You may have gathered—correctly—from my last post that I am reading William Butler Yeats again. I’ve had a love for Yeats all my adult life. He wrote great poetry for all of his. That’s an unusual thing in a poet, most of whom, no matter how wonderful, cannot sustain their wonderfulness over decades. Yeats sustained his over five.
He was a poet when a poet could still be a national figure. Imagine being the great poet of Ireland! But these days, the old poets and their poems—as with classical music—have their small passionate followings, but to the world at large they seem like musty sweepings.
But Yeats was a man. This is the thing about dead poets. His feelings were as real to him as ours are to us, and his poems tell us now, today, how he felt even though he’s dead. This is no small thing.
A poet, of course, needs a muse. Yeats’s was the breathtaking, if formidable, Maud Gonne. What an exasperating couple they made, ever thwarted by their characters—he the dreamy Irish mystic, she the passionate, implacable Irish revolutionist. How he pined. But what poems! He made mythical things out of pining.
When the Gonne-Yeats Letters 1893-1938 appeared in 1993, Thomas Flanagan wrote in the Washington Post, “Yeats’s love for Maud had burned for eight years before ever she kissed him ‘with the physical mouth.’ By then, he had written to her some of the loveliest and most desolate love poems in our language, and their love had passed, still living, into Irish legend. Ella Young saw them in a Dublin library: ‘No one else is consulting a book. Everyone is conscious of those two as the denizens of a woodland lake might be conscious of a flamingo, or of a Japanese heron, if it had suddenly descended among them.’”
Here is “No Second Troy,” a famous example—though merely an example—of the poetry she stirred in him:
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?
There is, of course, much more to William Yeats than the poems wrought from love for Maud Gonne, just as there is much more to Yeats than the early Yeats or the later Yeats, the two of which are very different. But as for the poems to his muse, truly, they have wings.