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Now About All These Women

Anthony Roche
W. B.Yeats and the Muses, by Joseph M. Hassett, Oxford University Press, 255 pp, £60, ISBN: 978-0199582907 As Joseph Hassett puts it in his introduction , WB Yeats “made a fundamental choice of the role of lover” and wrote many of his poems and lived much of his life in pursuit of “the old high way of love” (“Adam’s Curse”). Hassett’s book is therefore a study at one level of the various key women in Yeats’s life by whom he was inspired to write some of his best poems and whom he sought to love in a variety of ways, not all of them high, but with increasing inventiveness and complexity. The title indicates that the metaphor of the Muse is going to be used as a means both of grouping the women and of focusing the study. As a result, one key figure is omitted. Augusta Lady Gregory, for all that they worked closely together for over forty years and co-founded an Irish National Theatre, was “not a Muse” since “there is no indication that Yeats was erotically attracted to Gregory”; her feelings for him are not discussed. Maud Gonne naturally occupies a central role. Hassett astutely holds off introducing the chapter on her until almost midway and immediately follows it with one on her daughter, Iseult. But before that he devotes welcome attention to Olivia Shakespear and Florence Farr, attention which serves to highlight the extent to which not all of Yeats’s love poems are solely fixated on Maud Gonne; a goodly number (and those among the most interesting) feature two or three women. Hassett is not only a lifelong Yeatsian but a lawyer in Washington DC, and he displays forensic skills in discussing the possible identities of the three women represented in Yeats’s poem “Friends”. Drawing on the various identifications made by other Yeatsians, he offers his own views as to who each is but finally declares that there has probably been a fusion of several persons in one. The Maud and Iseult chapters are followed by another major one on Yeats’s wife, George Hyde-Lees. Its sub-title, “Out of a Medium’s Mouth”, is drawn from the poetic question-and-answer: “Where got I that truth? / Out of a medium’s mouth”. This could be a sub-title for the book and is certainly a sub-text since it underscores how central to Yeats’s romantic pursuit of women were his occult interests….

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