of George and W. B. Yeats (Oxford: OUP 2006), xii, 382pp.

CONTENTS: List of Illustrations [xxiv]; List of Abbreviations and Signs [xxv] Introduction: ‘She finds the words’ [1] 1. ‘A philosophy ... created from search’: Preliminary Issues [28] First Interlude. Double Visions: Two Manuscripts and Two Books [72]; 2. Nemo the Interpreter 94 Second Interlude. Automatic Performance: Technology and Occultism [151] 3. ‘To give you new images’: Published Results [183] 4. Demon the Medium [238] 5. All the Others: Dramatis Personae [294] Conclusion: ‘this other Aquinas’ [337]; Bibliography [344]; Index [364].
Table of Contents available at The Library of Congress Catalogue [online; accessed 30.07.2007].

After initial difficulties that threatened to destroy the new marriage along with the psychic well-being of both partners, by the end of the year all seemed thrillingly well. The turn came in the midst of a traumatic honeymoon, when WBY was physically ill and near emotional breakdown, caused in large part by the sense that he had made a potentially ruinous mistake. During the crisis, GY [George Yeats] tried and succeeded in producing automatic writing, a type of mediumship well know in spiritualist circles, in which the writer touches a pen to a sheet of paper and empties her mind as if she were engaged in form meditation. Inexplicably, sometimes the pen moves. This is the moment of mystery [...] For the Yeatses, the mysterious event caused neither full-blow belief nor dismissal. Rather, it impelled them to further investigation. The writer, and the almost obsessive inquiry, lasted for several years of almost daily work, during which messages purporting to be from disembodied communicators from realms of spirit brought thousands of bits of information, information that was questioned, trusted, distrusted, and elaborated upon. Gradually it coalesced into a philosophical and religious ‘system’, which WBY [W. B. Yeats] eventually compiled in his strangest book, A Vision. (pp.4-5.)

At first GY wrote seemingly disconnected words and phrases, for the most part in large rounded letters sloping down sheets of [5] paper, a far cry from her normally neat and angular hand. On one of these sheets, a large word ‘NO’, a response to a question presumably spoken by her husband, is followed by a prophetic sentence: ‘I give you philosophy to give you new images you ought not to use it as philosophy and it is not only given to -’.

[See Ftn.: the first scripts had been assumed to be lost. However, I suspect that they are the ten sheets of manuscript filed amid drafts of the introduction to the 2nd edn. of A Vision (in which WBY misquotes the phrase ‘to give you new images’ in his famous version of the story (NLI MS 36,260/4).]

Quotes A Vision (B), Introduction: ‘[...] ‘No’, was the answer, ‘we have come to give you metaphors for poetry.’ (p.8.)] The philosophy that arrived did indeed provide WBY with images, a wealth of them, which he used in his creative work for the rest of his life. No one has yet devoted a critical study to these ‘images’ (and ideas), and that task is one purpose of this study. (p.5-6.) Note: ‘To give you new images: Published results’ is the title of Chap. 3, here p.183ff.

Despite the monumental status of WBY as a literary and historical figure (and because of that status, among other reasons), the part played by his mediumistic wife in some of his most important works and ideas tended for many years to be understated and misrepresented, although the publication of [Ann] Saddlemyer’s definitive biography is doubtless changing matters for the better. (p.9.)

Many readers over the years have assigned GY biographical importance but little literary relevance other than the oddity of having functioned as medium in the occult revelations that she and her husband received. In turn, the spiritual knowledge that the Yeatses believed they gained through automatic writing and other related methods is often acknowledged for having inspired certain poems and plays, but tends not to be interpreted as having much critical value. Yet the famous Irish poet and his work were both changed utterly by a young Englishwoman with magical interests, a gift for automatic writing and a quietly imposing intelligence. As Terence Brown puts it, since the start of the script, ‘Yeats’s creative work had been increasingly dependent on a collaborative engagement with is wife’s mediumistic powers.’ (Life, p.261.) Her work affected his, most profoundly in the 1920s and 1930s, decades during which he produced his best writing. (p.10.)

