In his biography of Yeats, Richard Ellmann remarks that "Had Yeats died instead of marrying in 1917, he would have been remembered as a remarkable minor poet who achieved a diction more powerful than that of his contemporaries but who, except in a handful of poems, did not have much to say with it" (Ellmann 223). Yet with his marriage to Georgie Hyde-Lees on October 21st, 1917, a vast frontier of possibility opened before Yeats, and through the automatic writing of his wife, he felt "wisdom at last within his reach" (Ellmann 224). Not only did the material within the automatic script (AS) help alleviate his anxieties about his marital choice, but it also pointed his poetry in a new direction, bringing together the separate remnants of his life and thoughts. Dilemmas over women and rejection, the frightening politics of his time, years of dabbling in the occult for answers, older ideas found in Blake, his own musings over Mask and Daimon, and the loose system of spiritual thought gathered in Per Amica: all these and other elements found their way into the cauldron of the AS, and with the help of Yeats, Georgie, and several "communicators," the medley was stirred and brewed for three years until everything began to come together, the final product being the system set forth in A Vision. In the following essay, we will begin by examining the AS from a general standpoint, and then focus in to see how advice from the communicators helped Yeats as man and poet, how older ideas were transformed, and finally, we will outline the major ideas of the AS which formed the core of Yeats's later mythology in A Vision.
A few days after their marriage, Georgie, who was probably "prompted by an effort to divert an unhappy husband who had been recently rejected by two other women" (Harper x), experimented with automatic writing. Automatic writing is a method commonly utilized by occultists, being a process wherein one lets go of conscious thought, all the while loosely holding a writing utensil over a piece of paper, and becomes a medium, either for one's own subconscious thoughts, or the thoughts of some spirit communicating through the "medium". When Yeats first met Georgie through Mrs. Shakespear and Ezra Pound, she was already interested in the occult, and Yeats often asked her advice on the authenticity of information given him by mediums. Later, she joined a group of Theosophists and eventually became a member of the Golden Dawn. Two things can be derived from these facts: George knew that Yeats believed in her as a spiritually "receptive" person, and she also knew that he took occult communication seriously. Thus, it seems highly plausible that there was a premeditated intent on her part to alleviate Yeats's fears about his having made the right choice in marrying her. After telling him that "`something was to be written through her'" (Harper 3), she wrote the following words: "`with the bird all is well at heart. Your action was right for both but in London you mistook its meaning'" (Harper 3). Yeats interpreted this as Iseult (the bird) being well, and his having made a right choice in marrying George. Nine days after this incident, on October 29th, he wrote the following words in a letter to Lady Gregory, expressing his drastically changed state of being:
The strange thing was that within half an hour after writing of this message my rheumatic pains and my neuralgia and my fatigue had gone and I was very happy. From being more miserable than I ever remember being since Maud Gonne's marriage I became extremely happy. This sense has lasted ever since (Letter 633--Harper 1).
If this was a scheme on George's part, it seems that she was soon caught up in it herself, for a series of cryptic statements written in an almost illegible script began to come through--and thus began the AS, which in its totality spanned nearly three years (October 20th 1917 to March 28th 1920) and consisted of about 3600 pages, amassed over some 450 sessions.
There were various spirit communicator's or "controls" that "came through" George, with names such as Thomas of Dorlowicz, Ameritus, Leaf, and Apple, among others. And these communicators were not always there to enlighten. Often, there were "frustrators" involved, i. e., voices which deliberately misled the poet. Often, after hours, days, or weeks of writing, Yeats would be informed that all had been "frustration".
The method of the script was described by Yeats in A Vision (2nd ed.):
Except at the start of a new topic, when they would speak or write a dozen sentences unquestioned, I had always to question, and every question to rise out of a previous answer and to deal with their chosen topic (A Vision 10-11).
As time passed, the script became more legible, structured, and comprehensible, and this has caused many critics to wonder just how "automatic" the script really was. Whatever the case, the writing produced changed Yeats's life and work, and all for the better.
