On W.B. Yeats and the Perils of Automatic Writing

Psychic investigator Hamilton Coe surrounded by icons of horror. Featured characters include H.P. Lovecraft, Edgar Allan Poe, Algernon Blackwood, Vampira, Donald Pleasence, Pennywise, Joan Crawford, Screaming Jay Hawkins, Dave Vanian, Vincent Price, Pola Negri, Michael Redgrave as Maxwell Frere, Children of the Damned

In 1916, W.B. Yeats, having been rejected by Maud Gonne and her daughter Iseult*, proposed to Bertha Hyde-Lees (familiarly known as Georgie). If Yeats was hoping that one or other of the Gonnes, dismayed by the prospect of his imminent unavailability, would finally surrender to his advances, he was to be disappointed. If anything, both seemed relieved by the apparent transfer of his affections. Worse still, Georgie unexpectedly accepted his proposal with the consequence that within months the poet, chagrined and bewildered, found himself honeymooning with a woman whose very presence was a source of irritation. Having already used Georgie shabbily, Yeats, whose advanced years came without the compensation of sensitivity or experience, had little compunction about confessing the cause of his unhappiness. Understandably bemused by developments, Georgie struggled to compose her thoughts by writing them down. Distracted by Yeats’s self-absorbed interruptions, it suddenly occurred to her that, while she continued to write, the words no longer came of her own volition – she was merely a conduit for some other source of inspiration. Pointing out to her husband the vaguely promising sentiments ” With the bird all is well at heart ” and ” You will neither regret nor repine ” she triggered an obsession that would dominate the rest of their lives.

The sceptical reader might find it inconceivable that a fifty one year old man would attach cosmic significance to his wife’s scribbled response to crisis. Certainly Yeats, having shattered the mood of the honeymoon might have felt obliged to retrieve the situation by encouraging Georgie’s new interest. It should be remembered, though, that throughout his life, his habitual response to a fat-headed notion was to lend it his whole-hearted approval. Whether as a teenage theosophist or elderly fascist, he evinced an almost heroic indifference to the suggestion that he might be making a fool of himself. There seems no reason to doubt that he was similarly galvanised by this new enthusiasm. Misgivings forgotten, he spent the remainder of their honeymoon badgering Georgie into increasingly intensive periods of communication with her spirit guides. A more worldly individual might have been alerted by the constancy with which they took her side. They chided him relentlessly for his insensitivity, criticised his sexual technique and only stopped short of materialising on Georgie’s hands like glove puppets and belabouring him with blows. Meekly, he accepted every admonishment and remained in thrall to his wife’s unexpected genius. By the time they returned home she had filled ninety three pages. Hundreds more would follow, their observations informing Yeats’s ‘Vision’ and prompting the productivity that continued through the latter part of his career.

Whether one regards the Yeatses as recipients of secret information or participants in mutual folly, it’s evident that neither was harmed by the project. Their apparent successes notwithstanding, I’d implore anyone determined to experiment with Automatic Writing to proceed with caution. As is the case with any system in which a spirit is invited to impart information, it’s often impossible to determine whether the driving force is an external influence or a repressed facet of the subject’s own unconscious. Nonetheless, experiments should only be conducted in environments in which the author (or conduit) feels entirely comfortable while the hyper-sensitive would be well advised to abstain from the practise entirely.

The experience of Canadian poet Barry Gulliver should serve as a deterrent to the curious. Barry had no particular interest in automatic writing. His first half-hearted experiment, conducted after consuming two bottles of red wine, represented nothing so much as an attempt to kill time as he waited to fall asleep. Looking over his notes the next morning, he was astonished to find seven pages covered in a barely decipherable scrawl bearing not even the slightest resemblance to his own handwriting. “Midnight in the City of Angels,” started the first page causing Barry to momentarily wonder if he was in receipt of some apocalyptic prophecy. The next few lines were illegible but the final sentence of the first paragraph – “It was quiet…. TOO QUIET!!!” – reinforced his sense of foreboding. This turned to bewilderment, disappointment and finally self-reproach as, over the following pages, a story emerged in which the narrator (identified only as ‘Steve’) became embroiled with an undercover female detective (” A different type of detective !!!”), itinerant Shaolin monks and a drugs cartel. The final page concluded with him chained to a radiator stoically awaiting execution by a man with “the sort of face you only see in dreams… Bad dreams !!!!”

Having attributed the entire episode to over-work and intoxication, Barry was astonished when he woke up the next morning to find more of Steve’s adventures scrawled across ten pages of his notepad. Rescued from certain death by the detective, Steve became embroiled in an apparently pointless car-chase which culminated in an explosion and a gratuitous sexual encounter with a glamorous but sassy librarian ( A different type of librarian !!!”) The rest of Barry’s day was wasted as he struggled to find some hidden meaning in the text: was it possible that Steve represented humanity or simply unexplored aspects of his own personality? It occurred to him that a message of genuine significance might be extricated from the intricate banalities of the plot. For hours he pondered the purpose of the monks and analysed Steve’s leering asides but to no avail. If he was being tested with a code, it was beyond his powers of interpretation. ” Who are you?” he eventually wrote but no direct response was forthcoming, merely a resumption of the increasingly hare-brained narrative.

Over the course of a month, ‘Steve’ filled seven narrow lined A4 work-pads. Worse still, his adventures started encroaching into Barry’s other work, in particular a sympathetic reassessment of the dynamic between Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath. Every morning, Barry scanned the manuscript for the inevitable profusion of exclamation marks and margin notes (” Cheryl Ladd ????”) that indicated Steve’s presence. Barry’s intention of rescuing Hughes’s reputation from feminist opprobrium was complicated by the appearance of a sub-plot in which the poet pursued a murderous vendetta against prostitutes. Sylvia, meanwhile, (” A different type of poet !!!!”) joined forces with a wisecracking American detective determined to enlist her assistance in bringing ‘The Hawk’ to justice. Around this time, Barry’s sleep was disrupted by vivid nightmares in which Ted Hughes, portrayed by the actor David Soul, stalked the Devon countryside clutching a claw-hammer. Visitors to his apartment remarked on an unusual chill while his girlfriend tentatively broached a “body odour issue” that she attributed to his fondness for vintage clothes.

Matters came to a head when Barry’s girlfriend, spending the weekend at the apartment, was surprised in the shower by a bearded face peering at her through the partition. Barry, alerted by her scream, hurried to the bathroom where he was confronted by a fat, gnomish figure in a surf shirt. The apparition waved his hands frantically as if to semaphore innocence before dissolving into the steam. Previously loath to acknowledge Steve’s existence lest it be attributed to a mental disorder, Barry now confided a full account of his ordeal. His girlfriend, a practising Catholic, flatly refused to remain in the apartment or, indeed, return until an exorcism had been performed. This proved effective, though, interestingly, Barry abandoned his defence of Ted Hughes and, finding himself utterly bereft of ideas, wrote nothing for months.

* Neither Gonne married happily. Maud’s husband, John MacBride, was executed for his part in the Easter Uprising while Iseult was treated abominably by the deranged Irish novelist Francis Stuart.

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