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W.B. Yeats and the Muses$

Joseph M. Hassett

Print publication date: 2010

Print ISBN-13: 9780199582907

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: September 2010

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199582907.001.0001

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Golden Codger and Siren: Yeats and Edith Shackleton Heald

Golden Codger and Siren: Yeats and Edith Shackleton Heald

(p.198) 9 Golden Codger and Siren: Yeats and Edith Shackleton Heald
W.B. Yeats and the Muses

Joseph M. Hassett

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

Yeats extended his last, yearning grasp for the Muse toward Edith Shackleton Heald, whose Siren's evocation of the twin impulses of Eros and Thanatos propelled him to pursue sexual desire for the sake of desire, even as he learned to relinquish longing for life or death. The stasis of Yeats's relationship with the Muse is apparent in ‘News for the Delphic Oracle’, where eroticism leaves the ‘golden codgers’ depleted rather than energized. Chapter 9 traces these remarkable developments to their culmination in Yeats's recognition that ‘lust and rage’ were unreliable sources of inspiration. Their sterility is apparent in ‘The Circus Animals' Desertion,’ which describes the poet's vain search for a theme. Yeats's next poem, ‘Politics’ the one he intended to complete his last volume, eschews the Furies and — as he enjoined himself in ‘Those Images’ — calls the Muses home. The poet focuses on ‘That girl standing there,’ and his longing — that of a true Muse poet — ‘that I were young again/And held her in my arms.’ The wheel had come full circle with Yeats's decision to end his body of work with quite a different song from ‘Words,’ where his Muse's unattainability was essential to generating his poetry. The poet of ‘Politics’ is a devotee of a Muse who, speaking in ‘The Three Bushes,’ insists on being captured because ‘None can rely upon/A love that lacks its proper food.’

Keywords:   Edith Shakleton Heald, News for the delphic oracle, Those images, The circus animals' desertion, Politics, Eros and Thanatos

Golden Codger and Siren: Yeats and Edith Shackleton Heald

9. Edith Shackleton Heald and Yeats at Chantry House in 1937 or 1938 (The Huntingdon Library).


When Yeats met Heald, she seemed, as Foster points out, ‘an unlikely successor to Ruddock and Mannin,’ being fifty‐three years old and ‘neither stylish nor obviously attractive.’ (Life 2, 583) On the other hand, like Mannin, she was an accomplished and intriguing journalist. Yeats claimed she was the best paid woman journalist of her time1 and Arnold Bennett called her ‘the most brilliant reviewer’ in London.2 Moreover, as one of her former colleagues said in her obituary in the 10 November 1976 Times, she spent ‘her quick and noble mind generously.’3 If she was an unlikely successor to Ruddock and Mannin, she perhaps stood midway between those decidedly heterosexual Sirens and the lesbian Wellesley in one respect: of ambiguous sexuality, she lived for many years following Yeats's death with the lesbian painter, Hannah Gluckstein.4

Although Heald's Lancastrian father abandoned the family in her youth, he left behind three extraordinarily talented children, including Nora Heald, who edited The Queen and later, The Lady, and Ivan Heald, who was Fleet Street's most acclaimed humorous writer before joining the Royal Flying Corp and meeting his death in World War I. At Ivan's suggestion, Edith entered journalism, establishing herself as a pioneering feminist voice. Her journalism of the decade before she met Yeats, for which she used her mother's name, Shackleton, reflects a supple mind, a playful imagination, and a familiarity with themes of Yeatsian interest. For example, her column of 5 July 1925 anticipates the theory Yeats would later explore in ‘The Statues’ (VP 610) that art and literature shape societal ideas of beauty and sexual attractiveness. Heald attributes the notion that ‘the girl of the Period’ has no grace or charm to the ‘neglect or degradation of the girl in art,’ asserting that ‘poetry, painting and the theater mould life rather reflect it.’ Heald argues that young women of an earlier era were moulded, for example, by Meredith's ‘Love in the Valley,’ which gave young women an image of themselves as tall lilies:

  • When from bed she rises clothed from neck to ankle
  • In her long white nightgown sweet as boughs of May,
  • Beautiful she looks, like a tall garden Lilly,
  • Pure from the night and splendid for the day.

