Second Puberty

The later years of W. B. Yeats brought his best poetry, along with personal melodrama on an epic scale

In the summer of 1916 William Butler Yeats asked Maud Gonne to marry him. This had become something of a habit over the twenty-seven years since he had first met and fallen in love with her and, as he put it, "the troubling of my life began." From then on he had devoted a considerable part of that life to Maud Gonne and to the idea of Maud Gonne, writing poems and plays inspired by her and by her incomplete refusal of him, trying to rescue her from the mind-boggling series of personal catastrophes that made up her life, communing with her astrally, and even, eventually (a fact that should cheer the hearts of unrequited lovers everywhere), sleeping with her, in Paris, in 1908, "the long years of fidelity," as another of his lovers commented, "rewarded at last." But as Yeats himself said, "the tragedy of sexual intercourse is the perpetual virginity of the soul." By 1916 Yeats was over fifty and wanted to be married and to produce an heir. He knew that Maud, for all the beauty he had once seen in her, or thought he'd seen in her (in photographs she looks like a towering, lantern-jawed man), had gone too far down the road of rabid revolutionary political activism, chloroform addiction, and increasingly Christian mysticism to be anything like a suitable wife. So when he made his request this time, it was really only because he thought he should, because her estranged husband, John MacBride—a drunken gunman, the father of her son, and the molester of her daughter—had recently been executed by the British for his role in the 1916 Easter Rising. Yeats made his proposal in a perfunctory fashion, with conditions attached, expecting and somewhat hoping to be turned down yet again, as he was. As R. F. Foster writes in this much anticipated second and final volume of his biography of the great Irish poet, occultist, and sucker for romantic punishment, "When he duly asked Maud to marry him, and was duly refused, his thoughts shifted with surprising speed to her daughter."

The sad life of Iseult Gonne is one of the many peripheral stories that Foster expertly sketches in the margins (though she deserves, if that's the word for it, a biography of her own). Twenty-one that summer, Iseult was Maud's second child with Lucien Millevoye, a married French anarchist and newspaperman; she had been conceived in the mausoleum of her short-lived brother, in an attempt to reincarnate the dead infant. She had been presented to the world as her mother's adopted niece; had been molested by her stepfather at the age of eleven; had, for her own part, proposed marriage to Yeats when she was fifteen; and now was widely considered a great beauty (a judgment borne out by photographs), although she, like her mother, was something of a giantess. Iseult would go on to be seduced by Ezra Pound, with whom Yeats unwisely secured her a secretarial position; to work with her mother as a gunrunner for the IRA; and to marry the impossibly bad Irish novelist Francis Stuart, a sadist and nincompoop who would eventually leave her, in 1940, to emigrate into Nazi Germany.

In that year of many proposals Iseult, like her mother, turned Yeats down. Determined to marry someone, he asked George Hyde-Lees, a twenty-four-year-old woman whom he knew through occult circles. He was accepted (despite the remark made by one of her cousins: "George ... you can't. He must be dead"), was married, and then on their honeymoon found himself down with a bad case of buyer's remorse—feverish, exhausted, and listless with regret. At this point George began to write automatically, taking dictation from celestial "instructors" who appeared like a kick line from the wings to save her marriage even as they provided her husband with the basis for A Vision, his endlessly revised mystical opus. Barely a year later Yeats would find himself turning away Maud Gonne (who was disguised as a Red Cross nurse to escape detection by the British authorities) from her own house in Dublin, where he was living with his pregnant bride.

If you think that all this sounds like something out of Ponchielli's La Gioconda, or CBS's Guiding Light, you're not alone. The novelist James McCourt once wrote that Yeats, a figure of unmatched imperiousness, "seems to have gone from the inner sanctum of the Order of the Golden Dawn to the board room of the Abbey to Thoor Ballylee to the halls of high deliberation without once having stepped in shit." There's some truth to that. But Foster shows, in this learned and engaging biography, that Yeats's life, however elevated the realms in which it unfolded, was nothing if not messy. Most of the saga related above is contained in the first hundred pages or so of Foster's book—and matters hardly get more sedate or conventional as the story goes on.

Even Yeats's public life was operatic in its incident and intensity of emotions. The Arch-Poet begins just at the lead-up to the Easter Rising, the initially unpopular insurrection in Dublin that, though doomed itself, led in surprisingly short order to the partial and then the complete independence from Great Britain of twenty-six counties of Ireland. Yeats was in England during the Rising, which was staged by a small, fanatical offshoot of the Irish Republican Brotherhood—a group he had been involved with in the 1890s. Since then he had shifted toward what is sometimes called, in discussions of the dizzying variety of Irish political positions, constitutional nationalism, as opposed to physical-force nationalism. Yeats wanted an independent Ireland, but he thought that this could be better achieved by pursuing parliamentary action and undertaking nationalist cultural projects—his Abbey Theatre, for instance—than by exploding administrative buildings and murdering policemen. The latter method, however, won out. Foster adeptly charts Yeats's, and Ireland's, changing responses to the "martyrs." This group included a number of people whom Yeats knew personally, notably John MacBride—a man who had once threatened to shoot him ("the only cheerful piece of news I have had in days," Yeats said at the time; "it gives one a sense of heightened life"). His transformation into an elegist of the martyrs in such poems as "Easter, 1916," "Sixteen Dead Men," and "The Rose Tree" thus has a particular strangeness.

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