W.B. Yeats, Nice Guy

Written by Natalie Luhrs

I'm a lifelong geek with a passion for books and social justice.

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October 29, 2012

Yeats in Love - Cropped

Yeats in Love – from Kate Beaton’s Hark! A Vagrant (cropped, click image to see full comic)

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.

In Dreams Begin, Skyler White

In Dreams Begin, Skyler White

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”

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  1. Liz Bourke

    Yeats also dismissed Gonne’s nationalism, because it was more violent than his own. Yeats was all about the Romanticism, but at heart he was a product of the Anglo-Irish upper class: in his poetry, he’s entirely (understandably) conflicted about Irish independence. Whereas Gonne wasn’t, and Yeats has this creepy “but why is she wasting her time in this thing when she could’ve been making nice things for ME” vibe going on.

    Completely unwilling to let her have her own personhood. It’s telling that when he finally married, it was to a much younger woman who was entirely overshadowed by his personality.

    (Seán MacBride is a very interesting figure, with his earlier radicalism and participation in violence, then turning to civil law in the late thirties, then instrumental in the first Coalition government and the declaration of the actual republic of Ireland… and afterwards majorly important in advocating for civil rights internationally. One of Ireland’s better sons, when it comes to politics.)

    • Natalie

      Yes, to all of this. I really need to revisit all of this again because 20 year olds are not exactly nuanced when it comes to this sort of thing and I was, well, willfully clueless in a lot of ways (I cringe when I remember some of the crap that came out of my mouth back then).

      I think the thing that I find creepiest is that when Gonne finally–after 25 years of proposals–he turns around and proposes to her daughter almost immediately. That is seriously gross and really underlines the fact that he really did not see her (or Iseult) as a person but as a ticky mark in the category of “muse”.

      On my list of things to reread someday: Servant of the Queen, which I remember as being hilariously full of half-truths and woo but also with a really wonderful sense of Maud Gonne’s personality (I skimmed through bits of it when I was writing this post). I think I’d feel much differently about it now than I did back in 1994/1995 when I was researching my thesis.

    • Liz Bourke

      You have the disadvantage of not covering Yeats in both English *and* History in school. 😛

      I mean, he *is* the poet of the nation, for that time… but that makes it all the more important to give him the side-eye. I mean, from how he characterises Constance Markiewicz and Eva Gore-Booth in his poetry, it’s clear that to him women are poor damaged ciphers. He can see women as – in some sense – angels or faery-women (Niamh tossing her golden hair, calling), but actual human beings?

      Don’t make me laugh.

      (Creepy bugger. And then his quasi-fascism in the decade before his death, ugh.)

    • Natalie

      I absolutely have that disadvantage: everything I know about Yeats I learned on my own despite majoring in English and taking multiple classes in British lit–two survey courses and one each on Victorian and Modern literature (the Modern lit class ended up being mostly American stuff which was not what I was interested in; Their Eyes Were Watching God is a great book but I didn’t need to read it THREE TIMES). My department also didn’t really have undergrads do a lot of work with critical theory which, in retrospect, I think was a big weakness of the program and one I hope they’ve rectified.

      Seems to me that women were useful for him to use as metaphors or inspiration and that was about it. Really quite unfair to the women.

      I do love his poetry, but yes: side-eye. We will not talk about the fascism. And I wish I could find a cite for the awesome story one of my profs told me about him and monkey glands–it’s apparently in unpublished personal papers that Harold Bloom (/spit) had access to while he was researching Yeats.

    • Liz Bourke

      Now, see, all I learned about Yeats and the formation of the Irish state I learned in school. Which is also a disadvantage of its own, since the school system does have a tendency to put a shiny spin on nationalism. (We wouldn’t be here without it, after all.)

      *sniff* Yeats is not *British* literature. *mutters about American teaching practices, will one day describe “The Grapes of Wrath” as Canadian literature, so there*

      …despite my inner nationalist’s protests, I do know what you mean. 🙂

      The Yeats papers are in the National Library of Ireland now (http://www.nli.ie/pdfs/mss%20lists/A16_Yeats.pdf), so there’s no need to spit. 😛

    • Natalie

      Yeah, I know–but it’s not like state schools in the Midwest have Irish lit classes. When I was looking at grad schools, one of the schools I was looking at did have an Irish lit program, though–because it was in Boston. Of course, I can’t seem to find it now, but it’s been 17 years so it may very well not exist anymore.

