Even casual readers of Yeats’s works are most likely aware of his long friendship with, and unrequited love for, the beautiful Irish nationalist, Maud Gonne. Maud accepted her status as Yeats’s greatest muse but continually rejected his marriage proposals and became involved with other men, much to Yeats’s dismay. She had two children with the married French journalist, Lucien Millevoye: Georges, born in January 1890, who died the next year and Iseult, born in August 1894.
Growing up, Iseult did not see Yeats frequently, but he acted as an encouraging father figure in a way that the abusive and alcoholic John MacBride, whom Maud had married in 1903, did not. Iseult, in form and intelligence, was very like her mother, even as a young girl. Maud acknowledged Iseult’s talents in literature and philosophy and was eager to have Yeats help cultivate them. Iseult was also fond of Yeats and, at age 14, confessed in a diary that she was in love with him. A year later she proposed marriage but Yeats rejected her, famously saying that there was ‘too much Mars in her horoscope’. Although Yeats did not take Iseult’s proposal too seriously, given her youth and his continuing love for Maud, he was not immune to her charms. He described her to Lady Augusta Gregory as “tall, very tall & slight, and will be very beautiful I think”.
In August 1912, when Iseult had just turned 18 years old, Yeats went to stay with Maud and Iseult in Colleville, Normandy. He once again encouraged Iseult in her own literary ambitions, though she was prone to laziness and depression. Iseult was appreciative of Yeats’s efforts, writing to him several years later, “You are the only person who has encouraged me to work, in the real sense of the word. You are the person in whose mind I trust and believe in most.” It was during this summer that Yeats first began viewing Iseult as a muse in the romantic sense, thus inspiring his poetry in a new way.
Yeats and Iseult continued their friendship as the Easter Rising of 1916 pushed Yeats into re-examining his philosophy about love and growing old. At 51 years old, he felt a keen desire to get married. In the summer of 1917, when Iseult was 22, she and Yeats traveled to Normandy, where he proposed marriage to Maud one final time. She refused him; immediately afterwards, Yeats asked her if he might propose to Iseult. Amused, Maud gave her permission, making it clear that she did not anticipate Iseult accepting him. Yeats and Iseult spent much time together, discussing philosophy and Iseult’s writing, while Iseult flirted with Yeats, strengthening his hopes of her acceptance. He officially proposed, but she wavered, considering simply “keeping Yeats about” as Maud had for so many years. Yeats could not bear the thought of languishing in unrequited love for yet another Gonne woman. He pushed Iseult for a final answer and received a definitive refusal. Soon after, he proposed to George Hyde-Lees, who accepted. Yeats then fell into a deep depression, fearing he had made a mistake. He was not assuaged until the spirit world (speaking through George via automatic writing) assured him that he had made the correct decision.
The emotional tumult of Yeats’s relationship with Iseult – the tension between his roles as father figure and potential lover – is reflected in his work. ‘The dancer’, in the poetry of Yeats, and other poets such as Arthur Symons and Oscar Wilde, serves as a symbolist representation of the unity between spiritual and material – a perfect body attaining equilibrium through dance. In Yeats’s poem, Michael Robartes and the Dancer (1918), the dancer is described as one who “outdances thought” to inspire artistic creation with her body. Several of these dancer poems are among Yeats’s most recognised work. To a Child Dancing in the Wind (1912) was based on his memory of Iseult dancing on the shore. To a Child, composed when Iseult was 18, reflects his resistance to viewing Iseult in a sexual light. Here, the dancer – carefree on a shore amidst the wind and waves – remains unaware of the poet watching her, musing on her innocence (or defiance) of the cruel realities of the world. After 1917, he identified her more clearly as an object of desire, using her beauty as inspiration. In Michael Robartes and the Dancer, Michael Robartes represents misogyny, stating bluntly that the dancer’s beauty of form and face should be her primary concern. Although the dancer is unnamed, her “questioning voice”, that challenges Robartes and refuses to submit to his male gaze, is almost certainly Iseult’s.
Maud Gonne was undoubtedly the towering muse in Yeats’s work, but his highly complex relationship with Iseult is perhaps one of the most strange and fascinating chapters in his life and his poetry.