“But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you.” – Happy Birthday, Maud Gonne

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Maud Gonne, Irish revolutionary, feminist, radical, and lifelong poetic muse of William Butler Yeats, was born on December 20 in 1865. She married John MacBride (after a couple of notorious affairs and illegitimate children). John MacBride was an Irish nationalist who participated in the Easter Rising of 1916 and was executed by firing squad. Although Gonne and MacBride had apparently separated by the time of the Easter Rising, she wore mourning garb for the rest of her life. She was wedded to Irish nationalism. There was a bit of the death-cult about her.

Conor Cruise O’Brien writes in his memoir about Maud Gonne McBride, and his memories of her from when he was a child (a very funny passage):

When the husband, whom she loathed, was shot by a British firing squad after the Easter Rising, Madame MacBride – as she now came to be known – attired herself from head to toe in the most spectacular set of widow’s weeds ever seen in Dublin, to which she returned from Paris in 1917. Her mourning for Major John MacBride was so intense that it lasted all the remaining years of her life (nearly forty of them), as far as outward appearances were concerned. I still remember her as I first saw her in that garb, about ten years later in Leinster Road, Rathmines. With her great height and noble carriage, her pale beaked gaunt face, and large lustrous eyes, and gliding along in that great flapping cloud of black, she seemed like the Angel of Death: or more precisely, like the crow-like bird, the Morrigu, that heralds death in the Gaelic sagas. That is how I think of that vision in retrospect; at the time I just thought: ‘spooky’!

But of course, we know “of” Maud Gonne not because of these events (and she already would have earned her place in history as an extraordinary woman in her own right) but because of W.B. Yeats’ immortalizing of her in poem … after poem …. after poem …. after poem …. after poem …. after poem …..

It’s one of the greatest (and most productive) unrequited love affairs of all time.

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The concerns of Yeats and Gonne brought them together, and yet pushed them apart. Yeats focused on bolstering up a truly Irish culture, writing poems of the myths and legends of old, and spending his time creating the Abbey Theatre and nurturing other young Irish writers (telling them not to look to greater Europe for their inspiration, but to stick closer to home). And Gonne was wedded to politics and revolution. From the moment they met, they were drawn to one another. He fell in love. She, not so much. Love was way low on her list of priorities. But their friendship, and what they called their “spiritual marriage” lasted their whole lives. They tried to meet one another in their dreams. They would set up meeting times, when she in Paris, he in Dublin or London – and then check in via letter: “Did you see me last night in your dreams?”

In 1908, Gonne wrote to Yeats from Paris:

“I had such a wonderful experience last night that I must know at once if it affected you & how? At a quarter of 11 last night I put on this body & thought strongly of you & desired to go to you.”

There’s a tragic nature to all of this, although both are long dead and buried. The union, if they had hooked up, would probably have been terrible for both of them. But there was something their friendship provided, something primal and understood, that they could not get anywhere else. He loved her all the days of his life. He proposed to her numerous times (and also seriously considered proposing marriage to Maud’s daughter as well!). They probably did consummate their relationship, at least once, but she – perhaps smartly – refused to enter into domestic life with him. She kept a cooler head. He, torn up by his love for her, poured all of that into his writing, and his poems for her are some of the most memorable love poems of the 20th century. We have her, and her refusal of him, to thank for all of those beautiful poems.

To quote one of my great acting teachers Doug Moston: “I’m a big fan of sublimation. Here’s what I mean by sublimation. You take your pain – and you make it sublime.”

Annie West, an amazing illustrator out of Sligo, has done a series of works about Maud Gonne and Yeats, my favorite one being the following, which Annie calls: “IF MAUD GONNE SAID YES.”

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You know, with all the romanticism here of this “great love”, I think Annie may be right.

Go check out her portfolio! Lots of awesome Irish-ness there. She’s so talented.

