It could rightfully be considered in an inauspicious start to a great love story, when years later one half of the storied couple reflects on the day of their first meeting as the day that “the troubling of my life began”, yet that is exactly how William Butler Yeats was to describe his first meeting with Maud Gonne on the 30th of January, 1889. To the young, introspective poet from Co. Sligo, born to a family of modest means, Maud Gonne could have been nothing less than a force of nature. Confident, cosmopolitan, and well-traveled, she had lived in Dublin, London, and France at various times in her young life, and it was in the latter that she became embroiled in an affair with the married French nationalist, publisher, and politician, Lucien Millevoye.
Although the affair with Millevoye was very much alive at the time of her first meeting with Yeats in 1889, Maud and Willie, as she affectionately referred to him found much to admire in each other. Drawn together by a mutual love for Ireland- where Maud had spent the better part of her childhood in Howth- and in turn Irish Nationalism, they found in each other a type of symbiosis. Yeats, the dreamer, mystic, and ideologist, and Maud Gonne the living embodiment of those qualities as evidenced by her almost boundless energy for activism and passion for social causes as evidenced by her work on behalf of evicted tenants.
The precise nature of the relationship between them, however, remains a subject of strong debate. Yeats’ feelings toward Maud at times clearly bordered on the obsessive, as he was to write in Cycles Ago, subtitled “In Memory of Your Dream One July Night”.
My world was fallen and over, for your dark soft eyes on it shone; A thousand years it had waited and now it is gone, it is gone.
In fact, much of Yeats’ work centers on the unrequited and tumultuous aspects of his relationship with Maud Gonne. Throughout the years, he was to propose to her no fewer than three times. Each time she refused him. Never one for convention, Maud in turn proposed a type of “spiritual marriage” that existed at a deeper level and for a higher purpose than mere mortal love. By this time, heavily involved with Yeats in his pursuit of mysticism and the occult and initiated by Yeats in the Secret Society of the Golden Dawn, Maud wrote often in her letters to Willie of their bridging the geographical distance between them through astral projection and meditation. She saw their union as one of their intellects, spirits and souls. While appreciative of their “spiritual marriage”, Yeats eventually recognized the need for a more earthly type of fulfillment. At various times, he became involved with other, arguably more suitable partners. None of these relationships were to prove lasting, as one by one his various lovers came to understand the hold that Maud continued to have over him.
Yet despite her oft spoken convictions that sexual love was unfulfilling, and should exist only for procreation; and her aversion to marriage, which she believed was an institution of no benefit to a woman, Maud Gonne was a woman of contradiction…and secrecy. Within three months of her initial meeting with Willie in London, Maud became pregnant by Millevoye with her first child, son Georges, who died of illness at seventeen months of age. When it became impossible for her to conceal her grief at Georges’ death from Yeats, Maud informed him that a child she had adopted had passed away. In 1894, she became pregnant by Millevoye once again, this time giving birth to her daughter, Iseult, again without Yeats’ knowledge, despite the intensity of their written correspondence and the depth of the emotional bond between them.
Maud’s secret life came to light in November of 1898, when the couple found themselves in Dublin together. Yeats later wrote that it was then that the two shared their first actual kiss.
Shortly after, Maud apologized to Yeats, telling him that she could never be his wife, and finally sharing the story of her affair with Millevoye and the birth of her two children by him. Despite the fact that the revelations were almost more than Willie could bear, it appears that their relationship did become at some point, slightly more conventional, although Maud continued to express her fear and horror of the act of physical love. To others she stated that although she loved Yeats dearly as a friend, she could not for one moment imagine marrying him.
By 1903, Maud seemed to have overcome her aversion to marriage. That year she wed Major John MacBride of the Irish Brigade. Her marriage, by all accounts, shattered Yeats. That year, she gave birth to Seán, her son by MacBride. The marriage was short-lived, however, ending bitterly when Maud filed for divorce on the basis of MacBride’s alleged debauchery and adultery. The acrimonious trial that ensued was front-page news, both in Ireland and in mainland Europe, with the French courts eventually ruling that due to MacBride’s Irish citizenship, and the illegality of divorce in that country, Maud petition for divorce could not be granted. Instead, she was allowed a legal separation that left her bitter, and for over a decade after, a virtual prisoner in France, as she feared that the legal custody of her son Seán, as granted her by the French courts, would not be honored in Ireland where MacBride resided.
