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Always Your Friend: the Gonne-Yeats Letters 1893-1938.

Edited by Anna White and A. Norman Jeffares. Hutchinson. 25.00[pounds].

Reading letters, we are intruding into personal lives. By what right do we dare say these -- or any other private papers -- should be in the public domain? We have the poetry of Yeats and all else he made public. With the passing of more than half a century since his death he is history, but is that enough to warrant our intrusion?

It is true that Yeats made his love for Maud Gonne a matter of general interest through his poetry. She was his muse from early manhood into middle age. Added to this, we have the close relation each had to the 1916 Easter Rising, an event of universal significance. Yeats made literature of the first order from the Rising. One of the names transcribed in verse was John MacBride, husband by this time of Maud Gonne.

Yeats also made great literature from Maud Gonne. She inspired, then acted on the stage (and in her political life re-enacted) Cathleen ni Houlihan, the spirit of Ireland personified. Whether she was a good actress is beside the point. She assisted the poet in sublimating his intense desire and so producing the poetry of the century. In one sense at least, they needed one another.

Of course, the relationship depended on the tension of unfulfilment. When it was consummated at last (something I had not known before) it was over. The love was a young man's fancy -- Yeats was 23 when they first met. Indeed, Maud may have been named after Tennyson's heroine. She was as beautiful as he was handsome, made for one another it amused him to think.

Both, too, were members of the Ascendancy. Maud was the daughter of an English army officer without Celtic antecedents, who was posted to Ireland. Yeats was brought up mainly in London. They had a choice of loyalties. By choosing as they did they created the voice of modern Ireland on the international scene. A revelation of these letters is how much a child of the Ascendancy Yeats was, for all his nationalism. Emotion may have induced prejudice, but he advised Maud against marrying contrary to her Protestant, landed class.

The Ireland of Yeats's dreams was an enchanted isle of generous aristocrats and grateful peasants. There are times when one wonders how deeply Yeats understood the Irish temperament? On the other hand, he was an idealist; and there is no deeper (or sometimes nobler) dreamer than an Irish nationalist. Added to which, Yeats's romantic love reads well in a century of the wrong sort of visionary intensities.

That Yeats was a great poet is beyond question. His genius for making universal significance out of the local, personal, even trite events and feelings is unlike any other. Inspired by a pretty face, he gave the new Ireland its soul and its voice, and ensured this was heard throughout the world.

It is the circumstance of this particular genius which may allow us our intrusion, if we approach respectfully. A reading of these letters may enable us to remember that the noble ideal of Yeats must be set alongside earthier realities -- those of, say, Kavanagh, Behan and several O'Briens. They inherited what remained of the enchantment after the terror which only the impossibly romantic would find beautiful.
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Author:Heptonstall, Geoffrey
Publication:Contemporary Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Oct 1, 1992
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