Maud and “Willie’s” correspondence is riveting. The only mark against it is that he obviously kept every one of her letters while she – who lived more of a peripatetic lifestyle, with constant police raids on her various abodes where much was lost – did not keep his letters. So we mainly only have her letters to him. There are a couple of his letters to her in existence, and they are included here, but not many. It is a great loss. But still: we have her messy, bossy, passionate, fiery missives and it gives a good feel for the openness of their relationship. They were not careful with one another. There were no boundaries. They barged right in to the deepest recesses of one another’s hearts and told it like it was. Maud Gonne thought Yeats was wasting his time with the Abbey, and her hectoring annoyance is a constant theme through literally decades of correspondence. She thought his time would be spent much more productively in his writing. Who cares about that silly theatre. She was wrong. History proved her wrong, but she was wrong at the time as well. However, you can’t admit you’re wrong and be a proper revolutionary. She hated his poem about the Easter Rising. He never could please her when it came to politics. She lived in a black and white world of hate and rage, and his artistry was never blunt and bold enough for her. She wanted propaganda, not art. And she told him this, time and time again. And he, obviously, told her what he thought of her behavior, and her concerns. He was brutal when she decided to get baptized into the Catholic Church (his bigotry showing clearly). He was dismayed, horrified, and told her exactly why it was the wrong choice for her. He also didn’t think she was going about things the right way. It is a fascinating philosophical divide, and although we only have her side of the argument, his can be guessed. These letters show true intimacy, true equality. There is a rough truth in her letters to him, a freedom and unselfconsciousness that really speaks well of HIM, too: he was the type of man who could “take” having a woman fire off her truth at him.

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She was a divine creature to him, but he did not treat her with kid gloves. They were fully engaged with one another through years of strife and revolution and civil war, through her sudden marriage to McBride, through Yeats’ eventual (very late) marriage, through her bearing of children, through long distance. They remain completely up to date on one another’s lives, and only at the very end do you feel any sort of distance between them. A sort of formality comes over the correspondence by the end. They have agreed to disagree about politics. And you feel the loss. You feel that their friendship has been impacted by agreeing to disagree. Because once they agree to disagree there is nothing more to talk about except, “How have you been?”

Seamus Heaney writes about the mystical connection between these two intellectual giants:

And all the while, of course, there was Maud Gonne, “high and solitary and most stern” according to one of the poems about her, “foremost among those I would hear praised” according to another, and “the troubling of my life” according to a famous sentence in his Autobiographies. The passion she inspired – and as readers we experience it more as creative power than erotic need – made her a figure of primary poetic radiance, a Dublin Beatrice, an archetype as much as a daily presence. Nevertheless, Yeats’s poetry, his politics and his involvement with the occult received an extra charge of intensity from her day to day reality in his life, and when she appeared in the title role of his subversive play Cathleen Ni Houlihan (1902), another kind of maturity was achieved.

Yeats and Gonne met in 1889 and he would say later that that was the year that “the troubling of my life began”.

Maud Gonne, of course, makes me think of Dad. On my father’s shelf in his study is a big hardcover book with MAUD GONNE on the spine. It has been there always. I have memorized my dad’s bookshelves, and know the spines of most of them, the ones that have been there since childhood. I own that MAUD GONNE book too (it is by Samuel Levenson).

Samuel Levenson writes:

No one who knew her in the days of her glory is now alive. But many Irish men and women recall her in her later years as one of Dublin’s most extraordinary personalities – part eccentric, part heroine. They remember her as a tall, gaunt woman in black robes speaking on Dublin street corners about her current political or economic obsession. And they have not forgotten the stories they heard from their elders about her unconventional life in Paris, her constant cigarette smoking, the dogs and birds with which she surrounded herself, her affair with a French politician, her illegitimate children, her marriage to Irish patriot John MacBride, and the scandal of her separation from him.

Some remember Maud Gonne’s activities to house evicted tenant farmers, feed school children, aid political prisoners, find homes for Catholic refugees from Northern Ireland, establish a fully independent Irish Republic, and end partition between Northern and Southern Ireland. Few recall the names of the women’s organizations and publications she founded, or the number of times she went to prison. And some confuse her with another tall Ascendancy woman who took up the Irish cause after a fling in Paris – the Gore-Booth girl, who came back with a Polish count named Markievicz. But they all know that the word “maudgonning” means agitating for a cause in a reckless flamboyant fashion.