She was anything but a passive medium during the proceedings, a supposedly empty vessel whose hand was guided across the page by ‘controls’ from the other world. Such a highly idealised figure, derived from the popularisations of the spiritualist movements of nineteenth century in North America, England, and elsewhere, was common. However, the Yeats were too familiar with the large and varied bodies of writing about and direct experience of spiritualism, which regularly tried to counteract this stereotype, to be determined by it. Their practice was at least as informed by notions of joint [11] adeptship, including the idea of an occult marriage. (pp.11-12.)

Notes that the fly-leaf of the copy of A Vision used for setting sections of the 1937 rev. edn. bears in WBY’s hand the note: ‘This copy must not be given to any body on any excuse however plausible/W. B. Yeats/George Yeats.’ (p.13.)

The WBY who presents A Vision and has a secondary role as a character in some of its bewilderingly prominent framing stories and poems is in fact several Yeatses, sliding between subject and object positions, who refer to each other in complex ways that are uncertainly and simultaneously serious and comic. Moreover, A Vision is two books, separated in time by some eleven years, which refer to each other in terms that are equally slippery and equally performative. A duality or multiplicity of subject makes itself felt throughout this/these work(s), in point of view, rhetoric, the relation of framing material to what is inside the frames, and within the content of the system itself (so that one gyre becomes two at the least touch, for example.) This dramatic doubling and multiplying, no less integral to the book than it has been maddeningly difficult for many readers, may be analysed also in terms of the joint endeavour that was its inception and elaboration. (p.14.)

Notes WBY’s inscription to ‘Dobbs’ [i.e., GY] on first edition, with her book-plate, in which he acknowledges ‘all the tribulations when we were making this book/W.B. Yeats’. [14-15]

Furthermore, the ‘making’ of A Vision refers to the automatic and semi-automatic reception/invention of the system,. as well as the use of a wealth of information, both personal and philosophical, that does not appear in the published book. (p.16.)

In addition to I also stretch the plain meaning of the term ‘book’ to include the message, necessarily unfinished book of the system, of which a fraction appears in the printed work, as well as various poetic, dramatic, and prose texts that are related to it. A personal book - I am tempted to quote WBY out of content and call it ‘the book of the people’, two of them, at any rate - also exists in the vast amount of material in the Vision papers related to the Yeatses’ intimate lives. (p.17.)

I do not want to approach a complex set of actions and ideas, in settings very different from my own, from a perspective characterised by an outsider’s sense of easy superiority to the commitments and practices of others. GY was not a fool, nor did she suffer fools willingly, a fact to keep in mind when analysing her occult work. Indeed, one mark of her sanity, as of her husband’s, might be their willingness to engage in activities that challenged them, whether or not they might be thought foolish for doing so. As Terry Castle has noted in a similar context, a supernatural event experienced collectively raises epistemological and rhetorical issues that may multiply difficulties for a sceptic bent on discrediting its objective validity. The need to explain such an experience away may well embroil scepticism in ‘its own kind of folly - [a] debunking “mania”, or compulsion to disprove’, so that ‘to disbelieve ... is to risk losing oneself in an alienating welter of counter-evidence.’ (The Female Thermometer: Eighteenth-century Culture and the Invention of the Uncanny, OUP 1995, p.213.)

[...] discussion of the Yeatses’ occult experimentation still tends to begin, and often to end, at the question, Did they, or Do you, believe it?, with lines between camps drawn on the basis of the answer to the latter. The Yeatses themselves were by no means distracted by such compulsions. (21)

Saddlemyer’s detailed psychological account of what might have happened in the nightly sessions draws attention to the heterogeneous sources of what she suggests may have been self-hypnosis. Saddlemyer also points to two interesting facts: that GY herself apparently first used the critical word fakery in association with her first attempt at automatic writing; and that she was keenly aware that, having done so, the word would damage her reputation. As she told A. Norman Jeffares, ‘the word “Fake” will go down to posterity’. (Saddlemyer, Becoming George, p.103.) Interestingly, GY’s use of the term occurred in the context of working with Yeats scholars (notably Virginia Moore and Richard Ellmann) who took the script seriously and were working to understand its elaborate ideas as such, hardly efforts they would have made if they thought that GY had simply made everything up. On the contrary: her honest admission added to the complexity of the affair. (p.21.)

