Yeats and Maud Gonne: (auto)biographical and artistic intersection.
The intertwined careers of Yeats and Maud Gonne and their artistic and biographical relationship have been a subject of much critical investigation. The relationship, emotional or otherwise, of any great lyric poet with women treated as lovers, muses, companions, and fellow-workers has always been deservedly so. Moreover, as Richard Ellmann points out, unlike the heroines of Swinburne, Rossetti, and Morris, who Yeats thought did not have any separate lives of their own, Maud Gonne does indeed live a separate life with her distinct personality in his works. (1) His poems and letters and memoirs disclose a relationship of temperamental and ideological differences between the two--a relationship of unrequited love and out-of-body experience, sexual longing and unfulfillment complicated with the dynamics of their spiritual interests as well as psychosexual anxieties. It was a politically charged and mystically coded relationship, "fraught with fear, anger, disgust, the underside of an idealising romantic passion." (2)
The present essay does not claim to be a real investigation of a problem involved in that highly complex relationship. Instead, it attempts to present the different stages of Yeats's poetic presentation of Maud Gonne, her own autobiographical description of her relationship to the poet, and the way his frustrated love complemented his poetic philosophy.
Talking about Mask and Image in The Trembling of the Veil: Four Years, 1887-1891, Yeats in a romantic spirit declares, "We begin to live when we have conceived of life as tragedy." (3) Accordingly, he began to live from January 30/February 1, 1889, the day he met Maud Gonne (1865-1953) the first time through the introduction of John O'Leary. (4) As he discovered Irish mythology through O'Leary who was his personification of the "Romantic Ireland," (5) so too he discovered through him the woman who was to change his life for ever. He refers to the fine spring morning of that fateful day as the time from when "the troubling of my life began." (6) In a retrospective analysis he says that from his youth he was looking forward to an experience in love that would, no matter how painful, shape him as a poet. So be must have dreamed of an exciting and unusual woman to love, just as he must have disliked ordinary, conventional marriage defined and bound by its traditional domesticities. (7) Accordingly, he fell in love with a woman who also had come to see marriage, at least by 1905, as destructive for many women, (8) would never become his wife despite his repeated proposals and would still continue to inspire an intense passion and provide him with images and themes for his poetry.
It was Maud Gonne, a tall, beautiful, well-to-do and independent-minded Dublin actress and a violent Irish nationalist, who was to fit Yeats's desire and change his whole attitude to life and poetry. She used to wear long black clothes, was fond of keeping pets, especially singing birds, and liked to talk about the glory and excitement of war. Although they shared a passion for Irish nationalism, Celtic revivalism and mysticism, Yeats was skeptical of her extremist nationalist politics "trapped out" with her "red Indian feathers." (9) As such, from the beginning it was a relationship of irreconcileable political and philosophical differences. However, he was carried away by her beauty, energy and self-confident heroic nature:
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. Her movements were worthy of her form, and I understood at last why the poet of antiquity, where we would but speak of face and form, sings, loving some lady, that she paces like a goddess. (10)
Describing the immense power she had over crowds in The Trembling of the Veil, he says that that power partly came from her ability to always keep her mind free even when pushing an abstract principle to an absurdity. Crowds felt moved,
not only because she was beautiful, but because that beauty suggested joy and freedom. Besides, there was an element in her beauty that moved minds full of old Gaelic stories and poems, for she looked as though she lived in an ancient civilization where all superiorities whether of the mind or the body were part of a public ceremonial, were in some way the crowd's creation, as the entrance of the Pope into Saint Peter's is the crowd's creation. Her beauty backed by her great stature could instantly affect an assembly ... for it was incredibly distinguished, and ... her face, like the face of some Greek statue, showed little thought, her whole body seemed a master-work of long labouring thought, as though a Scopas had measured and calculated, consorted with Egyptian sages, and mathematicians out of Babylon, that he might outface even Artemisia's sepulchral image with a living norm. (11)
Daughter of Colonel Thomas Gonne, a British army officer with the rank of Assistant Adjutant-General stationed in Dublin, Maud Gonne was about twenty-five when she first came into Yeats's life, himself of almost the same age, older by a few months only. They first met just after the publication of his first book The Wanderings of Oisin and Other Poems in 1889. He, a courteous man of aristocratic reserve, had fallen in love with a woman who was full of the talk of revolutionary politics. Much of his poetry for years to come, especially the early volumes (The Rose, The Wind Among the Reeds, In the Seven Woods and The Green Helmet), was directly or indirectly about her (some, of course, being about Olivia Shakespear, his first consummated love). Described, in "The Arrow," as
Tall and noble but with face and bosom Delicate in colour as apple blossom ...
Maud Gonne is also the aging woman tenderly addressed in the early poem beginning "When you are old and grey and full of sleep." She is the goddess under whose feet the poet would like to spread the embroidered "cloths of heaven" (in the poem of that title):
But I, being poor, have only my dreams; I have spread my dreams under your feet; Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.
