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Saturday, May 11, 2013

No Second Coming: Yeats About Living With the Poetry of Unrequited Love

 


When You Are Old


By William Butler Yeats (1865–1939)

 
When you are old and grey and full of sleep,
And nodding by the fire, take down this book,
And slowly read, and dream of the soft look
Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep;
How many loved your moments of glad grace,
And loved your beauty with love false or true,
But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you,
And loved the sorrows of your changing face;
And bending down beside the glowing bars,
Murmur, a little sadly, how Love fled
And paced upon the mountains overhead
And hid his face amid a crowd of stars.


Unrequited love -- the hurt, the heartbreak, the scars. It's a popular subject in novels, films, and music, an experience that evokes such attention and empathy. Yet, how can a person truly understand the pain of a love that is not reciprocated unless that person has lived through such a malady? Like the genuine Blues man who has long suffered many trials, the unrequited lover has paid the unfortunate dues of loneliness.
 
James Patterson, best-selling author with nineteen consecutive #1 New York Times bestselling novels and the New York Times record for most Hardcover Fiction bestselling titles by a single author (63 total), says this of the incomparable hurt of unrequited love: “Because what’s worse than knowing you want something, besides knowing you can never have it?”  
 
Irish poet William Butler Yeats experienced a lifetime of love on a one-way street. His love relationship with Maud Gonne, the ravishing, revolutionary English-born, Irish beauty, is an astonishing story of passionate, unrequited love spanning fifty years from 1889 to 1939. 
 
Read this post, consider Yeats's poetry and his lovely muse.
 
 
Maud Gonne
 
 
Born in Surrey, England, Maud Gonne was the eldest of three girls. Her father was an officer in the English army who saw service in India. Maud was one year old when the family moved from England to Dublin, Ireland. When Maude was ten, her father Tommy Gonne rented a cottage in Cannes in the south of France and hired a French woman as governess. Her father went off to India to serve in the British Army, returning to France when Maud was sixteen. He then took her back to Dublin where she was launched into society, attending many parties.
 
In January of 1889, 23 year-old William Yeats first met Maud Gonne when she came to visit his family in London. Maude was very tall, with red-gold hair and hazel eyes, a twenty two year old, tempestuous, extraordinarily beautiful young woman whom Yeats could never quite fully understand. In fact, Yeats later wrote of their meeting, this is where “the troubling of my life began.”
 
His only other love affair during this period was with Olivia Shakespear, whom he had first met in 1896, and parted with one year later. (Just remember this name -- it reappears later in this story.)
 
Yeats fell in love with her, but his love was hopeless. Maud liked and admired him, but she was not in love with him. Her passion was lavished upon Ireland; she was an Irish patriot, a rebel, and a rhetorician, commanding in voice and in person. When Yeats joined in the Irish nationalist cause, he did so partly from conviction, but mostly for love of Maud.

How deep was the love of William Butler Yeats for Maud Gonne? Yeats believed her to be a
modern-day Helen of Troy. He was just carried away by her beauty, energy and self-confident heroic nature. He wrote the following description of her:

"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."
 
(William Butler Yeats, Memoirs, In The Trembling of the Veil: Four Years, 1887-1891)
 
In The Trembling of the Veil, Yeats said that Gonne's 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."
 
With her in mind for the lead role, William even composed a play, “The Countess Kathleen.” It took him 10 years to complete. The play was performed at the opening of the Irish Literary Theatre in 1899, but Maud Gonne refused to take part in it. Yes, the muse "refused."
 
 
W.B. Yeats
 
Understand, dear reader, that while recovering from a bout of illness at a spa in central France, Gonne had begun an affair with her middle-aged lover, French journalist Lucien Millevoye, a married man with a son. Lucien had recently separated from his wife. Shortly thereafter Maud conceived a child by Lucien. Their son Georges was born in January, 1890. Gonne secretly gave birth to the boy.
 
On one of her frequent trips abroad she was suddenly notified that her baby was ill. Returning immediately to Paris, she learned to her horror that Georges had meningitis. Shortly after her return, Georges, aged five months, died.
 