In contrast, Heald suggests that the ‘Girl of the Period probably appears at her window in striped pyjamas and drops down into the garden to smoke a cigarette or feed her ferret before dressing….’ The Girl of the Period was no less neglected by painters. Instead of the ‘anemic yearning of Burne Jones’ maidens’, the Girls of the Period have no pictures from which to ‘get their ideals’ or ‘furnish their dreams.’5

Another column shows Heald vigorously deconstructing the myth of ‘[t]he adored one’ in the course of commenting on a twenty‐four‐year‐old woman's testimony, in a breach of promise action, that ‘[i]t was my young life I wasted with him.’ Heald argued that the ‘artificial melancholy’ reflected in the young woman's testimony was the result of a Victorian mindset in which society was ‘so happy and prosperous and felt so near the millennium that melancholy had to be cultivated as a genteel accomplishment, as in Rossetti's “The Lady's Lament”:

  • Never happy anymore.
  • Aye turn the saying o'er and o'er,
  • It says but what it said before,
  • And heart and life are just as sore.

Heald went on to argue that ‘[w]ith their growing independence of habit and thought, women realize that to be insulted by the passing of love is to deny that it has any quality of magic or passion.’ Rather, ‘[t]he adored one’ – a ‘woman who has been passionately loved’ – knows ‘that in fact she was never the most beautiful woman in the world, nor fairer than the evening star, nor more lovely than the summer's day, but that something which neither of them understood compelled her lover to say – and perhaps believe – that she was. If this spell passes and he ceases to say or believe this enchanting nonsense, why should she be ashamed or insulted?’ Her pride ‘need not be damaged by the passing of something over which she had no control.…’6

Heald had fun with a published quote from Yeats's diary in an October 1926 piece about the then new prospect of suits by a wife against another woman for alienation of her husband's affection. Heald's article began with Yeats's observation that ‘[m]y father says “A man does not love a woman because he thinks her clever or because he admires her, but because he likes the way she has of scratching her (p.201) head”.’ Heald said this ‘sound reflection has been running in my mind’ since she read of the prospect of suits by wives for alienation of their husbands' affection.

Finding the prospect of such cases ‘staggering,’ she imagines a tribunal that will be

something like a burlesque of one of the Provençal Courts of Love. How is any woman going to assess the fascination of another and point to the particular charm which broke up her own dominance over her husband?

How is the fascinator ever to plead guilty to specific lures when, if she is honest, she cannot say if the defaulting husband loved her for her voice or her eyelashes, her wit, her piety, or merely for the way in which she scratched her head?

She wittily turns the tables, arguing

[i]f wives are actually going to sink to the ignominy of prosecuting other women for being more attractive than themselves, it ought to be made possible for other women to prosecute wives for allowing their husbands' affections to run so to waste that they become a public nuisance.7

Heald herself became that other woman shortly after her introduction to Yeats in April 1937. For the rest of his life, he would make frequent visits to the home she shared with her sister at Chantry House in the small Sussex village of Steyning, and share winter accommodation with her in the south of France. Yeats's letters to her are intimate and intensely erotic, filled with expressions of desire, but also with a longing for peace, stillness and sleep.

His arresting first letter of 4 May 1937 forwards the text of one of his lectures, telling her she need not read it: ‘It is a tribute – that is all.’ (CL InteLex 6923) Soon, he is anxious to ‘again ask you for a friendship from which I hope so much,’ telling her that you ‘seem to me to have that kind of understanding or sympathy, which is peace.’8 After a visit to Steyning in June – described to George as a visit to ‘two elderly women’ in ‘a charming old house with an emmense garden in the middle of an old country town – house, furniture, pictures, garden all perfectly appropriate’9 – Yeats tells Heald that ‘I am happy & at peace – my only dread that I may not please you.’ A tantalizing postscript observes that ‘Sunday when we came together was my birth‐day.’10 A week later, Heald is the recipient of her first ‘oh my dear,’ along with the news that ‘what is left me in life is yours.’11 By 4 September he ‘long[s] to be with you,’ and a week later is ‘longing for you in body & soul,’ and, after another ‘Oh my dear,’ discloses – without apparent awareness of the (p.202) ironic reprise of one of his addressee's Sunday Express columns, a desire ‘to say all those foolish things which are sometimes read out in breach of promise cases.’12 Anticipating their joint journey to the south of France, Yeats's letter of 7 November 1937 longs ‘for the quiet of Monte Carlo & your quiet‐bright still air (metaphorical and real)’, before closing with an ‘oh my dear.’ (CL InteLex 7112)