Evidently his early verse offering his love to her is supplicatory and idealizing. His worship of her is clearly in courtly love tradition where the lady, because of her superior station in life, remains unattainable and receives such great adulation as if she were a goddess. In keeping with courtly love, "characterised by religious worship of the female and male self-abasement," his "early poetry consistently deploys the traditional romance structure of elevation and abasement: the mistress is above and the lover is at her feet." (12)
But Yeats is a courtly lover with a difference. A maker of myth, a constructor of complex private mythology and an interpreter of human personality and history as he was, in Blakean and Shelleyan fashion, he must have understood the idea of courtly love in his own way. (13) He, who "gathered from the Romantic poets an ideal of perfect love" and who "would love one woman all [his] life," said, in Dramatis Personae, "A romantic, when romanticism was in its final extravagance, I thought one woman, whether wife, mistress, or incitement to Platonic love, enough for a lifetime: a Parsifal, a Tristram, Don Quixote, without the intellectual prepossessions that gave them solidity." (14) Because he led a long eventful life during a period of social and political changes, his treatment of love over half a century continues to bear political, social and artistic significance. Cullingford, in her article "At the Feet of the Goddess," demonstrates bow he was influenced by Rossetti's revival of the medieval courtly lyric and how that influence "was mediated by his participation in the occult and political culture of the fin de siecle," including the nineteenth-century movement for women's rights.
Yeats not only believed in the gradually disappearing aristocratic Anglo-Irish tradition and heritage but also strove to love Maud Gonne, as he put it in the poem "Adam's Curse," in "the old high way of love" that needed "much labouring" and "high courtesy," meaning ancient chivalric love. This sort of loving, the poet knew, had been going out of fashion and now seemed "an idle trade enough." Yet he discovered his own meaning in it--a meaning which functioned toward the symbolic cohesiveness of his entire work.
In love with Maud Gonne, Yeats enlisted her support for his Irish library, (15) brought her into his occult spiritual order, The Golden Dawn, (16) and pursued her in London or Dublin, Paris or Normandy. Far from having any knowledge of her living a scandalous hidden love life in Paris, he first proposed to her in 1891 but was refused. He hoped his devotion would eventually persuade her to marry him but it did not happen to be so. She was too involved in her political activities to think of marriage; and then a man of poor health and unmanly shyness with women, like Yeats, was obviously not her idea of a husband. She was more likely, if she married at all, to choose an extrovert public man than an introvert literary man, a Robartes rather than an Aherne (to use the names Yeats invented for these contrasting types in "The Phases of the Moon"). The proof of this is borne out by two striking facts in her life: first, her twelve-year relationship with her French lover Lucien Millevoye, a soldier and a political journalist, since 1885 when she was nineteen. Millevoye was the only man she ever really loved and with whom she had an effective political alliance. (17) As a follower of General Boulanger, he was also an extremist. Second, her short-lived 1903 marriage (to the outrage of Yeats, who tried to dissuade her) to the Irish nationalist leader Major John MacBride, socially an inferior to Maud Gonne. MacBride gained fame commanding the Transvaal Brigade against the British in the Boer War in 1899 and later became one of the Easter 1916 heroes executed for their part in that uprising. (18) It is clear, from the kind of persons MacBride, Millevoye and her own father were and from the kind of activities she herself was engaged in, what type of men she was likely to have deep attachment for.
Moreover, Maud Gonne was not really attracted to sexual love, which sometimes even repelled her and which she thought "was only justified by children." (19) She disliked what she described as "a horror and terror of physical love." (20) Consequently, both she and Yeats referred to their relationship as a "mystical marriage," to be elevated by ignoring the experience of the body. That is why her letters to him, while sincere, are not very revealing of her psychological and inner flesh-and-blood life. As she kept turning down his proposals, she urged him to be "strong enough and high enough to accept the spiritual love and union [she] offer[ed]." His Memoirs together with his "Visions Notebook" manuscript are a record of their visionary experiences describing how often they, especially Yeats, dreamt of kissing each other. (21) In view of recent scholarship there is some evidence that they seem to have become engaged for a week in late 1891 with Maud Gonne contemplating to marry him following her break-up with Millevoye later in 1898. (22) But in February of that year she wrote to him that she could only give him "platonic friendship." (23) In December she told him that although his love was "the only beautiful thing in her life ... for certain reasons ... she [could] never marry." Around the same time she told him that she dreamt that they both had been married by a "great spirit" when she "for the first time with the bodily mouth ... kissed" him. (24) That bodily kiss hardly took them to bed. In response to a 1902 proposal, she said to him, as she recalls in her autobiography: "You would not be happy with me ... The world should thank me for not marrying you ... You make beautiful poetry out of what you call your unhappiness and you are happy in that. Marriage would be such a dull affair. Poets should never marry." (25) That she understood not only the difference between his views and those of her but also the value of that difference in creating a force necessary for poetic creativity is clearly demonstrated by such an intelligent and analytical response marked with rare psychological insight. Her comment that he made beautiful poetry out of his unhappiness anticipated her later comment that the "unrest and storm" she gave him proved to be fruitful in the production of his poems.