Nor are the synecdoches only for the uncanny, that lack of fit between an imagined perceptible world and an unimaginable real so common in the modern period, and so commonly expressed through the instability of texts. (See pref. to Julian Wolfreys, Victorian Hauntings . [ &c. ], 2002, citing Jean-Michel Rabaté, The Ghosts of Modernity, 1996, et al.) (p.24.)

To look at GY’s work in multiple senses, and indeed to write about A Vision at all, is to engage in analysis that must be able to accommodate the irrational or at least the ‘antithetical’, as Hazard Adams calls it (borrowing WBY’s term). (p.25; making ref. to Yeats’s Vision, pp.12-14).


[A]s a collaborator who acted more as stage manager than star actor, GY is emphatically not a Florence Farr, Maud Gonne, or even Lady Gregory, those charismatic presences on the stage and scene. She is self and Other, both medium and magician, agency without visibility or traceable location, blurring gender and generational boundaries to receive and create a system that is itself dynamic and multiplex, which will provide for her human collaborator images and voices to explore in his own work. (p.147.)

For GY, fame was not an issues: indeed, she was firmly committed to keeping the script, as well as other parts of her life and contributions to her husband’s work, as private as possible. WBY was often told not to talk about the script, and with the notable exception of Anne Hyde, none of the named personalities who spoke during the hundreds of sessions of scrip was - waiving all question of their celebrity - even locatable in the Bodleian Library or Chambers Biographical Dictionary. (p.149; notes that Leo Africanus is in Chambers, under “A”; vide Foster, Apprentice Mage, p.465.)

Yet the naming of the instructors is both consistent and insistent, no less than if each control were a queen or maharajah. This state of affairs suggests that it is centrally important to the script both that it be filled with authors and, equally, that they signify something other than authorship in the usual sense. Like other authorial presences, the script and the Vision documents, as well as A Vision itself, [149] including daimons, frustrators, Giraldus, Robartes, and ‘Yeats’, they suggest both their own ephemeral state and that such named agents betray little of the hidden authority behind them; it is impossible to gain sure access to that authority. The communicators bespeak a text that seems to resist control and practically to author itself, by which odd phrase I mean hold discourse with and against the Yeatses as well as its other producers. In the documents that comprise the automatic script, meaning is finally generated not through a tight fit between hand and pen, or even a loose impression of an authorial presence guiding the whole, but by an unworkable mélange of symbolic excess and omission in which the valid is indistinguishable from the unreliable and both are in active engagement with writers or readers, automatic or otherwise. The automatic script relocates agency as it overdramatises and under-realises it, disjoining both authority and identification in the process. In this regard, the manuscripts and notebooks throw responsibility for their sense and status as meaningful discourse on to those of us who have contact with them, slyly offering the recommendation that interpretation is action and suggesting that this was always so. These scripts, unlike their theatrical namesakes, play scripts, do not direct their actors to perform for us: instead, they meet our gaze, and thus vanish from our subjective space. (p.150; end Chap. 2.)

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Chap. 3: ‘To give you new images: Published results’
, epigraph: ‘All last night the darkness was full of writing, now on stone, now on paper, now on parchment, but I could not read t. Were spirits trying to communicate? I prayed a great deal and believe I am doing right.’ (WBY to Lady Gregory, announcing his intention to propose to GHL, 19 Sept 1917; Letters, ed. Wade, 633; p.183ff.

To call GY an author is to stretch the term, and to make this stretch requires that a critical approach also be extended into new territory. Not only adding words or images to her husband’s oeuvre, her work also, we might say, subtracts: it subjects WBY to undoing and rethinking. For example, Per Amica is exploded, its dualities multiplied as quaternities, its achievement rewritten as a promise. In biographical terms, Terence Brown suggests that for WBY ‘the issue was whether or not in the therapeutic exchanges on which he had embarked with a loving, sexually vital, self-dramatising young woman, he could release a new wave of creativity which would carry him as an artist over the shoals of middle life and the sterile rocks of encroaching old age’. (Life, p.258.) Such a release was possible only by means of a [184] reworking not only of themes and styles but of his very writerly self and what it could produce. For her part, GY made her own writerly self, as the previous chapters have suggested. She also reworked WBY the poet, that multiplex aesthetic and spiritual construct, into a different entity than had existed before, by creating and expressing it in mutual terms. This change was the task, and so it is constantly at play in the texts, from the earliest fragments of script to the most polished belletristic work generated from it.

