A Yeats overview: monkey glands and all

Aug 23, 2013, 06:11 PM, Drumcliff South, Sligo, Ireland

On this day 45 years ago, the 23rd August 1968, George Yeats, wife of William Butler Yeats, passed away. They say that you should never meet your idols, nevermind marrying one. Iconic figures in literature from Joyce to Hemingway to Fitzgerald, not to mention Hunter S. Thompson have have difficult marriages that have been well documented. George Yeats had to put up with a snob, a bore and an absent-minded professor type. We saw the poetry, she saw the socks. Have a look at the excellent @MundaneBond on Twitter for a perfect ribbing of an icon during downtime.

With thanks to Padraic Dempsey of the RIA on RTE Radio 1 this evening, we learned just how much of a debt we owe to this woman. Yeats was indeed a genius and George went about dedicating her life after marriage to ensuring that Yeats would be allowed to focus on his poetry while she took care of the banalities of life from preparing meals, organizing his travel arrangements, taking care of the children and just about everything else that makes normal life possible.

Unlike Yeats, she was a very private individual; her own children did not even know where she was born until after her death. Indeed having worked in Fleet in Hampshire myself, I can't blame her. She was by no means a 'shrinking violet' though and was by all accounts the only woman who was not afraid of the redoubtable Lady Gregory.

On being asked what it was like to live with a genius, she wearily responded that she didn't tend to notice that she was. She did everything for Yeats including on one memorable occasion having to telegram a perplexed Yeats that the oil he needed to put in to his light at Coole Park was paraffin - what else could it possibly be, olive oil?

She put up with his countless affairs, which increased after they stopped having sex in 1928. On the audio, you'll hear how Yeats had monkey glands attached to improve his virility. It certainly affected his judgment. In 1936 when editing a poetry collection, his lover, the rather average poet Margaret Ruddock, had seven poems included with the likes of Auden only having three. George would write politely to Ruddock and the other lovers with details about Yeats taking his medication as directed by doctors.

With increasing frustration and little thanks, George carried out all these tasks and ensured that Yeats was able to dedicate his final years to writing some of his best work - a point Mary makes in the audio piece.

Georgie met Yeats in 1910. Seven years later, when she was 25 and he 52, he asked her to marry him. Only a few weeks earlier Iseult Gonne, the daughter of Maud Gonne whom Yeats had loved for many years, had rejected a marriage proposal from him. Georgie and Yeats married just three weeks later, on 20 October 1917, in a public registry office,witnessed by her mother and Ezra Pound. During the honeymoon, while Yeats was still brooding about Iseult's rejection, Georgie began the automatic writing which fascinated him. He wrote about it days later in what was to be A Vision, and it held the marriage together for many years. Within a year of marriage he declared her name of Georgie to be insufferable, and henceforth called her George. This says it all.

George would have known of Yeats's obsession with Maud Gonne and of the rejected proposal to her daughter. She shrewdly overlooked this as she did his affairs and saw the bigger picture. A 'sloppy second' she may have been to some, but in death as in life, he was fortunate to have such a capable partner. George was an assiduous and dedicated Literary Executor after his death in 1939. She'd a better knowledge of European literature than he did and she managed the estate fairly and with aplomb for the next 30 years or so. She is buried beside him in Drumcliffe; when next visiting, spare a thought for this unsung heroine with the patience of a saint.

The audio comes from our multimedia Yeats Country audio guide, available for free from the Donegal Bay and Yeats Count...

clip location map