1. Maud Gonne: 1866 – 1953
Throughout Yeats’ life, Maud Gonne remained his constant muse. She was born just one year after him, and during his life he proposed to her six times, each time being unsuccessful: the first proposal being in 1891, and the last in 1916. During the year 1897, the riots in Dublin are provoked, in part, by Maud’s anti-British speeches. In 1903, Maud married John MacBride in 1903 and Yeats later refers to him in Easter 1916 as a ‘drunken, vainglorious lout’ who ‘had done most bitter wrong to some who are near my heart’ (referring to Maud and Iseult because Macbride had – according to some sources – sexually molested and abused both women). The marriage did not last long.
Gonne, in opposition to the attempts of the British to gain the loyalty of the young Irish During the early 1900s, was known to hold special receptions for children. She, along with other volunteers, fought to preserve the Irish culture during the period of Britain’s colonization. Yeats’ symbol for Maud is the swan. This swan motif/iconography is repeated throughout his poetry: ‘The Wild Swans at Coole’ was written just after Maud refused his final proposal of marriage. It can be read as a poem about Maud; the fact that there are ‘nine-and-fifty swans’ emphasises the lone swan – this ‘un-paired’ swan could be read as Maud or indeed as Yeats himself. Yeats contrasts the active swans with his passive self, symbolizing Maud’s commitment and passion in her work. Yeats’ impossible love for Maud Gonne remained a persistent agony for him as he confesses: ‘it never occurred to me to seek another love’. Yeats and Maud often visited the Parisian Museum, le Musee Gustave Moreau where Moreau’s paintings included four versions of Leda and the Swan, as well as other paintings including swans would have been an inspiration for Yeats’ Leda and the Swan. Also Maud’s illustration of the intertwining brother and sister swans in a sphere shape symbolized a kindred of souls. This idea also occurs in Yeats’s blended yolk and egg parable in ‘Among School Children’. Maud also has much relevance to Yeats’ theory of Gyres because they can never be synchronized as they are completely different and constantly changing (link to ‘The Second Coming’ and ‘The Cat and the Moon’).
Yeats wrote ‘Broken Dreams’ in 1915. This poem explores how age is indifferent to his eternal love for her. He is brutal with the fact that she has aged and states that ‘there is grey in your hair’. However he still thinks she is beautiful even though he is left with the ‘vague memories, nothing but memories’ of her youthful beauty. Yeats detaches the private associations of swan imagery in his later poems and begins to release the symbolic potential the swan has had in literary tradition. Yeats later juxtaposed ‘Leda and the Swan’ with “Among School Children’ because of the ironic connections in the later poem between Leda and Zeus, Maud and Yeats. The ‘Ledeaen body’ seen to represent Maud throughout Yeats’ canon takes the form of both Leda and Helen, since she is beautiful, but also destructive with her work in the IRA. This is repeated in ‘Among School Children’ where he ‘dreams of a Ledeaen body’. He depicts her as old, with her ‘hollow of cheek as though it drank the wind’. The wind is a metaphor for her politics because it is inevitably unsubstantial…or at least transient. Whilst Gonne looses her innocence (violent commitment in the IRA), she also looses her beauty.
2. Margot Collis: 1907-1951:
During September 1934, Yeats met and became close to Margot Rudock, a young poet and actress. She was described by Yeats in his poem ‘A Crazed Girl’ as ‘a beautiful lofty thing’. Yeats agreed to meet her after responding to her letter enquiring him to see her in order to discuss her poetic ideas. She devoted her life to acting and singing, under the stage name of Margot Collis. She was 27 and Yeats was 70 when they first met; they soon became very fond of each other, despite the age difference and Yeats’ unhealthy physical conditions. Margot suffered from depression (possibly post-natal), she was an alcoholic and also suffered neuroses. By 1936, she became Yeats’ muse and he became her mentor by editing her poems. However Margot became a nuisance to him; by 1936 he went on to have other affairs with the young novelist Ethel Mannin, and also with the lesbians Dorothy Wellesley and Edith Shackleton Heald. By 1936 Yeats suggested that Margot should give up poetry and from then on their relationship slowly deteriorated as she grew more insane. Later on that year, whilst Yeats and his wife Georgie were on holiday in Majorca, Margot arrived disrupting their holiday by descending into madness and running off to shore to drown herself; but instead she began to dance, singing her own poems. Again in Barcelona she attempted to climb through a baker’s roof and as a result broke her kneecap. Yeats used these two anecdotes regarding her in his poem ‘A Crazed Girl’, declaring her as a thing ‘Heroically lost, heroically found’. Yeats later confided to a friend: ‘I want to keep a distance from a tragedy where I can no longer be of help’. She soon had a mental relapse and died in an institution in 1951, aged 44. Yeats refers to her in ‘The Man and the Echo’ when listing his three main life regrets. He rhetorically asks, ‘Did words of mine put too great strain on that woman’s reeling brain?’