Maud Gonne's refusal to marry Yeats was persistent and steadfast. Just before her marriage to MacBride in 1903, she said, "As for Willie Yeats I love him dearly as a friend, but I could not for one moment imagine marrying him." (26) Yeats, however, with the exception of a few times when he could easily propose but did not, kept proposing until the relationship finally came to exist on a spiritual plane mixed with a supernatural element. (27) Their spiritual union included what she called "astral" visitations such as the one recorded in one of her writings. In a 1909 letter, she wrote: "I know the spiritual union between us will outlive this life, even if we never see each other in this world again." Such a dimension to their relationship is easily understood when both of them were persons of mystical and supernatural inclinations, with Maud Gonne even sometimes getting superstitious, in ironic contrast to her outspoken and aggressive nature. While he was "sedentary and thoughtful," by his own admission, she was not so and "could become exceedingly superstitious before some great event." (28)
Unlike Yeats, whose adolescent phases passed in romantic imaginings and dreamy incantations, orphaned Maud Gonne, who lost her mother when she was only four, grew up actively. When she was still very young living with her nurse in Dublin, she was ready to assume the appearance of a woman. When she was seventeen, she was in control of her father's house frequented by elderly generals. She travelled to Europe with a French governess of independent, feminist ideals. From her young life she knew how to handle men on her own, how to shoot well and save herself from the attack of those who tried to kidnap or blackmail her. She called herself "a horse that has to wear blinkers to prevent being sidetracked." She carried secret dispatch from Paris to Russia, nursed World War I victims, founded her own Irish news service in Paris and was imprisoned on charges of suspected espionage. She spent her life fighting against poverty, evictions and injustice, always sympathetic toward the poor. In other words, she was a radical in her political activism, from her hatred of British policy in Ireland to her connections with the fiercely nationalist Boulangists in France. (29) She devoted both her body and mind to her work for Ireland, both at national and international level, until her death at eighty-seven.
Maud Gonne's earliest memory was an advice by her father to be bold and courageous. Holding her in his arms above her mother's coffin, Colonel Gonne said: "You must never be afraid of anything, even of death." When she was older, she was told: "Will is a strange incalculable force. It is so powerful that if, as a boy, I [her father] had willed to be the Pope of Rome, I would have been Pope." These two statements become the recurring motifs in her A Servant of the Queen. It is not Queen Victoria--whom she was against--that the title refers to, but Cathleen ni Houlihan, Yeats's feminine personification of Ireland. In her book, she mainly dwells, first on her father, then on Millevoye, and finally her husband Major MacBride. Yeats, in fact, is not given much space in her autobiography and remains on the periphery of her concerns. Compared to the militant men who became historical figures in their fight for Irish independence, he is depicted as ineffective and immature, although he was in fact a very practical man who knew how to promote himself and a good organizer who founded mystical cults, a theater and his own myth through his poetic craft.
Nonetheless, Yeats seems to have tried to please Maud Gonne by attempting to play a more public role in Irish national life. For instance, he got into active politics with the Irish Republican Brotherhood (30) in the late 1880s. Early in their acquaintance when he was frequently asked to join her for dinner, noticing that "there was something so exuberant in her ways that it seemed natural she should give her hours in overflowing abundance," he wanted to please her by adopting a posture as if he belonged to the public domain for "her beauty as I saw it in those days seemed incompatible with private, intimate life." (31) He wrote two plays for Maud Gonne to act, The Countess Cathleen and Cathleen ni Houlihan. The first one, written in 1891, shows his disapproval of the waste of her beauty and energy in politics. From the beginning he was troubled by the reckless violence of her wild action and her generosity. Torn between adoration and criticism, he seems to be dramatizing and transfiguring something unacceptable to him in Maud Gonne through the figure of Cathleen. Cathleen was no likeness of Maud Gonne, yet she, wearied after weeks of relief work during the famine, may have suggested her. It was she (and Maud Gonne at the same time) who made Yeats ask, "Can a soul be lost through its own generosity?" The play, with its significant revisions till 1901, is a weaving, as Toomey notes, of "Maud Gonne's history into a symbolic pattern." It is also an attempt to reconcile Yeats himself in Aleel, to his own premonition that he must lose Maud Gonne.
Since Maud Gonne considered the play to be somewhat against her revolutionary activities, she did not agree to act the part of Cathleen. She did, however, act in Cathleen ni Houlihan in the interest of Ireland. (32) Yeats and Maud Gonne can be seen in strong contrast in their recollections of that play later in their life: hers, as seen above, is full of practical consideration of the need of the moment; his, as seen below, with reference to the Easter rebellion, is full of reflections on the power of imaginative expression, even feeling remorse:
Did that play of mine send out Certain men the English shot? ("The Man and the Echo")
The political difference between them was such that while Yeats admired the work of Synge, O'Casey and Joyce, Maud Gonne did not like them because she thought they misrepresented and denigrated Ireland. She always defended the common people denounced by him as "every knave and dolt" ("The Fascination of What's Difficult") and "ignorant men" of "most violent ways" ("No Second Troy"). Fearing mob rule, he, on the other hand, saw the aristocracy as guardians of culture and order given a classic expression in "The Second Coming": "The best lack all conviction, while the worst,/Are full of passionate intensity." She rebuked him for his vacillating position expressed in "Easter 1916," a poem, commemorating the Irish uprising, read out to her on the Normandy beach. Despite the "terrible beauty" born of the heroic sacrifice of many Irish nationalist leaders including her divorced husband MacBride who were all brutally executed, he seemed reluctant to lend unequivocal support to the event. She was so deeply committed to the Irish cause that she did not let her personal grievances against MacBride override her public support of his heroic act in favor of that cause; Yeats, on the other hand, was so deeply in love with her that he could not bring himself to support without reservation a man, "that drunken, vainglorious lout," who gave his beloved a hard time, let alone his dislike of political violence in general. As a senator in the new Irish Free State (33) in 1921, a move completely opposed to her political views, he supported the authoritarian measures to suppress the revolutionary elements and voted for emergency legislation under which her son, Sean MacBride, was imprisoned during the Irish civil war without trial. (34) He not only failed to denounce the Irish Government but also offered to assist with the authorities in "the matter of blankets" when she was imprisoned briefly in 1923. Naturally she was very bitter about all this, which led her to be even more assertive about her republicanism, accusing him in a 1927 letter of voting for the Public Safety Act and putting the police above the magistrates and making law "a mockery and derision." In response Yeats defended his change of mind saying that what caused him to renounce his earlier republicanism was his reading in 1903-4 of Balzac. Thus the bitter political differences kept them irreconcilably apart. After Yeats's death in 1939, Maud Gonne contributed an essay to a memorial collection, in which she made a candid statement of those differences. Maud Gonne was intensely alive, embodying the principle of the "active man" as opposed to Yeats's own inclination toward the "contemplative man." Therefore, from the beginning of their "troubled" affair, he had come to realize the complexity and bitterness of real, as opposed to idyllic, love.