Years later this tragedy, Maud discovered that Lucien, to whom she had always been faithful and who had been the love of her life for many years had left her for another woman. She promptly broke off her relationship with  him.
 
Before the affair ended in 1898, Millevoye and Gonne had a second child, a daughter, Iseult Gonne in 1895. She was conceived in the mausoleum of her late brother in an attempt by her parents to reincarnate their dead and still adored infant. Iseult would live to he passed off as her "younger sister" for many years. Maud had some pretty strange beliefs -- and certainly not quite the usual sexual fantasy for love and procreation.
 
During the time Maud spent with Yeats, she never mentioned the affair with Lucien Millevoye or her "secret" children. Ignorant of the nature of her association with Lucien, Yeats assumed she was merely "taken up" with Ireland's cause. Maud encouraged him to believe this was the case as she depended on his friendship and devotion.
 
Even when William followed Maud to Paris in February 1894 as she showed him around her beloved city, he was unaware that she was pregnant with Iseult.
 
A kiss must have caused muse Maud to confess. Gonne kissed Yeats on the lips for the first time in 1899, then immediately confessed the truth to him about the affair and her children she had told the world were adopted.
 
Still undaunted, the persistent William asked Maud Gonne to marry him, but she declined. And, at this point, you might think this is the end of the story, but far from it.
 
Their friendship survived at least four unsuccessful marriage proposals from Yeats. When Maud married Major John MacBride in Paris in 1903, Yeats was devastated that she had taken another nationalist for her husband.
 
There were two main reasons why Yeats was so horrified. To lose his muse to another made him look silly before the public. Yeats naturally hated MacBride and continually sought to deride and demean him both in his letters and his poetry. The second reason Yeats was horrified was linked to the fact of Maud's conversion to Catholicism, which Yeats despised. He thought his muse would come under the influence of the priests and do their bidding.
 
(WB Yeats Vain, Glorious, Lout by Anthony Jordan. Westport Books 2003 pp 139–153, Willie Yeats & The Gonne MacBrides by Anthony Jordan Westport books 1997 pp.83–88)
 
The following year, Gonne and MacBride's son, Seán MacBride, was born. However, in 1905, Gonne made allegations of domestic violence, including the molestation of her then 11-year-old daughter Iseult Gonne. A divorce was not given, and MacBride got visiting rights to see his son twice a week at his wife's home. But, he exercised these rights briefly and decided to return to Ireland and never saw his baby boy again.
 
Gonne raised the boy in Paris until her husband was executed in 1916 for his participation in the  Easter Rising. Then, she felt that she could safely return to live permanently in Ireland.
 
Yeats gave MacBride the following ambivalent eulogy in his poem "Easter, 1916":
"This other man I had dreamed
A drunken, vain-glorious lout.
He had done most bitter wrong
To some who are near my heart,
Yet I number him in the song;
He, too, has resigned his part
In the casual comedy;
He, too, has been changed in his turn,
Transformed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born."
Maud Gonne wrote to Yeats "No I don't like your poem, it isn't worthy of you & above all it isn't worthy of its subject... As for my husband he has entered eternity by the great door of sacrifice...so that praying for him I can also ask for his prayers."
 
(Gonne-Yeats Letters Eds. Anna MacBride White & Norman Jeffares, Pimlico 1993 p. 384)
 
Still, William comforted her. Some accounts say they finally consummated their relationship near the end of 1908 in Paris.. "The long years of fidelity rewarded at last" was how another of his lovers described the event. Yeats was less sentimental and later remarked that "the tragedy of sexual intercourse is the perpetual virginity of the soul."
 
(Cahill, Christopher. "Second Puberty: The Later Years of W. B. Yeats Brought His Best Poetry, along with Personal Melodrama on an Epic Scale."
The Atlantic Monthly, December 2003)
 
The relationship did not develop into a new phase after their night together, and soon afterwards Gonne wrote to the poet indicating that despite the physical consummation, they could not continue as they had been: "I have prayed so hard to have all earthly desire taken from my love for you and dearest, loving you as I do, I have prayed and I am praying still that the bodily desire for me may be taken from you too."
 