      We get a pretty shiny spin on American history in school, too. Which is a huge problem because of reasons I suspect are really obvious to everyone but the people who drank the “America Fuck Yeah” Kool-Aid.

    • Liz Bourke

      The inner nationalist has a tendency to over-react. (But when one is so often over-shadowed by one’s neighbours, one must claim what poets one might!)

      Yeah. For some reasons schools don’t seem to like teaching the “But it’s more complicated than that” side of things…

    • dichroic

      Heh. Could be worse – and is. In Texas they get Texas history in grade school and then Texas Poli Sci in high school. (The one fourth-grade book on its history that I saw wasn’t inaccurate, but was vague enough to both be boring and give untruthful impressions.

    • Natalie

      They do that in a lot of states–Virginia did a lot on colonial history and my sister did a lot on Michigan history when she was in late elementary (we’d moved by that point). It makes a little bit of sense–give kids a sense of their local history before widening the scope, but definitely has the potential to backfire in weird and unexpected ways.

  2. Rosary

    I love Yeats’s poetry, but yes, he’s totally weird in his representations of women. His obession with Maud Gonne was particularly creepy, and well in 2012, he’s be prosecuted for stalking. And his poor wife with the automatic writing, but then Conan Doyle’s wife did that too.

    I know the monkey nuts story; one of my professors mentioned it in class as well. Then again, he would mention weird things to keep us interested.

    Yeats may be one of the Irish Nationalists, but being part of the Ascendency majorly conflicted his politics there, I’d have to say. I really must read a good biography on him one day. Neither my MA program nor my doctoral program had an Irish Lit focus, but both did have good Irish Lit experts. My MA program had MaryFitzgerald, Richard Finneran’s wife (the editor of the Collected Yeats), so I learned my Irish Lit from her (or some of it.) My PhD program did have a focus on James Joyce, so Yeats came up of course. And then I was a Romanticist, so the Yeats Blake link was something that came up. However, I picked up a lot of Yeats on my own.

    That line of bad sex make me laugh out loud which was a needed break from graded less than stellar essays.

    • Natalie

      Did you hear the bit about the brothel after the monkey nuts?

      I’ve had, for a long time, Brenda Maddox’s bio, Yeats’s Ghosts, which is supposed to be about his relationships with women, including his mother and sisters (who were fascinating). I should move it up in the queue. My school had an Irish lit guy but he didn’t teach any classes for undergrads (or classes that had a mix of grad students and undergrads–I took a LOT of those kinds of classes).

  3. Rosary

    I took more of those mixed ones at my MA program. Sigh I miss taking classes some days (especially days that involve grading essays).

    I don’t remember the brothel part…don’t know anymore if he told us and I forgot or if he didn’t tell us. I do know that one of the texts I’ve used mentioned the monkey glands operation, but lord help me, if I remember which. I’ve been teaching too long LOL

    • Natalie

      I really liked the mixed classes–at my school, it was usually mostly grad students with 2 to 4 undergrads. A number of years ago one of my husband’s classmates in his MA program was really awful to me about them; her position was that it diminished the experience for the grad students because the undergrads drug the class down. It’s made me reluctant to talk about my experiences in those classes ever since. They were great for me, I learned a lot, and I was expected to keep up. I never would have been able to take some of the classes I did otherwise.

      What I heard about the brothel was that after the monkey glands operation he found himself in need of, um, a lot of satisfaction and had the women line up for him. OTOH, that could be completely false because it’s not like the monkey glands operation actually WORKED.

  4. Rosary

    LOL sounds like a male fantasy doesn’t it?

    I took both mixed and non-mixed, and larger when mixed (maybe one or two grads to 10-12 undergrads), but I didn’t find my experience diminshed–in someways it helped me to find my voice more easily because I was confident. In my MA program, it was easy to get shut out of some of the classes by the louder folk, by the time I hit doc level classes, I had my voice and didn’t care, but in MA–those mixed classes helped build confidence.

    I think so much about grad school experiences have to do with the University’s and the program’s attitudes of where they think you’ll end up. But where you end up these days is a matter of who will t ake you, so the snobbery is silly.