After their visit to France, where she was replaced by George in February, he wonders if she knows ‘how much you have given me’ and asks ‘no more of life except to see more of you.’13 The effect of that encomium might have been undercut by Yeats's 15 March explanation that ‘O my dear I want your arms to make me sleap….’14 Sleep or no sleep, Yeats's next letter was signed ‘your lover & your friend.’15

Throughout this period, and extending until his death, Yeats spent substantial periods of time with Heald, and found in her presence the quiet and peace in which he wrote an astonishing number of poems of the first rank and prepared himself and his body of poetry for his death. Yet none of the poems had Heald as addressee or subject. The Muse question is further clouded by a lack of clarity as to how the ardent desire of Yeats's letters was expressed during his frequent visits. The student of Musedom can only speculate on the basis of such hints as a letter in which Yeats ‘begin[s] to touch you gently timidly at the top of your head & then’ decides ‘it is best to close,’16 and a photograph of Heald sunbathing bare‐breasted in the Chantry House garden under, as Foster says, Yeats's ‘rapturous gaze.’17 Although Heald provided Yeats with the sense of desire that, like the sense of order and serenity derived from Coole and Penns in the Rocks, was a necessary condition to his creativity, the absence of poetry to or about herself suggests she was more Siren than Muse.

Yeats's letters to Heald eschew the term lust that had been featured in his exchanges with Wellesley, but also avoid the term love, which he had denigrated in his 1935 letter to Margot Ruddock as ‘a name for the ephemeral charm of desire – desire for its own sake.’18 Yeats's assertion contradicts his own recognition elsewhere that love implies desire for another. Even as late as the second edition of A Vision, Yeats's alter ego Michael Robartes distinguishes between love and desire in the context of his assertion that ‘Love contains all Kant's antinomies…Thesis, there is no beginning; antithesis, there is a beginning; or, as I prefer: thesis, there is an end; antithesis, there is no end. Exhausted by the cry that it can never end, my love ends; without that cry it were not love but desire, desire does not end.’ (AVB 40) In other words, desire perpetuates (p.203) itself by not seeking union with the other. The sense of Yeats's letters to Heald is that he is seeking neither an iconic mystical relationship, as with Maud Gonne, nor a mutually supportive two‐way teacher/pupil relationship, as with Iseult Gonne, but is courting sexual desire solely as an end in itself, or perhaps as a necessary condition to poetry. Rather than seeking inspiration from deferral of desire for the other or the bitterness of loss, he moves directly from desire to poetry without pausing to seek union with, or even to praise, the other. The desire expressed in Yeats's letters to Heald seems too insistent, too constructed, too much, as he had said in his letter to Ruddock, ‘desire for its own sake’ or, as he hesitated to say to either Ruddock or Heald, desire for the sake of poetry. The cold logic of this approach lies beneath Yeats's thesis for a radio debate with Edmund Dulac in June 1937 that ‘all the arts are an expression of desire.’19

The resultant poetry suggests that a generalized desire – what ‘The Spur’ calls lust – was a less effective Muse than a courtier's love for a particular woman. In ‘News for the Delphic Oracle’ (VP 611), written in August 1938,20 Yeats looks back at unsatisfying lust‐inspired adventures, and reports on the largely ineffectual results of pursuing lust as a spur to song. Ironically turning the tables on the oracle, who normally brought news from the company of the immortals to suppliant questioners, Yeats brings news for the Delphic Oracle. Knowing from his extensive reading of Henry More that souls in the afterlife engaged ‘not only in rational discourses,’ but pursued ‘Musical and Amorous propension,’21 Yeats presents the immortals as a group of languid ‘golden codgers’:

  • There all the golden codgers lay,
  • There the silver dew,
  • And the great water sighed for love
  • And the wind sighed too.
  • Man‐picker Niamh leant and sighed
  • By Oisin on the grass;
  • There sighed amid his choir of love
  • Tall Pythagoras.
  • Plotinus came and looked about,
  • The salt flakes on his breast,
  • And having stretched and yawned awhile
  • Lay sighing like the rest.

The ‘Tall Pythagoras’ who sighs ‘amid his choir of love’ can be none other than Yeats, who so identified himself in the lines from The King of (p.204) the Great Clock Tower ‘partially addressed’ to Margot Ruddock. Pythagoras and the other golden codgers seem to be in a state of depressed languor befitting someone who, like the unboastful Pythagoras of Yeats's lines to Margot, has not found sexual satisfaction. As Daniel Albright's learned analysis puts it, ‘the codgers are in a state of post‐coital depression associated with no act of coitus, a perpetually fulfilled condition which is the ironic reversal of the Keatsian condition where the lovers never, never kiss, though winning near the goal.’22 When desire is an end in itself, the poet, unlike the Keatsian lover who never kisses, though winning near the goal, is in a state of perpetual fulfillment. The sexuality inaccessible to Yeats is relegated to a mere frenzy in the realm where Pan's ‘Intolerable music falls’:

  • Foul goat‐head, brutal arm appear,
  • Belly, shoulder, bum,
  • Flash fishlike; nymphs and satyrs
  • Copulate in the foam.