(R.F. Foster, W.F. Yeats: A Life, 1998)
 
Had the reality of sexual relations destroyed all illusions of love? William considered the possibility.  And, by January 1909, Gonne was sending Yeats letters praising the advantage given to artists who abstain from sex. Nearly twenty years later, Yeats recalled the night with Gonne in his poem "A Man Young and Old":
"My arms are like the twisted thorn
And yet there beauty lay;
The first of all the tribe lay there
And did such pleasure take;
She who had brought great Hector down
And put all Troy to wreck."
 
What About William?

After consulting with an astrologist, William Butler Yeats's final proposal to Maud Gonne took place in the summer of 1916. Gonne's history of revolutionary political activism, as well as a series of personal catastrophes in the previous few years of her life, including chloroform addiction and her troubled marriage to MacBride made her a potentially unsuitable wife, and biographer R.F. Foster has observed that Yeats' last offer was motivated more by a sense of duty than by a genuine desire to marry her. Hardly the stuff of passion and romance.
 
(Cahill, Christopher. "Second Puberty: The Later Years of W. B. Yeats Brought His Best Poetry, along with Personal Melodrama on an Epic Scale."
The Atlantic Monthly, December 2003)
 
Yeats proposed in an indifferent manner, with conditions attached, and he both expected and hoped she would turn him down. According to Foster "when he duly asked Maud to marry him, and was duly refused, his thoughts shifted with surprising speed to her daughter." Daughter? Uh, huh.
 
Iseult had lived a sad young life. After all, she had been conceived as an attempt to reincarnate her short-lived brother, and, for the first few years of her life, she had been presented as her mother's adopted niece. When her mother Maud told her that she was going to marry MacBride, Iseult cried and told her mother that she hated him.
 
At fifteen, she had proposed to Yeats. That's right... Iseult had proposed to William.
 
Now, fully grown Iseult Gonne was widely considered a great beauty, but temperate and able to speak her mind. She attracted the admiration of literary figures including Ezra Pound, Lennox Robinson and Liam O'Flaherty.
 
In a very strange twist to this story of unrequited love, in 1916, a few months after Maud Gonne had turned down his last proposal, with her permission, 52 year-old William Butler Yeats wooed and proposed to 23 year-old Iseult Gonne. That's right... old William proposed to young Iseult with the permission of her mother, Maud.
 
Although she refused, he became the closest she would have to a father figure. At this point, I'm really confused. I guess deep unrequited love never dies?
 
But wait. That September, Yeats proposed to 25-year-old Georgie Hyde-Lees (1892–1968), whom he had met through Olivia Shakespear when Georgie was 17 years-old.
 
Despite warning from her friends—"George ... you can't. He must be dead"—Hyde-Lees accepted, and the two were married on 20 October. Their marriage was a success, in spite of the age difference, and in spite of Yeats' feelings of remorse and regret during their honeymoon.
 
The couple went on to have two children, Anne and Michael.
 
At last, William's Maud obsession seemed to ebb, nearly 30 years after they first met. Yet, his love life remained a tangle. Late in life he had a vasectomy, believed at the time to improve men’s potency. He charged ahead in romantic relationships with other women and possibly with affairs.
 
 
Ethel Mannin
 
 
Among his lovers were the poet and actress Margot Ruddock, and the novelist, journalist and sexual radical Ethel Mannin. As in his earlier life, Yeats found erotic adventure conducive to his creative energy, and, despite age and ill-health, he remained a prolific writer.
 
In a letter of 1935, Yeats noted: "I find my present weakness made worse by the strange second puberty the operation has given me, the ferment that has come upon my imagination. If I write poetry it will be unlike anything I have done" 
 
(Letter to Dorothy Wellesley, 17 June 1935; cited Ellmann, "Yeats's Second Puberty,"
New York Review of Books, 9 May 1985)
 
It is reported that on his death in January 1939, both his wife and his last lover stood vigil at his bed.
 
Although in later years he had , George herself wrote to her husband "When you are dead, people will talk about your love affairs, but I shall say nothing, for I will remember how proud you were."
 
 
 
 
And what do some critics say about the life of William Butler Yeats and his unrequited love?
 
