Theo Dorgan on Yeats in Love by Annie West
Nothing attracts the imp of comedy as readily as does high seriousness, and young love
Theo Dorgan: “The enduring fascination with Gonne that Yeats kept alive into his late poems seems to me a willed thing rather than an authentic passion of the loving heart.” Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill
Becoming an adult means, or should mean, among other things, learning to distinguish between loving another and being “in love” as understood by adolescents. I am perfectly prepared to believe that Yeats was “in love” with Maud Gonne when a young man, but have come more and more to the view that he never loved her as an adult might love another. This is absurd, in a way, since none but the two involved in a relationship can ever really hope to understand with any confidence the dynamic between two people.
Nevertheless, the enduring fascination with Gonne that Yeats kept alive into his late poems seems to me a willed thing rather than an authentic passion of the loving heart. A genuine passion it very likely was, when both were young, and it is clear that some bond between them endured as long as they both lived – but Maud gave her heart elsewhere, and there is no evidence in the poems that Yeats had ever an adult understanding of this, any more than he is likely to have reflected on her right to command and direct her own affections and passions.
There is, of course, something finally endearing about an old man maintaining some loyalty to the scalded, elated heart of his youth – but something sad, too, since that resolute backward gaze tells us Yeats was unable, or perhaps unwilling, to accept that Maud had grown into her own life and separate destiny.
I would be more persuaded that he loved her if there were poems that speak in love and affection to her own full independent life as she chose to live it. None of this matters when it comes to the poems we have, since a poem is neither biography nor autobiography and must be valued for itself, but I do sometimes yearn for the poems Yeats might have written for and to the actual adult woman he could have loved as a grown man.
On the other hand, nothing attracts the imp of comedy as readily as does high seriousness – as long as it’s the high seriousness of someone else. Leafing through Annie West’s images here, two things struck me. The first is that it is indeed possible to find a gentle comedy in Yeats’ professed lifelong infatuation; the second is that perhaps, after all, the old boy was putting it on a bit.
Young love has been the stuff of comedy since hormonal imbalance first announced itself, and I doubt there will be a single person, leafing through this book, who has not some rueful memory of how ridiculous they must have seemed to others when first they fell in love. Annie captures that first high foolishness very well, I think, but she captures equally well the comedy of what happens when a mature poet like Yeats, wilful, self-centred and with a grand notion of himself, decides to put his youthful passion on life-support, intending to harvest as many poems as possible from the unwilling, sometimes unconscious, donor.
It is possible to say that there is something very silly about Willy “in love”, about the prolongation into late life of a tempest that had very likely blown itself out by the time he’d reached 30. The paradox, of course, is that he may not have loved Maud with the high seriousness proposed by the poems, but he managed to make real love poems, enduring and convincing poems, out of the whole dubious business.
Which may have been all he cared about, or all that should, finally, concern us.
What does it matter, in the end, whether you know or I know if Yeats “really” loved Maud? What’s it to us? Annie’s gentle humour sends us out past the high seriousness of presuming to judge the truth of the matter, back to the poems themselves, with a sense that Yeats was, as Auden put it, “silly like us”, but a supreme love poet for all that.
Yeats in Love by Annie West is published by New Island Press, priced €34.95. A special edition of 200 signed and numbered copies in a deluxe slipcase is available from her website for €80 with free shipping.