Faced with repeated refusals from Maud Gonne, Yeats toyed with the idea of marrying her daughter by Millevoye, Iseult Gonne, which had first occurred to him in 1910 when it was Iseult at 15 who had proposed to him. He refused commenting that there was "too much Mars in her horoscope." In 1916, after the execution of MacBride, he proposed to Maud Gonne, then in Normandy, for the last time, to be refused as usual. Then he propsed to Iseult, who after a period of wavering, answered in the negative in the autumn of 1917 (when she was 22 and he was 51). Within a month, on 20 October, he was married to Georgie Hyde-Lees, proving like Goethe, as pointed out by a reviewer, that a man could delay marrying until his 50s while seemingly thriving as a poet on the "insatiate romantic quest." (35) At the time he was renting Maud Gonne's Dublin house, when one day in late 1918 she, released from Holloway prison in London (where she had been detained along with Constance Markievicz as suspects in the "German plot" (36)) and returning illegally to Ireland, unexpectedly arrived disguised, demanding that she be allowed to stay in her house. Yeats, however, refused, to her utter disappointment, for fear that his expectant wife, also suffering then from pneumonia, might be distressed by possible police raids.
It is true that Maud Gonne's active political life was of such status that she was frequently attended by police detectives, let alone imprisoned at times. Furthermore, many of Yeats's letters to her were burned in a raid of her house by Irish Free State soldiers (those, including Yeats, who supported the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921 (37)) during the following civil war. Otherwise, we would have gotten a fuller picture of their relationship. However, in the surviving 30-odd letters and in the hundreds of poems, one may glimpse that there is a tendency on his part to caricaturing her demagogic nationalist convictions, which is responsible for her generally negative reception from his admirers. (38) His aristocratic-authoritarian-rightist-conservative politics never coincided with her populist-crusading nationalism. While he sought to create a literary movement which would give Irish people a new sense of their cultural heritage, self-respect and independence of mind, Maud Gonne found national politics and political agitation far more meaningful. Thus their "respective failures," Deane observes in his above-noted review, to live up to their expectations of each other, "insured the friction that made their relationship so vital."
Despite many disputes and disagreements which may have weakened but not broken their relationship, Yeats and Maud Gonne had a great respect for each other. While the differences kept them apart, they helped them build a solid mutual trust. They exchanged hundreds of letters, with nearly 400 of hers alone surviving. Although she may not have felt for him the burning passion of love he felt for her, she certainly admired him as a great lyric poet. She believed that his poetry could achieve more for Ireland than her political activism." You remember," she wrote in 1908, "how for the sake of Ireland, I hated you in politics, even in the politics I believed in, because I always felt it took you from your writing & cheated Ireland of a greater gift than we could give her ..." All the philanthropy in the world, she told him, was nothing compared with the work of a great writer like him. So she urged him to give up the frustrating business of the Abbey Theater (39) and devote himself entirely to his writing. She also appreciated the hard work that went into the making of his poems.
Both married to their respective works, each wanted the other to stay out of politics and to embody an ideal. Although neither respected their respective wishes about the other, both accusing the other of being motivated by hatred, there was never any serious diminishment in their regard for each other. When Maud Gonne herself came to discover after two short years of marriage that her husband MacBride was indeed a "drunken, vainglorious lout," Yeats stood by her side throughout her divorce proceedings that ended in 1906. It was to him that she expressed her unhappiness about her twenty-five year old daughter Iseult's marriage to the seventeen year old Francis Stuart, who was jealous and violent in nature. During the Easter rebellion, when she was in Paris, it was Yeats who supplied her with information on the developments in Dublin and who wanted her to stay out of Dublin to avoid the danger of police watch. Even the very bitter disappointment of her being rudely turned away from doors of her own house in Dublin rented by the Yeatses did not break the relationship for they soon became reconciled.
