The many women of WB Yeats
January 28 is the 75th anniversary of the death of poet WB Yeats. Throughout his various affairs and marriage, and his dabbling in the occult, Yeats was denied the one woman he truly desired. This, writes Jonathan deBurca Butler, was his loss but English literature's gain
Published 20/01/2014 | 02:30
WB Yeats was 23-years-old when he first clapped eyes on Maud Gonne at his family home in Bedford Park, London. She had come, ostensibly, to visit Yeats's brother Jack, the highly regarded painter, but in reality she wanted to meet the man whose first published work, fragments from a play called Island of Statues, had made her cry. She was 22, striking and although English an outspoken and vehement Irish nationalist. Yeats later wrote that on that day, the 30th January 1889, "the troubling of my life began". Yeats had found his muse and with it years of apparent misery.
Gonne would never be the lover the poet so keenly desired her to be. They did, when both in their 40s, share the physical intimacy that Yeats craved, but for most of his passionate young life Gonne would remain out of reach. At the time of their first meeting at Bedford Park she was having an affair with French politician and journalist Lucien Millevoye, who was 16 years her senior. She would soon bear him a boy who died of meningitis aged one, but, in due course, she gave birth to their daughter, Iseult, who, somewhat outlandishly, would later become the object of Yeats's desires. After the breakdown of her relationship with Millevoye, Gonne went on to marry Irish patriot Major John MacBride, with whom she had a disastrous marriage that ended, in essence, after just two years.
For Yeats she was an unfulfilled desire, but the inspiration for a slew of memorable poems.
"You make beautiful poetry out of what you call your unhappiness," she once observed astutely. "And you are happy in that."
Yeats's first proposal of marriage came in 1891. He was rebuffed, but that did not stop him from asking on no fewer than five separate occasions in the future. As a poet, rejection had its benefits. It caused him pain and longing, as Gonne had pointed out, but it also meant he was free to find alternative muses and relationships with all the accompanying emotions of love, loss and yearning. Though Yeats may have benefited on a personal level from a marriage with Gonne -- though that is dubious -- English literature would most surely have lost out.
The poet's first physical affair was with Olivia Shakespear. The couple met at a literary lunch for the launch of a London magazine in 1894. Yeats later wrote in his memoirs: "I noticed opposite me... a woman of great beauty ... exquisitely dressed... [that] suggested to me an incomparable distinction."
Shakespear was herself a writer and she would publish six novels in her lifetime. At the time of her meeting with Yeats, her career as a scribe had just commenced, and Yeats was only too eager to review her work. They developed a strong friendship. In return for his guidance, Shakespear offered a shoulder to cry on. Yeats spoke candidly of his love and anxieties for Gonne. When it came to intimacy, the couple dilly-dallied; mainly due to the fact that Shakespear was married and divorce would have been a scandal which could have ruined both their reputations. Yeats eventually took a flat close to her in London and it was here they enjoyed many passionate evenings together. His true affections lay elsewhere however. And that became apparent when Yeats visited Gonne in Paris. He stayed in the French capital for two months and on his return to London, Shakespear confronted Yeats tearfully about the other woman who "was in his heart". In a poem from 1899 entitled Aedh Laments the Loss of Love, Yeats addresses Gonne as muse, telling her that Shakespear in the guise of Aedh had " ... looked in my heart one day, And saw your image was there, She has gone weeping away". The affair ended in the spring of 1897 and although for many years the couple lost touch they did later reignite their friendship and correspondence. Indeed, it was through Shakespear that Yeats would eventually meet his wife.
By the autumn of 1898, Gonne had ended her relationship with Millevoye. In December, she and Yeats were back in Dublin. Early that month, Yeats wrote to his benefactor Lady Gregory that he saw "a good deal of her"; his tone was upbeat. At this point both Yeats and Gonne were heavily involved in the occult and astrology and both claimed to have had dreams in which they found each other and were united. In mid-December, Yeats proposed marriage for a second time but was again rejected. Gonne, who had declared her love for him, had an apparent aversion to a physical union with him. Not for the first time, Yeats was left baffled.
