Inspiration for Maud Gonne

Rosetti Pre-Raphaelite woman, a trope that inspired Yeats’s vision of Maud Gonne

In the early part of his life, Yeats was a Romantic (capital R), heavily influenced by Rossetti, Shelley and other pre-Raphaelites and Romantics, in his ideas of what constituted a perfect love, and an ideal world.

In the courtly love tradition, the poet deliberately woos a muse as a career move: to extend his spiritual and creative capacities. Dante’s pursuit of the unattainable Beatrice is the model for this “suffering of desire” that, Yeats believed, made Dante’s “the chief imagination of Christendom” in the sixteenth century.

When Maud Gonne came calling to his house in 1889, Yeats was perfectly primed to cast her in this role, so he might become the “chief imagination” of his own time.

He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven
This poem was one of many written in the early 1890s, when Yeats knew little of Maud’s real-life character or history. She was, as yet, purely what Edna O’Brien has called “the love object”.

The poem was originally entitled Aedh Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven. Yeats used a number of alter-egos in his poetry, to represent different dimensions of himself, and Aedh is the character who embodies the pale, lovelorn man in thrall to
la belle dame sans merci so beloved of the Romantics. (When the poems were collected in book form, “Aedh” was replaced with a more generic “He”).

He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven
Had I the heavens’ embroidered cloths,
Enwrought with golden and silver light,
The blue and the dim and the dark cloths
Of night and light and the half-light,
I would spread the cloths under your feet:
But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.

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When You Are Old 

This poem is a favorite with many. Here, Yeats turns and addresses his beloved directly, takes the focus from himself and his various alter egos (Aedh, Mongan, Michael Robartes), and puts it directly on the love object and her “pilgrim soul”.

By the time he wrote this, Yeats’s love was less cast in idealized mode and more in tune with the sorrows of Maud’s life. The poem reveals a knowledge of those sorrows and a desire to protect her.

It’s based on one of the sonnets another courtly lover, the Renaissance French poet, Pierre de Ronsard, wrote for his unattainable Helene. (You can see the original, which gave us the saying “gather your roses while they bloom”, here.

When You Are Old
When you are old and grey and full of sleep,
And nodding by the fire, take down this book
And slowly read, and dream of the soft look
Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep;

How many loved your moments of glad grace,
And loved your beauty with love false or true,
But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you,
And loved the sorrows of your changing face;

And bending down beside the glowing bars,
Murmur, a little sadly, how Love fled
And paced upon the mountains overhead
And hid his face amid a crowd of stars.

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He Wishes His Beloved Were Dead
Many of the poems in the voice of Aedh that Yeats wrote at this time use what was then a conventional trope of love-and-death. Passion is unrequited to the degree that the lover retires, exhausted, ill, perhaps dying. There’s also a tradition of passing the death wish onto the love object herself.

This is another sonnet in imitation of Ronsard, one of the most prolific sonneteers of the Renaissance. Though his imitation of Ronsard, Yeats lay down his own mastery of the sonnet form.

When Maud read this poem, apparently she laughed out loud.

He Wishes His Beloved Were Dead
Were you but lying cold and dead,
And lights were paling out of the West,
You would come hither, and bend your head,
And I would lay my head on your breast;
And you would murmur tender words,
Forgiving me, because you were dead:
Nor would you rise and hasten away,
Though you have the will of the wild birds,
But know your hair was bound and wound
About the stars and moon and sun:
O would, beloved, that you lay
Under the dock-leaves in the ground,
While lights were paling one by one.

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Mongan Thinks of his Past Greatness 
If Aedh, in Yeats’s poetry, is the courtly lover, Mongan — based on the seventh century Irish prince, is the man of action,  partnering Maud Gonne in their shared project of Irish nationalism.

An interesting 10th century story, Scél Mongáin,  tells of the poet Forgoll, a poor student on whom Mongán takes pity and sends to the otherworld to bring back gold, silver and a precious stone.  The student [who is far more like the real-life Yeats of this time than the powerful King] is granted the silver to keep for himself.

As with so many old Irish stories, the plot is not the point, existing only as a device that allows the bard to praise the magnificence of the other-world.

In the poem below, Yeats explores the ambivalence he always felt about the public and political life that so delighted Maud Gonne, and sets up the impossibility of a worldly man knowing that other-worldly magnificence, whether in the form of “the wind” or “the woman that he loves”, until — yes, you’ve guessed it — he dies.

Mongan Thinks of his Past Greatness

I have drunk ale from the Country of the Young
And weep because I know all things now:
I have been a hazel tree and they hung
The Pilot Star and the Crooked Plough
Among my leaves in times out of mind:
I became a rush that horses tread:
I became a man, a hater of the wind,
Knowing one, out of all things, alone, that his head
Would not lie on the breast or his lips on the hair
Of the woman that he loves, until he dies;
Although the rushes and the fowl of the air
Cry of his love with their pitiful cries.

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Tomorrow: WB Yeats Poems Inspired By Iseult Gonne.

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