W.B. Yeats (WBY) was in his early 20s when the troubling of my life began and he met Maud Gonne 18 months younger than him and the English ex-debutante daughter of a British army colonel stationed at the Curragh in the mid-1800s. From a dislocated and unstable background, Ireland had become to her the one fixed point in an unhappy early life and she went on to become an icon of Irish nationalism.
For many years Gonne kept a huge secret from Yeats: the fact that she had a liaison in France with a much older married journalist and politician named Lucien Millevoye by whom she had two children. This secret life she even concealed from WBY when her oldest child, Georges died in 1891.
WHEN Maud Gonne returned to Dublin on October 10th, WBY met her at Kingstown from the mailboat that carried Parnells body. He had died suddenly at Brighton four days before. But Gonnes mourning was not for him: her personal life had been shattered.
She told WBY she had adopted a child, who had died, but he was unprepared for the state he found her in.
I met her on the pier and went with her to her hotel, where we breakfasted. She was dressed in extravagantly deep mourning, for Parnell, people thought, thinking her very theatrical. We spoke of the childs death. She had built a memorial chapel, using some of her capital. `What did money matter to her now? From another I learned later on that she had the body embalmed. That day and on later days she went over again the details of the death - speech was a relief to her. She was plainly very ill.
The next two days were charged with high voltage for both of them. All nationalist Ireland was in a state of shock at Parnells death. WBY rapidly wrote a banal piece doccasion for United Ireland (Mourn, and Then Onward!) which come back to haunt him in later life. But he also wrote a poem which commemorated Gonnes overture to him in July, and reflected her secret sadness. It got as far as the proofs of his next collection, but he changed his mind and never published it. (The poem was called Cycles Ago. In Memory of Your Dream One July Night.)
Gonne remained in a highly wrought state. Near collapse she endured endless seances and visions with WBY and Russell (George Russell/A.E.), asking if a child could be reincarnated and relying desperately on the uncertain expertise of the two young occultists. Russell reassured her, but WBY felt secret doubts.
... But her agony of autumn 1891, and Russells consoling advice that a child could be reincarnated in the same family, would bring about a bizarre resolution. Two years later, still obsessed by her secret tragedy, she brought Millevoy to the memorial chapel at Samois where their son was interred, and in those strange surroundings they conceived a child.
THIS second child was called Iseult. It was not, however, until 1898 that Gonne told Yeats the whole story of her secret family in France.
Why she did so was an interesting question. In his Memoirs WBY implies that the information was volunteered as a reason why she could not marry, but in a persuasive reading, Deirdre Toomey has suggested that Gonne might just as easily have told all in order to remove an impediment. If she had broken with Millevoye three months before, this might indeed make sense.
Whatever her reasons WBY was thrown into utter confusion.
As WBY recorded it, he once more proposed marriage on December 18th, after yet another shared astral experience, full of sexual connotation. But she again refused: I have a horror and terror of physical love.
The next day she departed. If she had at first unburdened herself to him with a view to facilitating a proposal, she rapidly retreated to declaring her inability to marry. It might be that neither of them knew what they really wanted. WBY certainly took refuge in vacillation, but, in a sense, they both backed off and WBYs later interrogations of his behaviour return repeatedly to this theme.
What emerged was an asexual commitment to each other, heavily reliant on the idea that they had been paired in a previous life as brother and sister: it was a return to the revelation of 1891. But from December 8th, he had to refashion her image, whether as consecrated virgin, or lawless woman with no home or children.
For many years he had been writing about the idealisation of women; from December 1898 the work inspired by Gonne (notably The Countess Kathleen and The Speckled Bird) would have to be revised. But in the real world he remained indecisive. Despite the offer of financial help from (Lady Augusta) Gregory, he did not pursue Gonne to France until six weeks later; irresolution in love remained his theme. If it had briefly crossed Gonnes mind that their relationship might be resolved by marriage, his uncertain and shocked reaction to her confidences confirmed her feeling that their alliance would take no conventional form. She may have felt some reasonable disappointment.
