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Yeat's Ghosts: The Secret Life of W.B. Yeats Hardcover – September 8, 1999

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Editorial Reviews Review

Biographer Brenda Maddox is interested in a very specific element of W.B. Yeats' life--his relationship with his wife--so she employs an unusual strategy for a biography. She begins Yeats' Ghosts more than halfway through Yeats' life--1917, when the poet is 51. She injects readers into her subject's life just as Yeats' relationship with "George," Georgie Hyde-Lees, is culminating in marriage. Yeats had been in love with another woman, Maud Gonne (reputedly "the most beautiful woman in Ireland"), but George developed what Maddox considers "one of the most ingenious strategies ever tried to take a husband's mind off another woman." Capitalizing on Yeats' fascination with the occult, she revealed herself to be a spirit medium, adept at "automatic writing." Yeats studied the garbled messages George channeled from these "Communicators" and forged the results into his extraordinarily powerful late poetry. As Maddox makes plain, George used her husband's belief in her spiritual talents to control him, "cutting Yeats off from his other occult associates and making him wholly dependent on her." With its strong focus on the interests and obsessions that informed Yeats' work, rather than the poetry itself, this subtly written biography offers a rare insight into the imaginative life of a great poet. --Adam Roberts,

From Publishers Weekly

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 relationshipsAwith Maud and Iseult Gonne; Lady Gregory; his wife, George; and a comely actress or twoAand 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.)
Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 496 pages
  • Publisher: Harper; 1st edition (September 8, 1999)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0060174943
  • ISBN-13: 978-0060174941
  • Product Dimensions: 9.6 x 6.5 x 1.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 2 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 2.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (9 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #3,240,756 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

30 of 37 people found the following review helpful By Phillip L. Marcus on December 8, 1999
Format: Hardcover
Brenda Maddox missed her calling in life: she should have been a writer for one of the tabloid newspapers in the grocery-store checkout lines. With an eye for whatever is unflattering or sensational she has combed the archives and written an account of the later decades of Yeats's life that lacks intelligence, dignity and any real expertise about Yeats's work. Little of what she relates will be new to scholars in the field, but then they aren't the real audience for the book, which obviously is intended to rack up sales. That the author relates Yeats's faults is acceptable; but that she exaggerates them, and fails to put them into a proper context, is not. For example, the fact that Yeats as an old man suffered from various physical infirmities is for Maddox a subject almost for derision, whereas the normal attitude would be to admire all the more the courage of his refusal to capitulate to "devouring Time" and the greatness of his accomplishments as an artist whose work improved throughout his life and who preserved his passion for perfection in the writing even of his very last poem. Little is actually said about the poetry and plays in this book and that little is almost all derivative or naive. There are also numerous errors of fact and the book has been sloppily proofread. The potential reader will be well advised to save his or her money for the responsible studies of Yeats's and his wife's lives currently being prepared by Roy Foster and Ann Saddlemyer. (Foster's splendid biography of the early years was published in 1997.)
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14 of 17 people found the following review helpful By Gordon Hilgers on November 14, 2000
Format: Hardcover
Imagine a poet who is so absorbed in his interior life and imagination that his wife resorts to speaking with the dead and the spirit world--simply to keep the man interested. That's what Barbara Maddox insists in her wonderfully inclusive biography, "Yeats's Ghosts."
By nearly every assessment, W. B. Yeats stands as the greatest poet of the 20th Century. The ultimate symbolist, Yeats, however, remains an exceptionally difficult poet to fully appreciate--mainly because of the arcane and personal perspectives and references that litter nearly every one of his poems. Many readers, in fact, find it necessary to purchase a concordance of his work, and one publisher even offers a guide to the works of a poet who himself chose to speckle his books with countless footnotes and clarifications. Which, only naturally, are together a godsend.
"Yeats's Ghosts," a controversial biography by the award-winning Barbara Maddox, may help readers to understand the milleux in which Yeats wrote--the current events that engendered work after work, the personal friends to and about whom many were originally composed, and the continual wash of Celtic mythology--but what's especially entertaining about the book is its unique take on one of the most contentious issues regarding Yeats.
Yeats, after all, was a mystic--a mystic in the old Celtic Tradition--caught between scientific rationalism on the one hand and orthodox Christianity on the other. Like many Irishmen living on the cusp of the modern age, Yeats actively hoped for a renaissance of ancient Irish virtues--something along the lines of prewar Germany's obsession with getting rid of influences that had garbled and partially eradicated national and racial identities.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful By Annette Hrisko-Allen on February 20, 2002
Format: Hardcover
Maddox's focus is on the people that revolved around Yeats--his wife, lovers, relatives, and peers. She relays several intimate anecdotes concerning Yeats's troubled relationships with his parents, his obsessions with women like Maude Gonne and her daughter, Iseult, and his interaction with a long line of "mother figures" (most notably, Lady Gregory).
Reading this book gave me the impression that Yeats wrote not just because he was inspired by Ireland and metaphysical themes; but as a need to escape his stifling environment.
While providing many interesting details about Mrs. Yeats's "abilities" with automatic writing, Maddox goes far in portraying Georgie as more of a controlling wife than a powerful medium. This, along with Yeats's own "psychic experiences" may lead a skeptic to wonder just how sane the poet actually was.
The section dealing with his term as a Free State Senator was good, in terms of illustrating Yeats' ongoing battle against censorship and civic divorce (in contrast with his reported stances on fascism and eugenics). Readers can revel in how Yeats, while conservative in such things as parenting, thoroghly enjoyed playing the "dirty old man" in various media--print, theater, and radio. As far as a deeper insight into Yeats as mystical poet, though, the book's treatment of the man is sketchy at best.
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10 of 13 people found the following review helpful By Arch Llewellyn on April 15, 2003
Format: Hardcover
Look, Brenda Maddox is a journalist not a scholar. She has little to say about the poems and her sources are nothing new. But she writes a lively prose with a deft eye for the human angle in describing the parade of remarkable women who passed through Yeats's later life. I don't think she's out to replace the more detailed biographies other reviewers mention so much as add color and detail to the standard portrait of the 'smiling public man.'
The book's centerpiece is the early years of Yeats's marriage to his wife George, a cultivated woman twenty-seven years his junior who turned what looked to be a marriage of convenience into a source of great poetic inspiration. George began channeling spirits on their honeymoon which, over the next two years, revealed to Yeats an entire philosophy of history and the soul's fate after death while also dictating how an older, indifferent lover ought to treat a young new wife. Maddox leaves the question of the Script's authenticity open, pointing out on the one hand how well it suited George's purposes and on the other how sincerely she shared Yeats's occult beliefs. Halfway through the book though, after a short, out of place chapter on Yeats's mother, she leaves George behind to concentrate on the eccentricities of Yeats's later years. Yeats had a capacity for staying 'forever young' that led to some odd connections; he involved himself, especially after the Steinach operation, with a cast of dubious individuals who took him away from the unwanted responsibilities of home and family.
I don't think Maddox is trying to pull Yeats off a pedestal--she clearly believes the poems he wrote in these years are great.
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