“I was twenty-three years old when the troubling of my life began”: this is how Yeats begins his description of Maud Gonne on first meeting her in 1889. His Autobiography continues:
“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...she seemed of a divine race”.
What did she see in this young Irish writer whose first poems had been first published in 1885? Kathleen Tynan, his friend and a poet herself, said that he was “beautiful to look at, with his dark face, its touch of vivid colouring, the night-black hair, the eager dark eyes”.
She became for Yeats his inspiration, the great love and yet the troubling of all his life.
The Hill of Howth or Howth Head guards Dublin Bay from the north. It was a place of special importance to Maud Gonne where she lived as a child. Later in life she wrote:
“No place has ever seemed to me quite as lovely as Howth was then. ... The heather
grew so high and strong that we could make cubby houses and be entirely hidden and
entirely warm and sheltered from the high wind”.
Yeats, too, loved Howth where he lived for a short time when he was young. In 1890 he spent a day there with Maud Gonne and remembering that day he wrote his first poem about her. It is an early Yeats when he was still under the influence of the Pre-Raphaelites and it has all the lazy beauty of Pre-Raphaelite rhythms. Of this period of his life he later wrote: “We were the last Romantics”. The poem is called “The White Birds”:
“I would that we were, my beloved, white birds on the foam of the sea!
We tire of the flame of the meteor, before it can fade and flee;
And the flame of the blue star of twilight, hung low on the rim of the sky,
Has awaked in our hearts, my beloved, a sadness that may not die.
A weariness comes from those dreamers, dew-dabbled, the lily and rose;
Ah dream not of them, my beloved, the flame of the meteor that goes,
Or the flame of the blue star that lingers hung low in the fall of the dew:
For I would we were changed to white birds on the wandering foam: I and you!
I am haunted by numberless islands, and many a Danaan shore,
Where Time would surely forget us, and Sorrow comes near us no more;
Soon far from the rose and the lily and fret of the flames would we be,
Were we only white birds, my beloved, buoyed up on the foam of the sea!
Maud Gonne and Ireland, hurling “the little streets upon the great”
In her early years she moved with her family between England, Ireland and occasionally France. At the age of 18, she was presented at Court and was escorted onto the royal dais by the Prince of Wales. At the age of 21, after the death of her father, she began living an independent life in Paris where she became involved with a right-wing group intent on destroying the Third Republic; among that group she met Lucien Millevoye, a journalist/politician. On the group’s behalf she travelled to Russia on a secret mission to persuade the Tsar to finance a right-wing plot against the Third Republic; in 1890, she returned to Ireland and met the great leader of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, John O’Leary, who had been exiled from Ireland for fifteen years for his part in the Fenian Rising of 1865 ( see Yeats’s “September, 1913”). O’Leary converted her to Irish nationalism, just as earlier he had converted Yeats who remained always moderate.
Her first Irish campaign in 1890 was against the mass eviction of tenants in the most poverty-stricken areas of Donegal; Yeats’s poem “Her Praise”, more than twenty years later. remembers this:
“I will talk no more of books or the long war
But walk by the dry thorn until I have found
Some beggar sheltering from the wind, and there
Manage the talk until her name comes round.
If there be rags enough he will know her name
And be well pleased remembering it, for in the old days,
Though she had young men’s praise and old men’s blame,
Among the poor both old and young gave her praise”.
In Donegal, a warrant was issued for her arrest but later cancelled.
In Paris, she founded a newspaper called L’Irlande Libre. On a fund-raising tour of America in support of Home Rule for Ireland, a newspaper called her “Ireland’s Joan of Arc”. She was one of the leaders of two massive demonstrations in Dublin, first against the celebrations of Queen Victoria’s Jubilee in 1897 and a few years later against the visit to Ireland of King Edward VII, her former escort. On that occasion, she hung a black petticoat outside her house in Dublin in a street festooned with Union Jacks. When a Unionist mob invaded her house, she fought back. In “No Second Troy” Yeats tells us:
“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,
During the Boer War she spoke out in Paris in favour of the Boers against “British Imperialism”; here she met Captain John MacBride, an Irish nationalist who fought with the Boers in South Africa. In Dublin a pro-Boer march was banned but Gonne and a few other Irish leaders ignored the ban. Around that time she became the first president of Inghinidhe na hEireann, (Daughters of Ireland), a group of women dedicated to promote Irish culture and Home Rule for Ireland. She was one of the leaders in a campaign to extend free school meals for Irish schoolchildren, a campaign that succeeded in 1912.
In late 1914, Maud Gonne began working as a Red Cross nurse in a French military hospital where she became aware for the first time of the reality of war:
“...in my heart is growing up a wild hatred of the war machine”.
