Table of Contents
1. Pure Love: When You Are Old
2. Changes: The Sorrow of Love
3. The Ambivalence of Love : The Pity of Love and No Second Troy
4. Love Hurts: The Cold Heaven
5. Conclusion – The Human Inability to Deal with Love: Adam’s Curse
Love was one of William Butler Yeats’s great inspirations. It was love that kept him moving and developing. It was love that confused him and made him reflect. It was love that shattered him and made him mourn. Yeats’s experience with love was rich and fulfilling as well as frustrating and devastating. In order to come to a better understanding of Yeats’s love poetry, we need to take a look into his private life:
“Yeats met the fiery revolutionary [Maud Gonne] in 1889. He fell deeply in love with her and would propose to her in 1891, 1899, 1900, 1901, and 1916. Gonne had no use for Yeats's proposals. However, she did have a use for his talents. Gonne would use Yeats for his ability as an orator. Maud Gonne, dragging him at her heels on nationalist agitations, soon found that he was a natural orator and could easily dominate committees. Maud Gonne would continue to turn Yeats proposals down, yet she continued to be the catalyst for the finest love poetry Yeats would ever create. Gonne would once ask for Yeats's help in London, ending a brief but happy love affair with Olivia Shakespear. Sensing divided loyalty, Shakespear would end the affair and it was shortly thereafter that Lady Gregory would save Yeats from a potentially more tragic end, like the poets of the tragic generation” (cf. nadn.navy).
Yeats really loved Maud Gonne. She was the love of his life, and still, she would never really react to, let alone return his love. Yeats has experienced the many different facets of love through this continuous interaction between his everlasting true and sincere affection and dedication and her cold and calculating rejection. But although this may be a personal tragedy it also resulted in something positive and beautiful, namely Yeats’s love poetry Maud Gonne inspired him to. Yeats managed to deal with all his positive and negative experiences in a productive way and included them into his poetry. Maud Gonne once even said to him that she could not stop rejecting him as he would not write such beautiful poetry about her anymore then.
As said, Yeats’s perception and concepts of love can be identified in his poetry. Furthermore, we can identify a development of Yeats’s depiction of love in his poetry. We can find many different sides of love in Yeats’s poems. In some poems, Yeats describes it as an almost divine power. In other poems, he starts doubting whether love is really that fulfilling or not. And in further poems, he even focuses on the dark and destructive sides of love. These different concepts of love will be described in this paper through the analysis of selected poems.
1. Pure Love: When You Are Old
In his poem When You Are Old, Yeats presents love as a pure, deep and essential power. He expresses his affection for Maud Gonne in a very intimate way. He depicts love in an optimistic, dreamy and almost idealistic way. The title When You Are Old already reveals the concept of time that Yeats often uses. Here, he describes real love not as something temporary but everlasting. It is the strong connection between two human beings that belong together, and this connection will never end. This connection is a very deep one being independent of all circumstances and superficialities.
Yeats creates a very peaceful atmosphere by using iambic pentameters as the meter for this poem as well as many dark vowels. In the first stanza, he describes Maud Gonne as an old woman sitting in front of the fire. He creates a peaceful image by using calming words like “sleep” (V. 1), “slowly” (V. 3), “dream” (V. 3) and “soft” (V. 3). The lines “dream of the soft look / Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep” (V. 3-4) indicate that Maud Gonne has lost her physical beauty and her life energy. She is “full of sleep” (V. 1), so to say in the autumn of her life. And still, there is something Yeats loves about her. This is expressed by the fire symbolism (V. 2) that Yeats also often uses in his poetry. There is something inside her, something vital and burning that he cannot get away from.
Although Maud Gonne’s physical beauty is fading and her mortal body is falling apart, her soul, her essence remains. It is her “pilgrim soul” (V. 7) Yeats loves. He describes that there are two kinds of loves: “false or true” (V. 6) love. There have been many men that were in love with Maud Gonne, when she was still beautiful and when she still had her “moments of glad grace” (V. 5). But these men only loved her surface; they did not love her innermost self. Through this, Yeats willingly or unwillingly admits that he believes in real love. He says that there were men who did not really love Maud Gonne and that he really loves her. It is like believing in heaven. You cannot believe in it without believing in hell. You cannot believe in pure and sincere love without believing in false love either. Finally, he says that he “loved the sorrows of [her] changing face” (V. 8). Loving someone’s sorrows in his aging (which means losing beauty) face is a paradox and this supports the idea of Yeats’s pure affection for Maud Gonne. He loves her the way she is, with all her positive and negative sides, with her grace and her flaws and with her joys and sorrows. This is an ultimate, everlasting love.
After the second stanza, the mood changes. Although Yeats expresses pure love in this poem, we can already find traces of an ambivalence of love and pain that will get stronger in further poems. In the final stanza, Yeats describes how Maud Gonne will regret that she has always regretted his love when she is old. Again, he describes the old Maud Gonne in front of the fire. The stanza is constructed parallelly to the first stanza, but now the mood is rather melancholic and gloomy. The words and phrases “bending down” (V. 9), murmur (V. 10), “sadly” (V. 10) and “Love fled” (V. 10) support this atmosphere. But in spite of these elements of sadness and melancholy the concept of pure love is maintained. The “bars” (V. 9) of their love are still “glowing” (V. 9). Yeats expresses that their love can overcome any obstacles and that it cannot be stopped from burning. Interestingly, “love” (V. 10) is written capitalized. It could be seen as a kind of personification supporting the expression of the importance and power of this love.