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Essays in Honour of Eamonn Cantwell

Warwick Gould

Essays in Honour of Eamonn Cantwell

Yeats the Love Poet

Bernard O’Donoghue

Texte intégral

  • 1 This third lecture in the series was delivered on 18 March 2005. Further information may have been (...)

1I could not imagine a greater honour than to be standing here today1 in this capacity, in University College Cork’s great Boole library, for a multitude of reasons. The small-time prophet is being honoured in his own kingdom; I come from North Cork, from the edge of Sliabh Luachra, the territory of the great poets in Irish. But Cork city, with UCC where my sisters studied English and Irish at its cultural heart, was the height of our aspirations. Secondly, there is the Yeats connexion: I don’t have to look far in the audience here to see several people who know a lot more about Yeats than I do, so I am setting out with some trepidation. Thirdly, it is wonderful to be here under the aegis of Eamonn Cantwell’s great collection of Yeats in the library here. Nothing of course could be more appropriate to Yeats, with his yearning for patronage on the scale of Renaissance Tuscany, than that magnificent bequest. We are, all of us here, privileged to be linked with it in any way.

2My topic is further self-indulgence. I first read Yeats when I was at Presentation College on the Western Road in 1962, learning English and Irish from the incomparable Dan Donovan. In fact, I had come to Pres to do the new Maths—as we called Calculus then—from the equally incomparable Freddie Holland (later of course poached by UCC), but I was won away, permanently as it turned out, by Dan’s wonderful readings of English and Irish poetry and plays. And Yeats was at the centre of all that, particularly as we listened on the new LP record-player in Miss Cahill’s flat in Donovan’s Road (now of course a department of UCC) to Cyril Cusack’s wonderfully heart-breaking reading of the love poems (There is grey in your hair!) on that ancient Caedmon record. So here I am today, forty years on.

  • 2 Elizabeth Butler Cullingford, Gender and History in Yeats’s Love Poetry (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ (...)

3Yeats said himself that the occult was the great concern of his life and work, only sharing centrality on some occasions with Ireland. Certainly both of those things had immense significance in Yeats’s poetry; they are the things that have had the principal emphasis in the two volumes of Roy Foster’s majestic biography of the poet, the first especially prominent in the title of the first of those volumes The Apprentice Mage. But the surprising absentee from this statement of priorities is love: Yeats, in particular as the lover of Maud Gonne, documented the great unrequited poetic obsession of the century—maybe the most intense in English since the Renaissance. We might be tempted to think that that somehow goes without saying: that love is a classic subject of poetry, like birds and religion. But what I hope to show here is that Yeats is a very particular kind of love-poet—almost unique in the language, and certainly unique in his time. Maybe it is significant that most of the best recent discussions of Yeats and love (pre-eminently Elizabeth Butler Cullingford’s Gender and History in Yeats’s Love-Poetry2) have been concerned with something other than love, or at least something as well as love, as in Butler Cullingford’s title. This mixedness in treating love is typical of the characterization of Yeats, and it is very surprising when you think about it. A very attractive selection of the love poetry was edited by A. N. Jeffares in 1990, W. B. Yeats: the Love Poems; but that book too has all kinds of material in it, from ‘A Prayer for my Daughter’ to ‘Coole and Ballylee 1931’, in praise of Lady Gregory. I think this is surprising because it does not make clear how concentrated on the role of lover, and its object, Yeats was. He is consciously setting himself up as a medieval courtly—love poet—that is the model of behaviour and sentiment he is following. In addition, he brings something quite different to that tradition by particularizing the object of that love. Maud Gonne is Yeats’s donna, his innamorata; but she is also Maud Gonne—a woman who is big and beautiful but with unbeautiful small hands. I will touch more than once on the perfect poem that celebrates this imperfection, ‘Broken Dreams’.

4There is another way in which love has become oddly marginalized in the discussion of Yeats. A great deal of attention, and admiration, has been given to Yeats’s harsh, late quatrain ‘The Spur’, addressed to Dorothy Wellesley:

You think it horrible that lust and rage
Should dance attendance upon my old age.
They were not such a plague when I was young.
What else have I to spur me into song? (VP 355)

5There is indeed a grandeur about this survival of lasciviousness into old age. And ours is an age that has a lot of time and energy for lust, which maybe explains why this wild old wicked man’ (to call him nothing worse) has tended to usurp the amorous area in Yeats. For most of his life, that was not his specialism.

