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Yeats's Mask

Margaret Mills Harper
Warwick Gould


Joseph M. Hassett, W. B. Yeats and the Muses (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), pp. xiv, 258.

Michael Cade-Stewart

Texte intégral

1Hassett’s new book presents a biographical account of the changing dynamic of Yeats’s relationships with nine of the women in his life, considered in relation to his creativity. The women in question are those with whom Yeats was, or strove to be, sexually involved – Olivia Shakespear, Florence Farr, Maud Gonne, Iseult Gonne, George Hyde-Lees, Margot Ruddock, Ethel Mannin, Dorothy Wellesley, and Edith Shackleton Heald. This subject matter and Hassett’s accessible prose have the potential for wide appeal.

2To link these biographical portraits, Hassett draws on the classical concept of the Muses, which he modifies and supplements with other ideas in order better to describe Yeats’s relation to each of the women. In the early chapters, Hassett supplements the classical model with ideas from the courtly love tradition of the middle ages, and the worship of the White Goddess postulated by Robert Graves. From the chapter on Iseult Gonne onwards, however, Yeats’s own complex and changing models of inspiration are rightly brought to the fore. Hassett presents these as a development of Yeats’s earlier, more classical ideas about inspiration, positing that, in Per Amica Silentia Lunae (1918), Yeats ‘had concluded that his Muse, his creative element, hovered somewhere in his own psyche, linking his mind to the general mind’ (183). Later in his life, with his wife’s help, ‘Yeats had internalized the idea of the unattainable Muse in the notion of an antithetical feminine aspect of his own psyche’ (135). In this way, Hassett uses the concept of the Muse as a fluid metaphor that links Yeats’s changing ideas about creativity with his changing love-interests.

3Yeats’s life has been tackled by superb biographers, but Hassett’s work makes a space for itself in this crowded field by going into greater depth. In so doing it brings some valuable new material to the table: the creative work produced by all of the ladies. By relating these writings to poems and plays Yeats wrote subsequently, Hassett casts familiar poems into new relief. A good example of this process can be found in his detection of a link between Iseult Gonne’s poem ‘The Shadow of Noon’, and the verse section from Yeats’s play ‘The Only Jealousy of Emer’, beginning: ‘A woman’s beauty is like a white | Frail bird’ (Hassett, 124). Gonne’s poem has a refrain of: ‘A strangely useless thing’, which Yeats apparently rewrites in his description of a woman’s beauty as ‘A strange, unserviceable thing’ (VPl 531). The insights about Yeats’s work that Hassett is able to glean from even such unpromising work as that of Margot Collis, reveals the riches still to be uncovered by considering Yeats’s work and creativity in his social context. Hassett’s treatment of his material displays a light touch throughout, which is welcome in a context where a detailed exposition of Dorothy Wellesley’s 427-line metaphysical poem ‘Matrix’ remains a possibility.

4Yeats’s relationship with Wellesley herself is considered in the light of the increasingly public rage of his writings in old age. Hassett posits that Yeats found in Wellesley an inspirational Fury, who would succour him in lieu of a Muse. If Wellesley influenced Yeats in this regard, however, it is perhaps curious that ‘To Dorothy Wellesley’ displays no evidence of textual borrowings from her writings. Indeed, rage is not prevalent in the work of a woman who insisted that ‘I (unlike you) hate hate and love love’ (LDW 112): when it came to spleen, Yeats evidently found his material elsewhere.

  • 1 Assertion from Norman Haire recounted by Richard Ellmann in W. B. Yeats’s Second Puberty: A Lectur (...)

5Yeats’s letters to Wellesley in the mid-1930s convey a clear sexual charge but, off the page, it is doubtful that a married man who ‘could not have erections’1 entered into a sexual relationship with a lesbian. Accordingly, it might have been interesting if Hassett had made something of the fact that this incompatability seems to be repeated in the pages of the poetry. Yeats was hugely excited by rewriting Wellesley’s ballad of ‘The Lady, the Squire, and the Serving-Maid’: ‘[a]h my dear how it added to my excitement when I re-made that poem of yours to know it was your poem. I re-made you and myself into a single being’ (LDW 82). Her reply has not been published, but it surely speaks volumes that she evidently rejected his repeated textual advances, insisting instead that her ballad be published in its original form in the Broadside for September 1937 (New Series, no. 9) (LDW 69, n. 27). There is a similar dearth of evidence for borrowings in the other direction: the writing process ended as it began, with two ballads on the same theme written independently. Elsewhere, there is some evidence of poetic borrowings from Wellesley, but, following Hassett’s biographical-critical approach, we might say that Yeats wanted Wellesley to mean more to him than she did.

6It might also have been interesting for Hassett’s book to have considered the counter-argument of Yeats’s pronouncements on the importance of poetic craft and toil in actively generating inspiration. In his lecture on ‘Nationality and Literature’ in 1893, Yeats declared, that ‘the inspiration of God, which is, indeed, the source of all which is greatest in the world, comes only to him who labours at rhythm and cadence, at form and style, until they have no secret hidden from him’ (UP1 274, emphasis added). In the last years of his life, he accordingly instructed Wellesley to find inspiration through the process of writing itself, approvingly quoting Aubrey Beardsley’s description of his own working practice: ‘I make a blot & shove it about till something comes’ (LDW 89).

7As the book stands, however, it teases out a vein of significance in Yeats’s corpus that links inspiration, love-interests, and the supernatural. In bringing extra material into consideration – in particular, the poems and writings of the women in question – Hassett’s book deepens our understanding of Yeats’s relationships with those women, and enriches our experience of even familiar poems.


1 Assertion from Norman Haire recounted by Richard Ellmann in W. B. Yeats’s Second Puberty: A Lecture Delivered at the Library of Congress on April 2, 1984 (Washington: Library of Congress, 1985), 8.


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