- The Gonne-Yeats Letters, 1893-1938 edited by Anna MacBride White and A. Norman Jeffares
Hutchinson, 544 pp, £25.00, April 1992, ISBN 0 09 174000 2
Yeats avowed it more often and more impressively, but he was not alone in his belief that Maud Gonne’s beauty was of ‘a kind not natural in an age like this’. Shaw called her ‘outrageously beautiful’ and W.T. Stead, who could no more than Yeats isolate his admiration for her looks from an appraisal of her politics, described her as ‘one of the most beautiful women in the world’, going on to point out that ‘she is for the Irish Republic and total separation, peacefully if possible, but if necessary by the sword, that of France and Russia not excepted.’
It is, though vaguely unchivalrous, not unusual for commentators to endorse Stead’s account of her politics while doubting that photographs testify to ‘Ledaean’ beauty, the kind that makes a stranger’s eye distraught. They lack charm, and also miss ‘that eagle look’ which, according to Yeats, ‘still shows’ in the Municipal Gallery bust. Perhaps she needed to be seen in the context of life, a heroic six-footer, ‘Pallas Athene in that straight back and arrogant head’, or, as what she was often called, ‘the Irish Joan of Arc’.
Her patriotic achievements, like her beauty, are now largely celebrated in commentaries on Yeats, as indeed she expected: but she was independently well worthy of notice. Her autobiography, A Servant of the Queen, stops around the time of her marriage to John MacBride in 1902, when she was 36. (The queen in question is of course Cathleen ni Houlihan, not Victoria.) There are two biographies, by Samuel Levenson (1976) and Nancy Cadozo (1977), and, like the excellent notes and introductions in the present volume, they help one to get a clearer notion of what she achieved in her own right, in so far as that can be isolated from a virtually lifelong ‘spiritual’ but still not entirely trouble-free ‘marriage’ with Yeats.
She early decided that the poet was a great asset to Ireland, but only as a writer. He was too cautious, too compromising, to serve her more violent purposes, and his later performance as man of the Irish theatre, and then as Free State senator, gave her no cause to change her opinion. She, not the poet, really had a ‘fanatic heart’. Yeats repeatedly accused her of being inspired only by hatred. What animated her politically – and not less because she was, as she hated to be reminded, at least as English as Irish – was a deep loathing for England and its empire: ‘famine in Ireland, opium in China, torture in India, pauperism in England, disturbance and disorder in Europe, and robbery everywhere’. As a young woman she worked to relieve the potato famine of 1898, and later spent most of her fairly ample fortune in attempts to alleviate the routine cruelties of British rule.
Francis Stuart, who at 17 married Maud’s daughter Iseult and was himself a fair hater and rebel, disliked his mother-in-law, attributing her political passion to sexual repression; and she often told Yeats she had an aversion to sex. Her youthful liaison with the French politician Lucien Millevoye produced two children – this was, incidentally, an affair of which Yeats knew nothing at the time he met her and first proposed marriage – but whether this means she was prevaricating, or merely indicates that she found Millevoye’s dislike of the English irresistible, it is impossible to say. He was also anti-Dreyfusard, and she followed him in that too.
Yeats said that ‘the troubling of his life’ began when he met her. Believing what she said about sex, he was devastated when she married John MacBride, the ‘drunken vainglorious lout’ who became a martyr in 1916. It was an ill-omened union. Because they were in Paris, they had to be married at the British Consulate, under the British flag, and MacBride, resenting this and fearing the usual treachery, kept his hand on his revolver throughout the ceremony Their plan was to use a Spanish honeymoon as cover for an assassination attempt on Edward VII, who was visiting Gibraltar, but MacBride instead got drunk in Algeciras. The editors describe this dereliction as ‘the final blow’ to Maud in a honeymoon ‘that from the start had not been auspicious’. In defence of MacBride. I suppose it might be said that a woman requiring her marriage to be consummated by a royal assassination was an exceptionally demanding partner. She left at once for Paris. Later, by a nice irony, MacBride, who fought her unscrupulously through the French courts, hired as his lawyer M. Labori, who had defended Dreyfus.
