Maud Gonne and Others – the Women of WB Yeats

Maud Gonne
Maud Gonne 
As Joseph Hassett puts it in his introduction , WB Yeats “made a fundamental choice of the role of lover” and wrote many of his poems and lived much of his life in pursuit of “the old high way of love” (“Adam’s Curse”). Hassett’s book is therefore a study at one level of the various key women in Yeats’s life by whom he was inspired to write some of his best poems and whom he sought to love in a variety of ways, not all of them high, but with increasing inventiveness and complexity. The title indicates that the metaphor of the Muse is going to be used as a means both of grouping the women and of focusing the study. As a result, one key figure is omitted. Augusta Lady Gregory, for all that they worked closely together for over forty years and co-founded an Irish National Theatre, was “not a Muse” since “there is no indication that Yeats was erotically attracted to Gregory”; her feelings for him are not discussed. Maud Gonne naturally occupies a central role. Hassett astutely holds off introducing the chapter on her until almost midway and immediately follows it with one on her daughter, Iseult. But before that he devotes welcome attention to Olivia Shakespear and Florence Farr, attention which serves to highlight the extent to which not all of Yeats’s love poems are solely fixated on Maud Gonne; a goodly number (and those among the most interesting) feature two or three women. 

Hassett is not only a lifelong Yeatsian but a lawyer in Washington DC, and he displays forensic skills in discussing the possible identities of the three women represented in Yeats’s poem “Friends”. Drawing on the various identifications made by other Yeatsians, he offers his own views as to who each is but finally declares that there has probably been a fusion of several persons in one. The Maud and Iseult chapters are followed by another major one on Yeats’s wife, George Hyde-Lees. Its sub-title, “Out of a Medium’s Mouth”, is drawn from the poetic question-and-answer: “Where got I that truth? / Out of a medium’s mouth”. This could be a sub-title for the book and is certainly a sub-text since it underscores how central to Yeats’s romantic pursuit of women were his occult interests. 

The last forty pages of the book identify and discuss the bewildering array of women Yeats became obsessed with in the last decade of his life, after the “rejuvenating” effect of the Steinach operation. There is no doubt that Yeats conceived of himself as a Muse-driven poet; the frequent invocation of the term throughout his work demonstrates that. But as I headed into reading the book, two related concerns presented themselves: wasn’t the concept of the Muse an old-fashioned one which reinforced the gender positions of the poet as male and the Muse as female? And would Hassett take on the feminist criticism of Yeats that has come to the fore since the publication of his previous Yeats study, Yeats and the Poetics of Hate, in 1986? The answer is not long in coming. The introduction ends with Hassett quoting Elizabeth Butler Cullingford on Yeats’s apparent vulnerability to “feminist criticism … as love poet in a tradition that has stereotyped and silenced its female object”. His answer is that the “distinctive and vibrant women” Yeats sought out were anything but passive and stereotypical and that in his poetry the Muse talks back in a series of sustained dialogues about the creative process. 

The first chapter is scarcely under way before Yeats is initiated into the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. His involvement in occult research is intimately bound up in his complex relationships with a series of women who shared these interests. The path to conventional Christianity having been cut off by his father’s apostasy, John Butler Yeats’s son sought an alternative church through the way of the mystic. It led him away from a resolutely patriarchal institution to a heterogeneous melding of belief systems. Yet his mystical pursuit had certain core practices: the belief in symbolism as an active force in human affairs and a hierarchy which worshipped a goddess rather than a god. As Hassett points out, approximately half of the members of the Golden Dawn were women; nor were they debarred from positions of authority. Florence Farr progressed within the order to becoming the officer in charge of rituals (praemonstratix). When Yeats had to take an exam to advance to the second order of the society, his examiner was Farr. 

Yeats met Olivia Shakespear after he had fallen for the unattainable Maud Gonne. His rationale for pursuing the other woman shows, as frequently with Yeats, a fair measure of shrewd calculation amid the mysticism. As he wrote in his Memoirs: “ ... after all, if I could not get the woman I loved, it would be a comfort even but for a little while to devote myself to another”. Shakespear was no inconsiderable figure in her own right. When they met, she was about to publish the first of six novels and, as Yeats quickly perceived, she “had profound culture, [and] a knowledge of French, English and Italian literature”. Yeats, by contrast, knew no language other than English and relied throughout his career for access to literature in a foreign language on the women in his life: Lady Gregory for Irish, Maud Gonne for French, George Yeats for Italian, et cetera. When he attended the premiere of Villiers de l’Isle-Adam’s symbolist play Axel with Maud Gonne in Paris, she provided simultaneous translation from the French. As Seamus Deane once remarked, the only foreign language Yeats ever mastered was the occult. If Gonne remained inaccessible, Yeats was sexually initiated by Shakespear, who also readily undertook to become his Muse, adopting a role as priestess of the White Goddess. In using this term, Hassett is consciously aligning his study with Robert Graves’s The White Goddess. This book, originally published in 1948, was to have an immediate and long-lasting influence on a generation or more of Irish (male) poets; but it seems to me outdated in certain of its views on gender and creativity. Hassett wisely uses it as a necessary point of reference rather than an end in itself and updates its views on the Muse with writings by Adrienne Rich and Arlene Croce, the dance critic of The New Yorker. 

The second chapter focuses on the actress Florence Farr. She was to collaborate over a long period with Yeats on the chanted recitation of his poetry accompanied by a stringed instrument, the psaltery. What emerges most strongly in Hassett’s treatment is her contribution to Yeats’s nascent interest in the theatre as a medium of artistic expression. The relationship itself is rendered dramatic by the involvement of another powerful personality, George Bernard Shaw. Both Yeats and Shaw first encountered Farr on stage when they went to see her perform in a play, John Todhunter’s Sicilian Idyll, at Bedford Park in May 1890. Both were smitten. (Shaw and Farr became lovers the following year.) Long before Annie Horniman was involved in funding the Abbey Theatre, she was persuaded by Farr to fund a theatrical project in which both Yeats and Shaw were invited to submit plays. Yeats, “with my Irish theatre in mind”, wrote The Land of Heart’s Desire, the first of his plays to be staged, with the part of the fairy child designed for Farr’s niece. Shaw did not finish his play in time and so another Todhunter paired the Yeats; but when Arms and the Man was completed, he cast Farr and subsequently persuaded her to appear in Ibsen’s Rosmersholm. Yeats and Shaw were clearly competing for Florence Farr to embody their very different and still emerging conceptions of theatre: a symbolic drama with a stylised language; an Ibsenian drama shot through with paradox. This clash between the two Irish playwrights would continue through the founding of an Irish National Theatre, with Yeats commissioning and then rejecting Shaw’s John Bull’s Other Island for the 1904 opening; and with the Abbey staging Shaw’s The Shewing Up of Blanco Posnet five years later in defiance of Dublin Castle (Shaw’s play was banned in England). Farr also had a central role in the inaugural year of the Irish Literary Theatre in 1899 in staging Yeats’s The Countess Cathleen. As Hassett makes clear, “Farr organized the production, rehearsed the actors and played the role of Aleel, the Yeats-like poet who is crazed by his love for the Countess.” He goes on to note that James Joyce was in the audience for that production and that he set the lyric “Who will go drive with Fergus now?” to music. But he might also have remarked the further tribute recorded in Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, where the verses from the Yeats play continue to resonate for Stephen Dedalus, “croon[ing] in the ear of his memory”. 

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