Yeats and Maud Gonne were friends and lovers but they also stood in a mutually parental relationship with the gender trope reversed. Just as Lady Gregory (40) was fatherly to him, he motherly to her with regard to the Abbey Theater, Maud Gonne, in letting him suffer and thus in being the source or cause of his poetic production, was the father of his poems. She herself makes it clear in a letter (of 15 September 1911), holding him to his "duty of motherhood in true marriage style":
Our children were your poems of which I was the father sowing the unrest & storm which made them possible & you the mother who brought them forth in suffering & in the highest beauty ... (41)
Clearly, she identifies maleness with the force that causes suffering and femaleness with suffering and production, rearing and nurturing. As mentioned earlier, the "unrest and storm" caused by her and responsible for his poetic output was foreshadowed by her previously made similar comment that he made beautiful poetry out of his unhappiness. Interestingly, Yeats saw himself in identical gender position in relation to his poetry: "Man is a woman to his work, and it begets his thought." (42) Anyway, Maud Gonne's assertion of her dominating fatherly position supports Toomey's observation that the strong father figures of Yeats's youth (his maternal grandfather Pollexfen, his father John Butler Yeats, John O'Leary, Henley, Wilde, Morris and MacGregor Mathers, among others) were later displaced by the presence of strong women figures in his life. (43) His attraction to the powerful feminine principle is analysed in Cullingford's discussion of his treatment of women. According to her,
Yeats's treatment of women reveals a striking split between theory and practice. Despite his poetic advocacy of the woman who "gives up all her mind" and concentrates on the culture of the body, many of the women he admired and loved were of a very different stamp. Maud Gonne, Constance Markievicz, Eva Gore-Booth, Florence Farr--political revolutionary, socialist bohemian, trade union organizer, and actress--all these were emancipated women, and Yeats in theory did not like emancipated women.... [He] was interested in power, and, as both his personal experiences and the numerous goddesses, queens and witches who populate his poetry suggest, he was also drawn towards powerful women. (44)
For more than two decades Maud Gonne was the center of Yeats's emotional and imaginative life. The frustrating complexity of the relationship contributed elements of blame, accusation, guilt and self-condemnation found in his poetry. The strain of unrequited love can be noticed even in the titles of the poet's early love poems such as "Ephemera," "The Falling of the Leaves," "The Pity of Love," "The Sorrow of Love," "The White Birds," "He Remembers Forgotten Beauty," "The Arrow," "O Do Not Love Too Long" and "Never Give All The Heart." Words such as "fade," "pale," "sigh," "bitter," "weary," "old" and "cold" are recurrent in these poems, conveying the sense of failure and frustration. That the outside world is not perfectly in accord with a lover's vision seems to deeply trouble the poet. "The Two Trees" was inspired by his fear that Gonne's natural vitality might be corrupted by political dogmatism. The "holy tree" with its "ignorant leafy" ways and the "fatal image" of a tree with broken branches, having Biblical and cabbalistic parallels, symbolise the objective and the subjective aspects of Maud Gonne respectively. "The Folly of Being Comforted" is a rejection of the consolation that his frustrated love will grow less bitter as Maud Gonne grows older and becomes less beautiful. Yeats believes that her beauty and nobility will live on in spite of age, knowing that he still loves her and prefers to accept his disappointment rather than distort his feelings for the sake of consolation. There lies a deep serenity under the surface melancholy of these early love poems. "Words" presenting what was an actual choice in rhetorical fashion expresses the poet's realisation that his good poetry emerges from emotional turmoil. However, his earlier attempts to communicate his feelings, he admits, have been unsuccessful because of his lack of poetic articulation of that turmoil. Now she understands it all, "Because I have come into my strength, And words obey my call." As a poetic symbol she thus came under his artistic and emotional control as the heat of his first infatuation during the 1890s cooled down.
Apart from being addressed in familiar terms like "Beloved," "My darling," and "O heart," Maud Gonne is referred to as "Helen," "phoenix," "queen," the woman with a "Ledaean body," "the woman lost" as against "the woman won" (Olivia Shakespear, Georgie Hyde-Lees and others) and as the "sweetheart from another life" whose memory embitters his still-recent marriage to Georgie ("An Image from a Past Life"). Yeats refers to his relationship with Maud Gonne as the "unrequited love" in "Presences," "the old despair" in "The Lover Mourns the Loss of Love," "a barren passion" in "Pardon, Old Fathers" and "love crossed long ago" in "The Cold Heaven." Virtually every poem celebrating a woman's beauty or addressing a beloved woman has to do with her. Her memory both inspires and embitters him at the same time. He not only faces his personal difficulties with her, but he is also excited to associate her image with his theosophic and hermetic studies, projecting her beauty into the eternal idea of "The Rose of the World":
He made the world to be a grassy road Before her wandering feet.
Maud Gonne's beauty and blood, her sweet nobility and her proud and devoted nationalist politics combine together to make her something more than just a poet's beloved. As with Lady Gregory in another way, Maud Gonne was part of Yeats's quest for an image of the Unity of Being and Unity of Culture. However, unlike Lady Gregory who largely satisfied that quest, Maud Gonne implied the impossibility of that Unity. Yet, both in their own ways became a symbol of Ireland in her traditional past and turbulent present. Maud Gonne at the lunar Phase 16 (45) has been placed--along with Helen of Troy, John Keats and Iseult Gonne, all three at Phase 14--around the perfection of Phase 15; the phase of complete subjective or antithetical beauty when "All thought becomes an image and the soul/Becomes a body" and as a result the greatest human beauty becomes possible. She also came to symbolize the Classical and Renaissance heroic beauty without an equivalent in the modem world. Her own qualities are akin to those of the great heroines of the past. While sometimes her actions are judged from the detached perspective of Homeric heroic age, sometimes they are assessed in the immediate terms of the gain and loss of loving her.