Maud herself wished to be thought of as an Irish patriot. She was hailed in her lifetime as an Irish Joan of Arc, and would have been happy to be remembered as such for all time. A quarter of a century after her death, controversy surrounds the importance of her contributions to the Irish nation and its people. The scandal that still hovers around her name has grown dim. But it is neither her activities in Ireland’s behalf, her unconventionality, nor her striking beauty that give her a place in history. It is, rather, the obsessive pursuit of her by the greatest poet of the era, William Butler Yeats. Her steadfast rejection of his proposals bit so deeply into his soul that he never ceased to fashion glorious poetry about her beauty, her talents, and the mystery of her personality. She was to Yeats what Beatrice was to Dante. And thus, Yeats made her a permanent figure of romance and myth throughout the English-speaking world.

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Ella Young wrote in her autobiography Flowering Dusk of her glimpses of Maud Gonne and WB Yeats:

I see her standing with WB Yeats, the poet, in front of Whistler’s Miss Alexander in the Dublin gallery where some pictures by Whistler are astonishing a select few. These two people delight the bystanders more than the pictures. Everyone stops looking at canvas and manoeuvres himself or herself into a position to watch these two. They are almost of equal height. Yeats has a dark, romantic cloak about him; Maud Gonne has a dress that changes colour as she moves. They pay no attention to the stir they are creating; they stand there discussing the picture.

I catch sight of them again in the reading room of the National Library. They have a pile of books between them and are consulting the books and each other. No one else is consulting a book. Everyone is conscious of those two as the denizens of a woodland lake might be conscious of a flamingo, or of a Japanese heron, if it suddenly descended among them.

Later, in the narrow curve of Grafton Street, I notice people are stopping and turning their heads. It is Maud Gonne and the poet. She has a radiance as of sunlight. Yeats, that leopard of the moon, holds back in a leash a huge lion-coloured Great Dane – Maud Gonne’s dog, Dagda.

Here is one of Yeats’ “Gonne poems”:

Aedh wishes for the Cloths of Heaven
by William Butler Yeats

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.

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On January 31, 1889, Yeats wrote to his friend John O’Leary, after having dinner with Maud:

“She is not only very handsome but very clever. Though her politics in European matters be a little sensational … It was pleasant however to hear her attacking a young military man from India who was there, on English rule in India. She is very Irish, a kind of ‘Diana of the Crossways.’ Her pet monkey was making, much of the time, little melancholy cries at the hearthrug … It was you, was it not, who converted Miss Gonne to her Irish opinions. She herself will make many converts.”

On February 3, he wrote to Ellen O’Leary:

“Did I tell you how much I admire Maud Gonne? … If she said the world was flat or the moon an old caubeen tossed up into the sky I would be proud to be of her party.”

And so it began.

“The Arrow”, one of the many poems Yeats wrote for Gonne, goes:

I THOUGHT of your beauty, and this arrow,
Made out of a wild thought, is in my marrow.
There’s no man may look upon her, no man,
As when newly grown to be a woman,
Tall and noble but with face and bosom
Delicate in colour as apple blossom.
This beauty’s kinder, yet for a reason
I could weep that the old is out of season.

Gonne didn’t have as clear a memory of their first meeting. At that point, she was far more formidable than he was. He was 23 years old, a young poet, a nobody. She had already lived in Paris, had become notorious, was at the forefront of the new movement that Yeats would eventually help champion.

Gonne’s impressions of Yeats in that first meeting:

” … a tall lanky boy with deep-set dark eyes behind glasses, over which a lock of dark hair was constantly falling, to be pushed back impatiently by long sensitive fingers, often stained with paint – dressed in shabby clothes …”

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If Gonne had married Yeats, would he have written all of those poems? If he had ready access to her over the breakfast table, in the marriage bed … would she have been elevated to such a poetic height in his consciousness? Perhaps Gonne sensed this herself. After one of his many proposals, she wrote to him:

“You would not be happy with me. … You make beautiful poetry out of what you call your unhappiness and you are happy in that. Marriage would be such a dull affair. Poets should never marry.”

