The genius of William Butler Yeats and his inspiring muses

How much the poet William Butler Yeats owed to the women in his life and how their alluring mystery inspired him.

On this date, January 28 1939 the Irish poet, one of the foremost figures of 20th century literature, William Butler Yeats, died, at Hôtel Idéal Séjour, in Menton, France. He was 73 years old, at the height of his fame and glory.

Yeats was a pillar of the Irish and British literary establishments and in his later years he served as an Irish Senator for two terms. He was a driving force behind the Irish Literary Revival and, along with Lady Gregory, Edward Martyn, and others, founded the Abbey Theatre. In 1923 he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature as the first Irishman so honored for what the Nobel Committee described as "inspired poetry, which in a highly artistic form gives expression to the spirit of a whole nation."

Below James Flannery, Winship Professor of Arts and Humanities and Director of the W.B. Yeats Foundation at Emory University, looks at the book “W.B. Yeats and the Muses” and how nine women influenced the great poet’s works.

It will come as no surprise to admirers of W.B. Yeats that this greatest of modern poets was a celebrant of the art of love from the beginning to the end of his long and immensely productive career. But now, thanks to a brilliant and magisterial work of scholarship by Joseph M. Hassett, we can fully appreciate how much Yeats owed to the women in his life – nine women, to be precise, whose alluring mystery held him in thrall and inspired in him the heightened state of consciousness he believed necessary for creative expression.

As Hassett explains, from the outset of his career Yeats was convinced that art at its most sublime springs from the influx of a supernal form of knowledge far beyond the realm of ordinary discourse. In following this belief Yeats was predisposed to accept the Greek idea that poetry is inspired by the Muses, as expressed in Plato’s dictum that “all good poets…compose their beautiful poems not by art [techne] but because they are inspired and possessed” by the Muse who speaks through them. In Ireland this concept was also part of the courtly love tradition imported by the Normans in the twelfth century and grafted onto the highly spiritualized love poetry of the Gaelic bardic order. In the Irish version of courtly love, a leanansidhe, or fairy mistress from the otherworld, afflicted the poet with an overwhelming desire to celebrate the magical wonders of the beloved and thus win her for himself. Such profound feelings did the leanansidhe inspire that to be deprived of her presence was equivalent to losing one’s faith in God. Hence the theme of love and loss that recurs over and over again in the hauntingly beautiful love songs of Gaelic Ireland – a tradition with which Yeats was thoroughly familiar from his study of Irish folklore.

In the courtly love tradition the Muses were deliberately wooed by the poet to extend his spiritual and aesthetic capacities to their furthest possible reaches. Dante’s pursuit of the unattainable Beatrice – “the suffering of desire,” in Yeats’ phrase – inspired him to become, again in Yeats’ words, “the chief imagination of Christendom.” The sheer unattainableness of the beloved was one of the essential components of the relationship between the poet and his Muse – that and the terrible frustration of thwarted love. This deliberately cultivated torment for the sake of art is, as Hassett explains, the only plausible reason for Yeats’ 28-year fruitless pursuit of the Irish revolutionary leader Maud Gonne.

Has there ever been a more ardent, exalted, emotionally expressive or tortured tribute to a real life Muse than that contained in the poems and plays of Yeats inspired by Maud? She was everything to him, including the way she symbolized an Ireland proud, solitary and stern that had thrown off the bonds of British colonialism and become a beacon of enlightenment in the modern world. An impossible dream, yet much of Ireland’s eminence in the arts today is due to the fact that the poet gave it voice. The frustration of Yeats at his inability to win the hand of Maud also inspired some of the most heart-scalding poetry ever penned. But, as Hassett emphasizes, the suffering of the poet was justified by the awareness on the part of both his Muse and himself that the pain he endured was a necessary condition of service to the higher purposes of art and nation.

Had this book only been confined to an examination of the relationship between Yeats and Maud Gonne in light of the courtly love tradition, it would have been a major achievement. But Joseph Hassett also considers the poetic enterprise of Yeats as affected by eight other women who functioned, each in a uniquely different way, as living incarnations of the Muse. Chief among these was his wife George Hyde-Lees, a gifted woman of only 25 when, in October of 1917, she married the then world-famous poet who was twice her age. Yeats came to the marriage partly as a way of escaping the emotional turmoil of his relationship with Maud, but he nonetheless feared that domesticity would cost him his poetic inspiration. On their honeymoon George astonished her distracted husband by suddenly assuming the voice of a messenger from the otherworld with secrets to impart. To his delight and enchantment, the communicators of George revealed to him that the moment of sexual union was a portal to knowledge of the spiritual world – a knowledge that carried with it a metaphorical language rooted in a belief system of stunning power and richness.