Cover image for Yeats's ghosts : the secret life of W.B. Yeats
Yeats's ghosts : the secret life of W.B. Yeats
Maddox, Brenda.
Personal Author:
First edition.
Publication Information:
New York : HarperCollins, [1999]

Physical Description:
xviii, 474 pages, 32 unnumbered pages of plates : illustrations ; 25 cm
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
PR5906 .M278 1999 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area
PR5906 .M278 1999 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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Brenda Maddox, the award-winning, world-renowned biographer, looks at one of the towering literary figures of the twentieth century, W.B. Yeats, through the lens of the Automatic Script, the trancelike communication with supposed spirits that he and his much younger wife, George, conducted during the early years of their marriage. The full transcript of this intense occult adventure was not available until 1992 and remains virtually untouched by biographers. The vision papers covered more than 3,600 pages of writing, symbols and obsure diagrams penned by Yeats's wife during their 450 sitting of automatic writing. Maddox finds the scripts to have been a ghostly form of family planning--as well as one of the most ingenious ploys ever used by a wife to take her husband's mind off another woman.

This revealing biography flashed back to Yeats's early years (1865-1900), to the least-examined important woman in his life: his silent, dreamy mother, whose Irish ghost stories steered him into his occultist path. The book then returns to the mature Yeats, to analyze, with new information and a sharp feminine perspective, his public career in Ireland, his sexual rejuvenation operation and his obsession with several younger women--and related them all the triumph of his late poetry.

While much has been written about Yeats, until now no one has managed to convey the humane nature of the man and get behind the "smiling public man" to expose the intense privacy and passions of a powerful and often misunderstood artist.

Author Notes

Brenda Maddox's work has been translated into ten languages. Former Home Affairs editor of the Economist and media columnist for the London Daily Telegraph and the Times, she is a contributor to the New York Times Book Review, a regular reviewer for the London Observer and Literary Review, and frequent broadcaster on the BBC.
Her 1988 biography of James Joyce's wife, Nora, won the Los Angeles Times Award for biography, the British Silver P.E.N. Award for nonfiction, and the French Prix du Meilleur Livre Etranger and was nominated for the National Book Award. Her 1994 biography of D. H. Lawrence won the Whitbread Biography Award and was nominated for the Critic's Circle Award.

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

Although there are many biographies of the Irish poet William Butler Yeats, most do not deal effectively with his lifelong involvement with the paranormal. Biographer Maddox focuses on the period after Yeats' marriage to fellow believer in the supernatural, Georgie Hyde-Lees, and thereby concentrates on how interest in the spirit world affected the poet's life and work. It is well known that George, as her husband called her, was adept at "automatic writing," but Maddox implies that her writing was less driven by the spirits than by her own need to manage her husband's behavior. Newly available letters and documents offer insight into Yeats' romantic and sexual liaisons and how they inspired many of his poems. The entire text is interspersed with the poetry written during the period, with an eye to providing insight to the meaning of the poems. Though it is an effectively researched and written addition to the information on Yeats, this book is worth reading for the sheer joy of encountering the poetry within the context that it was written. --Danise Hoover

Publisher's Weekly Review

From his involvement in Madame Blavatsky's Theosophical Society in the 1880s to his experiments with automatic writing, s‚ances and mystical literature, William Butler Yeats (1865-1939) maintained a lifelong fascination with the occult (Auden would later describe this tendency as "the southern California side of Yeats"). Maddox, author of much-acclaimed biographies of Nora Joyce and D.H. Lawrence, does only a workmanlike job of linking moments in Yeats's verse to specific episodes from his private life (showing, for example, that the mechanical songbird of "Sailing to Byzantium" may have been inspired by a toy duck the poet bought at Harrod's for his son's third birthday). More important to Maddox are Yeats's sexual demons: she untangles various of Yeats's romantic relationshipsÄwith Maud and Iseult Gonne; Lady Gregory; his wife, George; and a comely actress or twoÄand mulls at length over the consequences for Yeats's later poetry of his vasectomy. But she's most informative when discussing the brilliant autodidact's attitudes toward his own creative process, making liberal use of George Mills Harper's 1992 edition of the notes Yeats made toward his mostly incomprehensible book of spiritualist philosophy, A Vision. While not as comprehensive or brilliant as such other Yeats biographies as Richard Ellman's or R.F. Foster's, Maddox's book nonetheless offers an intriguing glimpse into the dark, sometimes steamy, corners of the poet's singular mind. (Oct.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

In this New Age, "the academic world is less embarrassed by the paranormal than it used to be," notes Maddox (Nora: The Real Life of Molly Bloom). Here are two biographies that focus extensively on the psychic interests of renowned poet and playwright Yeats (1865-1939). Both authors acknowledge that spiritualism was popular around the turn of the century as a reaction against scientific developments, and both highlight Yeats's 1917 marriage to the psychic George Hyde-LeesÄwhich Brown terms "one of the strangest acts of imaginative collaboration in all of literary history," with its emphasis on such practices as automatic writing. Brown (English, Trinity Coll., Dublin; Ireland's Literature: Selected Essays) traces Yeats's "Irish instinct for the spooky" to his childhood in a dysfunctional family. Maddox presents Yeats as an eccentric married to a woman shrewd enough to realize that the survival of her marriage depended on proactively supporting her husband's occult obsessions. (Maddox also looks frankly at the Nobel prize winner's relationships with the many women in his life, including patron of the arts, Lady Gregory; the great love of his life, the revolutionary Maud Gonne; and an assortment of mistresses.) While both books are extensively documented and well researched, Brown's is the more academic and analyzes Yeats's major works to a greater extent than Maddox's study. With its conversational style and flashes of wit, Maddox's work is more accessible to general audiences. Brown's book is recommended for academic libraries and Maddox's for both public and academic libraries.ÄDenise J. Stankovics, Rockville P.L., Vernon, CT (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Table of Contents

Acknowledgmentsp. ix
Introductionp. xiii
Part 1
1 An Astrological Deadline (January-March 1917)p. 3
2 Counting (March-May 1917)p. 24
3 Mother or Daughter (August-September 1917)p. 41
Part 2
4 Soror and Frater (October 1917)p. 57
5 Folie a Deux (November-December 1917)p. 73
6 An Adventure (January-March 1918)p. 94
7 What Rough Beast? (March 1918-February 1919)p. 108
8 Only One More (March 1919-May 1920)p. 135
9 Waiting for J. B. (May 1920-July 1922)p. 163
Part 3
10 The Silent Woman (1865-1900)p. 189
Part 4
11 Politics and Potency (1922-1928)p. 215
12 Politics and Potency, Con't. (1928-1934)p. 251
13 "This Is Baghdad" (April 1934-December 1935)p. 277
14 O My Dears (January 1936-March 1937)p. 303
15 Such Friends (April 1937-January 1938)p. 330
16 A Working Year (January 1938-January 28, 1939)p. 352
Epilogue: Laid to Rest?p. 383
Abbreviations and Short Formsp. 397
Notes and Sourcesp. 401
Bibliographyp. 447
Indexp. 461