As we’ve worked our way through many of Yeats’ poems we’ve come across his main muse, Maud Gonne. I thought it would be interesting to do a little research into their relationship in order to get a better idea of where Yeats’ poetic inspiration came from.
Gonne was of Anglo-Irish decent and the daughter of a British Army Officer. Although she was part of the Viceregal Court, Gonne dissociated herself from British society and became an activist for Irish nationalism. It was her desire to build a new Irish identity that intrigued Yeats when he first met Gonne in 1889. He too was looking to create a new Irish consciousness through his poetry. Yeats later revealed that his infatuation with Gonne began before he even set eyes on her. He felt a “premonitory excitement” just upon reading her name and admited that it was then that the “troubling of my life began.”
In 1892 Yeats wrote Countess Kathleen as a play for Gonne to act in in Dublin. The role Yeats created for her was that of a beautiful aristocratic woman who ends up selling her own soul in order to feed the starving Irish. Gonne never ended up acting in the play yet Yeats dedicated the work to her and it was well know that Gonne was the inspiration behind the character of Countess Kathleen.
A depiction of Countess Kathleen walking among the poor
During their twenty-year relationship Yeats proposed to Gonne three times. She declined each time and spent a brief three years married to John MacBride, an Irish Nationalist. During her separation with MacBride in 1906 Yeats acted as Gonne’s main source of support. After briefly becoming lovers in 1908 Gonne insisted that they return to being strictly platonic friends because she feared that a sexual relationship would ruin her power as a muse.
Despite the fluctuations in their relationship, Gonne remained a presence through much of Yeats’ work. Specifically Yeats depicted Gonne as Helen of Troy in many of his poems including A Woman Homer Sung and No Second Troy. Just like Helen of Troy, Yeats found Gonne’s beauty to be so intense that it spread destruction and violence around her.
If anyone is interested in doing some additional reading about Gonne or any of Yeats’ other muses I suggest checking out W.B Yeats and the Muses by Joseph M. Hasset which is available in Magill Library. I found it to have the best account of their relationship and it has additional chapters on the other muses who influenced Yeats’ work. Also if you are interested in Gonne’s life as a Irish Nationalist I recommend Women and the Golden Dawn: Rebels and Priestesses by Mary K. Greer which is also available in Magill.