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Portrait of William Butler Yeats (1865-1939), Irish playwright and founder of the Abbey Theatre, with his wife during visit to the U.S. in the late 1920s. Photo by: Bettmann/CORBIS

W.B. Yeats and the Muses

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Portrait of William Butler Yeats (1865-1939), Irish playwright and founder of the Abbey Theatre, with his wife during visit to the U.S. in the late 1920s. Photo by: Bettmann/CORBIS

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
That loveliness.

    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.

    Yeats was sixty-four when he wrote these lines and had but another decade to live. Amazingly, this decade, when he was impotent but still full of desire, gave rise to yet another phase in his relationship to the Muse. This time, however, rather than seeking inspiration in an outer manifestation of his creative impulse, Yeats came to the realization that the source of his art lay in the intersection of masculine and feminine energies contained within his own psyche. Yeats explained this as a recognition that his creativity arose from an engagement with “the woman within me.”  In one stunning poem and play after another, Yeats demonstrated how passionate his imagination became when expressing itself through the persona of a woman for whom sexual desire was the exact equivalent of spiritual longing. In effect, Yeats became his own Muse by assuming a woman’s sexual identity in the Crazy Jane poems and in plays like A Full Moon in March which insists on an ideal of love that survives the decrepitude of the body and death itself.
    Joseph Hassett’s W.B. Yeats and the Muses is a magnificent achievement.  What he demonstrates with clarity, discretion and profound insight is that Yeats is a consummate poet of love.  In exploring what is essentially the love life of a genius, Hassett’s intention has nothing to do with satisfying the prurient curiosity that seems to infect much discourse today within and without the academy. For this reader, the most impressive aspect of Hassett’s research lies in the fresh and elegantly nuanced interpretations he brings to a number of Yeats’ most significant works. Through his careful analysis of how the love and sexual passion of a great artist can infuse his creative life with inspiration and power, Hassett has made a major contribution not only to Yeats studies but also to a more enlightened understanding of how ordinary human beings can live more productively engaged and fulfilled lives.
    Yeats once proclaimed of his mystical pursuits that “an Adept must be always seeking ways of giving the purest substance of his soul to fill the emptiness of other souls.” Hassett’s record of how Yeats engaged himself with the various living Muses who inspired his work is a vivid depiction of how the creative process actually works.  His analysis of the art resulting from that effort is a living testimony to the ways in which Yeats maximized his talent by engaging himself openly, passionately and courageously with his deepest and most intimate aspirations and drives.  As such, Yeats’ life-affirming artistic achievement is at one with his religious convictions.  The incredible poetry and plays of Yeats are, like the mercies of sainthood, a gift to mankind.  Joseph Hassett deserves enormous credit for teaching us that lesson.  His study of how the sanctifying energy of love functions in the life of a great artist is itself a labor of love and a much-needed corrective to those who would dismiss the art of Yeats by dismissing the tortuous, sacrificial methods by which it was created. Like his subject, Hassett’s book is a work of great intellectual and human significance that will stand the test of time.

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