In “A Memory of Youth” Yeats acknowledged how his poetic inspiration had dried until the intervention of “a most ridiculous little bird [who] Tore from the skies his marvelous moon.”
The little bird was Iseult Gonne, who saw herself as both pupil and teacher to Yeats.
Their friendship was founded on intellectual and spiritual connection and an attempt by Yeats’ to cast her in the role of muse from which her mother had disqualified herself.
At the time of his romantic attachment to Iseult, When he was seriously considering her as a wife (1916 to 1918), Yeats was working on the first volume of his autobiographies – reliving his infatuation for the mother while becoming
Willie, Maud and Iseult, three of the most imaginative people who ever lived, never imagined the Internet or Twitter.
If they were alive today, I imagineMaud would leap on Twitter for PR purposes, Iseult would shun it,and Willie would dismiss it for a time, with a lofty air of Parnassus, for the low-brow level of the conversation and the low-bred emotion of the crowd… but then be drawn in by finding his own way to use it.
I like to tweet regularly about Yeats and the Gonnes, as I find interesting new information about their life and work. You can follow those tweetshere.
And here's a Storify list of people to follow if you're interested in learning more:
In the early part of his life, Yeats was a Romantic (capital R), heavily influenced by Rossetti, Shelley and other pre-Raphaelites and Romantics, in his ideas of what constituted a perfect love, and an ideal world.
In the courtly love tradition, the poet deliberately woos a muse as a career move: to extend his spiritual and creative capacities. Dante’s pursuit of the unattainable Beatrice is the model for this “suffering of desire” that, Yeats believed, made Dante's “the chief imagination of Christendom” in the sixteenth century.
When Maud Gonne came calling to his house in 1889, Yeats was perfectly primed to cast her in this role, so he might become the “chief imagination” of his own time.
He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven
This poem was one of many written in the early 1890s, when Yeats knew little of Maud's real-life character or history. She was, as yet, purely
I wrote last time about first hearing of the strange love triangle between WB Yeats, Maud Gonne and her daughter, Iseult.
Iseult is less well known than her mother though her life story is equally dramatic, in a different sort of way. Born on August 6, 1894, she was the only surviving child from Maud's thirteen-year affair with a married
French politician and journalist, Lucien Millevoye.
She lived with Maud who passed her off, variously, as her niece, her cousin, or as “a charming child I adopted”. But she did know Lucien and he acknowledged her as his daughter, if not publicly.
It was an inauspicious start to life and Iseult struggled with issues of identity and self-worth always.
Most of my novels begin with a question. Here, the question was: how could Yeats, who had carved a poetic career from writing about his unrequited love for Maud find himself, some years on, proposing marriage to his muse's daughter? To a girl almost 30 years his junior, and one to whom he had long acted in locus parentis?
Other extraordinary connections between these three characters include:
In 1890, Maud Gonne had a son with Lucien Millevoye, who died of meningitis. Yeats and his mystical friend AE had convinced Maud it would be possible to reincarnate a dead person by having ritual sex in their tomb. So she on Hallowe'en night 1893, she brought
Here's a sneak peek at the novel I'm working on now, The Pilgrim Soul. It's the first in a trilogy about love and loss, based around the lives of the poet, WB Yeats, and the mother and daughter he loved, Maud and Iseult Gonne.
The time is Christmas Day, 1893 and WB, or Willie as his family like to call him, is at Christmas lunch with them. In his late twenties, he is still living at home but beginning to make a name for himself as a poet of Ireland, a mystic whose childhood days in his mother's home county of Sligo inspire lyrical celebrations of mountain and cloud, lake and moon, wind and stars.
Below the extract is one of my favourites of his poems from those early years, for its dreamy imagery and what it tells us about his attachment to sorrow. Were alienation and separation ever more lyrically expressed?
It began harmless enough, with Papa starting a Christmas speech on the state of the family, of how Jack was soon to marry and become a substantial man, with a cheerful kind-hearted wife and an open-handed welcome for his friends. This was a less-than-subtle hint towards what they all know, that Jack’s fiancée is tying up her money so Papa won’t be able to get his hands on any of it.
Papa's self-serving cheerfulness was already wilting Willie’s spirits, even before he turned his glass on him. “And Willie will be famous and shed a bright light on us all, with sometimes a little money and sometimes not.” Papa drank, deeply and with significance, then sat, signifying the end of the toast. Lolly’s face reddened and his other sister, Lily, reached over to pat her hand, a gesture that only doubled Lolly’s fury. Papa noticed then and hastily stood back up. “And Lolly will have a prosperous school and give away as prizes her eminent brother’s volumes of poetry.” This, naturally, only enraged her the more. At that moment, Maria arrived in and plunked the plate of potatoes on the table.When he reached for one with his fork, his belligerent sister turned her wrath upon him: “You might wait for grace, Willie. You might