Contemporaneously with writing ‘News for the Delphic Oracle,’23 Yeats attempted a poem praising ‘the women that I picked,’ a late re‐working of the theme of ‘Friends,’ but this time his Muses fail to inspire a successful celebration of themselves. The poem, ‘Hound Voice’ (VP 621), grows out of a meditation on Dorothy Wellesley, who must be the woman who lived ‘[s]o many years companioned by a hound’ – her great dane Brutus, mentioned in ‘To Dorothy Wellesley,’ who died in 1937.24 The poem expands its scope to laud all the poet's lovers as having ‘hound voices.’ They spoke ‘sweet and low,’ knew ‘[w]hat hour of terror comes to test the soul,’ and understood ‘[t]hose images that waken in the blood.’ Instead of pursuing the shared understanding of those images, however, the poem degenerates into a celebration of the blood and wounds that will attend a renewed hunt. Neither Sirens nor Furies were bringing Yeats sufficient inspiration.

In fact, as discussed in Chapter 7, the Sirens are the opposite of Muses, and their song is ultimately, as Plutarch said, a call to the soul to break its tie with the body.25 That is why the intense eroticism of Yeats's letters to Heald is accompanied by expressions of longing for peace, quiet, and sleep. Even her talk is praised for its ‘quiet.’26 That peace, quiet, and sleep are metaphors for death – that Eros and Thanatos have merged – is apparent from Yeats's letter of 20 October 1938 to Ethel Mannin, in which his oft‐quoted belief that reality consists of ‘two states of consciousness, beings or persons which die each other's life, live each (p.205) other's death’ is proclaimed to be ‘true of life & death themselves.’ (CL InteLex 7315) In his relationship with Heald, Yeats's death had begun to live his life. Indeed, he had written to Wellesley, that ‘I thought my problem was to face death with gaety now I have learned that it is to face life.’27 Achieving the equanimity to cast a cold eye on both life and death was a remarkable achievement, but, for a Muse poet, who found his inspiration in the turbulent emotions engendered by passionate relationships with women, it was, quite literally, a dead end. Thus, Yeats wisely crumpled, rather than published, the draft quatrain he dictated to Heald in May 1938 that asks ‘What is explanation of it all? / What does it look like to a learned man?’28 Although Ellmann suggests that the dark answer – a view in which ‘[f]rom nowhere unto nowhere nothings run’ – is Yeats's (Second Puberty 26), it seems more likely that the answer is that of one of the three learned men with whom Yeats had dined the previous evening in All Souls College, Oxford. (Life 2, 621). The important point is that, after Yeats dictated the quatrain, man and poet went their separate ways. Man dictated the quatrain, the poet chose to discard, rather than publish, it. The poet knew he needed to search elsewhere for inspiration. Thus, in the poem he intended to be the penultimate of Last Poems,29 ‘The Circus Animals’ Desertion’ (VP 629), he tells of searching in vain for a theme until he concluded, like a true Muse poet, that he ‘must be satisfied with my heart’:

  • I sought a theme and sought for it in vain,
  • I sought it daily for six weeks or so.
  • Maybe at last, being but a broken man,
  • I must be satisfied with my heart, although
  • Winter and summer till old age began
  • My circus animals were all on show,
  • Those stilted boys, that burnished chariot,
  • Lion and woman and the Lord knows what.

Famously, satisfaction with his heart required that:

  • I must lie down where all the ladders start,
  • In the foul rag‐and‐bone shop of the heart.

In the poem intended as the last of his published poems,30 ‘Politics’ (VP 631), Yeats made clear that a return to the ‘foul rag and bone shop of the heart’ would lead him to holding a beautiful woman in his arms. The message of ‘Politics’ can be traced to its origin in ‘Those Images’ (VP 600), in which Yeats shunned politics and the rage it generated for a return to (p.206) ‘the five/That make the Muses sing,’ the hallmarks, as discussed in Chapter 4, of those unforgettable Muses, Maud and Iseult Gonne:

  • What if I bade you leave
  • The cavern of the mind?
  • There's better exercise
  • In the sunlight and wind.
  • I never bade you go
  • To Moscow or to Rome.
  • Renounce that drudgery,
  • Call the Muses home.
  • Seek those images
  • That constitute the wild,
  • The lion and the virgin,
  • The harlot and the child.
  • Find in middle air
  • An eagle on the wing,
  • Recognize the five
  • That make the Muses sing.