Like nearly all the women with whom Yeats was closely associated – Olivia Shakespear, Florence Farr, Iseult Gonne, his wife George – Maud Gonne, almost as a matter of course, went in for occultism. In her letters she talks about politics and occult experiences with no obvious change of register. She and Yeats often left their bodies to consort with each other on a visionary plane. A letter of 1908 describes a peculiarly warm encounter; ‘You had taken the form I think of a great serpent, but I am not quite sure. I only saw your face distinctly & as I looked into your eyes ... & your lips touched mine. We melted into one another till we formed only one being, a being greater than ourselves who felt and knew all with double intensity – the clock striking 11 broke the spell & as we separated it felt as if life was being drawn away from me through my chest with almost physical pain.’ This experience was twice repeated that same night, but each time interrupted by some domestic noise.
Yeats got her to join the Order of the Golden Dawn, which she left while still in an inferior grade when she discovered that the Order had some connection with Freemasonry, in her eyes an imperialist organisation. But this conflict of mysticism and politics was rare. For her, as for Yeats, Irish nationalism was consistent with all kinds of magic, symbolism, ritual, mythological wisdom. She added to the brew (as he did not) a love of Wagner. It was a fashionable syncretism, not thought inconsistent with the Catholicism to which she converted for MacBride: ‘What do I care if the Great Mother is called Mary or Dana or Bridget or the Captain of the Armies of Heaven is called Lug or Michael? Why, Willy, it was you yourself who taught me these things.’
In this respect, Maud Gonne belonged to a period in which a good many emancipated women, or women desiring emancipation, combined a passion for social or national justice with an interest in matters which now seem irrelevant to it. And if the cause was Irish it might be infused either by a fanatical mysticism of the sort professed by Padraig Pearse or by the passionate socialism of James Connolly, two of the 16 who, along with MacBride, were executed in 1916. Robert Wohl in his book The Generation of 1914 writes about the vogue of martial mysticism that took hold all over Europe at the time, and Ireland was not immune. Hindsight may regard it as unhealthy, largely because of the fate of that generation, but also because it had links, now visible, with post-war Fascism.
In his last years Yeats felt a tug in that direction, though for all his wild-old-man sword-waving he seems very unbloodthirsty compared with Pearse: ‘As it took the blood of the son of God to redeem the world, so it would take the blood of Irishmen to redeem Ireland.’ Lacking real fanaticism, which had in his eyes the deplorable effect of turning hearts to stone and ruining the beauty of such women as Maud Gonne and Constance Markiewicz, he found it possible to accept a British pension, to call in the Police when The Playboy of the Western World caused a riot at the Abbey, to be ambiguous about 1916. In all this he sinned against Maud Gonne’s lights. The young Francis Stuart found in him a mixture of ‘innocence and falsity’. To Maud Gonne he was, for all that she loved and admired him, a trimmer.
‘We will never change each other’s politics,’ he told her in 1927. ‘They are too deeply rooted in our characters.’ While serving a sentence in Holloway she rented her Dublin house to Yeats, who had recently married. On her release she returned illegally to Dublin, disguised as a Red Cross nurse, but Yeats refused to let her into the house, fearing that a police raid would upset his pregnant wife. She accused him of cowardice, he accused her of ‘a pure and disinterested love of mischief’. Not surprisingly, when the child was born Yeats included in ‘A Prayer for my Daughter’ a request that she should not have an ‘opinionated mind’ or come to resemble ‘an old bellows full of angry wind’. Here he may have been remembering Maud’s discovery, recorded in her autobiography, that ‘a woman’s voice carries better than a man’s in a stormy meeting.’ In the context she is congratulating herself on starting a brawl. It was not a future Yeats wanted for his daughter.
Such was the complicated woman who wrote the 373 letters to Yeats included in this edition. Levenson, in the Preface to his biography, doubted the existence of a ‘treasure-trove of Yeats-Gonne letters’, though he believed there were in the family some that were too dilapidated or trivial to merit attention, But Cardozo knew of them, and knew also that Mrs Yeats had parcelled them up on her husband’s death in 1939 and sent them back to Maud Gonne. (They are now in the collection of Michael Yeats; the copyright presumably belongs to a granddaughter, one of the editors of this volume.) In her letter of thanks to Mrs Yeats Maud explained that most of Yeats’s letters to her had been destroyed in police raids, and here there are only thirty survivors. They are mostly late, some expounding his current philosophical interests, some just invitations to lunch or tea. The substance of the book is Maud Gonne’s.