In the Yeats canon there is a sense of the poet converting all real life he touched into symbol just as there is a sense of him converting all history he knew into legend. Therefore, we need not translate his poems into mere (auto)biography. Although we can hardly avoid such translation in reading a poem like "No Second Troy" celebrating Maud Gonne's beauty, nobility and actions in condensed phrases, we can see that the poem is self-sufficient having a life of its own, independent of the biographical facts surrounding it. As a modern-day Helen she is "high and solitary and most stem," has "a mind/That nobleness made simple as a fire" and has a "beauty like a tightened bow, a kind/That is not natural in an age like this." The poem with its rhetorical questions suggests a situation full of dramatic possibilities and conceptual associations not necessarily dependent on the poet's real experience or on what Maud Gonne actually did. Similarly, we need not try to trace "Adam's Curse" back to its true-life origins. The lovers, "As weary-hearted as that hollow moon," which got "worn as if it had been a shell/Washed by time's waters as they rose and fell," potentially belong to the great tradition of love without the great fulfillment of love. This is a mythologization of autobiography described rhetorically and dramatically.
We are best off to take each poem on its own terms. "The Two Trees" provides a good example of the way Yeats has reoriented traditional symbols for his own artistic purposes. Considered as a poetic symbol, the "Maud Gonne figure" in his poems is important in bringing a number of diverse aspects of his mentality into a single focus. The true context of the lines,
The folly that man does Or must suffer, if he woos A proud woman not kindred of his soul ...
is the debate between Self and Soul, but Yeats brings in a reference to Maud Gonne to drive home the argument made by the Self, which assserts that life is worth living, even though it means folly and ignorance, or despite the suffering caused by one's falling in love with a "proud woman" and being rejected. To support the idea (in "Among School Children") that the parts combine to make a complete whole, Yeats thinks, among other things, of Maud Gonne in her childhood and in her young beauty. The thought revives in him the excitement of his old love. Then he visualises her in her "present image," hollow of cheek, as if she had lived on wind and shadows.
One of the modes of Yeats's speaking, according to Parkinson, is as the "individuated" being whose life gives weight to his words. (46) The urgency of the personal reference is accentuated by the poet's attempt to see his experience as if it were not his alone but mutual and thus objective. As such, his love poems, Parkinson says, are distinguished by his capacity to objectify his passionate involvement with the "other" (Maud Gonne) and thus to extend her identity to a symbolic form. The result is that the individuated being becomes an invented poetic figure with the poet's own person being looked upon as a new poetic creation. The validity of this is not to be tested by the equality between experience and art in the biographical sense but by the context created by successive works of art. Sometimes there is a nicely turned compliment, as in "Presences" where the poet imagines a remembered scene and makes a hyperbolic statement. But the entire series of poems and references having to do with Maud Gonne is to be seen as subtle modulations on a deep relationship, expressing a whole range of attitudes, from fulfillments to frustrations, from homage (the Rose poems) to difficulties involved (the "half loving, half antagonistic" Green Helmet love lyrics), from a sense of welcome reception to a note of an elegiac farewell (poems of The Wild Swans at Coole).
To understand Yeats's relationship with Maud Gonne, we have to know his ideas about women. He wanted an aristocratic life-style of ritualized order--"life is ritual," as his friend Lionel Johnson put it. He believed that a woman's role was the keystone to that: "How can life be ritual if woman had not her symbolic place?" The symbolic place of woman was seen as the center of order in the life of an individual or of a culture. In an early poem, "The Sorrow of Love," Yeats expresses the function of the feminine image in the business of an artist. He wrote of his wife that she had made his life "serene and full of order." He saw women's masculine activism and independent intellect as alienating and threatening to their greatest good--their symbolical place as a unifying image. A state of intellectual passivity is both natural and healthy for them who thus should not have opinions because opinions make them fanatical. They should hope for status through the good opinion of men, and should look to realizing their potential greatness through inspiring men of genius.
In "A Prayer for My Daughter," the poet wishes his infant daughter to grow up rejecting the analytical mind for the sweet nature of a little songbird, the linnet. But the thoughts of the linnet were not those of Maud Gonne's. In fact, all the passive attributes desired of the daughter are precisely opposite to Maud Gonne's active ones: "intellectual hatred," "opinionated mind" and "crazy salad" of getting married to a man who was a "drunken, vainglorious lout." Maud Gonne was as arrogant and independent as Aphrodite, "the great Queen, that rose out of the spray." In the earlier "No Second Troy," she is said to have pursued her activist role in the open streets and have "taught to ignorant men most violent ways." It follows that the poet intends to keep his daughter safe from the wild passions of the intellect and to see her grow up like "a flourishing hidden tree" presumably within the garden wall. He would like to see her have "natural kindness," "heart-revealing intimacy," "radical innocence," "Horn of Plenty," "custom" and "ceremony"--qualities that can make a woman experience true self-realization. Custom and ceremony form a necessary condition for the cultivation of spiritual as well as physical beauty.
It is ironic that Maud Gonne, portrayed, like Helen, as a woman of a kind rare in her time and quite opposite to Yeats's idea of an ideal woman, should supply the material for his poetry. "A Thought from Propertius" celebrates her noble and statuesque beauty by showing her as a companion to Pallas Athene, virgin goddess of war and wisdom and patroness of independent and learned women. One of his last celebrations of her is as an "Olympian" and as such, one of the "Beautiful Lofty Things" he had known:
Maud Gonne at Howth station waiting a train, Pallas Athene in that straight back and arrogant head. (47)
But, conversely, staring at the sculpture of the head of old Maud ("A Bronze Head"), he is afflicted by a sense of what he takes to be her death-in-life, with her face withered but her eyes remarkably alive as if they were those of a lone bird in a graveyard. He also compares her looking out to that of a god staring from a mask. Her beauty symbolized the ideal heroic world he dreamed of, but her actions had linked her with the mindless destructive fury of the mob. This is the contradiction he painfully noticed in her life and tried to come to terms with. He explained her revolutionary violence by blaming an unworthy age ("No Second Troy"). Even then she seemed to have been manipulated by a superhuman destiny working through her nobility. Now he remembers how that same glance of her hawk-like eyes, in the full bloom of her beauty, was full of forebodings.
