What a revealing, humiliating, finally fascinating correspondence this is: W. B. Yeats, the Irish poet of the Mask that both hides and expresses the person, stands in a unique way naked here, in the hastily written letters his beloved Maud Gonne sent him, replete with their occult and paranormal events, rich in his implicit sadness. (Most of the letters Yeats wrote back were destroyed by the Free Staters when they pillaged Gonne’s home in Dublin, but hers to him survive; this volume contains only thirty of his letters, as against 373 of hers, and the majority of Yeats’s letters are from the later years of their relationship.)
The critic George Steiner notes in The New Yorker (February 8, 1993) that his correspondence is, “on almost every page,” a chronicle of the occult—of ectoplasm and clairvoyance, table-rappings and Rosicrucianism, Celtic witchcraft and incense—but that “it was from this mumbo- jumbo that Yeats drew and fashioned some of the most powerful, coherent poetry in the language.” Steiner is plainly dismayed at this material: he calls it “puerile or repellent…hard going.” And yet he persists, for “it is from the mauve flimflam and tea-leaf mendacities of the occult, of the medium’s parlor tricks, that Yeats hammered out verse of a marmoreal, uncannily lit, and tranquil authority.”
Yeats himself has left us not only the poems-’ ’All Soul’s Night,” to give one towering example-but also his prose meditations on occult matters, in such volumes as A Vision (1925, 1937, based on what a later generation would term “channeled” material received through his wife) and Per Amica Silentia Lunae (1918). But even granted that A Vision is hard to follow (in somewhat the way that Yeats’s hero William Blake’s private myth is hard to follow through his Prophetic Books, or Yeats’s contemporary the psychiatrist Carl Jung hard to follow in his first major work, Psychology of the Unconscious), these are wrought works, the result of Yeats’s own arduous synthesis of many strange (that is, paranormal) experiences. Thus we can see this “mumbo-jumbo” and “flimflam” not simply as the raw material of a thousand idiocies-which it also can be and often is-but also as rubble from a stone which the builders of contemporary civilization rejected, and which Yeats made the cornerstone of his own building.
In Gonne’s letters to Yeats, then, we can witness with a freshness that Yeats’s own more mannered pieces deny us, the sort of quest that he was on, the sort of rubble he sifted through to build his grand edifice. That is, in the end, the primary reason to read this correspondence.
There is more. Maud Gonne was a fascinating woman in her own right, and it is well to draw her out from behind Yeats’s shadow and come to know her in greater depth: her love affair with the French politician Lucien Millevoye, by whom she bore two children; her passionate Irish Republicanism, which drew her into the Irish Republican Brotherhood; her hatred of the British and their Empire; her imprison-ments and hunger strike; her love of theater, her acting, her involvement in the National Theatre Society and the Abbey Theatre.
These letters also tell us much about Yeats’s love for her: their “spiritual marriage,” her prayer “that we may gain spiritual union stronger than earthly union could ever be” and its effect on Yeats, her almost discarnate comment that “Our children were your poems of which I was the Father sowing the unrest & storm which made them possible,” and his horror at her brief but real-and brutal-marriage to John MacBride, hero of the Irish fighting against the British in the Boer War.
Yet it is to that shadowy realm, the occult, that these letters lead time and again. And what is to be made of it? For Yeats, quite literally, the poems. For Maud Gonne, equally literally, Irish nationalism. “We need this communion with the Gods increased & strengthened,” she writes, “then we shall have new Cuchulains and Dermotts who will free us [from] the hideous tyranny of English materialism.” Yeats’s and Gonne’s Celtic mysticism, with all its theosophic and occult appurtenances, then, is not something peripheral to their lives, as some of the earlier biographers of Yeats would have liked to suppose: it is central.
All this may seem strange, uncanny even. It may conflict with religious belief or realistic ideology. It may appear dangerous, or merely silly. Yet it is central to Yeats and Gonne, it is the very fabric of their politics, their theater, their poetry, their love. It is their reality; it cannot be avoided.
At one point, Gonne sends Yeats a letter she received from her...
(The entire section is 1930 words.)