In December 1908, the Irish poet W. B. Yeats woke up in a spacious loft on Rue de Passy, in Paris, snuggling comfortably next to Maud Gonne, the feminist and Irish nationalist whom he had long pursued. A liaison had transpired the night before, the particulars of which Yeats and Gonne took to their graves, but it was no ordinary affair by any definition. Rather, it was the culmination of a cat-and-mouse game that had persisted for nearly two decades. Yeats had almost given up. He had proposed to Maud, fruitlessly, more times than he cared to count, only to submit to her insistence that their very close friendship remain unencumbered by physical affection. In other words, Maud had adopted the same stance as the female pals of many a brace-toothed geek: Why spoil a perfectly good friendship with sex? Yeats knew then, as geeks know today, that such a question is ridiculously rhetorical.
But persistence pays, or so the story goes, and conventional wisdom has it that Maud finally gave in to his physical advances that night. “The long years of fidelity were finally rewarded,” as one of Yeats’s former lovers later said. Rare in the annals of poet/muse relations is a story of such blissful triumph. The whole thing would seem even sweeter had it not left Yeats himself feeling beaten, betrayed, and pierced with regret for the rest of his life.
W. B. Yeats—or Willie, as Maud referred to him—first met Maud Gonne in 1889. Barely twenty-four, the young poet was an idealistic anti-industrialist who preferred Celtic myths and the occult to steam engines and electricity. Maud was a fan of his ethereal poetry, but she did not share his ethereal nature. She was opinionated, politically minded, fiercely intelligent, and an imposing presence in every quantifiable sense—a 6′-tall Amazon who fought tirelessly for Ireland’s independence from Great Britain. Her boxy jaw, thin lips, and knotty hair were not particularly idealized by Victorian tastemakers (in pictures she looks like a cross between Bea Arthur and the bass player from Twisted Sister), but Willie saw something irresistible in her nonetheless. Over the course of his career, he produced volumes of verse and prose in her honor. However, he broke from the Dantesque tradition of muse worship that would have relegated him to humble stalkerdom.
Throughout their decades-long friendship, he made a waggish habit of proposing to her, and she made equal sport of turning him down, claiming a fixed opposition to the institution of marriage. And although Willie and Maud shared the dream of an independent Ireland, they had different ideas about how such a dream could be brought about. Willie expressed himself with words; Maud was a woman of action who organized protests, founded women’s groups, and used such expressions as “the first principle of war is to kill the enemy.” Still, there was always an undeniable attraction between her and Willie, as evidenced by that night in Paris. Much to Yeats’s dismay, however, it changed nothing. He may have won her body for a night, but he had not captured her heart.
The following day, Maud wrote Willie a letter, insisting that he move on for good. “Loving you as I do,” she wrote, “I have prayed and I am praying still that the bodily desire for me may be taken from you.” If that sounds like a mixed message, welcome to Willie’s hell. While he had grown accustomed to her refusals, there was something even more humiliating about being shot down on the day after their shared night.
Eight years would pass before Willie would propose to Maud again (we knew it was coming), only to have her refuse him one final time. It was 1916. Ireland was roiled in a fight for its very soul, and Maud was pushing fifty, the years of activism showing on her creased face. Yeats, no spring chicken himself, wanted to produce an heir, and with Maud unwilling to oblige, he went for the next best thing. He proposed to Maud’s daughter, Iseult (the product of an on-again-off-again affair between Maud and a French journalist), who was now twenty-one years old. Iseult admitted to a girlish crush on the famous writer, but in the end she carried on her mother’s tradition by turning him down flat.
For Yeats, the double rejection, coupled with the conflict in his native country, caused a midlife crisis that would change the direction of his poetry and his legacy. The following year, he published the collection The Wild Swans at Coole, marking a transition into the late-career writing for which he is largely remembered. Gone was the naive escapist preoccupied with Celtic myths. Yeats, embattled from the insatiability of his long-unfulfilled desires, had matured. The new poems reflected on mortality, on death, on the struggle to find beauty in a cold world as our bodies age and decay before our eyes. (The collection’s title refers to a wedge of swans that lived on a property Yeats had been visiting for nineteen years. He marvels at how, in all that time, the swans’ “hearts have not grown old.”) Yeats is unusual among modern poets in that he was really quite a late bloomer, producing most of his well-known works between the ages of fifty and seventy-five. His was not the voice of brash, youthful ruminations but rather of a cultivated sage whose slow path to wisdom was obtained through decades of deep self-analysis. In that regard, he owes a debt to a rejection that spanned twenty years and two generations of women.
And what of that one night in Paris? It stands, in hindsight, not as a vindication but a cautionary tale. Yeats broke Golden Rule One for unrequited love: Keep it unrequited. Some couples are simply better off apart. Whether or not Yeats and Gonne fully consummated their relationship that night, we can never really be sure, but Yeats, in later years, nearly affirmed as much with his increasing cynicism toward lust. Sexual intercourse, he said, always ends in failure, if only because the act inherently takes place on one side of the gulf that “separates the one and the many, or if you like, God and man.”
Yeats did eventually have two children, although suffice it to say, they were not Maud’s. And yet, in a way, his and Maud’s unusual relationship did spawn an heir: Ireland itself. Maud’s activism helped bring about an independent nation while Yeats, under her spell, emerged as one of its foremost literary figures. He was a new voice for a new republic, fueling an innate gift for lyricism with a lifetime of longing and sadness. It doesn’t get more Irish than that.
Adapted from Tortured Artists, from Picasso and Monroe to Warhol and Winehouse, the twisted secrets of the world’s most creative minds, published by Adams Media.