- The Happily Married Modernist
W.B. Yeats married Georgie Hyde-Lees in 1917, after a short courtship and, more infamously, after being rejected by both Maud Gonne and her daughter, Iseult. The marriage came at a time when the poet, aged 52, felt compelled—some believe by a sense of astrological necessity and the machinations of others—to start a family. However Yeats may have felt at the outset, he came to love and admire his young wife. When Georgie concludes a letter in 1923, by saying “I do not fear for you when you are my whole world,” Yeats responds, “I realized how rarely you express emotion from the great pleasure that last sentence of your letter gave me. Years have past since you have written me, if endeed you ever did write me such a sentence. It has filled my heart full.” (I have left uncorrected and unmarked [by sic] all of Yeats’s and Georgie’s misspellings and grammatical solecisms. In this, I follow Saddlemyer’s practice.)
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Moments like this recur throughout W. B. Yeats and George Yeats: The Letters (2011). And if Yeats’s later responses and his frequent long absences from Georgie testify to a certain cooling of ardor, they nonetheless give evidence of a mutual love and regard that can only humanize a poet who is often reduced to a caricature (nostalgic Revivalist, Anglo-Irish prig, parvenu, fascist, eugenicist, and so on). They also reveal the way in which marriage determines modernism as an affair of joined minds and hearts; for if Georgie went to great lengths to keep kith and kin in good health and to keep domestic and business finances on an even keel, she also contributed much to the development of her husband’s thought (especially on occult matters) and was an equal among illustrious acquaintances and friends (all of whom come alive in Saddlemyer’s generous annotations). Georgie was no mere helpmeet, but a full partner in the “W.B. Yeats Enterprise.”
What is most endearing, if one can use that word in connection with Yeats, is just how ordinary he was. While Georgie communicated news from home, her husband, on his frequent travels, spoke often of the trivialities of traveling and visiting. He asks Georgie to send him various sundries, toiletries, and books, and is capable of a kind of sly humor about the mundane, as when he writes, in April, 1932, “I thank you for hair brush. It has made me realize, that all my life I have wanted to scratch my head & never have been able to do so hitherto.” But what I think will most surprise the student of modernism is the poet’s concern for dress—not the kind of high-mindedness we associate with the aesthete, but rather an almost childlike delight in dressing up that only increases as Yeats heads into his final years. Over a period of weeks, in March 1937, he gently reminds Georgie to send him a particular red shirt, one that would “harmonise” with “‘a pullover’ which is I think exactly right.” He writes to her excitedly of a suit he will bring back to Dublin from London because he wanted to please his wife; he tells Georgie that he “would leave the new suit [at the Savile Club] except for a desire to display it to your eyes.” The poet, at the peak of his powers, spends less time talking about his poems than about a “new blue shirt” in which he “feel[s] very handsome.”
There are long gaps in the correspondence, and one assumes that the couple was together in the same place. Thus some key events, like Yeats’s winning the Nobel Prize in 1923, go largely unnoticed; how that honor affected the poet’s domestic life cannot be known from these letters. We are reminded by this structural lack of the irreducibly partial nature of what we can know of the artist’s personal life. Months went by without...