She very well may have been wiser than he.

In 1908, Yeats had come to visit Gonne where she was living in Paris. After years and years of friendship (not to mention what they called their “spiritual marriage”), it is believed that the two finally consummated their long unrequited affair on this particular visit. Yeats had not yet married at this point, but the later Mrs. Yeats (a formidable woman in her own right) believes as well that this was an important visit for the two old friends, and that something sexual finally occurred. Gonne had already had two children out of wedlock with a French revolutionary (one child died when he was only a year old), and then had married another revolutionary, an Irish one this time, James MacBride. The marriage didn’t even last a year, although a child did come out of it (Sean – or Seghan, as it was spelled). Seghan ended up joining the IRA as a young man in the wake of the Easter Rising, living his life on the run, and then joined the Irish civil service. He went on to have a fascinating political life (he won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1974).

Regardless: Through the tempest of Gonne’s personal life (and she always found the personal life to be annoying: it needed to come second to her life as an activist and politician), Yeats had remained loyal, although he did have a couple of affairs (mainly to let off the sexual tension he felt by loving the distant Gonne for so long). They are quite open about all of this in their letters to one another. Gonne cautioned him against marriage (she wasn’t really “for” it in general), but she also cautioned him to not keep too large a space for her in his heart. She seemed to realize the sadness she caused him, and yet their bond was too strong to walk away from it altogether.

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It took him a long time to crush down the longing for another, and to accept the situation. He was “old and gray and full of sleep” by the time he married. That struggle took a lifetime.

Gonne also was quite open with him about the fact that she had a “horror of physical love” and only believed it was necessary for procreation. She knew that he needed “physical love”, and so wanted him, desperately, to “let her go”, to torment himself no longer for a woman who could never satisfy him. She was not a prude in any way, but sex was horrifying to her. She didn’t want it in her life at all. Having a casual robust sex life at that time was not possible, not if you wanted to avoid multiple pregnancies. You didn’t just whip on a condom in those days. Gonne saw firsthand what a lifetime of being pregnant did to her fellow Irishwomen. That would not be her fate. (Many women chose abstinence at this time, an easier alternative in the days before really effective birth control.) She knew that not wanting to have tons of sex would be a problem for Yeats, although perhaps he insisted that it all would be all right once they got started with it. Or perhaps he said it didn’t matter to HIM either, and she was wise enough to disbelieve him.

Whatever happened between Yeats and Gonne in December 1908, no one will ever really know, but here is the letter Gonne wrote to Yeats after he left. Having read all of her correspondence, (to him and to others) this letter stands out in tone and raw emotion. She often spent six hours a day on her voluminous correspondence, so her letters are quick, dashed off, to the point, and sometimes full of non sequitirs, like most letters between intimates. She lived primarily in France yet remained active in Ireland on all kinds of committees (committees she herself had formed) – so her correspondence was massive, and she employed no secretary.

Gonne usually addressed Yeats as “My dear Willie”, and sometimes (echoing Abigail Adams) “My dearest friend”. But here, in this letter, she starts with “Dearest”, a greeting that cuts me to the core for various reasons, so familiar is it, so unbelievably missed.

13 Rue de Passy
Paris
Friday [December 1908]

Dearest

It was hard leaving you yesterday but I knew it would be just as hard today if I had waited. Life is so good when we are together & we are together so little – !

Did you know it I went to you last night? about 12 or 2 o’clock I don’t exactly know the time. I think you knew. It was as it was when you made me see with the golden light on Wednesday. I shall go to you again often but not quite in that way, I shall try to make strong & well for your work for dear one you must work or I shall begin tormenting myself thinking perhaps I help to make you idle & then I would soon feel we ought not to meet at all, & that would be O so dreary! –

You asked me yesterday if I am not a little sad that things are as they are between us – I am sorry & I am glad. It is hard being away from each other so much there are moments when I am dreadfully lonely & long to be with you, – one of these moments is on me now – but beloved I am glad & proud beyond measure of your love, & that it is strong enough & high enough to accept the spiritual love & union I offer –

I have prayed so hard to have all earthly desire taken from my love for you & dearest, loving you as I do, I have prayed & I am praying still that the bodily desire for me may be taken from you too. I know how hard & rare a thing it is for a man to hold spiritual love when the bodily desire is gone & I have not made these prayers without a terrible struggle a struggle that shook my life though I do not speak much of it & generally manage to laugh.

