W.B. Yeats and the Muses
The women who influenced the poetry of W.B. Yeats
A woman’s beauty is like a white
Frail bird, like a white sea-bird alone
At daybreak after a stormy night
Between two furrows upon the ploughed land.
A sudden storm, and it was thrown
Between dark furrows upon the ploughed land.
How many centuries spent
The sedentary soul
In toils of measurement
Beyond eagle or mole,
Beyond hearing or seeing,
Or Archimedes’ guess,
To raise into being
Perhaps the most haunting of all the Muse relationships discussed in the book concerns Olivia Shakespear, an extraordinarily beautiful, deeply cultured and compassionate woman with whom Yeats conducted a brief love affair in the mid-1890s in yet another earlier effort to overcome his feelings for Maud Gonne. Olivia, as Hassett says, “introduced him to the real experience of what fascinated him so much as metaphor: the sexual union of men and women.” Their communion of body and soul was intensely fulfilling and exerted a profound influence on Yeats’ emotional and creative life that lasted until Olivia’s death in 1938. “A Poet to His Beloved,” with its delicate evocation of a “White woman that passion has worn / As the tide wears the dove-gray sands” conveys Yeats’ endless fascination with the White Goddess of his poetic imaginings – an image as elusive and haunting as the ever-changing phases of the moon. Yeats’ love affair with Olivia Shakespear taught him that poetic language must be “as subtle, as complex, as full of mysterious life as the body of a flower or of a woman.” The poems inspired by Olivia were, as Hassett comments, “an intensely crafted use of language to open the door to the Beauty long faded from the world.”
Despite the love he felt for Olivia, Yeats found himself unable to efface Maud’s image from his mind, a situation that gave enormous pain to Olivia, as evidenced in the incredibly moving sentiment of “The Lover Mourns for the Loss of Love”:
Pale brows, still hands and dim hair,
I had a beautiful friend
And dreamed that the old despair
Would end in love in the end:
She looked in my heart one day
And saw your image was there;
She has gone weeping away.
It was, according to Hassett, the very availability of Olivia as a woman that made her unsuitable as a Muse. Nonetheless, her erotic allure combined with her empathy remained with Yeats to the end as an iconic image of love experienced as enduring friendship and, as these tender lines written in 1929 indicate, a testimony to the enduring power of physical love to stir the human heart:
Speech after long silence, it is right,
All other lovers being estranged or dead,
Unfriendly lamplight hid under its shade,
The curtains drawn upon unfriendly night,
That we descant and yet again descant
Upon the supreme theme of Art and Song:
Bodily decrepitude is wisdom; young
We loved each other and were ignorant.
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