The Easter Rising in Dublin in 1916 began and failed with the executions of all but two of its leaders (see “Sixteen Dead Men”). Stranded in France, she was desperate to go to Ireland, but as soon as she arrived in London she was served with a notice under the Defence of the Realm Act, exiling her from Ireland. Nevertheless, eventually she travelled to Dublin in disguise; she was arrested in 1918 and sent to Holloway Prison where her companions included Constance Markiewicz, (nee Gore-Booth), one of the two reprieved leaders of the Easter Rising, and Kathleen Clarke, the widow of one of the executed men, Tom Clarke. This is how Yeats remembers Constance in his “In Memory of Eva Gore-Booth and Con Markiewicz”:
“The light of evening, Lissadell,
Great windows open to the south,
Two girls in silk kimonos, both
Beautiful, one a gazelle
A later poem “On a Political Prisoner” is more sombre.
In 1921, the Anglo-Irish Treaty divided Ireland into North and South. A government which accepted the Treaty’s division of Ireland was formed; tragically a bitter and shameful civil war began between former nationalist fighters, between those in favour of the Treaty and those against ( see “Meditations in Time of Civil War”). A group of women in Dublin, including Maud Gonne, set up a Peace Committee to reconcile the two sides, but the Government was pitiless in its violence against former comrades. With her Peace Committee she led huge and noisy demonstrations against the Irish Government that was imprisoning and executing anti-Treaty campaigners. She wrote in her Memoirs:
“We claimed, as women, on whom the misery of civil war would fall, that we had a right to
Her home was ransacked by a pro-Treaty crowd...as it had been under British rule years earlier. She was arrested twice by the new Irish Government and on the second occasion she was released after going on hunger strike. She went to Northern Ireland to see for herself the distressed conditions of Catholics driven from their homes: she was arrested and deported back to Dublin. With her Peace Committee a Women’s Prisoners’ Defence League was set up to support the families’ of imprisoned anti-Treaty men and women. It was eventually banned by the Irish Government but continued to meet and campaign under a different name. She spent the rest of her life as a fervent campaigner for refugees and for prisoners’ rights.
Maud Gonne; Millevoye; MacBride; Yeats: “Love fled...and his his head among a crowd of stars”
The most astonishing fact about this “beautiful Irish nationalist” was that she was English, born in Tongham in Surrey in 1866. Her father, Tommy, was an English army captain and later colonel, sent to Ireland with his wife and two daughters when she was two years old. Yet she was a very private person and her own private life had its deal of troubles and its secrets.
After the death of her father, it was John O’Leary, almost a father-figure, who converted her to Home Rule for Ireland. She moved equally between Dublin and Paris, having ample means to lead an independent life. In Paris in 1887, she began a ten-year relationship with a married right-wing French politician, Lucien Millevoye; it was on his behalf that she went on that secret mission to Russia. By the time she met Yeats in 1889, she already had a son named George who had died when he was one. By the time Yeats had proposed to her twice, she had a daughter named Iseult whom she passed off as her niece. No one, least of all Yeats, in Ireland knew any of this.
Yeats and Gonne were opposites in many ways. A contemporary wrote of Yeats that “He wanders in the realms of the mind”; Gonne says of her life at the time she met Yeats: “...it was one of ceaseless activity and travelling. I rarely spent a month in one place”. Over a period of twelve years he proposed to her on five different occasions. In her Memoirs she recalls that on one occasion she told him:
“You make beautiful poetry out of what you call your unhappiness and you are happy
in that...Poets should never marry. The world should thank me for not marrying you”.
Yeats’s poem “Words” recalls this unwelcome advice:
“That had she done so, who can say
What would have been shaken from the sieve?
I might have thrown poor words away
And been content to live”.
In November 1898 in Dublin she finally confessed to Yeats the details of her relationship with Millevoye; he wrote no poems for a year.
In Paris Maud Gonne was active in pro-Boer propaganda. There she had met and admired John MacBride in 1900, an Irish hero to Irish nationalists because he fought against the British forces in the Boer War. In 1903, she converted to Catholicism and suddenly and unexpectedly married MacBride in Paris in February, she so unconventional, he as an Irish man of his time, so full of conventions about a woman’s place, always second. It was she, not the best man, who gave the final toast at their wedding reception; she insisted on keeping her own name, too.