The texts authored through and concerned with ‘this form of revelation through 2 people’ are different in kind, as the Yeatses were informed the revelations themselves were, from texts written by two individuals contributing distinct parts to a joint project. (GY copied this fact into a late notebook: WBY ‘asked if this form of revelation through 2 people had taken place in the past & said there appeared to be no well-known instance. He [the control] said that in the past solitary revelation was still possible. ... Solitary revelation was now almost impossible & so this method was adopted’ (YVP, iii. 40).) Thematic, verbal, and structural shifts abound, all of which also comment in some way on the new ‘method’. The chapter that follows examines WBY’s published texts in two categories: it begins on the level of words, themes, and images in individual works, then moves to consider one volume of poetry as a whole (Michael Robartes and the Dancer). (pp.184-85.)

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Chap. 5: ‘All the Others: Dramatist Personae’ (p.294-36)
The Yeatses’ automatic sessions were an interaction between two people with a huge array of figures in the background, some speaking or yielding influence, some silent or weak in spiritual force, some with consistent presence, some fragmentary or fleeting existences. It is not easy to fix attention on this supporting crowd, not least because most of its members are not so much fully realised figures as complex symbolic elaborations of two basic ideas: first, that human beings are not single entities but complexes, on various levels and kinds of self-awareness, at various times and places; and second, that people are always connected to each other, although often the connections take place on one or other of these same levels, and so are almost infinitely complicated. A seemingly unified human being is a blend, in continually differing proportions, of such components as an Ego, a Mask, a Body of Fate, and a Creative Mind - the four Faculties - as well as the four Principles, which form a sort of reverse image of the Faculties and exist after death in a doubled temporal scheme like that of daimons: ‘The Daimon is your after life both during your life & after life,’ as WBY summarised it neatly in the card file (YVP, iii. 292). At any point, a person’s action or thought may come from a proper or improper relationship among any of these properties. One Faculty or Principle may interact with one or more belonging to another person. Any human being is [294] also actually just one incarnation of many as the wheel of phases turns, and other incarnations are part of the being considered in toto, so that relationships from other lives may, as in the case of an overshadower, affect people unawares. Aggregate beings also exist, and they implicate individuals: marriages, families, covens, nations, or periods of historical time, all have personalities and associations. All beings, individual or aggregate, also have personal divinities or genii, their daimons, existing in an alternate anti-universe; daimons consort with each other in their mysterious mirror worlds, and the human beings on the other side of the glass are moved without knowing why. At various points, images, like eagle or unicorn, seem to describe beings. [Ftn. The unicorn is associated with GY’s daimon, as WBY told his friend Sturge Moore - Ursula Bridge, ed., W . B. Yeats and Sturge Moore: Their Correspondence 1901-1937, Routledge, 1953, p.91.] Smells are signs of presences; symbols used in astrology (like Saturn or Neptune) act with some sense of personality, and various positions also seem to define something a bit like presences, such as Teacher and Victim, or primary and antithetical selves.

The power to create or communicate the system can itself seldom be rigidly assigned to one or other of the individuals, human or ghostly, who have speaking or walk-on roles in the phantasmagoria. Instead, subtle shifts in the level of control over the material occur and recur over the hundreds of sessions and later occasions on which the data was ’codified’ in various ways, in notebooks and on index cards. This state of affairs is a cosmic parallel to the human affair, in which the human partners lived and worked together, had conversations and mutual experiences, formed and then wrote or spoke questions which were then recorded by one or other of them. The interpreter then prepared to answer them, writing occasionally in her own voice but most often shifting spiritual gears from being convener or scribe to being the secretary of a disembodied spirit or her own daimon, in varying states of consciousness. The writing itself is a symbol [295] of authorial variability. The handwriting is sometimes obviously automatic, with large round loops written by a pen never lifted from the page, sometimes ordinary, sometimes in ‘mirror writing’ or other vairations. Sometimes, especially in later months and years, answers were typed. Sometimes she related a dream for him to write down; both kept notebooks; he made a file of index cards that usually quote a message received automatically through her hand, sometimes citing a passage incorrectly even though carefully enclosing it within quotations marks. Then came years of more hard work, with him writing sections of play-dialogue, prose fiction, or expository prose, sometimes dictating to her, sometimes carefully avoiding dictating to her so that her creative or receptive abilities would not be interfered with, sometimes writing out a passage by hand any number of times before reading it aloud to a typist. Sometimes she corrected his typescripts, sometimes he did, and sometimes both worked on them, either relying solely on their authority or, at times, after consulting with the communicators to make sure that the summaries and analyses were correct. (p.296.)

