ANYONE who knows Yeats's poetry knows of his long infatuation with the fiery and beautiful Irish nationalist revolutionary Maud Gonne: the latter-day Helen portrayed in his poem "No Second Troy."
"What could have made her peaceful with a mind/ That nobleness made simple as a fire,/ With beauty like a tightened boy, a kind/ That is not natural in an age like this...."
She is the "Pallas Athena in that straight back and arrogant head" commemorated in a later poem, "Beautiful Lofty Things," and, of course, the aging woman tenderly addressed in the poem beginning "When you are old and grey and full of sleep," a piece written when the poet and his beloved were still in their 20s.
William Butler Yeats met Maud Gonne in 1889, when he was 23 and she 22. They shared a passion for Irish nationalism, Celtic revivalism, and mysticism. But, despite Yeats's repeated proposals over the years, they were never to become husband and wife.
As Anna MacBride White, Gonne's granddaughter and one of the editors of this volume, relates in her prologue to "The Gonne-Yeats Letters," Gonne was already involved with a Frenchman, Lucien Millevoye, at the time she met Yeats. The year before Yeats proposed to her, she had had a son by Millevoye, a child who died in infancy, and not long after turning Yeats down, she had a second child by Millevoye, Iseult Gonne, who was for many years passed off as her mother's "younger sister."
Gonne disclosed these facts to Yeats in 1898, at a time when their relationship had reached a new peak of intensity: what they both referred to as a "mystical marriage." Gonne, who disliked physical love (it was justified only by the need to procreate, she believed), felt that renouncing the physical side would elevate their love to the highest spiritual realm.
Yeats, however, would continue to propose marriage to her until he finally married someone else in 1917. He was particularly outraged by Gonne's marriage in 1903 to John MacBride, an Irish nationalist who had gained fame fighting the British in the Boer War. Yeats did everything he could to dissuade her from tying herself to a man he was later to call a "drunken, vainglorious lout" in his famous poem "Easter, 1916."
When Gonne herself came to a similar conclusion after two short years of marriage, Yeats proved a supportive friend throughout the divorce proceedings that led to her separation from MacBride in 1906.
Although Yeats and Gonne experienced a second "mystical marriage" not long thereafter (in 1908), she continued to turn down his proposals, urging him to be "strong enough & high enough to accept the spiritual love & union I offer...."
In view of the many temperamental, political, and philosophical differences that divided them over the years, she may well have been right not to marry him. But the love she inspired assuredly helped provide him with images and themes for his poetry. Like Goethe, who also delayed marrying until his 50s, Yeats seemed to thrive - as a poet, at least - on the insatiate …