Saturday History Lesson: The Unrequited Yeats


Certain writers cast shadows of incredible length and darkness, and Yeats is one of them. His poetry has a way of crowding out the sun. As a teenager I fell for that poem of his that begins, “When you are old and grey and full of sleep,” and reminds its object that “one man loved the pilgrim soul in you.” It was the most romantic thing I’d ever read; how anyone could refuse this man was a mystery to me.

I was in my second year of university before I heard that the poem was written for a woman who may never have returned the affection at all. She was the Irish nationalist revolutionary Maud Gonne, who turned down an incredible number of proposals from the man. As the legend goes, Maud was stormy and heedless and headstrong, and she wanted someone more committed to his political principles than Yeats.

Her actual reasons were perhaps more complicated. One night in 1898, she accepted his proposal, kissed him, and changed her mind again in twenty-four hours. Yeats would try to insist that on that evening they were spiritually married; Gonne’s interpretation differed. A few times she told him she’d never marry anyone at all, claiming feminist principles. She also cited a pact she’d made with the devil, exchanging her soul for the ability to live as she wanted. Yeats himself blamed her “dread of physical love,” later writing in one of his notebooks:

This dread has probably spoiled all her life, checking natural and instinctive selection, and leaving fantastic duties free to take its place. It is what philosophy is to me, a daily rooter out of instinct and guiding joy — and all the while she grows nobler under the touch of sorrow and denial.

His feelings about her would not always be so high-minded, as he recorded rather more passive-aggressively, if beautifully so, in “No Second Troy,”

Why should I blame her that she filled my days
With misery, or that she would of late
Have taught to ignorant men most violent ways,
Or hurled the little streets upon the great,
Had they but courage equal to desire?

By the time “No Second Troy” was published, Gonne was in fact married, to another revolutionary, John MacBride, though they had long been separated. The marriage would only end with MacBride’s death by firing squad in the Easter Uprising. Yeats had implored her not to marry MacBride, a man he’d call in “Easter, 1916” a “drunken, vainglorious lout.” The marriage had faltered amid allegations of domestic violence.

That it would not be a happy marriage was clear early on. Their honeymoon was a cover for an assassination scheme; MacBride planned to kill King Edward VIII, who happened to be visiting Gilbraltar, but somehow the plan dissolved into a bottle of whiskey. Gonne, who had not expected to return, would later say she could have gotten the marriage annulled, but it would have made the son it produced illegitimate.

Yeats, as any number of English teachers have told their students, stayed in Maud’s life to support her through the separation. Their lifelong friendship takes on the aura of tragic unrequited love. A daughter-in-law who used to drive her to visit Yeats, at the end of the life, would say that she was eventually disenchanted with him, finding “his poetry difficult and his talk bawdy.”

He had long ago given up. Less often discussed than Yeats’ romantic interest in Maud is the way it drifted onto the shoulders of her daughter, Iseult.

* * *

There were always rumours in Dublin that Yeats was Iseult’s biological father. For her part, Maud would tell him more than once she considered him her spiritual one. But the true culprit was a married, right-wing French journalist and politician named Lucien Millevoye, with whom Maud carried on a multi-year affair, apparently in defiance of her aversion to physical love. By the time Iseult was born, in August 1894, the affair was on the wane. Millevoye had also fathered Maud’s first child, Georges, a boy who died at about a year old. In his Autobiography, Yeats reports that Iseult was conceived in the tomb where Georges was buried, in hopes of having the child reborn. In public, Gonne would pass the Iseult off as her niece, or, as she did in a memoir she wrote in 1938, a child she adopted.

At the time of her marriage to MacBride Maud wrote to a friend that she thought she had to marry for Iseult’s sake. But Maud would later writer in her memoir that Iseult had never liked her future step-father, and begged her mother not to marry him. Whether this is hindsight is difficult to say. One of the charges Maud made, when she attempted to divorce MacBride in 1916, was that MacBride had “compromised” Iseult, then eight years old.

Iseult was, to put it mildly, very beautiful. She had her mother’s large eyes and bone structure. Yeats was horrified by what Maud told him about MacBride’s abuse of the child, and proposed and was refused again. Somehow, this cemented his bond to Iseult. He wrote a friend that it was not “in the way of love or desire,” but “[s]hould my feeling change towards Iseult I will leave at once, as I think 30 years too great a difference for her happiness.” This, his biographer R.F. Foster notes, is “unconvincing.”

Yeats became Iseult’s mentor, tutored her in writing poetry, and taught her to read it in the lilting chant he preferred. Both he and Maud tried to encourage her to be a poet, and believed she had talent. She was both dreamy and mercurial, in their accounts of her. She would appear in his poetry, and he would dedicate essays to her under a pseudonym he chose: Maurice.

And at just fifteen, she herself proposed to Yeats. He turned her down, she would later tell a Yeats biographer, because she had too much Mars in her horoscope.

Her interest enticed him, nonetheless. By 1917, Yeats would revise his position and repeatedly asking Iseult to marry him. Iseult was twenty-three. She spent most of her time smoking and producing only fragments of verse, to her mother’s dismay. Like her mother before her, she would refuse his advances. She told him she feared upsetting her mother. To a friend he defended himself: “I have not I think been in love with Iseult — I have been nearly mad with pity & it is difficult to distinguish between the two emotions perhaps.”

The pity, at least, was true. From a poem he’d published a year earlier, “To a Child Dancing in the Wind”:

Has no one said those daring
Kind eyes should be more learn’d?
Or warned you how despairing
The moths are when they are burned,
I could have warned you, but you are young,
So we speak a different tongue.

Yeats promptly asked another woman, Georgie Hyde-Lees, to marry him instead. She, at last, accepted, and they remained happily married until his death in 1939.

Iseult would go on to have an affair with Ezra Pound before marrying a novelist named Francis Stuart, whom neither Yeats nor Gonne was very fond of. She would ultimately die of heart disease in 1954, just a year after her famous mother, by then reknowned as a “Joan of Arc” for Ireland, had gone, too. Though she had not inherited her mother’s interest in politics she’d resurface, famously, when she was tried for harboring a German parachutist during the Second World War.

Which just reminds me that another thing hiding in Yeats’ shadow is his flirtations with fascism. But that will have to wait for another Saturday.


Sources include Amanda French’s essay on Iseult here, R.F. Foster’s and A. Norman Jeffares’ biographies of Yeats, and The Gonne-Yeats Correspondence, including the prologue by Anna MacBride White, one of Seàn’s daughters.

Michelle Dean has written for a variety of places, including The Awl, ELLE and Bitch. More from this author →