However, their relationship got back on course with Gonne stressing the mystical bond between them as a barely concealed substitute for sex: I have had a partial initiation of the sword but feel it is not complete. This too we must try together. But this was short-lived. Of all the many bombshells Gonne inflicted on Yeats, possibly none was greater than her decision in 1902 to marry IRB man and Boer War hero John MacBride.
AT 35, MacBride was a year younger than Gonne, and from a dramatically different background (small Catholic shopkeepers in Co Mayo). Like her, he had joined the INA split in the mid-1890s, and they were brought together in the anti-war campaign of 1900. Red-haired, heavy-drinking, physically brave, rather inarticulate and utterly unmystical, he incarnated the authentic and uncompromising Irish nationalism to which she had dedicated her life.
More than a year before, in America during the spring of 1901 he had asked her to marry him; though it was against her feminist principles, she eventually consented. Her own position after the break with Millevoye had become much more difficult.
MacBride was now based in Paris, scraping a living as secretary to an American journalist. Marriage I always considered abominable but for the sake of Iseult, I make that sacrifice to convention, she wrote to Kathleen. In June 1902 she told her disapproving sister: 1st I am to become a Catholic, 2nd I am to get married to Major MacBride, this last is not public yet. She added, more defensively, that she was getting old and oh so tired and I have found a man who has a stronger will than myself and who at the same time is thoroughly honourable and who I trust... As for Willie Yeats I love him dearly as a friend but I could not for one minute imagine marrying him.
None the less, she may have worried about his reaction. From this time, hints can be discerned in her letters to him - about her inclination to Catholicism, her meetings with MacBrides family in Mayo, her own increasing decrepitude and rheumatism. And through these very months of late 1902, she was also becoming more and more estranged from him on theatrical matters, perhaps a reflection of her deliberate desire to make a break.
But nothing could prepare him for this. Since December 1898, his great powers of rationalisation had been directed towards convincing himself that their spiritual relationship was the better part of passion. Time and time again his folklore stories concern a countryman (sometimes a poet) who is offered knowledge or pleasure by a fairy queen. When he chooses pleasure and becomes her lover, he is left bereft, making mournful songs until he dies. Renunciation brought the reward of artistic achievement and continuing inspiration. Gonne was, however, about to shatter the understanding on which this compact was based.
Yeats heard of her engagement in London in February 1903.
IT was, for him, not only a private trauma but a public humiliation; his poems had solemnised their relationship before his reading public as well as his friends. (Charles) Ricketts reaction was probably fairly typical. Have you heard the news that Maud Gonne has gone and left Yeats and the future of Ireland for matrimony and comfortable Catholicism? Yeats is unconsolable in sonnets of the Oh thou! type to various little tilts and tunes.
The first three letters he sent her have been lost, but the fourth survived, a passionate plea to her to remain the inviolate self he had so often celebrated. In the name of 14 years of friendship he implored her to think again ...
You possess your influence in Ireland very largely because you come to the people from above. You represent a superior class, a class whose people are more independent, have a more beautiful life, a more refined life. Above all, thrust down ... to a lower order of faith and society, she would destroy the persona she had created for herself.
He stressed the unworthiness of her religious con version, rather than MacBride himself
He tried to show that revolution and mysticism, both essential to Gonnes being, were threatened by this mesalliance. What is not stated is the question: why him and not me? His own position as lover (and MacBrides) went unmentioned, though it may have been expatiated upon in the earlier letters. Possibly it was too bitter an issue to be articulated, though it would powerfully affect WBYs self-image from now on. His hard-won confidence was jolted ...