3. Iseult Gonne: 1894-1954
Iseult Gonne was the illegitimate daughter of Maud Gonne. Her step-father was John Macbride. She was often referred to as Maud’s niece rather than her daughter – even by Maud herself. Iseult was reportedly beautiful like her mother. Yeats’ obsession with her mother was so strong that when she rejected him for the last time in 1916, he desperately proposed to Iseult despite the fact that she was just a teenager. However she, like her mother, rejected Yeats’ proposal. This illustrates Yeats’ undeniable love for Maud as obsessive. Yeats wrote in a letter to Lady Gregory in 1905 that he had heard that her step-father John Macbride had sexually abused and molested Iseult when she was 11 (hence in Easter 1916 when Yeats mentions John Macbride as a ‘drunken, vainglorious lout’).
4. Eva Gore-Booth: 1870-1936
Eva was an Irish poet and dramatist and a committed suffragist, social worker and labour activist. Her sister was Constance Markiewicz. Her first volume of poetry was highly praised by Yeats (such as: Easter Week, and The Arrest of Heroic Death 1916). Link to ‘Easter 1916’ and ‘In Memory of Eva Gore-Booth and Con Markiewicz’. By 1896 (following an unsuccessful proposal from Yeats) Eva fell in love with a woman, Esther Roper. Eva and Esther lived together in London until Eva’s death, championing social justice and women’s rights; they have, since their deaths, become key names in Ireland’s gay rights movement, inspiring many groups and indeed plays and poetry ever since.
5. Constance Markiewicz: 1866-1927
She was the only women to be sentenced to death in Easter 1916.
She was the member of the Sinn Fein group that won the election victory in 1919 (Anglo/Irish war begins). She was also the first female MP to be elected to Westminster, although she couldn’t accept her seat as she didn’t want to sign compromise her objectives by taking the oath to the British Queen. She was also a Fianna Fail politician, a revolutionary nationalist, a suffragette and a socialist. Both her and her sister Eva were close childhood friends with Yeats, and were influenced by his political and artistic ideas. (Link to ‘In Memory of Eva Gore-Booth and Con Markiewics’). Yeats described the sisters as ‘two girls in silk caminos, both beautiful and one a gazelle’. Yeats later goes on to call Constance ‘ignorant’ in ‘Easter 1916’ since politics – in this poem – can be seen as corrupting her beauty and innocence (a symbolic corruption that Yeats also applies to Maud in other poems).
6. Lady Gregory: 1852 – 1932
Lady Gregory was an Irish dramatist and folklorist. Yeats stayed with Lady Gregory at Coole Park discussing folklore and she helped him set up Abbey Theatre. Her work was revolved around the theme of Irish Myth and Legend (inspiring Yeats’ early works such as ‘The Stolen Child’). She co-directed Yeats’ play ‘The Countess Cathleen’ or Cathleen ni Houlihan, as mentioned in ‘The Man and the Echo’ as one of his main three life regrets: ‘did that play of mine send out certain men the English shot?’. In the same poem, he rhetorically asks: ‘could my spoken words have checked that whereby a house lay wrecked?’ – this refers to the manor house, owned by the Gregorys that stood at Coole Park.
7. Georgie Hyde Lees: 1892 – 1968
Yeats marries Georgie in 1917 (interestingly Ezra Pound -the poet and husband of another of Yeats’ affairs, Olivia Shakespear) is one of the witnesses to the wedding). Georgie gave birth to Annie Butler Yeats in 1919 and later to Michael Yeats in 1921.