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  • Wisdom of Two: The Spiritual and Literary Collaboration of George and W. B. Yeats
  • Jamie L. Olson
Margaret Mills Harper. Wisdom of Two: The Spiritual and Literary Collaboration of George and W. B. Yeats. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006. Pp. xii + 382.

In a certain sense, Harper's study of the Yeatses' automatic writing sessions and their role in shaping the Irish poet's aesthetics has been a lifetime in the making: as she notes in her preface, both her mother and her father, the recently deceased Yeatsian scholar George Mills Harper, spent most of the years when she was a child "working with the Yeatses' occult papers, composing and compiling various books and articles along the way" (p. vii). Indeed, scholarship on Yeats, and on the book A Vision in particular, became [End Page 93] a family affair in the Harper household. It was almost inevitable that Margaret Mills Harper, having grown up surrounded by Yeatsiana, would end up working in this field. Her initiation into Yeats studies, in fact, came when she helped her father edit the third and fourth volumes of Yeats's Vision Papers (1992, 2001), and her new book is at once a continuation of her parents' work and a response to it, especially to her father's Making of Yeats's A Vision (1987). It is fitting, then, that here she focuses her lens on the Yeats family's collaboration. Among Harper's key objectives in Wisdom of Two is to reassess the role that George Yeats, the poet's wife, played in composing A Vision and in developing (or discovering) the vast "system" that influenced virtually all aspects of William Butler Yeats's life, public and private, during his final decades—a role that Harper says has generally been "understated or misrepresented" (p. 9) by previous scholars. Indeed, the collaborative, spiritualistic process that led to the publication of A Vision, the book-length essay that strives to elucidate the arcane system, lies at the heart of Harper's book.

In all probability, readers of Magic, Ritual, and Witchcraft will be primarily interested in the collaborative process itself, dependent as it was on frequent and extensive communication with the spiritual realm. The systematic philosophy that is presented in A Vision grew out of automatic writing sessions, during which the Yeatses made contact with numerous "spirit communicators": daimons, controls, guides, and prior incarnations of their own selves. These sessions began in 1917 (during the couple's honeymoon, in fact, when W. B. Yeats had fallen ill) and continued well into the 1930s, although their frequency had begun to wane by the mid-1920s, once the Yeatses had come to understand the basic contours of the system and no longer needed as much external guidance. During the sessions, George Yeats was the medium through which the spirit communicators conveyed their messages, most of which were typically responses to questions or prompts that her husband had voiced, but rather than speak aloud the messages of the communicators, George always put them on paper—in the early years, with a pen, and later with a typewriter. Though the role of medium may seem a passive one, Harper argues throughout her book that it does entail agency, even going so far as to say that the "power politics" (p. 119) of George's automatic script might best be understood via the paradox of someone who is simultaneously a medium and a magician: "mediums yield the conscious will to outside forces," Harper explains, "while magicians harness the will in order to travel beyond their rational selves" (p. 120). But since rationality is lost, the agency of the magician in this analogy is tellingly limited: although Harper tries throughout the book to emphasize George's voice, her husband's voice, not surprisingly, often drowns hers out, mainly because George worked behind [End Page 94] the scenes—as an editor as well as a medium—while his was the voice that the public heard.

Merely to claim agency for George Yeats as a medium, however, is not enough: Harper's thesis, as might be guessed from her subtitle, involves coauthorship and spiritualist collaboration, so she seeks to redefine W. B...


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