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
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 romantic quest. …