6So what exactly is love as Yeats specializes in it? Well, everyone knows about Yeats and Maud Gonne: that his unrequited love for her was the inspiration for many of his best-loved poems, and indeed for many of his best poems. In this respect he is the classic modern version of a long-established persona: the unrequited lover has had a long innings in literary popularity. From the troubadours to the present day this lovelorn and ineffectual figure has been a dominant presence in all literatures: not only in poetry, prominent as he is there (it is ‘he’ almost by definition, at least until the reversal of the myth by writers like Fay Weldon late in the twentieth century); there are also central texts of fiction like Flaubert’s Sentimental Education and, with a questioning feminine nuance, Madame Bovary, and the heart-wrung novels of Turgenev. So Yeats’s infatuation with what Thomas Hardy called The Well-Beloved is part of a long tradition.

7It is indeed such a familiar phenomenon that it is often felt to need no explaining at all, or even remarking. Everybody falls in love. And there is a tendency for them to fall in love with the unattainable. Yet, over the past century or so, love has increasingly been felt to need scrutiny and explanation. It is a very unsatisfactory state of affairs after all. The arranged marriage works a lot better; the wife brings in her dowry to help finance the business, or the returning emigrant funds the woman’s farm, in a successful economic organization. So why set out to find an object of love that is neither attainable nor, often, economically viable? I will deal later on with the view that this offering of a psychologically fulfilling alternative to more viable social arrangements was precisely what ‘courtly love’, so called, is: it is individual ‘passion’, or in more modern terms ‘desire’, which works against the socio-economic structures of a good political order.

  • 3 C. S. Lewis, The Allegory of Love (London: Oxford University Press 1936), 2.

8It is particularly strange, given that this sounds like a matter of what we call common sense, that this familiar, unsatisfactory order of things has generally been believed to have a clear name and a definable point of origin. It is ‘Courtly Love’; and, as C. S. Lewis said in 1936, ‘everybody knows that it appeared quite suddenly in the eleventh century in Provence’.3 Up to then, it is suggested, people selected sexual partners on more practical grounds, or at least they stuck with the partners that their society deemed appropriate for them. But the Provençal troubadours of the twelfth century were not sensible about this, and we are told they made the absence of sense the literary fashion in love for all subsequent eras and places in the western world.

9Whether or not the pain of love (and it is always recognized that, as a subject if not as an experience, liebesleid has more power than liebesfreud) was an invention of twelfth-century Provence, there is no doubt that Yeats was a major exponent, or sufferer from it. He was so in a quite explicit and conscious way. He asks in ‘The Tower’ ‘Does the imagination dwell the most | Upon a woman won or woman lost?’ The answer is so obvious that the addressee, ‘impatient to be gone’, doesn’t deign to state it (VP 413). Everyone knows that love lost is the more compelling. Yeats says it over and over again: the child dancing in the wind is a figure of innocence because she has not yet known love lost as soon as won’ or ‘the fool’s triumph’ (VP 312). According to the traditional account, Maud Gonne herself recognized that unrequited love was good material for the poet: better than requited love with the woman won. Thus (still according to the traditional account) she responded to his proposal in 1902—thirteen years after the ‘troubling of [his] life began’ in meeting her—by saying

‘You make beautiful poetry out of what you call your unhappiness and you are happy in that. Marriage would be such a dull affair. Poets should never marry’ (SQ 326–30).

10The same view was expressed more coarsely by John Berryman:

  • 4 John Berryman quoted in Eileen Simpson, Poets in their Youth (London: Faber & Faber, 1982), 156.

If Miss Gonne had called Willie’s bluff and gone to bed with him, she wouldn’t have filled his days with misery. No misery, no poems. You can bet your life that what Yeats was after was poems’.4

11(As a matter of fact we now know that this might not have been literally true; it seems she did sleep with him, but this did not stop him from carefully nurturing the ‘misery’ as poetic inspiration.)

  • 5 Reprinted in Deirdre Toomey, Yeats and Women (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1990), 1–40.