It is important to keep in mind that the AS was more than just a mysterious text found by the "Arabian traveler" Michael Robartes (as Yeats's first fictional account of the discovery of the AS related), a text for insight into Spiritus Mundi, the "phases of the moon," the "twenty-eight incarnations," and the gyres of history. Indeed, more than three-fourths of the AS were of a personal nature, dealing with Yeats, his inner circle of friends, some of his favorite poets, and his work. For one, the AS was the beginning of the end of his stormy relationship with Maud. The simple fact of George's communications and muse-like qualities enchanted the poet, and he fell deeply in love with her, so much so that many poems were inspired by this loving and "spiritual" relationship. In "Solomon and Sheba," we see a new vision of love: not that torturous experience which had been the result of the turbulent years with Maud, but a peaceful, ordering sentiment expressed in lines such as "There's no a thing but love can make/ the world a narrow pond" (CP 138). As Unterecker states of this poem: "Love is the principle that orders the world" (Unter 136). "On Woman," also published in "The Wild Swans at Coole," and written during the first three amazing years with George, expresses his gratitude to the "friendship of her kind" that "a man can find in no man," and in the same poem we have reference to the wisdom his wife has bestowed upon him, as he alludes to the last and first phases of the moon: "The Pestle of the moon/ That pounds up all anew/ Brings me to birth again" (CP 147). But probably no poem praises George like "The Gift of Harun Al-Rashid," where the ancient and presumably all-knowing Kusta ben Luka is given a young bride by the Caliph. Luka is hardly excited about his new bed-fellow, when suddenly she begins to speak in her sleep:
`Turn that I may expound
What's bowed your shoulder and made pale your cheek';
Luka goes on to relate:
And saw her sitting upright on the bed;
Or was it she that spoke or some great Djinn?
I say that a Djinn spoke. A live-long hour
She seemed the learned man and I the child (CP 449)
Indeed, the gift of Harun Al-Rashid, is pale in comparison to the gift of the "gift" herself.
By the time Yeats's next volume of poetry was published in 1921, we see he has little but disdain for his past affairs with women. For example, In "Michael Robartes and the Dancer," Iseult Gonne, who was Yeats's last obsession before finally marrying George, is reduced to an ignorant girl who at best has ears for academic truth, in contrast to the mystical truths expounded by George.
One of the important implications of this change in Yeats's life was that he began to experience creativity through happiness. Before, it was the very rejection at the hands of Maud and others that spurred him to create; he gave up life for art, as he may have put it. Yet now, he had a successful marriage that was also responsible for something of an artistic renaissance within him. And thus the spheres of Soul and Self were existentially beginning to come a bit closer than before--choice and chance were beginning to intermingle, and the Unity of Being which Yeats had always sought but found necessary to reject in order to create, was itself becoming the fertile ground of creation, sans misery. Not that Yeats was giving up the struggle of with the Daimon; but the battle would now be fought on the artistic front, as he aimed to change his poetry from the old Irish Romanticism and lyricism which had begun to become his trademark. The mature Yeats was realizing what many Western artists had failed to realize: the poet has as much a right and a need to lead a happy existence as anyone else.
New personal and existential attitudes were not the only result of the AS. From early on, Yeats began to ask the communicators about his work, questioning them on symbols, meanings, and other ambiguities he felt about his own ideas. Before examining one such instance, dealing with The Only Jealousy of Emer, it is essential that we realize another subtle but revolutionary change in Yeats's work that occurred as a direct result of the AS. This was a new way of writing which was less forced and intellectually contrived. Yeats, learning from his experiences with the AS, and the wisdom that came through the letting go of the conscious, controlling mind, was ready to write a more intuitive poetry. This is stated beautifully in "Ego Dominus Tuus," wherein Ille (or "Willie") thus broods over the rigorous intellectualism and ego-centricism of modern life and art: "We have . . . lost the old nonchalance of the hand" (CP 160). It is, of course, not within the perimeters of this essay to examine this change in style; it is only necessary that we trace the change to the AS.
Before marrying George, Yeats had been working on his highly biographical play, The Only Jealousy of Emer, whose characters are representative of Yeats (Cuchulain), Iseult (Eithne), Maud (Fand), and George (Emer). As the early stages of the AS dealt mainly with Iseult, George, and Maud, it is only natural that the Only Jealousy should have found its way into the discourse.
In November of 1917, after much discussion about two poles of the human psyche, being the "antithetical" and "primary" natures (which we will shortly discuss), George drew a line under the last written statement, implying that the subject was to be changed. According to Harper:
Yeats then asked, in an unrecorded question, what light the polar opposites
of Antithetical and Primary would cast on a symbol he proposed to use in The Only Jealousy of Emer, a play he had been planning but postponing because, I think, he could not comprehend its symbolic meaning (Harper 25).
