WB Yeats on Maud Gonne’s Beauty: Open Fiction Post

We are on countdown to the Kickstarter for a Maud Gonne statue in Dublin, which will feature a special edition of my upcoming novel as a reward. Each day on Instagram, I'm featuring a post about the many different aspects of this fascinating woman who has been immortalised in Yeats poetry and many other books and works.

Is beauty actually a symbol of wisdom? #WBYeats certainly thought so and devoted his poetic life to the idea but it led him into some strange places. And some strange ideas about Maud Gonne and her beauty.

DAY 3 of our countdown to the launch of our #StatueforMaudGonne campaign and over the coming days, we'll be diving into the rich history of activist #MaudGonne and #WBYeats, the poet she inspired.

It all began with the day Yeats immortalised in his autobiography, in January 1889, when 23-year-old Maud Gonne, the English heiress and Irish activist came calling to his father' s house in London, and what he called “the troubling of my life” began.

He had had a similar troubling with a cousin of his and Gonne stepped into her muse shoes.

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, a poet deliberately woos a muse as a career move: to extend his spiritual and creative capacities.

The 16th century poet Dante set the model for this “suffering of desire” with his pursuit of the unattainable Beatrice and to Yeats, Dante's was “the chief imagination of Christendom”.

When Maud Gonne came calling, Yeats was already primed to cast a beautiful woman in this role, so he might become the “chief imagination” of his own time.

The poem in which he best captured how he felt about her at this time is one of his best loved:

He Wishes for The Cloths of Heaven.

Had I the heavens’ embroidered cloths,
Enwrought with golden and silver light,
The blue and the dim and the dark cloths
Of night and light and the half-light,
I would spread the cloths under your feet:
But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.

What Yeats didn't know was that Gonne had a secret life in France, where she had fallen in love with a man 15 years older than her, the rightwing French Lucien Millevoye.

Just three months after giving birth to their first child, in January 1890, the 23-year-old Maud began her work as a public speaker, travelling through Ireland and England, speaking against evictions.

Followed by hostile policemen who ‘sang indecent songs’ and ‘used offensive expressions’, she captivated Irish audiences, and nationalist newspapers with what one paper called her ‘fascinating and irresistible enthusiasm.’

Her youth and her beauty were selling points and she wasn’t afraid to use them, and she recruited Yeats to help build her image.

Many years later of her “mysterious eye’, that ‘drew some journalist to say it contained the shadow of battles yet to come. I also knew that vague look in the eyes and had often wondered at its meaning [and] the wisdom that must surely accompany its symbol, her beauty.”

There was also a bit of a death cult to his longing. Passion is unrequited to the degree that the lover retires, exhausted, ill, perhaps dying. There's also a tradition of passing the death wish onto the love object herself.

Yeats sense of Gonne's beauty was so disembodied that he wrote this disturbing poem to her.

He Wishes His Beloved Were Dead 
Were you but lying cold and dead,
 And lights were paling out of the West,
 You would come hither, and bend your head,
 And I would lay my head on your breast;
 And you would murmur tender words,
 Forgiving me, because you were dead:
 Nor would you rise and hasten away,
 Though you have the will of the wild birds,
 But know your hair was bound and wound
 About the stars and moon and sun:
 O would, beloved, that you lay
 Under the dock-leaves in the ground,
 While lights were paling one by one.

When Maud read this poem, apparently she laughed out loud. The reasons why have always intrigued me–in my novel, The Holy Tree, I attribute it to her understanding of WB's intense self-obsession. If she had to die so he could have “tender words”, then yes, he wished her dead.

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