W.B. Yeats: A Lover and a Poet

Washim Akram, Nakshalbari College, Darjeeling

Download PDF Version

“Does the imagination dwell the most

Upon a woman won or woman lost?”

(Yeats: The Tower:114-15)

The poetry of W.B William Butler Yeats (1865-1939) stretches across the whole period of the late Victorian and early Modern ages. One of the common themes of Yeats’ poetry is love. Maud Gonne was a kind of obsession for him. His love for Maud Gonne was unyielding and he could never get rid of the obsessive feelings for her.

Maud Gonne (1866–1953) was the Muse behind the oeuvre of Yeats’ splendid love poems. As Beatrice was to Dante so was Maud Gonne to Yeats. Maud Gonne first visited the Yeats family household in London when the poet was 23 and she 22. Yeats fell in love with her.  Maud Gonne already had a French lover, Lucien Millevoye. She later married the Irish patriot, Major John MacBride. Maud Gonne was a radical Irish revolutionary. In Memoirs, W. B. Yeats writes about Gonne:

“I had never thought to see in a living woman so great beauty. It belonged to famous pictures, to poetry, to some legendary past. A complexion like the blossom of apples, and yet face and body had the beauty of  lineaments which Blake calls the highest beauty because it changes least from youth to age, and a stature so great that she seemed of a divine race.” (40).

Yeats revealed to Gonne his unhappiness without her love and she replied thus, “Oh yes, you are, because you make beautiful poetry out of what you call your unhappiness and are happy in that.” Marriage would be such a dull affair, she said. A poet should never marry. “The world should thank me for not marrying you” (Autobiography 319). In “Beautiful Lofty Things” (1938) Yeats directly mentions the name of Maud Gonne- ‘Maud Gonne at Howath station waiting a train’ (10).

Yeats’s Memoirs (1972) reveals how he tried to divert himself from the thoughts of  Gonne to a novelist named Olivia Shakespear (1863–1938). Shakespear’s image of luxuriant and embowering hair dominates the poems in The Wind Among the Reeds (1899).  Shakespear inspired the poems like “He bids his Beloved be at Peace” (1896), “He gives his Beloved certain Rhymes” (1896), “He remembers Forgotten Beauty” (1896), “He reproves the Curlew” (1896) “The Lover asks Forgiveness because of his Many Moods”(1895), “The Lover mourns for the Loss of  Love” (1898),  “A Poet to his Beloved” (1896) and “The Travail of Passion”(1896) (Olivia Shakespear and W. B. Yeats 71).

Harwood writes, “In the ‘Olivia Shakespear’ poems, the iconography centres on imagery of hair, and the beloved is clearly mortal, whereas in the ‘Maud Gonne’ poems the emphasis falls upon eyes and eyelids, and the beloved becomes a quasi-immortal being, with absolute power over the poet. The distinction only exists during the years 1895–1897, after which Olivia Shakespear is no longer represented in the poems, and imagery of hair reverts in reference to Maud Gonne” (73–74). In London, throughout the 1890s and early 1900s, Yeats had a close relationship with actress Florence Farr. She produced the Land of Heart’s Desire in 1894 and even acted in The Countess Cathleen in 1899.

Iseult Gonne (1894-1954) was one of the two children that Maud Gonne bore from her relationship with the French Lucien Millevoye before she was married to John MacBride. Iseult was in certain ways her mother’s opposite: she was poetic not political. In the summer of 1917, Yeats proposed to her repeatedly but she did not respond to it. Harold Bloom describes Yeats’ love for Iseult Gonne as “the poet’s brief, strange, quasi-love for Iseult Gonne,”(198).

According to A. Norman Jeffares, Maud Gonne and Yeats were walking one afternoon on the cliffs at Howth at the mouth of Dublin Bay in the month of August in 1891 when two seagulls flew over their heads. Maud Gonne desired to be transformed into a seagull (Man and Poet 68). After three days the poet composed the beautiful poem “The White Birds” (1892) where he wishes to be transformed, together with his beloved into the white birds, so that they can have a chance to live together apart from the sorrow and the mortality of the real world that dooms them to live away from each other:

For I would we were changed to white birds on the wandering foam:

I and you!

