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The Irish poet

The Irish poet, dramatist and mystic William Butler Yeats was one of the most fabulous figures in English literary circles of the late eighteenth century. His charisma helped him create the lofty persona which would come to characterize him and also affected his relationships with women. Sexually uncertain until a comparatively late stage of his life he could use his authority to assert himself over the kind of women who appealed to him – strong-minded, unconventional, and dramatic personalities as they generally were.

(Ellman, 124) This was especially true of Maud Gonne, the relationship with who had a significant effect on his poetry and his life ever after. Of the many beautiful women celebrated in Yeats’ poetry Maud Gonne is certainly the most important. More than all his other dramatis personae, except of course for himself, she emerges from his works – from his poetry, plays, and essays–not only as a human archetype but also as a sort of cosmic principle. Yeats met Maud Gonne in 1889, fell in love with her at once, and pursued her hopelessly for years.

And for about fifty years -that is, until his death – he continued in his best works both to celebrate and to mythologize her; but he did so especially in his poetry. In the poems to or about her, she may be mentioned directly or indirectly. She is addressed almost, though not, by name. And she is characterized, always, in brilliant detail. He loved her deeply; and yet she had been thoughtless or cruel enough to reject him, so that he could find no comfort anywhere: “O heart! O heart! if she’d but turn her head, You’d know the folly of being comforted” (Yeats, The Folly Of Being Comforted)

Yeats was very much in love with her and although she could with ease forget him, despite his marriage to other woman he was unable to forget her. He avowed after his marriage that he had indeed forgotten all about her; but memories of the past and of her beautiful face continued to fill his dreams As memories of her continued to torment him, he could recall not only her physical beauty but also her beautiful soul; and in his anguish he warns all young men against the pains of unrequited love:

Never give all the heart, for love Will hardly seem worth thinking of To passionate women if it seem Certain, and they never dream That it fades out from kiss to kiss; For everything that’s lovely is But a brief, dreamy, kind delight. O never give the heart outright, For they, for all smooth lips can say, Have given their hearts up to the play. And who could play it well enough If deaf and dumb and blind with love? He that made this knows all the cost, For he gave all his heart and lost Never give all the heart, for love

The years passed and, as he again dreamt of her past beauty, everywhere about him he saw an image also of her decrepit yet splendid old age: Her present image floats into the mind– Did Quattrocento finger fashion it Hollow of cheek as though it drank the wind And took a mess of shadows for its meat? Among School Children Although he mournfully regretted the disappearance of her youth and her beauty, he knew that her soul was both supernatural and immortal; and in that magnificent soul, therefore, he could find a Mask for the whole degenerate modern world: . .

. I thought her supernatural; As though a sterner eye looked through her eye On this foul world in its decline and fall. . . . A Bronze Head Eventually, she had to die and vanish from the world of human flesh and blood; but he understood that both in Anima Mundi and in his poetry about her she would survive eternally the ravages of time and death. Throughout these poems, meanwhile, Yeats associates Maud Gonne with occult symbols like the imaginary moon and the mystical rose.

He associates her, again and again, with the great heroines of Greek Irish, and Christian mythology: with St.Mary, Aoife, Emer, Leda, Pallas Athene, and inevitably Helen of Troy. In many of the poems addressed to her–and especially in the so-called rose poems – Maud Gonne becomes even the spirit of love and beauty in nature, the Eternal Feminine, and a cosmic absolute: I hear white Beauty sighing, too, For hours when all must fade like dew, But flame on flame, and deep on deep, Throne over throne where in half sleep, Their swords upon their iron knees, Brood her high lonely mysteries. He Remembers Forgotten Beauty

Maud Gonne was the cause of the ever-present theme of unrequited love in Yeats’ poems. The development of their relationships could be traced through Yeats’ magnificent works of different periods.

Bibliography: Ellman, Richard. Yeats: The Man and the Masks, London and New York, 1948. Koch, Vivienne, W. B. Yeats: The Tragic Phase, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, Ltd. , 1951. Stock, A. G. W. B. Yeats: His Poetry and Thought. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1961 Yeats, W. B. The Collected Poems, London, Macmillan and Co. Ltd. , 1950.

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