The response of the communicator, as Harper suggests, shows "how seminal the System is to an understanding of the play":
Remember the withered hand that represents the primary--It is the mutilation by the antithetical self--the result of too great absorption in the antithetical self to the detriment of primary which is consequently mutilated by the violent reaction of reality upon dream recognition--of reality in place of illusion or vision (Harper 25).
Earlier in the AS, Thomas had spoken of the Antithetical and Primary selves, the Antithetical being the subjective, inward, and "lunar," like Yeats himself, and the Primary, or Daily self, being the objective, solar personality type. Yeats had already suspected that he must find his opposite, his Daimon, in Per Amica, and the communicator confirmed this. However, he warned Yeats that, while keeping the Anti stronger, since it is the source of creativity, there must be something of a balance, lest
The daily self is overcome by the anti then the artistic self is also submerged & the Evil Persona remains supreme (Harper 18).
One must keep some balance between the two forces, although "for genius of any nature...one of the two selves must be stronger" (19). But if one is going to keep an imbalance between the two selves to serve one's own creative genius, there is danger of imbalance, and hence the arising of the "evil persona"--in another words, "lunacy ensues" (22).
Returning to the play, we see that the communicator is referring to the withered arm of "Bricriu of the Sidhe," the changeling that has taken Cuchulain's place. The withered hand is a symbol of the withered personality of Bricriu. But what this really meant Yeats was just beginning to understand. According to Harper:
the mutilation is "the result of too great absorption in the antithetical self"--a psychic disorder which Yeats himself had been warned against...[the communicator] has informed Yeats that the withered arm symbolizes a personality "mutilated by the violent reaction of reality upon dream recognition" (Harper 26).
This is just one example of the kind of feedback Yeats received about his work. This play becomes a large topic of discussion within the AS, and in fact one of the earliest manifestations of the quaternary system is the categorizing of the four main characters of the play with other quaternary aspects of the developing system, including the four basic elements, the four points of the compass, and so on (cf. Harper 151). In all, countless poems were affected by the information from the communicators. In one instance, Yeats wanted to know why he and George were "chosen for each other" (51). The Control then describes the pair as "The Eagle and the Butterfly," one linear, one intuitive. Yeats then uses this imagery in "Tom O'Roughley," in the following lines: "And wisdom is a butterfly/ And not a gloomy bird of prey" (CP 141).
Finally, three of the main topics of the AS which found their way into A Vision were the twenty-eight phases of the moon, the Four-Faculties, and the Gyres. On November 22nd, Thomas told George to "draw a circle for me into 28" (Harper 53), and then went on to give brief summaries about the qualities associated with each phase. Much of the later script then deals with Yeats's asking about people he knows and living or dead artists, to which phase they belong, and why. From this give and take, the Twenty-Eight Incarnations found in Yeats system were formed. The Four-Faculties of Will, Mask, Creative Mind, and Body of Fate grew out of discussions which had their roots in conversations over the antithetical and primary selves. We see here at least one example of how an early binary system was transformed into a quaternary one through the discourse of the AS. The Gyres were probably the most original of the information found in the AS, being an idea completely new to Yeats. On December the 6th, George drew the shapes, and of course it is well known just how important the gyres are to the developing system. As before, all of these and other elements were continuously brought to bear on Yeats's poetry during and after this period. When he re-published "The Wild Swans at Coole," most of the new poems were created as a direct result of the AS, "The Phases of the Moon" being a prime example. Later on, the gyres and ideas associated with them find their way into numerous poems, including the famous "The Second Coming" and "Sailing to Byzantium."
Although a study of the AS is not crucial to understanding Yeats, since all that he himself found valuable finds its into A Vision, it is nevertheless one of the strangest documents in the history of literature. And while there will always be doubts about just where all that "wisdom" really came from, whether from George, Yeats, or the "communicators," it is undeniable that without the AS and the whole experience surrounding it, Yeats could not have written the unique and ingenious poetry of his middle to later years.
Ellmann, Richard. Yeats: The Man and the Masks. New York: W.W. Norton, 1948.
Finneran, Richard J. The Collected Poems of W. B. Yeats. 2nd Ed. New York: Simon and Schuster Inc., 1996.
Harper, George Mills. The Making of Yeats's `A Vision'. Vol 1. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1987.
Unterecker, John. A Reader's Guide to William Butler Yeats. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1959.
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December 4, 1998