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Where Time would surely forget us, and Sorrow come near us no

more; (8,10)

In “The Song of Wandering Aengus” (1897), Aengus tells that one day he went to a hazel wood for fishing and managed to catch a ‘little silver trout’(8). Suddenly the fish was transformed into a “glimmering girl” with “apple blossoms in her hair” and by calling him his name “faded through the brightening air” (13-16). He dreams that he will find the girl and “kiss her lips and take her hands” (20). The girl with ‘apple blossoms in her hair’ in the poem may be Maud Gonne. Yeats in his Autobiographies writes about Maud Gonne, “Her complexion was luminous, like that of apple-blossom through which the light falls, and I remember her standing that first day by a great heap of such blossoms in the window” (120). Yeats repeats the apple-blossom association in “The Arrow” (6), in Memoirs (40), and in The Speckled Bird (37, 40).

In the poem, “He Bids his Beloved be at Peace” (1896), the poet takes refuge in the arms of his beloved who is none other than Olivia Shakespear (Mem.86) and asks her, “Beloved let your eyes half close, and your heart beat/ Over my heart, and your hair fall over my breast,/ Drowning love’s lonely hour in deep twilight of rest” (9-11). This is truly romantic. It reveals how much the poet craves to be lost in love.

Yeats’ effort of winning the heart of Maud Gonne was fruitless. In the poem,He Wishes His Beloved Were Dead” (1898), the poet wishes that her beloved were dead so that she will refuse his love for her and he will be in liberty to love her to his heart’s content:

Were you but lying cold and dead,

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

And I would lay my head on your breast;

And you would murmur tender words,

Forgiving me, because you were dead: (1, 4-6)

The poem “Adam’s Curse” (1902) originates from a conversation that Yeats had with Maud Gonne and her sister Kathleen Pilcher at Kathleen’s home in London. The story behind the poem was written in details by Maud Gonne in The Autobiography of Maud Gonne (1938):

“I was still in my dark clothes with the black veil I always wore when travelling instead of a hat, and we must have made a strange contrast. I saw Willie Yeats looking critically at me and he told Kathleen he liked her dress and that she was looking younger than ever. It was on that occasion Kathleen remarked that it was hard work being beautiful, which Willie turned into his poem Adam’s Curse.” (317)

Yeats writes in “Adam’s Curse”:

We sat grown quiet at the name of love;

We saw the last embers of daylight die,

And in the trembling blue-green of the sky

A moon, worn as if it had been a shell

Washed by time’s waters as they rose and fell (28-32)

Yeats makes an analogy between moon and love as they shed their vigour and splendour in course of time. The moon is “washed by time’s waters” whereas love’s brightness dims and makes the lovers sit “grown quiet”. Yeats’ love for Maud Gonne had never been answered and he painted the painful condition of his heart in that poem.

“Never Give all the Heart” (1905) was written at the news of  Maud Gonne’s marriage to John MacBride (1865–1916) on February 21, 1903. This poem is a kind of advice in which the poet says that it is of no use giving heart to ‘passionate women’ as they will not value true love. Yeats has loved one with all his heart but he has failed to impress the woman. So he says, “He that made this knows all the cost, / For he gave all his heart and lost” (13-14).

“No Second Troy” (1910) is Yeats’ most striking invocation of Helen. Here Yeats elevates Maud Gonne to the status of the mythical Helen:

With beauty like a tightened bow, a kind

That is not natural in an age like this,

Being high and solitary and most stern?

Why, what could she have done, being what she is?

Was there another Troy for her to burn? (8-12)

The title “No Second Troy” makes it clear that Yeats equates Maud Gonne with Helen, the destructive Greek beauty. Richard Ellmann   comments that,

The success of the poem comes partly from the poet’s withholding the identification of his beloved with Helen until the last line, when it fairly explodes. Yeats manages this by basing the identification not merely on beauty, but also on destructive power, and thus shunning sentimentality (111–112).