"The late poems of Yeats are sharp cries in the struggle to hold on to the pleasures of the body when the body fails. "The Wild Old Wicked Man" (1938) brags that he has what no young man can have: "Words I have that can pierce the heart, / But what can he do but touch?" Settling in to compensatory pleasures, he can say with bravura that, while religion can burn out suffering eternally, "I choose the second-best, / I forget it all awhile / Upon a woman's breast."

"Yeats ultimately chose the body over the soul, in late life embracing the Tantric belief in sex as the path to divinity, but sex without consummation, a philosophy that must have been all the more appealing to a post-Steinach Yeats.
 
"In 1931 he began a friendship with Shri Purohit Swami, for whose spiritual autobiography he wrote an introduction and with whom he collaborated on a translation of the Upanishads when the two stayed together in Majorca in 1935-36. St. John Ervine, one-time temporary manager of the Abbey Theatre, paid a visit to Yeats while cruising in the Mediterranean and offered this description of the poet's spiritual guru: "The Yogi, dressed in bright pink and looking like a bright carnation, sat with his hands folded on his ample paunch." Stationery from the Hotel Terramar in Palma, on which the Swami wrote letters to Margot Ruddock, included in this new acquisition, is imprinted: 'Located on the famous C'as Catal Coast. Own sea beach. All comforts. Central heating.'
"So runs the fine line between wisdom and foolishness, the sublime and the ridiculous, inspiration and madness. Yeats never crossed this last line, though Margot Ruddock -- a Crazy Jane of a young and beautiful sort -- did. She appeared at the Hotel Terramar in May 1936 in the throes of a nervous breakdown, then went down to the shore to drown herself, only to begin to dance, a dance Yeats memorialized in two poems, "Sweet Dancer" and "A Crazed Girl." Her body had failed her spirit in a tragedy Yeats knew all too well by this stage of his life."
 
 (Clare M. Dunsford, "An Old Fool: The Last Passions of W.B. Yeats,"
Boston College Magazine, 2000)
 
And What About Iseult?
 
In 1920, Iseult eloped to London with the Irish-Australian writer, Francis Stuart. Under duress from both their parents, the couple later married. Their first child, Dolores, died in 1921 of spinal meningitis while three months old. The couple had two other children, Ian and Catherine.
 
Iseult made headlines during the Second World War when she was brought to trial for harboring Hermann Görtz, a German parachutist, a crime to which she confessed but was acquitted.
 
When Maud Gonne died in 1953, Iseult was not acknowledged as her mother's daughter in her will. Iseult died a year later.
 
 
Maud's Later Life
 
When Ireland’s Civil War came, Maud supported the anti-treaty side. She helped to found the Women’s Prisoners Defense League to help Republican prisoners and their families. In 1923, she once again found herself imprisoned, this time by the Irish Free State government.
Maud Gonne MacBride died on April 27, 1953, but her influence on Ireland and the world continued after her death through her son, Seán MacBride. As a young man, Seán fought on the Republican side in the Civil War and later carried on his mother’s crusade for the fair treatment of political prisoners, not just in Ireland, but all over the world. Seán was one of the founders of Amnesty International and, in 1974, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
 
 
My Take
 
I can't add anything to this story. It speaks for itself.
 
I believe experiencing unrequited love allows a person to empathize with the bluest blues and one of the saddest realities of love; however, thank God most of us "get over" the one that fueled our deepest desires but turned to walk away. Life is art, and art is life. OK. There is a strange beauty in the recollection of lost love. I feel the power of this muse in much of my favorite music.
 
Yet, I don't claim to be a poet, a great lover, or a philosopher, but I count myself lucky to know heartbreak because some soulful connection within me actually occurs I hear the blues. I still wonder how anyone who has not experienced rejection on the deepest levels can understand.
 
Damn, that W.B. Yeats and Maud anyway. Sometimes even when you get what you want, it's too late, or it's not as good as you thought it would be. Maybe a little bit of unrequited is actually good for the soul. Or maybe people like me are just too fucking crazy and enjoy being drawn too close to the flame. It makes me want to hide my face amid that crowd of stars. Yet, I remember still. And I hope to never forget... the times, the longing, and even the pain. How can I love best without experiencing the whole tipsy ride? And, yes, I still love you, baby.
 
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