Quotes the communicator called Thomas: ‘The more you keep this medium emotinoally and intellectually happy the more will script be possible now - at first it was better when she was emotionally unhappy but now the passivity is as small the opposite (YVP, ii, 119) [sic]. The theme that satisfying his wife was necessary for the work to proceed made several appearances. In June 1919, soon after arriving alone in their well-loved Ballylee, the new control Ameritus reminded WBY again in mirror writing that ‘script depends on the love of medium for you - all intensity comes from that (YVP, ii, 323). (p.297.)

In the Yeatses scripts, frustrators are to merely figures that explain error or indicate self-deception. they exemplify the tendency of the script to personalise and also to valorise its own chaotic qualities. When the waters of the spirit were muddied, the reasons for the fluctuations no less than the clear lines of communication were sometimes active, and were either named or sensed as personalities. [...] For GY, I suspect, frustrators were messages from her husband’s past and her attitudes towards it, but also, more importantly, various antagonisms of her own, served up as separate beings, allowing personal distance as well as ambivalences in the ‘emotional philosophy’. (p.320.)

Annotates the names of the communicators Nemo, Ameritus, Dionertes [ dia-oneiros or nerteros ] (p.325 and prev.)

The Yeatses kept in their minds links that do not appear in the published versions of the system, or in the various creative works of his that use it: between voices in this world and the next, between human souls and daimonic others, and, most intensely, between generations. Without the context of all the participants in the discussions, and the sometimes highly emotional implications of their relationships with each other, all the documents and printed material lack intellectual and creative linkages as well. The Great Wheel becomes a prison rather than an opportunity for second chances for fullness in life; communicators deteriorate into ventriloquist’s dummies; daimons become images in mirrors rather than passionate lovers who explain the attractions between philosophical abstractions and concrete images. The system itself becomes not only disjointed but sterile. (p.326; end Chap. 3.)

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Conclusion: ‘this other Aquinas’
Epigraph: ‘In that day the system of the Aquinas will be weighed and that of this other Aquinas ben Luka who thinks not more inaccurately because he thinks in pictures.’ (The Discoveries of Michael Robartes, YVP, iv, 20; here p.337.)

In a letter to MacGreevy, Mrs. W. B. Yeats wrote: ‘I’ve been reading nothing but poetry just lately not his!! and it has made me realise how damnably national he is becoming. Nationality throws out personality and there’s nothing in his verse worth preserving but the personal.’ (Quoted in Ann Saddlemyer, ‘George Hyde Lees: More than a Poet’s Wife’, in A. Norman Jeffares, ed., Yeats the European, Gerrards Cross: Colin Smythe, 1989, p.192; see also Saddlemyer, Becoming George, 2002, p.322; here p.p.339.)

The book can seem typically Irish in its ironies and contrarieties, English in its drawing-room occultism, Romantic in its Neoplantonic idealism, Victorian in its ornate rhetoric. It can be read as deterministic or despairing; or, on th eother hand, it can convey a curious sense of release, its continually moving structures and melodious style refusing to allow one meaning to take absolute precedence over another.

His recalcitrance to categorisation, as I have been arguing, results from qualities such as stylistic and structural multiplication of authorial persopect, inscribing of mutual desire in various deep structures, thoroughly unstable positions on questions of faith and the source of knowledge, and performative and improvisational tone in dynamic counterpart to the book’s assertions of unchanging truth. These phenomena in turn are signs of the collaboration that made the book [...] (p.340.)

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