In “A Memory of Youth” Yeats acknowledged how his poetic inspiration had dried until the intervention of “a most ridiculous little bird [who] Tore from the skies his marvelous moon.”
The little bird was Iseult Gonne, who saw herself as both pupil and teacher to Yeats.
Their friendship was founded on intellectual and spiritual connection and an attempt by Yeats’ to cast her in the role of muse from which her mother had disqualified herself.
At the time of his romantic attachment to Iseult, When he was seriously considering her as a wife (1916 to 1918), Yeats was working on the first volume of his autobiographies – reliving his infatuation for the mother while becoming ever more infatuated with the daughter.
Iseult had self-possession, grace and charm and … youth and for a time, he allocated to her the place in his imagination he had previously set aside for Maud.
Iseult wanted to be a writer and greatly respected Yeats work and philosophy. she was profoundly spiritual with a deep aesthetic sense and the intellectual and emotional stimulation she provided to Yeats at that time found its way into his essays, poetry and plays — and, to a lesser extent, into hers.
He had developed the habit of turning his experiences into words; she, alas, worked only when the spirit moved her and found it difficult to harness the focus and concentration necessary to create, while he took her wisdoms and made redolent verse from them.
In The Only Jealousy of Emer (1919), he opens with a lyric directly inspired by Iseult:
A woman’s beauty is like a white
Frail bird, like a white sea-bird alone
At daybreak after a stormy night
Between two furrows upon the ploughed land.
A sudden storm, and it was thrown
Between dark furrows upon the ploughed land.
How many centuries spent
The sedentary soul
In toils of measurement
Beyond eagle or mole,
Beyond hearing or seeing,
Or Archimedes’ guess,
To raise into being
Compare to The White Birds, written in 1892, about Maud.
Iseult’s favourite place at this time, and where much of her flirtation with Yeats was conducted, was Maud’s summer house at Normandy, Les Mouettes. It was a favourite habit of her to dance, at dusk, at the edge of the waves in a freestyle, Martha Graham sequence of movements. the open and mystical innocence that she displayed while dancing touched Yeats deeply and produced the poem in which he most openly compares her to her mother.
To a Child dancing in the Wind
Dance there upon the shore;
What need have you to care
For wind or water’s roar?
And tumble out your hair
That the salt drops have wet;
Being young you have not known
The fool’s triumph, nor yet
Love lost as soon as won,
Nor the best labourer dead
And all the sheaves to bind.
What need have you to dread
The monstrous crying of wind?
Has no one said those daring
Kind eyes should be more learn’d?
Or warned you how despairing 15
The moths are when they are burned,
I could have warned you, but you are young,
So we speak a different tongue.
O you will take whatever’s offered
And dream that all the world’s a friend,
Suffer as your mother suffered,
Be as broken in the end.
But I am old and you are young,
And I speak a barbarous tongue.
“Michael Robartes and The Dancer” is a dialogue between the two of them that captures the spirit of their flirtation, a sparring between intellectual equals. It displays how her presence, ideas, and her own poetry profoundly influenced him during this critical period when he was working out his alternative to Freud’s theories of creativity as sublimation of desire. The poem displays a sense of humour not commonly found in Yeats’s ouevre but widely evident in Iseult’s letters and journal entries.
He. Opinion is not worth a rush;
In this altar-piece the knight,
Who grips his long spear so to push
That dragon through the fading light,
Loved the lady; and it’s plain
The half-dead dragon was her thought,
That every morning rose again
And dug its claws and shrieked and fought.
Could the impossible come to pass
She would have time to turn her eyes,
Her lover thought, upon the glass
And on the instant would grow wise.
She. You mean they argued.
He. Put it so;
But bear in mind your lover’s wage
Is what your looking-glass can show,
And that he will turn green with rage
At all that is not pictured there.
She. May I not put myself to college?
He. Go pluck Athena by the hair;
For what mere book can grant a knowledge
With an impassioned gravity
Appropriate to that beating breast,
That vigorous thigh, that dreaming eye?
And may the devil take the rest.
She. And must no beautiful woman be
Learned like a man?
He. Paul Veronese
And all his sacred company
Imagined bodies all their days
By the lagoon you love so much,
For proud, soft, ceremonious proof
That all must come to sight and touch;
While Michael Angelo’s Sistine roof
His ‘Morning’ and his ‘Night’ disclose
How sinew that has been pulled tight,
Or it may be loosened in repose,
Can rule by supernatural right
Yet be but sinew.
She. I have heard said
There is great danger in the body.
He. Did God in portioning wine and bread
Give man His thought or His mere body?
She. My wretched dragon is perplexed.
He. I have principles to prove me right.
It follows from this Latin text
That blest souls are not composite,
And that all beautiful women may
Live in uncomposite blessedness,
And lead us to the like — if they
Will banish every thought, unless
The lineaments that please their view
When the long looking-glass is full,
Even from the foot-sole think it too.
She. They say such different things at school.
Next time: Novel Extract: Yeats first meeting with Iseult, long before he realises she is Maud’s daughter.