Beguiled by the testament of a Yeats-loving loverMy Book Find of 2014 has to be this collection of the letters of William Butler Yeats and Maud Gonne, the Irish nationalist revolutionary who was Yeats's great infatuation, we could even say obsession, and the inspiration for many of his finest poems. And when I say "this", I mean this very one shown here, a book which was anonymously donated to the library for the annual used book sale, where I spied it and made it mine.
It's not because it was a particularly good read. Yeats is one of my gods -- I even plowed through some of his astrological lunacy, albeit at a tender and uncritical age -- but only a handful of the letters in the book are his. In what might be seen as symptomatic of his relationship with Gonne, he seems to have saved all of her letters, whereas she did not find his worth such effort. Even the two letters he received from her just before her marriage (to another! to his immense dismay) were "very crumpled, as if carried around in his pocket and reread many times, then smoothed out to put away with the others", the Editor's Note tells us -- though I am surely not the only one to think it more likely that he had balled them up and thrown them across the room, only to pick them up the next morning and smooth them for keeping. In contrast, Maud Gonne had only kept two of his letters "particularly safe", one being his last letter to her.
No, it's something else which made this book my find of the year. Yeats is the great poet of romantic yearning, and I've noticed on many occasions how the bond that Yeats lovers form with him is very romantic and viscerally personal. In his "bibliomemoir" Outside of a Dog, Rick Gekoski recounts his shock at discovering that his girlfriend had betrayed him with her English professor, with whom she was studying Yeats, using his copy of Yeats which he had lent her. He felt that was "unaccountably wicked". Later, with the book back in his hands, he examines her annotations.
"Her note to 'Leda and the Swan', that tale of the overcoming of innocence by male lust, seemed in retrospect positively prescient: 'Zeus -- passionate. Leda -- helpless and terrified'. So my loved one was overcome by a God-like teacher (the animal!), but it wasn't her fault. That was some consolation, though her notes stressing the purification that comes from the flames of passion in the margin to 'Byzantium' seemed to indicate that much good could, and had, come out of it for them both if not for me."
And long after a zealous janitor had removed it, the Dean of Colby College (and Yeats scholar) still remembered with regret the "Yeats lives!"graffiti which had reigned for many years on the basement wall of the library. Annie Proulx attended Colby College, but somehow I don't think it was her work.
And The Gonne-Yeats letters, or rather the copy of it I am celebrating here, captured my heart the minute I saw this inscription scrawled on the title page:
25 August 2008
In comparison, we only have five more years to go, and, of course, I haven't asked your daughter to marry me...
The love story between William Butler Yeats and Maud Gonne lasted 49 years, from the day he met her and was immediately enthralled by her great beauty and fiery spirit, to the day he died. He asked her to marry him a number of times, both before and after she had a child, a son, with a Frenchman who shared her revolutionary politics. She only told Yeats about the child after it had died, perhaps needing to explain her mourning attire, but claimed it was an adopted child. She then conceived another child with this man (the act taking place upon the dead child's mausoleum), a daughter this time, named Iseult. Yeats proposed to Iseult when she was 23, after yet another refusal on Gonne's part (she wanted to devote herself to freeing Ireland, she told him they would be united by love in another life, and anyway she didn't like sex, and she had already suggested he marry Iseult back when she turned 15), with no better luck. Iseult too turned him down.
If my calculations are right, someone was gifting this book to a lover of over 40 years, with "five more years to go", to match Yeats's record. Five years from 2008 would take us to 2013 -- the year the book was donated to the library. To be sold for a dollar! And still uncreased! What happened?
In his great poems inspired by Maud Gonne, Yeats charted the waning, as well as the waxing, of the love story which he once called the troubling of his life. Did the fate of these modern-day lovers reflect one of these?
Had they wearied?
I had a thought for no one's but your ears:
That you were beautiful, and that I strove
To love you in the old high way of love;
That it had all seemed happy, and yet we'd grown
As weary-hearted as that hollow moon.
-- Adam's Curse
Had love fled?
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.
--When You Are Old
Did this wonderful man not make it?
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.
-- Mongan Thinks of his Past Greatness
Or was his beloved, like Maud Gonne, a beautiful troublemaker who would never be his, through no fault of hers, when all was said and done? I love all these Maud Gonne-inspired poems, but this one the most:
Why should I blame her that she filled my days
With misery, or that she would of late
Have taught to ignorant men most violent ways,
Or hurled the little streets upon the great,
Had they but courage equal to desire?
What could have made her peaceful with a mind
That nobleness made simple as a fire,
With beauty like a tightened bow, a kind
That is not natural in an age like this,
Being high and solitary and most stern?
Why, what could she have done, being what she is?
Was there another Troy for her to burn?