As Jeffares, the Yeatsian scholar, pointed out, the poetry of Yeats is beautiful and melancholic, recalling a romantic past, that of the Celtic Twilight. His judgement seems to be an apt description of Yeats' love poetry, which is an expression of not only the portrait of Maud Gonne but also his understanding of all that she stood for.
(1) Richard Ellmann, "Yeats in Love," The New Republic, May 12, 1986, 33. The same is true with other women in Yeats's works such as Dorothea Hunter, Katharine Tynan, Olivia Shakespear, Lady Gregory, Madame Blavatsky, Constance Markievicz, Florence Farr, Iseult Gonne, Georgie Hyde-Lees, Dorothy Wellesley, Mabel Beardsley and Elizabeth Radcliffe.
(2) Deirdre Toomey, ed., Yeats and Women (London: Macmillan and St. Martin's, 1997), xviii.
(3) W. B. Yeats, Autobiographies (London: Macmillan, 1955), 189.
(4) O'Leary (1830-1907), a great Irish nationalist, returned to Dublin in 1885 after five years of imprisonment and fifteen years of exile. His dedication and commitment drew Yeats and others to the nationalist cause.
(5) "Romantic Ireland's dead and gone/It's with O'Leary in the grave," so goes the refrain in the poem "September 1913."
(6) W. B. Yeats, Memoirs, Denis Donoghue, ed. (London: Macmillan, 1972), 40.
(7) He said, "I have known, certainly, more men destroyed by the desire to have wife and child and to keep them in comfort than I have seen destroyed by harlots and drink" (Memoirs, 171). Also see On the Boiler (1939) giving us the story of eugenicist Liadain, the woman-poet, rejecting marriage and children. Toomey traces his disenchanted attitude to marriage to his unhappy childhood experience of his parents' marriage. On the Boiler is a political pamphlet by Yeats, one of his last works. In this tract, he, now an aged poet, expresses his dislike of the mere multiplication of the human species and his conviction that the future of civilization must be assured through eugenic engineering. See Toomey, Yeats and Women, 14.
(8) Toomey, Yeats and Women, 31. Earlier, in May 1896, she had dismissed marriage as "only a little detail in life," (The Gonne-Yeats Letters 1893-1938, Anna MacBride White and A. Norman Jeffares, eds. [New York: W. W. Norton and Company, Inc., 1993], 60).
(9) The quoted phrases, suggesting that the way she dressed displayed her political affiliation with the idea of Irish nationalism, occur in a letter from Yeats to Katherine Tynan. See The Collected Letters of W. B. Yeats, Vol. 1, 1865-1895, John Kelley, ed. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1986), 54.
(10) Yeats, Memoirs, 40-41. In The Trembling of the Veil: Four Years, 1887-1891 [Book One of Section Two in Autobiographies], he describes her thus:
To-day, with her great height and the unchangeable lineaments of her form, she looks the Sybil I would have had played by Florence Farr but in that day she seemed a classical impersonation of the Spring, the Virgilian commendation 'She walks like a goddess' made for her alone. Her complexion was luminous, like that of apple-blossom through which the light falls.... (Autobiographies, 123).
(11) Yeats, Autobiographies, 364.
(12) Elizabeth B. Cullingford, "At the Feet of the Goddess: Yeats's Love Poetry and the Feminist Occult," in Toomey, Yeats and Women, 41-42.
(13) Here it must be noted that Blake and Shelley, who greatly influenced Yeats, were not particularly interested in the courtly love tradition or the medieval knights and ladies.
(14) Yeats, Memoirs, 32, and Autobiographies, 431.
(15) The circulating library operating with the branch libraries in different parts of Ireland under the auspices of the London-based Irish Literary Society founded by Yeats and others.
(16) As a magical or hermetic order it was more experimental than Madame Blavatsky's theosophy of 1880s, which he gave up when he was stopped from experimenting because she felt that his mystical experiments were likely to discredit her.
(17) At first Yeats did not know about her being the mistress of the middle-aged married Parisian to whom she bore two illegitimate children. The first child, a son, died in infancy and the second child, a daughter, Iseult Gonne (1895-1954), would live to he passed off as her "younger sister" for many years, later to become the subject of a number of Yeats's poems and to provide yet another complicating twist in the life of both Yeats and Maud Gonne. Yeats may have heard rumors about Maud Gonne's age-old involvement with Millevoye, but dismissed them as false. Sometime in the autumn of 1898 her affair with Millevoye ended. Only the following December, when she herself disclosed her long secret to Yeats, did he come to believe in the truth of the matter. Yeats, Memoirs, 132.