In London, throughout the 1890s and early 1900s, Yeats had a close relationship with actress Florence Farr. From their very first meeting, Yeats writes and speaks of her "tranquil beauty" and her eloquence. Indeed, Yeats cast her in many of his plays and the Irish poet introduced Farr to The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn -- a Kensington-based occult group of which he was a member. They collaborated on what Yeats called New Art -- the idea of reciting poetry to music played (in this case by Farr) on a stringed instrument called a psaltery. According to Yeats biographer Roy Foster, the pair toured venues around Britain in the spring and summer of 1903 "and it seems likely that this is when the relationship at last became more intimate".
The couple took solace from each other but it went no further.
Shortly before his 43rd birthday, Yeats embarked on an affair in Dublin with 33-year-old actress Mabel Dickinson. Although she offered him physical gratification and a sympathetic ear, her apparent ordinariness -- she, like Yeats, was from a middle-class Protestant family -- meant she could never measure up to his expectations.
The poet had assured Dickinson that his love for Gonne was no longer an issue but in the summer of 1908 he visited Gonne in Paris. She had by now been separated from MacBride for nearly three years. Her son with MacBride, Sean Jr, was now four and Iseult 14. He stayed in Paris for a week. Throughout the year they saw much of each other; in Ireland, London and in Paris.
They finally consummated their relationship in the City of Light in December, but rather than opening a new phase it seems to have finally shut the door on any hopes Yeats may have harboured for marriage.
"I have prayed so hard to have all earthly desire taken from my love for you ... ," wrote Gonne in a letter to Yeats. " ... and dearest, I have prayed and I am praying still that the bodily desire for me may be taken from you too."
Three years later, Yeats met 18-year-old Georgie Hyde-Lees, a relation of Shakespear through a second marriage. They met at the British Museum and later on the same day at the Shakespears' where they had afternoon tea.
Georgie, who was well-off, was believed by her family to have second sight and her interest -- and apparent expertise -- in occultism intrigued the poet. As he had done with Farr, Yeats introduced Georgie to the Order of the Golden Dawn and was her sponsor in 1915. Their common ground was the supernatural, and it was grounds enough for him to propose marriage in 1917. To most people's surprise Georgie accepted the 53-year-old's proposal and they married in a registry office in October of the same year.
On honeymoon, it soon became obvious that Yeats was unhappy. Some weeks beforehand he had made his final proposal to Gonne and received the same answer as before. He had quickly turned to Iseult, but the younger Gonne followed her mother's lead.
Yeats needed a distraction and his intuitive new wife saw it. Four days after their marriage, "[his] wife surprised [him] by attempting automatic writing" -- a psychic ability which allows the psychic to write what spirits are communicating on a page. This and later dream-speech were to hold their marriage together and they brought Yeats myriad imagery and metaphor that he worked into his poetry.
They later moved to Merrion Square in Dublin where they had two children, Anne and Michael. After the birth of Michael, Georgie apparently lost her ability to write automatically. She also seems to have lost interest in sex. Yeats soon began to spend more time away from home. Often he was abroad in France or in London. He continued to have other women in his life, something Georgie seems to have tolerated.
In 1934, Yeats, who had been suffering from both sexual and artistic impotence, for three years, had a Steinach operation, a type of vasectomy, which was said by its supporters to increase energy and sexual vigour in men. According to Yeats, the procedure worked and he claimed to go through what he called "a second puberty".
Shortly after the operation, Ethel Mannin, a 34-year-old writer and member of the World League for Sexual Reform, was called on to "test the operation's efficacy". The test was by all accounts unsuccessful but it showed Yeats was still inclined towards trying his hand. If all else failed he could still arouse his mind.
He went on to have close relations with lesbian Dorothy Wellesley, who as a poet he admired very much. He also spent a great deal of time with journalist Edith Shackleton-Heald in her home in Sussex. According to Foster, though, Yeats was "no longer capable of full intercourse, his relationship with Edith was intensely sexual: surviving blurry snapshots show her sunbathing bare-breasted in the ... garden under his rapturous gaze".
Shackleton-Heald was to be the last of his muses and when Yeats died in France in 1939 she was beside him along with Wellesley and Georgie. Gonne would pass away in 1953. She had never married again.