By Kathleen Dixon Donnelly
Conor Cruise O’Brien has said that Ireland owes a large debt to Irish patriot John MacBride. Besides giving his life for his country, he married Maud Gonne. If she hadn’t jilted William Butler Yeats, we wouldn’t have his beautiful poetry: “Tread softly because you tread on my dreams” (“He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven”).
Maud Gonne, six feet tall and gorgeous, arrived on Yeats’ doorstep in a thunderclap in 1889. Sent by a political friend of the 34-year-old poet, she got him even more politically involved. Like the guys who went to 60s peace rallies to pick up chicks, in his new political fervor Yeats wrote a play, Countess Cathleen for her.
Gonne was devoted to Irish independence—although she was British. Her claim to Irishness was a 16th century relative who had immigrated. That wouldn’t even get her a passport today.
During the 1897 Jubilee Riots, she and Willie were in a club in Rutland (now Parnell) Square. He locked the doors so Maud couldn’t get out until she explained what she would do, but she told him, “How do I know till I get there?!”
When you visit Parnell Square, find the Dublin Photographic Society, just to the west. Ask to see the life-size photo of Gonne they have on the wall.
Willie kept proposing; Maud kept refusing. After the Jubilee Riots, Yeats got together with Lady Augusta Gregory and they planned their theatre to present plays based on authentic Irish tales. In summers at her Coole Park, Gregory pulled him to art while Gonne pulled him to politics.
About to start a lecture in Dublin in 1903, he received a message that Gonne had married MacBride to spite her French lover. At that moment a hurricane hit Coole Park. Its devastation was nothing compared to the turmoil Gonne’s marriage caused him. Willie pointed out that marrying him could have spited the Frenchman as well.
MacBride was an abuser, and Lady Gregory encouraged her to divorce the drunk. Eventually they separated, and eventually, yes, Willie and Maud did have sex. When MacBride was assassinated after the Easter Rising, Maud donned widow’s weeds and became Ireland’s La Passionara.
“Easter 1916” brought Yeats’ poetry and his politics together. He described those killed, including
A drunken, vainglorious lout.
He had done most bitter wrong
To some who are near my heart,
Yet I number him in the song;…
He, too, has been changed in his turn,
A terrible beauty is born.
His marriage proposal rebuffed by Gonne yet again, he asked, “What about your daughter?” Maud laughed, saying, “Ask her.” Although Iseult had a crush on him, she refused him too.
Friends, agreeing that Yeats needed a wife, introduced him to George Hyde-Lees. They married in 1917, with Ezra Pound as best man. On their honeymoon Georgie miraculously developed the skill of automatic writing, keeping her new husband fascinated. Brenda Maddox’s excellent George’s Ghosts chronicles this very unusual marriage.
Yeats and Gonne saw each other just before his death in 1939. When his biographer interviewed Gonne years later, she read to him these lines:
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…
But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you,
And loved the sorrows of your changing face.
—When You Are Old
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