That struggle is over & I have found peace. I think today I could let you marry another without losing it – for I know the spiritual union between us will outlive this life, even if we never see each other in this world again.

Write to me soon.
Yours

Maud

Yeats, when he was in his 60s, nearing the end, wrote the following poem. Many scholars believe it makes reference to this visit in Paris in 1908, especially the evocative raw line “Strike me if I shriek”. Whatever it means, it is fierce and intimate.

A Man Young and Old
by William Butler Yeats

I
First Love

THOUGH nurtured like the sailing moon
In beauty’s murderous brood,
She walked awhile and blushed awhile
And on my pathway stood
Until I thought her body bore
A heart of flesh and blood.
But since I laid a hand thereon
And found a heart of stone
I have attempted many things
And not a thing is done,
For every hand is lunatic
That travels on the moon.
She smiled and that transfigured me
And left me but a lout,
Maundering here, and maundering there,
Emptier of thought
Than the heavenly circuit of its stars
When the moon sails out.

II
Human Dignity
Like the moon her kindness is,
If kindness I may call
What has no comprehension in’t,
But is the same for all
As though my sorrow were a scene
Upon a painted wall.
So like a bit of stone I lie
Under a broken tree.
I could recover if I shrieked
My heart’s agony
To passing bird, but I am dumb
From human dignity.

III
The Mermaid
A mermaid found a swimming lad,
Picked him for her own,
Pressed her body to his body,
Laughed; and plunging down
Forgot in cruel happiness
That even lovers drown.

IV
The Death of the Hare
I have pointed out the yelling pack,
The hare leap to the wood,
And when I pass a compliment
Rejoice as lover should
At the drooping of an eye,
At the mantling of the blood.
Then’ suddenly my heart is wrung
By her distracted air
And I remember wildness lost
And after, swept from there,
Am set down standing in the wood
At the death of the hare.

V
The Empty Cup
A crazy man that found a cup,
When all but dead of thirst,
Hardly dared to wet his mouth
Imagining, moon-accursed,
That another mouthful
And his beating heart would burst.
October last I found it too
But found it dry as bone,
And for that reason am I crazed
And my sleep is gone.

VI
His Memories
We should be hidden from their eyes,
Being but holy shows
And bodies broken like a thorn
Whereon the bleak north blows,
To think of buried Hector
And that none living knows.
The women take so little stock
In what I do or say
They’d sooner leave their cosseting
To hear a jackass bray;
My arms are like the twisted thorn
And yet there beauty lay;
The first of all the tribe lay there
And did such pleasure take —
She who had brought great Hector down
And put all Troy to wreck —
That she cried into this ear,
‘Strike me if I shriek.’

VII
The Friends of his Youth
Laughter not time destroyed my voice
And put that crack in it,
And when the moon’s pot-bellied
I get a laughing fit,
For that old Madge comes down the lane,
A stone upon her breast,
And a cloak wrapped about the stone,
And she can get no rest
With singing hush and hush-a-bye;
She that has been wild
And barren as a breaking wave
Thinks that the stone’s a child.
And Peter that had great affairs
And was a pushing man
Shrieks, ‘I am King of the Peacocks,’
And perches on a stone;
And then I laugh till tears run down
And the heart thumps at my side,
Remembering that her shriek was love
And that he shrieks from pride.

VIII
Summer and Spring
We sat under an old thorn-tree
And talked away the night,
Told all that had been said or done
Since first we saw the light,
And when we talked of growing up
Knew that we’d halved a soul
And fell the one in t’other’s arms
That we might make it whole;
Then peter had a murdering look,
For it seemed that he and she
Had spoken of their childish days
Under that very tree.
O what a bursting out there was,
And what a blossoming,
When we had all the summer-time
And she had all the spring!