The poem, “To a Child Dancing in the Wind” (1912) is addressed to Iseult Gonne and it appeared in Responsibilities(1914). Yeats addresses her thus:

Being young you have not known

The fool’s triumph nor yet

Love lost as soon as won, (6-8)

Iseult is too ‘young’ to realize the cruel ways of love. He is frustrated for being rejected in love. He had thought that Maud Gonne would have similar feelings for him that he had for her.

Yeats expresses his pure love for Gonne by celebrating both her beauty and the sweet memories with her. Poems like “He Thinks of  Those Who Have Spoken Evil of his Beloved” (1916), “He Tells of the Perfect Beauty” (1896), and “He Tells of a Valley Full of Lovers” (1897) celebrate Gonne’s beauty that flames the fire of love in Yeats’ heart. Poems like “A Memory of Youth” (1932), “Fallen Majesty” (1912), “Friends” (1912), “That the Night Come” (1912), “Memory”(1916), “Her Praise” (1916), “His Phoenix” (1916), “Broken Dreams” (1917), “A Deep- Sworn Vow” (1917) and “Presences” (1917) celebrate sweet moments and memories with Gonne.

Passion of love was so strong in Yeats that whenever he sat to write poetry, the words of love spontaneously came out of his pen. In a letter to Olivia Shakespeare, in 1926, Yeats writes, “We are at our Tower and I am writing poetry as I always do here, and as always happens, no matter how I begin, it becomes love poetry before I am finished with it” ( Yeats 1954: 714-15).

To conclude, most of Yeats’ poems are dedicated consciously or unconsciously to Maud Gonne, Yeats’ unfulfilled and unrequited one-sided love. The poems express his desire for and his devotion to Maud Gonne. Yeats’ failure and frustration in love were blessings in disguise.  Had it not been so, we would have been deprived of enjoying Yeats’ lovely lyrics. Maud Gonne was the love of his life. His love for Maud Gonne as well as for others have been immortalized by the immortal poetry of the mortal poet.

Works Cited

Bloom, Harold. Yeats. NY: Oxford UP, 1970.

Ellmann, Richard. The Identity of Yeats. London: Faber and Faber, 1983. Print.

Gonne, Maud. The Autobiography of Maud Gonne: A Servant of the Queen. Ed. A. Norman Jeffares and Anna MacBride White. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995.   Print.

Harwood, John. Olivia Shakespear and W. B. Yeats: After Long Silence. Basingstoke,         England: Macmillan,1989.

Jeffares, A. Norman. W.B. Yeats: Man and Poet. 1949. New Haven: Yale UP, 1978. Print.

—. W.B. Yeats: A New Biography. London: Hutchinson, 1988. Print.

Yeats,W.B. Autobiographies. London: Macmillan, 1991. Print.

—. The Collected Poems of W.B. Yeats. Ed. Richard J. Finneran. London:           Wordsworth         Poetry         Library,2000. Print.

—.The Letters of W. B. Yeats. Ed. Allan Wade. London: Rupert Hart-Davis, 1954. Print.

—.Memoirs. Edited by Denis Donoghue. New York: Macmillan Company, 1973. Print.

—.Responsibilities and Other Poems. London: Macmillan, 1914. Print.

—.The Speckled Bird. Edited by William H. O’Donnell. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart,        1976. Print.

—.W. B. Yeats: Selected Poems. Ed. Timothy Webb. London: Penguin Books, 2000. Print.

—.A Vision. London: Macmillan, 1981.Print.

Yeats, W. B., and Maud Gonne. The Gonne-Yeats Letters 1893–1938. Ed. Anna MacBride    White and A. Norman Jeffares. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1994.      Print.

Bio-note

Washim Akram is Assistant Professor in EnglishNakshalbari College, under the University of  North Bengal, Darjeeling.

Hits: 1334