Despite the geographical distance between them, Yeats was able to travel to see Maud several times during this period. Her letters to Yeats, which had always begun with “My dearest friend”, and “My dear Willie”, took a decided change in tone, suggestive of the fact that their relationship had evolved into something more than a spiritual or mystical union. In December of 1908, Maud wrote,
Dearest…It was hard leaving you yesterday…Life is so good when we are together. It is hard being away from each other so much there are moments when I…long to be with you…beloved, I am glad and proud beyond measure of your love…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…that the bodily desire is gone.
The next year, Yeats explored rather eloquently in his journal of his perceptions of what he considered to be Maud’s internal conflict.
She will not divorce her husband and marry because of her Church. Since she said this, she has not been further from me but is always very near. She does seem to love more than of old. In addition to this, the old dread of physical love has awakened in her. This dread has probably spoiled all her life, checking natural and instinctive selection, and leaving fantastic duties free to take its place. It is what philosophy is to me, a daily rooter out of instinct and guiding joy- and all the while she grows nobler under the touch of sorrow and denial. What end will it all have? I fear for her and for myself. She has all myself. I was never more deeply in love, but my desires must go elsewhere if I would escape their poisons. I am in constant terror of some entanglement parting us, and all the while I know that she made me and I her. She is my innocence, and I her wisdom. Of old she was a phoenix and I feared her, but now she is my child more than my sweetheart.
Yeats was aware at this time that there had been a type of role reversal. Whereas at the time of their initial meeting, he had been the innocent, the years since had taken their toll on Maud Gonne, and both her letters and his writings indicated that she had developed an emotional dependence on him.
It was a role that he seems to have relished at times, and resented at others. Well into his forties by now, Yeats began to be tormented by thoughts of what might have been. Having taken on a fatherly role in the life of young Iseult, then fifteen, he remarked at one point that he could easily have had a daughter her age.
In April of 1916, the Easter Rising took place in Dublin, and brought an abrupt end to Maud Gonne’s marriage when John MacBride, as one of its leaders, was executed in the aftermath. Maud expressed to Yeats at the time her belief that in dying for Ireland, MacBride had left young Seán a name he could be proud of. The next year, in October of 1917, Yeats, feeling the inexorable pull of old age, married Georgie Hyde Lees after first proposing, and being refused by Maud’s now twenty-three year old daughter Iseult. Drawn together by Georgie’s interest in the occult, his relationship with her had been previously one of friendship, and within days of his wedding, he was wracked with guilt, writing in “The Heart Replies”,
I did not find in any cage the woman by my side; O but her heart would break to know my thoughts are far away.
While Yeats eventually began settling into married life (Georgie became pregnant in early 1918), Maud threw herself into her old life of political fervor and intrigue. She defied an existing ban on her traveling to Ireland, and went despite it, resulting in her arrest in May of 1918, and brief imprisonment in Holloway Gaol. It was an experience that led her to work tirelessly on behalf of prisoner’s rights. In the aftermath of the signing of the treaty, under which the Irish Free State was established, young Seán MacBride went on to join the IRA. Maud as well had become rabidly anti-Treaty. In 1922, Seán was taken prisoner by Free State government forces upon the surrender of the Four Courts. Not long after, Free State soldiers raided Maud’s house on St. Stephen’s Green in Dublin, burning most of her papers in the streets, including, sadly, the majority of the letters written to her by Yeats over the course of their almost thirty-five year relationship.
The next decade brought change. Maud and Willie grew apart somewhat, divided by the same political chasm that divided Ireland. Yeats had, for a time, served as a Senator, and Maud, always the activist, continued to write, and make speeches in support of her more radical pursuits. Their written correspondence continued, although somewhat slowed by the passage of time, and of old age, although their letters continued to communicate a deep friendship and abiding mutual respect.
Maud Gonne and William Butler Yeats met one last time in August of 1938 when she visited him in Rathfarnham for tea. He died five months later on January the 28th of 1939, and was temporarily interred in France. Maud in true fashion, strongly petitioned for the return of his remains to Ireland where was eventually laid to rest in Sligo in the shadow of his beloved Ben Bulben. Maud Gonne was to follow on April the 27th of 1953.
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.
The final resting place of William Butler Yeats at the foot of Ben Bulben, County Sligo (Photo courtesy of Mel McDermott)
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