IX
The Secrets of the Old
I have old women’s sectets now
That had those of the young;
Madge tells me what I dared not think
When my blood was strong,
And what had drowned a lover once
Sounds like an old song.
Though Margery is stricken dumb
If thrown in Madge’s way,
We three make up a solitude;
For none alive to-day
Can know the stories that we know
Or say the things we say:
How such a man pleased women most
Of all that are gone,
How such a pair loved many years
And such a pair but one,
Stories of the bed of straw
Or the bed of down.

X
His Wildness
O bid me mount and sail up there
Amid the cloudy wrack,
For peg and Meg and Paris’ love
That had so straight a back,
Are gone away, and some that stay
Have changed their silk for sack.
Were I but there and none to hear
I’d have a peacock cry,
For that is natural to a man
That lives in memory,
Being all alone I’d nurse a stone
And sing it lullaby.

XI
From ‘Oedipus at Colonus’
Endure what life God gives and ask no longer span;
Cease to remember the delights of youth, travel-wearied aged man;
Delight becomes death-longing if all longing else be vain.
Even from that delight memory treasures so,
Death, despair, division of families, all entanglements of mankind grow,
As that old wandering beggar and these God-hated children know.
In the long echoing street the laughing dancers throng,
The bride is catried to the bridegroom’s chamber
through torchlight and tumultuous song;
I celebrate the silent kiss that ends short life or long.
Never to have lived is best, ancient writers say;
Never to have drawn the breath of life, never to have
looked into the eye of day;
The second best’s a gay goodnight and quickly turn away.

She seemed to understand where much of it came from (his love of her), and not only encouraged it, but pushed him even further. She wrote to him in 1911:

Our children were your poems of which I was the father sowing the unrest & storm which made them possible & you the mother who brought them forth in suffering & in the highest beauty.

Love the gender flip-flop there. She as father, he as mother.

25 years after that first meeting, Yeats would write:

I was twenty-three years old when the troubling of my life began. I had heard from time to time in letters from Miss O’Leary, John O’Leary’s old sister, of a beautiful girl who had left the society of the Viceregal Court for Dublin nationalism. In after years I persuaded myself that I felt premonnitory excitement at the first reading of her name. Presently she drove up to our house in Bedford Park … I had never thought to see in a living woman so great beauty. It belonged to famous pictures, to poetry, to some legendary past. A complexion like the blossom of apples, and yet face and body had the beauty of lineaments which Blake calls the highest beauty because it changes least from youth to age, and a stature so great that she seemed of a divine race. Her movements were worthy of her form, and I understood at last why the poet of antiquity, where we would but speak of face and form, sings, loving some lady, that she paces like a goddess.

Samuel Levenson writes:

In his recollections, Yeats thought that there was, even at their first meetings, something in Maud’s manner that was declamatory, “Latin in a bad sense,” and possibly unscrupulous. She seemed to desire power for its own sake, to win elections for the sake of winning. Her goals were unselfish, he recalled, but, unlike the Indian sage who said, “Only the means can justify the end,” Maud was ready to adopt any means that promised to be successful.

He made two observations, which doubtless owe something to discoveries he made as their relationship progressed:

We were seeking different things: she, some memorable action for final consecration of her youth, and I, after all, but to discover and communicate a state of being … Her two and twenty years had taken some color, I thought, from French Boulangist adventurers and journlist arrivistes of whom she had seen too much.

Yeats remembered Maud Gonne as the herald of the movement to revive Celtic culture. “I have seen the enchanted day / And heard the morning bugles blow,” he wrote in his manuscript book.