    • Natalie

      It really does, which is why I doubt the veracity of the story! I believe the monkey glands because that was a thing in the 1920’s, but the rest, well…

      The woman who was so derisive towards my experience was, I think, really insecure so one way she could make herself feel better was to smack down those she felt were less academically accomplished than she was. Or something.

      Most of my upper level English classes were mixed classes, and I learned so much in them. I was very intimidated in them to begin with, but as I got closer to graduation I was more confident about speaking up in class. One of my favorite memories is a talk I did on Dorothy Wordsworth’s journals and how, afterwards, two of the grad students made a point of telling me what a good job I’d done (one of them had been my instructor in a writing class a couple years earlier so it really meant a lot to me that he’d said something). I was also able to take a class on Dante that I never ever ever would have been offered to undergrads. And the very first class on LGBT lit ever offered in a public university in my state.

  5. rosary

    I did my MA thesis on Dorothy Wordsworth’s journals and Frankenstein 🙂

    • Natalie

      Ooooh, awesome! How did you tie them together?

      I have always been fascinated by the way Dorothy talks about her brother in the journals–it reads as very emotionally incestuous to me.

  6. Rosary

    I tied them together through aesthetic theory. They both tend to use picturesque art theory when describing nature scenes, and my basic premise was both were trying to create an aesthetic space for women since the sublime was seen as the masculine aesthetic and the beautiful was seen as the feminine and utterly passive. But to write meant to be active, so the beautiful was out, and the picturesque provided that space. I haven’t read my thesis in years..should have stuck with it though, I might have finished my doctorate instead of getting so bogged down in 18th century educational theory and the lack of any practical skills in said theory for women.

  7. Tara

    Just one brief comment. While Yeats was completely delusional and disturbing for proposing to Maud Gonne’s daughter twice (!), I find the fact that Maud Gonne not distancing herself and/or her daughter away from him more perplexing. And why being physically intimate with him? Why kiss him? I’m sure any woman wouldn’t do such with someone who she was not fond of.

    All I can conclude is that,
    Yeats, not your everyday Irish Literaray giant (no pun intended)
    Yeats, not your ordinary modern day creeper either.

    • Natalie

      I’m afraid I can’t agree with you here. Not even a little bit.

      It is not Maud Gonne’s fault that Yeats creeped on her. It is not clear how much Yeats may have pressured her to be intimate with him–I suspect quite a bit, to be honest.

      And just because one is intimate with someone does not mean one has any kind of fond feeling towards them.

      Also: if Gonne had made an effort to distance herself from Yeats, what would the repercussions to her be? And to her work?

  8. Doug M.

    Coming very late to this discussion, but a couple of points.

    One, both Yeats and Gonne were very… odd. So odd that we should perhaps hesitate to categorize their relationship with simple terms. To give just one example, Yeats considered himself a wizard, and (at least sometimes) thought of his relationship with Maud in magickal terms. That’s of course not inconsistent with being a creeper, but it’s just one of the various complications there.

    Two, IIUC, for at least the first decade of their relationship the power relationship between them was rather complex. Yeats was from respectable middle-class origins but he didn’t have much money, nor did his writing bring him much income until well after the turn of the century. In the 1890s, you could fairly call him “obscure”; he wasn’t particularly well known outside a small circle before the Abbey Theater. (And while the Abbey brought him greater fame, it was a commercial failure that closed after two years.) Maud, meanwhile, was an heiress and socially a full notch above him.

    Three, while there were unquestionably creepy and stalky elements to the relationship, there also seems to have been real affection, liking, and trust in the mix as well. Maud often praised and defended Yeats, and she called upon his support more than once, most famously at her divorce trial in 1904. She seems to have been both annoyed and pleased by Yeats’ obsession, sometimes both at the same time. They were odd and complicated people.

    Four, I wouldn’t agree that Yeats was box-ticking “muse”. IIUC, he very suddenly decided that it was time for him to marry, apparently due to a combination of late-life financial success and fame, magickal inspiration, and what today we’d call his biological clock. He asked Maud first out of a sense of obligation, though the relationship had pretty much withered and died some years earlier. When both Maud and Iseult refused him, he proposed to the first plausible, passable young woman who swam across his view. So, box-ticking yes, but “wife”. Whether that’s any better is of course a reasonable question.


    Doug M.


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