(18) On Easter Monday, April 1916, about 1600 to 2000 lightly armed Irish patriot-rebels, most of whom belonged to the Irish Catholic middle class tha had long opposed Yeats, mounted an uprising for independence in Dublin against nearly 20,000 heavily armed British troops and would give up after five days of heroic resistance. About 16 rebel leaders were executed by firing squads over a protracted period of 10 days during the following May. See Yeats's poem "Easter 1916" and my "Yeats's 'Easter 1916' and Irish Nationalism," World Literature Written in English, 37. 1 & 2 (1998): 42-59.
(19) Yeats, Memoirs, 132.
(20) Yeats, Memoirs, 134.
(21) Toomey, "Labyrinths: Yeats and Maud Gonne," Yeats and Women, 1-2.
(22) Toomey, "Labyrinths," 30.
(23) The Gonne-Yeats Letters, 85.
(24) Yeats, Memoirs, 132.
(25) MacBride, Anna and Norman Jeffares, eds., The Autobiography of Maud Gonne: A Servant of the Queen (London: Gollancz, 1938), 326-30.
(26) Quoted in Conrad Balliet, "The Lives--and Lies--of Maud Gonne," Eire-Ireland (Autumn 1979) 32.
(27) The only exception is that perhaps there was a sexual union in December 1908, their "vintage year," as Deane calls it. Also see Toomey, Yeats and Women, 17.
(28) Yeats, "The Trembling of the Veil: The Stirring of the Bones," [Book Five of Section Two of Autobiographies], 363.
(29) The followers of the extremist French general and politician Georges Boulanger (1837-91).
(30) One of the militant Irish nationalist groups. Partly to please Maud Gonne and partly under the influence of John O'Leary, Yeats briefly joined the IRB around 1886 but the political violence made him turn away from nationalist politics and resign from it about 1901.
(31) Yeats, Memoirs, 40-41.
(32) MacBride, A Servant of the Queen, 326-30.
(33) It came into being in 1922 following the establishment of an Irish Parliament through a decisive election on the basis of the preceding Anglo-Irish treaties supported by the Catholic majority but opposed by the extremists including Maud Gonne. Yeats, who belonged to the minority Anglo-Irish Protestants but who wanted to play a major public role by putting his cultural and literary projects high on the national agenda, was appointed as one of the three non-Catholic senators to the new government of the Irish Free State, advising on education, literature and the arts. As a senator he supported many ruthless measures adopted by the government to ensure its success as a new political entity. It is this Irish Free State which finally led to total Irish independence later.
(34) Sean MacBride later became Irish Minister of External Affairs. In 1948, he joined the funeral procession bringing Yeats's remains back to Sligo and Drumcliffe churchyard, and later won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1974.
(35) Merle Rubin, "Yeats's 'Mystical Marriage,'" (a review of The Gonne Yeats Letters), The Christian Science Monitor, January 19, 1993.
(36) It was the time of the First World War (1914-1918) when Britain was at war with Germany, which for obvious reasons supported unrest in the British-ruled Ireland.
(37) The treaty, between the representatives of Dail Eireann and the British government, was the result of the Anglo-Irish war of the summer of 1921 and essentially granted the twenty-six counties of southern Ireland Dominion status.
(38) See Seamus Deane, "Our Children Were Your Poems," (a review of The Gonne-Yeats Letters), The New York Times Book Review, January 10, 1993.
(39) Opened in Dublin in 1904, the Abbey Theater was formerly the Irish National (or Literary) Theater established by Yeats, Synge, Lady Gregory, Edward Martyn, and George Moore in 1899 as part of their effort to revive Irish culture and literature and create a poetic theater. Yeats was its director-manager for many years, during which period he had a tough time with the public over the so-called controversial productions. See Yeats's poem "The Fascination of What is Difficult."
(40) Lady Gregory (1852-1932)--a member of the declining Irish aristocracy and an Irish writer and promoter of Irish literature, standing for whatever was aristocratic in tradition and heritage, class and spirit--was a great friend and patron of Yeats, together with whom she was co-director of the Abbey.
(41) The Gonne-Yeats Letters, 302. Also, Gonne's letter of Oct. 1910, 294.
(42) Yeats, Memoirs, 232.
(43) Toomey, Yeats and Women, xvi.
(44) Elizabeth Butler Cullingford, "Yeats and Women: Michael Robertes and the Dancer," Yeats and Women, 247-49.
(45) In Yeats's symbolic system the lunar phases symbolize the subjective and objective states of the mind or self, with the first phases, from the crescent to the full moon, representing the increasingly subjective self, followed by the increasingly objective self represented by the phases towards the dark, the most critical human phases being 8 and 22 where the direct conflict between the subjective and the objective takes place. Phase 14 is the most subjective (Keats, Helen, Maud Gonne, Lazarus, Judas) and Phase 28 most objective (Jesus Christ). Yeats's complex philosophical system is based on the double cone of interpenetrating gyres and the phases of the moon symbolizing the primary or the objective self (reason and morality, things external to the mind) and the antithetical or subjective self (emotional and aesthetic, desire and imagination).
(46) Thomas Parkinson, W. B. Yeats: The Later Poetry (Berkeley, U of California P, 1964).
(47) For a discussion of Yeats's classicised Mand Gonne, see A. Norman Jeffares, "Pallas Athene Gonne," Tributes in Prose and Verse to Shotaro Oshima (Tokyo: Hokuseido Press, 1970), 4-7.
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|Author:||Khan, Jalal Uddin|
|Publication:||Alif: Journal of Comparative Poetics|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2002|
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