She was tireless in fighting for the causes she felt were right and just. She was humorless. She spent her entire day huddled over her desk, with revolutionaries and suffragettes and prisoners’ wives coming to see her in an endless flow. She organized protests, she devoted her life to her causes, which made her fascinating, but also a bit of a drag at times. She could not understand Yeats’ dedication to the creation of the Abbey Theatre, and she nags him about it, in letter after letter, over DECADES of their lives. She always wanted him to use his art in a more revolutionary manner. Thank God he resisted those calls, because his art transcends the political upheavals of the day, although he is a very political poet. His commitment to the Irish Revival (as manifested in his poetry, as well as his encouragement of young Irish writers, and his work at the Abbey Theatre) WAS a political act, as far as he was concerned. Irish culture must flourish. He would help create that space where it could happen. But Maud Gonne was not an artist. She was a political person from head to toe. She did not see the point of dedicating so much time to art when there were real social challenges in Ireland. She didn’t “get it”. She had a huge blind spot, as many purely political people do. Yeats was amazingly patient with her impatience with him, and kept on doing his own thing, despite the never-ending refrain in her letters of, ‘Willie, if only you weren’t so busy with that THEATRE, you could get some REAL work done.”

Jim Dwyer wrote in a recent New York Times article:

Until nearly the end of his days he and Gonne kept an eye on each other. In 1938 he wrote “€œA Bronze Head” about her frequent appearances at political funerals, a “€œdark tomb-haunter,” so transformed from the light, gentle woman of his memory.

Almost from the beginning she had been a figure of memory. In the opening pages of the 1908 notebook he looked backward: “€œShe said something that blotted away the recent past & brought all back to the spiritual marriage of 1898. She believed that this bond is to be recreated & to be the means of spiritual illumination between us. It is to be a bond of the spirit only.”

A Bronze Head

HERE at right of the entrance this bronze head,
Human, superhuman, a bird’s round eye,
Everything else withered and mummy-dead.
What great tomb-haunter sweeps the distant sky
(Something may linger there though all else die;)
And finds there nothing to make its tetror less
i{Hysterica passio} of its own emptiness?

No dark tomb-haunter once; her form all full
As though with magnanimity of light,
Yet a most gentle woman; who can tell
Which of her forms has shown her substance right?
Or maybe substance can be composite,
profound McTaggart thought so, and in a breath
A mouthful held the extreme of life and death.

But even at the starting-post, all sleek and new,
I saw the wildness in her and I thought
A vision of terror that it must live through
Had shattered her soul. Propinquity had brought
Imagiation to that pitch where it casts out
All that is not itself: I had grown wild
And wandered murmuring everywhere, ‘My child, my
child! ‘

Or else I thought her supernatural;
As though a sterner eye looked through her eye
On this foul world in its decline and fall;
On gangling stocks grown great, great stocks run dry,
Ancestral pearls all pitched into a sty,
Heroic reverie mocked by clown and knave,
And wondered what was left for massacre to save.

Here is, perhaps, the most famous poem Yeats wrote for her. It is impossible for me to read this without tears coming to my eyes.

When You are Old

When you are old and grey and full of sleep,
And nodding by the fire, take down this book,
And slowly read, and dream of the soft look
Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep;

How many loved your moments of glad grace,
And loved your beauty with love false or true,
But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you,
And loved the sorrows of your changing face;

And bending down beside the glowing bars,
Murmur, a little sadly, how Love fled
And paced upon the mountains overhead
And hid his face amid a crowd of stars.

gonne4.jpg

Happy birthday to this fierce complex “pilgrim soul”, she who is so much a part of the warp and weft of my entire life.

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4 Responses to “But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you.” – Happy Birthday, Maud Gonne

  1. Shelley says:

    “They were not careful with each other”–wonderful observation.

  2. sheila says:

    Shelley – thanks! Yes, you really get the sense that they had true intimacy – no holds barred.

  3. Melissa Sutherland says:

    Ruth Gordon used to talk about Maud Gonne. Never got the sense that she liked her, but she certainly admired her and I think there was some envy there, too. Wonderful piece. Thank you.

    • sheila says:

      Interesting! Maud Gonne certainly was formidable. A lot of people hated her, thought she was wacky and dramatic, a troublemaker and a bore. Certainly “out there”, and perfect for someone’s Muse.

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