A million years ago when I was in college, I wrote an honors thesis on the subject of the poet William Butler Yeats. It was very much the work of a naive 20 year old and while I’m not exactly ashamed of it, I do wish that someone had hit me with a clue by four at some point in the process.
One side effect of having written the thesis, though, is that I know way more about Yeats than any normal person really should–and I have nearly an entire shelf of books about him to prove it. I even have R.F. Foster’s two volume biography although I haven’t read it yet because, well, it’s something like 2,000 pages altogether and that is a lot of Yeats. Even for me.
As with many other people, one of the things that I found fascinating about Yeats was his fascination with Maud Gonne. I honestly could not understand why Gonne was so seriously not into getting with Yeats–which I think is a fairly common perspective because, of course, Yeats is a great poet and he wrote all these beautiful poems about how much he loved her. You’d have to be CRAZY to not want to get some of that action.
Now I see it a bit differently–Yeats was a man who pretty obviously didn’t know how to take no for an answer. In other words, he was a creeper. And Maud Gonne had to deal with him being a creeper for pretty much her whole life.
Briefly, Yeats met Gonne in 1889 and for the next 25 years he wrote poetry about her and tried to get her to marry him. She kept saying no and went so far as to have children out of wedlock and marry other men. In 1916, after Maud refused to marry him yet again, Yeats then proposed to her teenaged daughter Iseult. When Iseult refused him, he ended up marrying Georgie Hyde-Lees, who basically had to begin automatic writing in order to keep him interested in her for the duration of their marriage.
I’ve been thinking about this for the past few years because back in 2010 I reviewed a paranormal fantasy novel that had, at its heart, the relationship between Yeats and Gonne. It’s called In Dreams Begin and was written by Skyler White. Most people who reviewed it seemed to have liked it quite a bit. I loathed it.
The premise of this book involves time travel and body-swapping; essentially there’s a medium who causes a modern day woman named Laura Armstrong (who shares the same name with a pre-Gonne infatuation of Yeats) to change spirits with Maud Gonne periodically throughout Gonne’s life.
Okay, fine–it’s not a terrible premise for a book and I was excited to read it and then I read White’s characterization of Gonne when she wasn’t body-swapped with Laura and there wasn’t enough facepalming in the world, really. Because, see, apparently when Gonne is in her own body she’s not very interesting and entirely too earnest about that whole Irish independence thing but when it’s Laura? She’s exciting and alluring and that’s the person Yeats was in love with, that was the person he saw as a pilgrim soul, Helen of Troy, et cetera et cetera ad nauseum. The real Maud Gonne is completely erased in this text, and I found that really problematic because she actually was pretty interesting in her own right.
She was an Irish nationalist and fought tirelessly for that cause and advocated for political prisoners–a passion she passed on to her son, Séan MacBride, who was one of the co-founders of Amnesty International and who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1974 for his work in human rights. She had children out of wedlock at a time when that was unacceptable and she was an actress. She married John MacBride and then left him when she discovered that he’d molested her daughter–and tried to divorce him, but was unable to do so. In order to not lose custody of Séan, she lived in France and only returned to Ireland after MacBride was executed for his participation in the Easter 1916 uprising. It was after her return to Ireland that she began her advocacy for prisoners, going so far as to go to jail herself and embark on hunger strikes. Agree or disagree with her, she believed in her cause and her cause was Ireland’s freedom. She was a total bad-ass, in other words.
And yet: none of this bad-assery is in evidence in White’s book; it’s portrayed as this tedious thing that she was doing instead of just being happy to be Yeats’s muse. In general, she’s portrayed as a cipher and a vessel that will be periodically filled by someone much more interesting.
Also, the book had one of the most hilariously bad descriptions of sex that I think I’ve ever read in a book. It was so bad that I actually saved it for posterity and now I share it with you:
But Amit [Laura’s modern-day husband], groaning now, stifled and urgent, bounces my pussy on his cock like a rubber ball tethered to a paddle by a bit of elastic string.
Two years after reading this book, my reaction to that line is the same: WHAT IS THIS I DON’T EVEN.
I will say this: Even though I disagree tremendously with White’s characterization of Maud Gonne, her research was meticulous and I was unable to find any discrepancies in her timeline. And she did get some of the truly weird stuff from Gonne’s life right–like the whole having sex in the memorial chapel of her dead son with her dead son’s father on the anniversary of their son’s death in the hopes of reincarnating him and conceiving Iseult instead thing. Seriously. That was a thing that really happened. You can read about on pages 115 through 117 in The Apprentice Mage.
I love Yeats’s poetry, I still think his work is amazing and his imagery is really something else. But he was also really creepy when it came to women and if you look at the representations of women in his poetry it’s pretty sad. Most of them are passive and acted upon by men or serve as inspiration for men of action. I don’t think he ever really saw women as people–which isn’t surprising for the time he was writing, but it does make me read his work from a new perspective.
Why should I blame her that she filled my days
With misery, or that she would of late
Have taught to ignorant men most violent ways,
Or hurled the little streets upon the great,
Had they but courage equal to desire?
What could have made her peaceful with a mind
That nobleness made simple as a fire,
With beauty like a tightened bow, a kind
That is not natural in an age like this,
Being high and solitary and most stern?
Why, what could she have done being what she is?
Was there another Troy for her to burn?
William Butler Yeats, “No Second Troy”