Yeats sent a draft of this poem to Wellesley in August 1937, telling her that it said the same thing as Blake's observation that ‘Kings & parliaments seem to me something other than human life’ and Hugo's belief that ‘they are not worth one blade of grass that God gives for the nest of the linnet.’31 A similar idea animates ‘Politics.’ Preceded by a quote from Thomas Mann – ‘In our time the destiny of man presents its meaning in political terms’ – Yeats insisted:

  • How can I, that girl standing there,
  • My attention fix
  • On Roman or on Russian
  • Or on Spanish politics?
  • Yet here's a travelled man that knows
  • What he talks about,
  • And there's a politician
  • That has both read and thought,
  • And maybe what they say is true
  • Of war and war's alarms,
  • But O that I were young again
  • And held her in my arms! (VP 631)

Turning his back on the siren song of lust and rage, Yeats would return to the courtly and wisdom traditions, but, having no Muse incarnate (p.207) ready to hand, fashioned ‘Politics’, as he told Wellesley, from ‘a moment of meditation’ rather than ‘a real incident.’32 Still, the poem reflects Yeats's impulse to conclude his career as lover, but this time as a pursuer of an attainable Muse. The old man who had left the cup half tasted in his youth has revised his theory of the Muse. Although his early career had been built on the unattainability of his beloved, he now embraces the view of the lady in ‘The Three Bushes’:

  • Said lady once to lover,
  • ‘None can rely upon
  • A love that lacks its proper food;
  • And if your love were gone
  • How could you sing those songs of love?
  • I should be blamed, young man.’ (VP 569)


(1.) Letter of 16 June 1938 to Maud Gonne, CL InteLex 7273.

(2.) Quoted in Heald's obituary, Times of London, 10 November 1976, 18.

(3.) Id.

(4.) Diana Souhami, Gluck 1895–1978: Her Biography (London: Pandora, 1988) (‘Gluck’).

(5.) The Sunday Express, July 5, 1925 at 7.

(6.) The Sunday Express, July 19, 1925 at 7.

(7.) The Sunday Express, October 17, 1926 at 11.

(8.) Letter of 18 May 1937, CL InteLex 6934.

(9.) Letter of 16 June 1937, CL InteLex 6966.

(10.) Letter of 16 June 1937, CL InteLex 6967.

(11.) Letter of 22 June 1937, CL InteLex 6978.

(12.) Letters of 4 and 12 September 1937, CL InteLex 7054 and 7066.

(13.) Letter of 2 March 1938, CL InteLex 7193.

(14.) Letter of 15 March 1938, CL InteLex 7201.

(15.) Letter of 16–20 March 1938, CL InteLex 7202.

(16.) Letter of 5 September 1937, CL InteLex 7055.

(17.) Life 2, 587.

(18.) Letter of 11 August 1935, CL InteLex 6316.

(19.) Quoted in Jeremy Silver, ‘George Barnes's “W.B. Yeats and Broadcasting” 1940’, YA 5 (1987) 194.

(20.) Last Poems MM 253.


(21.) Henry More, The Immortality of the Soul (London, 1659), Book III, Ch. 9. F.A.C. Wilson pointed out the pertinence of this passage in W.B. Yeats and Tradition (New York: Macmillan, 1958) 214.

(22.) Daniel Albright, The Myth Against Myth (London: Oxford University Press, 1972) 118.

(23.) Last Poems MM 299–301.

(24.) See Letter of 27 October 1937 to George Yeats, CL InteLex 7103.

(25.) Chapter 7, text at notes 17 and 18 .

(26.) Letter of 24 October 1938, CL InteLex 7317.

(27.) Letter of 20 November 1937, CL InteLex 7122.

(28.) Warwick Gould, ‘“What is the explanation of it all?”: Yeats's “little poem about nothing”’, YA 5 (1987) 212–13.

(29.) Introduction, n. 17 .

(30.) Id.

(31.) Letter of 12 August 1937, CL InteLex 7039.

(32.) Letter of 24 May 1938, CL InteLex 7243.