Her letters naturally dwell on political issues of the moment, and the editors therefore have to do the same. Their linking narratives, and their notes, are thorough. They cover the intricacies of Irish politics from the fall of Parnell and the rejection of the Home Rule Bill by the Lords up to the Civil War and beyond. They also chart the fluctuations of the spiritual marriage. It seems to have worked best when Yeats had a mistress, though, as he sadly remarked, a mistress cannot give one a home.
The matter-of-factness with which she reports the paranormal is perhaps the product of years of shared nocturnal visits, horoscopy, mythologising and, surprisingly, hashish-smoking. Anybody but Yeats might have been surprised to come, in the middle of a letter, upon a passage such as this: ‘I have suddenly developed (without any effort or work or even wish on my part) a wonderful power of healing ... I never fail in taking away pain instantly.’ The editors note that nothing more is heard of this remarkable acquisition.
One of the radical differences between Yeats and his correspondent was that, as she rightly remarked, he disliked the common people and she loved them. ‘I was born to be in the midst of a crowd,’ she says, confident perhaps that not only her voice but her height gave her an advantage there. But it had to be an Irish crowd; she had watched English crowds in Trafalgar Square melt away at the flourish of a police rifle. The Irish populace was different, and she refused to blame it for any failure. Yeats said she wanted to teach ‘to ignorant men most violent ways’ and hurl ‘the little streets upon the great, /Had they but courage equal to desire’, but she affirmed their courage and dignity. Their action in trying to stop Synge’s play was ‘a healthy sign.’ Yeats was quite wrong to commend Joyce’s Portrait, so false to the ‘eager intensely living people’ of Dublin. She disliked ‘Easter, 1916’ because ‘sacrifice has never yet turned a heart to stone ... through it alone mankind can rise to God.’
Unlike the Irish people, the Anglo-Irish poet lacked courage. As early as 1897 she is telling Yeats that they could never work together where ‘there is likely to be excitement or physical danger.’ That she herself was virtually fearless was one reason why she was adored by the crowd. She was persecuted by the Police and calumniated by the newspapers. When Yeats told her she had been the subject of an insulting article in the English Review she reacted thus: ‘My answer, if, as from your letter I infer, I am personally insulted, will be very simple. I shall dog whip the author ...’ It is the response of the period gentleman, a very liberated response for a woman.
Dedicated to messing up Dublin celebrations of Victoria’s Jubilee, she was also passionately on the side of the Boers (for whom MacBride fought as a volunteer). Surrounded by relatively timid males at a pro-Boer meeting in December 1899, she escaped arrest, drove around Dublin with Connolly in a brake, and despite a huge police presence waved the Transvaal flag in front of Trinity College. She left it to the males to burn effigies of Joseph Chamberlain, who, to the fury of all nationalists, had just been given an honorary degree by Trinity: but she wasn’t altogether surprised when they failed to burn even one. She should have seen to it herself. She did ensure, more or less singlehanded, that the Dublin Corporation should omit to offer Edward VII a loyal address when he visited Ireland in 1903, a victory achieved after a grand rough-house in the Rotunda.
She held that she was under the protection of Lug or Lugh, the Irish sun god, and naturally he visited her from time to time. Another recurrent vision was a rather sinister woman in grey. It could have been this spirit who, in a vision, invited her to eat a cake and drink some water. She did so without knowing what the figure was: ‘I never err by caution.’
Her daughter Iseult might also have said something like that. She brought into the family, however briefly, Stuart, a writer who was more like Genet than Yeats – who thought that writers could work only in a climate of dishonour, They were kin to criminals, and not at all the sort of people who become senators, win Nobel Prices and only with reluctance decline knighthoods. One might have expected Stuart to get on with Maud, but he didn’t. At 17 he was not the most suitable match for a woman brought up by such a mother, and one who had already been seduced by Ezra Pound and proposed to by Yeats. Selfish and jealous, he made hideous scenes, deprived his wife of food and money, set fire to her clothes. If he had talent, Maud couldn’t detect it. Yet he was in some ways her true complement, another deviant Catholic mystic of the way-down-and-out type, happy in war and in prison because they offered the conditions in which true writers flourished. He wanted revolution for the sake of revolution rather than for national pride. He spent the war in Germany, occasionally broadcasting to Ireland – as very likely she would have done – though entirely without commitment to any cause. But they didn’t get on; he was altogether too maudit, too unlike her spiritual husband, unavoidably the greatest force in her career. And so, in the end, the whole fascinating family is once again reduced to Yeatsiana.