A few days later in Dublin, as he was about to give an evening lecture on the future of Irish drama, Yeats received a telegram, informing him of her marriage. Afterwards he remembered nothing of the lecture as he walked alone the streets of Dublin, devastated by what he saw as betrayal. “Reconciliation”, written in 1908, recalls that night:
“Some may have blamed you that you took away
The verses that could move them on the day
When, the ears being deafened, the sight of the eyes blind
With lightning, you went from me, and I could find
Nothing to make a song about but kings,
Helmets, and swords, and half-forgotten things
That were like memories of you – but now
We’ll out, for the world lives as long ago;
And while we’re in our laughing, weeping fit,
Hurl helmets, crowns, and swords into the pit.
But, dear, cling close to me; since you were gone,
My barren thoughts have chilled me to the bone
Her sudden decision to marry MacBride was followed a year later after the birth of their son, Sean, by a decision to divorce him, citing drunkenness and cruelty. For Catholics divorce was not possible, so in the end there was a judicial separation in 1906. The Irish nationalists now turned against her, blaming her. O’Leary, her mentor and the godfather of her son, took MacBride’s part. Lady Gregory, Yeats’s partner in setting up the Abbey Theatre, wrote that “I think that her work in Ireland is over for her”.
Yeats was the only person who stood by her. He wrote to Lady Gregory that “The trouble with these men (Irish nationalists) is that in their eyes a woman has no rights”. On her return to Dublin after the separation, she went to the Abbey Theatre, escorted by Yeats for a performance of Lady Gregory’s “The Gaol Gate”. This great campaigner for Irish independence was hissed at by this Irish audience. She turned, smiling, to face her attackers; Yeats was enraged, (see the words of “my phoenix” in his poem “The People”:
“The drunkards, pilferers of public funds,
All the dishonest crowd I had driven away,
When my luck changed and they dared meet my face,
Crawled from obscurity, and set upon me
Those I had served and some that I had fed;
Yet never have I, now nor any time,
Complained of the people.”
For ten years Maud Gonne was cold-shouldered by the nationalists, yet she continued working on Irish causes.
Yeats proposed again for the sixth time; she offered him a “spiritual marriage” which he accepted but privately was utterly frustrated, (see his bitter poem “Presences”). The final stanza of “Adam’s Curse”, which he had written much earlier, now seemed prescient:
“I had a thought for no one’s but your ears:
That you were beautiful, and that I strove
To love you in the old high ways of love;
That it had all seemed happy, and yet we’d grown
As weary-hearted as that hollow moon”.
The culmination of centuries of struggle for Irish independence took place in the Easter Rising of 1916. Within a week the rebellion was crushed and its leaders executed, John MacBride among them. “Easter 1916” is Yeats’s response. Maud Gonne returned to Ireland as soon as she could as Maud Gonne MacBride, thus joining that highly respected group, that of the nationalist widows of that 1916 and she was accepted once again.
In 1917 Yeats at the age of 51 married Georgie Hyde-Lees in London. Gonne MacBride was quite happy at this. Indeed while she was in prison in Holloway she offered her Dublin home to the married couple. They had two children, a daughter, Anne, and a son, Michael.
Last Years: “There is grey in your hair”
Once Ireland won its independence in 1921, her friendship with Yeats cooled over political differences. She was opposed to the pro-Treaty Irish Government and he served as a Senator from 1922-1928. He himself, as a Protestant, had always been opposed to her Catholicism. When he resigned from the Senate, they resumed their friendship, though never as ardently as before.
She is never named in all the poems about her, however in “Beautiful Lofty Things”, written in 1937, two years before he died – not a love poem – Yeats names her among all the people and experiences that made life meaningful for him and that made him:
“Beautiful lofty things, O’Leary’s noble head,
My father upon the Abbey stage, before him a raging crowd:
‘The land of Saints’, and then as the applause died out,
‘Of plaster Saints’; his beautiful, mischievous head thrown back.
Standish O’Grady supporting himself between the tables
Speaking to a drunken audience high nonsensical words;
Augusta Gregory seated at her great ormolu table,
Her eightieth winter approaching: ‘Yesterday he threatened my life.
I told him that nightly from six to seven I sat at this table,
The blinds drawn up’; Maud Gonne at Howth station waiting a train,
Pallas Athene in that straight back and arrogant head:
All the Olympians; a thing never known again”.
So there she is, at the end of his life, as she was at the beginning. In pride of place at the end of his own Panathenaea, Maud Gonne, “of divine race”, Pallas Athena herself, the last of the Olympians.
Bibliography: YEATS by Richard Ellmann; W.B. YEATS by Alasdair Macrae; A PREFACE TO YEATS by Edward Malins and John Purkiss; COLLECTED POEMS OF W.B. YEATS by Robert Mighall; MAUD GONNE by Margaret Ward.