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 romantic quest.
Of the hundreds of letters they exchanged, nearly 400 of hers survive, but only 30 of his, many having been destroyed in a fire when soldiers raided her home. Although, in the view of Ms. White, Gonne's letters are not very revealing of her inner life, they are frank and passionate in some ways, and they do demonstrate that her relationship with Yeats was more complex and reciprocating than the commonly held image of the entreating poet spurned by the proud beauty. "I know," she wrote him in 1909, "the s piritual union between us will outlive this life, even if we never see each other in this world again."
Yeats and Gonne addressed each other with a frankness that highlighted their political differences, while cementing their personal trust. Gonne was more radically uncompromising, more willing to endorse revolutionary violence, and more sympathetic toward the poor.
Yeats, who became a senator in the Irish Free State (in Gonne's eyes, a sell-out of the revolutionary cause), defended the authoritarian measures it took to suppress the more extreme nationalist elements.
Unlike Gonne, who always defended the common people of Ireland, Yeats saw the aristocracy as guardians of culture and order, and he feared mob rule, in which, as he memorably phrased it in his poem "The Second Coming": "The best lack all conviction, while the worst/ Are full of passionate intensity."
Throughout their long and intense friendship, each accused the other of being motivated by hatred. Gonne, indeed, could not hear of a Shakespeare festival without launching into a tirade against England the destroyer of Ireland.
Yeats, in some of his late poems, seems to commend the grace that comes to men who are "fighting mad." He saw damaging hatred in Gonne's vehement defense of popular violence; she saw a deadly "spiritual" hatred in his support of the Free State's treason and flogging bills.
While Gonne may never have felt for Yeats the romantic passion he felt for her, she always appreciated his importance as a poet.
"You remember," she wrote in 1908, "how for the sake of Ireland, I hated you in politics, even in the politics I believed in, because I always felt it took you from your writing & cheated Ireland of a greater gift than we could give her...."
She also urged him to spend less time on the Abbey Theatre: "one of your beautiful poems enriches Ireland, indeed the world a hundred times more than the most successful theatre Co...." Gonne, moreover, understood the hard labor that went into his work: "What makes the extraordinary charm of your poetry," she wrote him, "is the terrible though unseen effort of its creation.... Like a gem it is the outcome of a terrible & hidden effort."
Certainly, this muse was not indifferent to the poet whose work she helped inspire. And this collection of letters, ably edited and very well annotated by White and Yeats scholar A. Norman Jeffares, provides an illuminating glimpse of the love that furnished raw material to the poet's art.