Gonne girls: The women who fired WB Yeats's passion
Maud Gonne's repeated refusals hurt Yeats personally, but his work benefited. She wasn't his only muse, says Michelle McDonagh
Published 02/05/2015 | 02:30
Yeats believed in the Greek idea of the Muses as the font of poetic inspiration, finding his Muses in living women.
His long poetic career was fuelled by passionate relationships with women to, and about whom, he wrote some of his most compelling poetry.
The poems he wrote about the love of his life, Maud Gonne were described as "the most sustained and fully developed tribute to a Muse in the history of literature in English" by Joseph Hassett, author of W.B. Yeats and the Muses.
It was on January 30th 1889 when the 22-year-old English ex-debutante Maud Gonne arrived at the Yeats family home in Bedford Park, London in a hansom and "the troubling of my life began". The poet was immediately enthralled, writing that 'her complexion was luminous', like that of 'apple blossom through which the light falls'.
At that time, Gonne was having an affair with the much older French politician and journalist Lucien Millevoye with whom she went on to have her daughter Iseult. After the breakdown of that relationship, Gonne became involved with the Irish nationalist Major John MacBride. Her disastrous marriage to him in 1903 was one of the great upheavals of Yeats's life.
She turned down Yeats's first marriage proposal in 1891 and went on to reject a number of future proposals. After separating from MacBride, Gonne had moved to Paris with Iseult where Yeats visited her often over the years. They finally consummated their relationship in Paris in 1908 when they were both in their 40s but rather than heralding a new phase, it seems to have shut the door on any hopes Yeats may have harboured for marriage.
Professor Anthony Roche of UCD School of English, Drama and Film notes that Maud Gonne's unattainability as a sexual partner "was the source of endless unfulfilled yearning on the part of WB, inspiring a succession of memorable poems he would write articulating that passion. Years later Maud Gonne noted how much this arrangement suited Yeats the poet, whatever about Yeats the man: "You make beautiful poetry out of what you call your unhappiness and you are happy in that."
His lifelong yearning for Gonne never drove out other loves, but his relationships with other women were all haunted by her palpable influence. His candid Memoirs, not published until 1972, reveals how he lost his virginity to Olivia Shakespear, consoling himself with the thought that "if I could not get the woman I loved, it would be a comfort but for a little while to devote myself to another".
In London, throughout the 1890s and early 1900s, Yeats had a close relationship with the actress Florence Farr who he cast in many of his plays. Another actress Mabel Dickinson consoled the poet during the years 1908-1913.
Official Yeats biographer Roy Foster points out that Yeats not only remained friends with most of his past lovers, he also relied heavily on mutually supportive friendships with women. His great friendship with Lady Augusta Gregory sustained him through years of turmoil and with her, he embarked on the great enterprise of a national theatre, an emblem of Irish culture, a forum where "a mob would become a people". He described her in a letter as "the only person I could tell every thought" and said she was "more than a mother, friend, sister or brother" to him.
Another friend since childhood was the revolutionary Constance Gore Booth (later to become Countess Markievicz) and her sister Eva. He remembered them in the poem 'In Memory of Eva Gore-Booth and Con Markievicz', which he wrote in 1927.
In the summer of 1917, Maud Gonne (now a widow after the 1916 executions) rejected another marriage proposal from Yeats. He just as promptly proposed to her daughter, Iseult, and was similarly rejected. He was relieved when the "wild gusts of feeling" provoked by the Lolita-like Iseult subsided in favor of "a new life of work and common interest" with his wife-to-be George Hyde-Lees in whom he saw the same virtues he associated with Lady Gregory.
He introduced Georgie to the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, a Kensington-based occult group of which he was a member. Within weeks of his final proposal to Gonne, Yeats, then 53, proposed to 25-year-old George and they were married in a registry office in October 1917.
When it became obvious that Yeats was unhappy on honeymoon, George astonished her husband by beginning the automatic writing that was to consume the energies of both for over five years and which resulted in his prose book, A Vision.
The poems and plays that resulted from this experience are said to represent the most significant transformation and growth of his entire career and include such masterpieces of literary modernism as Michael Robartes and the Dancer (1921) with 'Easter 1916', 'The Second Coming' and 'A Prayer for My Daughter' as well as The Tower (1928) containing 'Sailing to Byzantium', 'Meditations in Time of Civil War', 'Leda and the Swan' and 'Among Schoolchildren'. During that time, he became a father when he and George had a daughter, Anne, in 1919, followed by son Michael in 1921.
Professor Roche notes that George spent much of the 1930s "accommodating her husband's strange and complex relationships with other women old and young". In 1934, Yeats, who had been suffering from both sexual and artistic impotence for three years, had a Steinach operation, a type of vasectomy, and he claimed to go through what he called 'a second puberty'. He had close relations with the lesbian poet Dorothy Wellesley and spent a lot of time with journalist Edith Shackleton-Heald in her home in Sussex.
When Yeats was dying at the age of 73 in January 1939 in a small upstairs room at the Hôtel Idéal Séjour in Roquebrune, Shackleton-Heald and Wellesley joined his wife at his deathbed. George and his last mistress, Shackleton-Heald, took turns holding vigil over his body that night.
An exhibition 'WB Yeats and His Muses' is open for public viewing at UCD's Special Collections Reading Room, James Joyce Library until October 2015.