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Yeats: When You are Old

Dawn Duncan, Austin Gerth, Elizabeth Pilon, Erika Strandjord, Authors
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Maud Gonne

The narrative of Yeats’ life and art is in one regard a story of love unrequited and of the painful stages through which that love passed before burning out, unstoked. We can see this in Harold Bloom’s dense cataloguing throughout his monograph, Yeats, of allusions to Yeats’ epochal and abortive relationship with Maud Gonne across his poetic and dramatic output. Bloom is known for the primacy he lends the influence of a poet’s antecedents in understanding and interpreting their work, and indeed in the introduction to his book he says he wishes “to study the major relations of Yeats’s work to English poetic tradition,” (Bloom vii) so it is notable that here he cites Maud Gonne nearly as much as Yeats’ major forebears Shelley and Blake. Irish scholars, much closer to the work of Yeats, readily recognize the powerful influence of Maud Gonne on the writer's poetic and dramatic output.

Yeats’ love for Gonne dogged his career as a playwright and poet, and much of his work can be easily (and probably not inaccurately) read with a Maud-centric slant. Though Yeats expresses indifference after his first meetings with Gonne in a letter to Katharine Tynan, writing “Who told you that I am ‘taken up with Miss Gonne’? I think she is very good-looking and that is all I think about her,” he would go on to propose marriage to Gonne several times and later to her daughter, Iseult, as well (The Letters of W.B. Yeats, 116).

In A. Norman Jeffares’ “Introduction” to The Gonne-Yeats Letters 1893-1938, he records that Yeats first asked Maud to marry him on 3 August 1891 in Dublin, during a time when she had expressed to him a deep sadness. According to Jeffares, “She replied in words she was to use later on similar occasions: ‘No, she could not marry--there were reasons--she would never marry.’ They should be friends; the world would thank her for not marrying him” (19). Certainly Yeats’ literary output seems to have benefitted from this unrequited passion, yet deep loving friendship, which in turn benefits a world of readers and scholars. However, at the time, Yeats evidently had no knowledge of either Gonne’s relationship with Lucien Millevoye in Paris nor of their infant son. Only after little Georges’ death and Maud’s return to Paris at the end of August would she, over the course of the next months, let him know about this part of her life. With her great sorrow over her child’s death and her increasing interest in mystical matters, especially reincarnation, Maud’s interest in Yeats’ spiritual explorations gave the poet hope. As Jeffares notes, “Willie thought that her need of him would become love. He wrote her ‘The Sorrow of Love’ and ‘When You Are Old’ which recorded his love of ‘the pilgrim soul’ in her. He began to form plans for their devoting their lives to mystic truth….Willie envisaged eventual marriage” (21). His persistence and optimism in the face of her sorrow and wandering spirit, however, would never achieve his dream of marriage beyond their spiritual link. Love comes in many forms, which the poet had to muse upon and learn over decades of longing.

Yeats’ poem seems almost prophetic, given that Maud was in her 20s when Yeats wrote “When You Are Old” yet lived to be 86, fourteen years beyond her beloved poet. In Maud Gonne: Ireland’s Joan of Arc, Margaret Ward records, “In her tribute to Willie Yeats, Maud had described herself as a ‘prisoner of old age, waiting for release.’ She was, increasingly, to feel she had lived too long” (184). In the October 25, 1948 issue of Life magazine, appears a memorial spread on Yeats because of his re-interment in Drumcliffe cemetery, Ireland. Among the photos is one of an aged Maud Gonne sitting by a fire, reading Yeats’ poetry, as per the famous poem “When You Are Old.” In speaking of Maud’s death, Ward writes, “On 27 April 1953, after a painful last six months, Maud finally managed to go her own way. She was eighty-six and had longed to join all those friends whose loss she had mourned” (191). Surely one of the chief among these friends would have been Yeats, a man who loved her for forty years, working alongside her in theatre, immortalizing her in his writing, but never able to hold onto her in life.

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