In any case, she was unmoved. She had retired to a French convent for instruction; from there she replied soothingly that their friendship need not change. As to Catholicism, our nation looks at God or truth through one prism, The Catholic Religion. In other words, to be Irish required being Catholic, the very conclusion WBY had devoted years of concentrated activity to disproving. And as for social superiority: You say I leave the few to mix myself with the crowd while Willie I have always told you I am the voice, the soul of the crowd. This indeed was the kernel of the ancient difference between them. It was now exacerbated by her adoption of Catholicism. (Actress Florence) Farrs version to (journalist H.W.) Nevinson put it tersely (Gonne) hates marriage and all sex. They had a sort of understanding to be together in old age. Now he contemplates an onslaught on the Church.
On February 21st, Gonne married MacBride at the Church of St-Honore dEylau in Paris, attended by nationalist delegates from Ireland (one of whom read a long poem in Irish) and old comrades from South Africa. Like her stage performances, the ceremony was transmuted into a new form of political theatre.
She assured WBY three days later that when called on to abjure all heresies, I said I hated nothing in the world but the British Empire which I looked on as the outward symbol of Satan in the world ... in this form I made my solemn Abjuration of Anglicism and declaration of hatred of England.
The marriage of two irreconcilables was viewed by friends with grave misgivings. Arthur Griffith, Violet Russell, Ella Young all feared the worst, partly because of MacBrides conventionality (though he had his own illegitimate family in South, Africa). Those who were principally interested in WBY, however, thought it might be a turning point ...
Their hopes were quelled by the disastrous course of the Gonne MacBride marriage. As early as the honeymoon (in southern Spain, allegedly reconnoitring assassination arrangements for an impending royal visit to Gibraltar) the couples incompatibility and MacBrides drunkeness were spectacularly evident. Gonne returned to Paris alone, and significantly headed for London, where WBY met her, as so often before, at Euston.
When the marriage began to unravel in public in 1905 Gonne, as always in adversity, needed Yeats and as always he was there.
HE had long been hearing rumours about the marriage - some true (MacBrides drunkenness), some not (their baby Seans epilepsy). But the truth was spectacularly shocking. On January 9th, having had an interview with May Bertie-Clay, WBY wrote to Gregory. He was still reeling at the catalogue of MacBrides crimes: violence, sexual abuse, threats to the children. Two days later he wrote in even greater shock, having heard details about MacBrides seduction of the 17-year-old Eileen Wilson (Gonnes half-sister) and his molestation of the 11-year-old Iseult, the blackest thing you can imagine.
WBY felt accordingly bitter at the refusal of nationalist politicians to support Gonne: Barry OBrien earned his particular contempt for attempting to hush it up. For the sake of the country ... the MacBride legend must keep its lustre. Fortunately for herself, Gonne had retained control of her fortune; she had already offered a separation settlement to MacBride, but both May Bertie-Clay and WBY wanted her to withdraw it. A divorce must be sought, even at the risk of the Millevoye liaison coming out.
WBY was conscious that his own relationship with Gonne would also be dragged into public view.
MacBride frequently complained of the friendship, and had already removed WBYs books from Gonnes Paris house (their presence had always annoyed him considerably). He had even threatened to shoot him some while back - the only cheerful piece of news I have had in days, WBY told Gregory: it gives one a sense of heightened life.
His hands were tied, as he was implicated in the counter-charges threatened by MacBride - though the latter was mollifyingly told by Barry OBrien that kind of thing never seemed to interest Yeats.
Just as with her revelations about the Millevoye liaison in December 1898, Gonne had completely thrown WBY off course; and as before he attempted to carry on a normal life, organising his Monday evenings, consoled by astrology, and sustained by confessional outpourings to Gregory, still ill at Coole. There was also the support of Nietzschean philosophy. The whole thing has made me very wretched, he told Gregory, but has awakened nothing of the old feeling - a little to my surprise - no feeling but pity and anger ... I feel, as I always feel about these things - that strength shapes the world about itself, and that weakness is shaped about the world - and that the compromise is weakness.
