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.

Some 3600 pages of the automatic writings dictated over a five-year period to George by her ghostly messengers provide a tangible record of this strange but highly productive Yeatsian encounter with a Muse in the form of his own wife. The poems and plays that resulted from this experience represent the most significant transformation and growth of his entire career and include such masterpieces of literary modernism as Michael Robartes and the Dancer (1921) with “Easter 1916,” “The Second Coming” and “A Prayer for My Daughter” as well as The Tower (1928) containing “Sailing to Byzantium,” “Meditations in Time of Civil War,” “Leda and the Swan” and “Among Schoolchildren.” None of this would have been possible without his marriage and what the eminent Yeats biographer and critic Richard Ellmann described as the “great exfoliation of his talent” that followed. Ellmann avers that, had he died in 1917, Yeats would have been known as simply “an important minor poet.” Instead, the new confidence out of which he began to write was directly due to the esoteric knowledge and symbolic language to which his wife gave him access. Henceforth he would be recognized, in the words of T.S. Eliot, as “one of those few whose history is the history of their own time, who are a part of the consciousness of an age that cannot be understood without them.”

Perhaps the most startling and intriguing of all the living Muses who inspired Yeats was Iseult Gonne, the daughter of Maud, who possessed a lithesome loveliness, a playful flirtatiousness and a remarkably advanced intellectual sophistication when in 1912, at the age of eighteen, she began to exert an uncanny influence on Yeats’ imagination during a period when he was beginning to fear that his creative fires were extinguished. Yeats, then a middle-aged man of forty-seven, found himself struggling over his increased infatuation with Iseult even as in lyrics such as “A Memory of Youth” he acknowledged how “Love,” or inspiration, would have died were it not for the intervention of “a most ridiculous little bird [who] Tore from the skies his marvelous moon.” The little bird is of course Iseult while the moon, in the tradition of the White Goddess of courtly love, is a source of the wisdom required by the artist for meaningful expression.

In a letter to Yeats, Iseult described herself as both his “pupil” and his “teacher.” At several points in their relationship they even considered marriage to one another. Yeats was relieved when the “wild gusts of feeling” provoked by the Lolita-like Iseult subsided in favor of “a new life of work and common interest” with George. Nonetheless, it would be a mistake to view their relationship as simply the clichéd obsession of an older man with an attractive younger woman. As Hassett makes clear, their friendship was founded upon profound intellectual and spiritual communion. That and Yeats’ awareness that Iseult was capable of reviving his creative life in the capacity of an alluring but incorporeal Muse who stimulated a desire that must forever be deferred.

From the outset Iseult was aware that she was destined to play the role of Muse for Yeats, though as Hassett points out, in a touching and somewhat rueful poem of hers she proclaimed that being a Muse was but “a strangely useless thing.” This and many other aspects of Iseult made their way into the philosophical essays, poetry and plays of Yeats written between 1912 and 1917. His subsequent rebirth as a writer under the influence of George could not have occurred without the intervention at a crucial moment in his life of a youthful Muse who variously oscillated in his poetic imagination as a girl-woman of immense self-possession, grace and charm, a seductive but unattainable object of desire and a source of revelation about the process of creativity itself.

One of the most remarkable aspects of Yeats’ relationship with women is, as Hassett emphasizes, how much of their wisdom he absorbed and then garbed in his own redolent verse. Several of the Muses discussed by Hassett also inspired the psychologically rich and subtle characters in his plays. The Only Jealousy of Emer (1919), for instance, explores the complex interrelationship among human and spiritual forces unleashed by the poet’s powerful feelings for Maud, Iseult and his wife George. The play opens with an exquisite lyric directly inspired by Iseult that at the same time functions as a meditation on the unfathomable longings stirred in the poet by the eternal feminine as “romantic and mysterious, still the priestess of her shrine.”

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.”