He also set himself to help where he could: (Irish-American lawyer John) Quinn was immediately told the outlines of the case, emphasising MacBrides erotomania from drink, and was eventually asked to find supporting evidence from the heros activities in the US. From January, Gonnes correspondence with WBY returned to its former frequency. Her tone was dependent, appreciative and gentle. Of men friends, she told him, I have found few who cared or troubled and I have asked help of none.
In February proceedings were entered for a French divorce, at hearings attended by an alternately tearful and aggressive MacBride. Given the nature of the evidence, Gonnes religious advisers did not oppose the idea. In February WBY was in Dublin, waiting to hear how matters went in Paris, and his letters to Gregory suggest an obsession getting out of hand.
He couldnt, he told her, bear the burden of such a terrible case alone. But the case dragged on.
Legal wrangles and MacBrides procrastination kept matters in limbo. By winning a libel case he had brought against the Independent, MacBride hoped to keep reports of any trial proceedings out of the English and Irish papers, and nationalist opinion supported him rather than his wife.
The trouble with these men, WBY complained to Gregory, is that in their eyes a woman has no rights. I could see that he (Dixon) thinks that Mrs MacBrides objection to drunkenness a morbid peculiarity. I feel at every turn that by turning Catholic she put herself in their hands - she accepted their code and that is for women a code of ignoble submission.
John B. Yeats, revelling in the gossip, wondered if feminism would claim her: If Miss Gonne, when this is over, raises the standard of revolt among the ladies here, Dublin is ripe for a revolt.
But Gonne remained withdrawn in Pans, immersed in painting, coming to terms with her disastrous mistake. By the end of June WBY confided to Quinn his own hopes, which echoed his fathers: She seems to be quite easy in her mind and to have recovered her old serene courage. I imagine that this case will break up the old United Irishman group and I cannot say I am sorry. I am hoping that by the mere force of circumstances she will be put into the centre of some little radical movement for personal freedom. The womens question is in a worse state in Dublin than in any place I know, and she seems naturally chosen out by events to stir up rebellion in what will be for her a new way ... of course I dont know in the least what she is thinking in this matter.
Gregory, realistic as ever, threw cold water on the notion of Gonne leading the women of Ireland to liberation. I hope she, and every woman with a drunken husband, may succeed in getting free. Where I dont quite agree with you is the probability of her being able to do any more work in Ireland. I think that is over for her.
But WBY felt that she was ready for action again and that this cause might divert her from sterile politics; he had heard about conditions in working-class Dublin, where a woman would be enslaved by religion to keep bearing children to a drunken husband who hands his, besottedness on in the blood. His own preoccupation with descent, breeding and aristocracy was taking firm root, and the MacBride case helped to fix it.
As to Yeatss feeling for Gonne at this time, it was, he wrote, an affection of the most lasting kind, the feeling one has for some near and dear relative.
When the divorce suit was heard in Paris on July 26th, Russells fears that it will end in a bad scandal and everything will be public proved right. Much, though not all, of the squalid detail was reported. Gonne reserved most of her annoyance for the allegation that she was English, not Irish. MacBride continued to receive the support of OLeary and others.
Finally, in order to acquire a status recognised in Ireland, Gonne settled for a judicial separation under Irish law administered by French judges, rather than an outright French divorce. The case would not be settled until the summer of 1906; in the process MacBride was allowed to return to live in Ireland, despite his interlude fighting for the Boers. Gonne would therefore maintain her family based in France, for the childrens protection.
By December 1908, Yeats and Gonne had finally become lovers. Pleasurable or not, final consummation does not seem to have heralded a new phase in their relationship; instead, it confirmed Gonne in her belief that their love must take the form she had decreed. The day after they parted she wrote something more like a conventional love-letter than anything else in their vast correspondence.
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 and we are together so little! She then told him she had gone to him astrally the night before (I think you knew). But the conclusion of the letter indicates that, while a physical consummation had been reached, she felt it could not continue.