12In any case, fairly recently this traditional interpretation of Yeats and Gonne—at least as far as his wish for love with her to be sexually consummated goes—has been persuasively contested (or refined on) by Deirdre Toomey in her 1992 essay ‘Labyrinths’.5 Toomey argues that Yeats’s requirement that Maud Gonne should remain unrequiting and an unattainable dream was quite literally enforced by him, and whenever she showed any inclination to marry him (in 1898 she practically proposed to him, according to Toomey), it was Yeats who backed off and reinstalled her as the unattainable. This is what Gonne was acknowledging in her observation in 1902: that he was happy in making his beautiful poetry out of their spiritual union.

  • 6 Lewis, ibid.

13And as far as courtly love and the unattainable goes as inspiration, it doesn’t make any difference who initiates the unattainability; the whole point is that it should be poetically productive. Indeed, part of what I will argue later on is that the Toomey view makes the Yeats-Gonne relations all the more classically courtly—courtois—according to the medieval definition of love. Petrarch hardly knew Laura; Dante was, it seems, relatively happily married to Gemma Donati; his transcendentalizing love Beatrice was married to a Venetian burgher until she died young, thereby making herself ready to encounter Dante when he visited Paradise. The role that the courtly love donna or innamorata or lady was required to fulfil was not sexual compliance but quite the opposite. I don’t imagine Beatrice or Laura ever set out to tempt their great poets sexually, in the way Toomey suggests that Maud Gonne, at least once, did. But it is beyond question that they would have been stepping out of line if they had. Yeats had to respond decisively to ensure that Maud Gonne remained the cold inaccessible muse rather than the initiator of sexual love which was not at all the role of the ‘lady’ in courtly love. C. S. Lewis said with great severity that one of its prerequisites was ‘adultery’ (though this is not exactly true either).6

  • 7 Toomey’s argument here is based upon Yeats’s ‘Against Unworthy Praise’: ‘The labyrinth of her days (...)
  • 8 London: Faber & Faber, 1940, translated by Montgomery Belgion.
  • 9 ‘Little Boxes’ (1962) was composed by Malvina Reynolds. A political satire on suburbia, it became (...)

14However, the situation described by Toomey is not only a well-attested one (she links it to Gonne’s ‘strangeness’:7 that is a word which might repay further scrutiny), but the apparently inconvenient circumstances she describes are precisely what were demanded in the case of the medieval faithful lover. One of the most famous (and now controversial) accounts of courtly love was a book written in French in 1939 by Denis de Rougemont called L’Amour et L’Occident: literally ‘Love and the West’, but translated the following year into English as Passion and Society.8 What de Rougemont argues—and it is historically well-based—is that love-poetry of the kind that swept through Europe in the high Middle Ages was a Middle Eastern convention, written in Arabic and taken through Spain by Arabic scholars in the eleventh and twelfth centuries. This was the route by which the ‘Love’ of his title reached the West’ of his title. His most interesting contention was that it was a view of love which did not suit the West and led to a permanent conflict at the core of western culture. The title of the English translation was designed to make this conflict between passion and society more explicit: Middle-Eastern love was informed by a passion which was inimical to the good operation of society. Society is made up of ‘little boxes’, as Pete Seeger put it, and the most indispensable arrangement of these is the nuclear family: mother, father and children who will go on to repeat the structure for ever, constructing a perfect history for the species.9 Unfortunately, people are built with a genetic flaw, recognized and institutionalised by Courtly Love. The courtly lover, like Dante, Petrarch and the rest, was a happily married individual with children; but there was something in his nature—passion, desire or whatever we call it—that he also felt the need to respond to. It is precisely the fact that the good order of society requires that this illicit, extramarital impulse must not be entertained and hence requires rules forbidding the fulfilment of that impulse that causes a frustration which is expressed in poetry. John Donne, early in the seventeenth century says:-

I am two fooles, I know,
For loving, and for saying so
In whining Poëtry.

15The two things—love and poetry—go together. But Donne also says, in the same poem

  • 10 ‘The Triple Foole’, in John Donne, Complete Poetry and Selected Prose, ed. John Hayward (London: T (...)

Grief brought to numbers cannot be so fierce,
For he tames it that fetters it in verse.10

16Expressing misery in poetic numbers somehow ‘tames’ it, making it less painful.

  • 11 James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1960), 252.

17What the followers of the troubadours progressively established was that such illicit love, which was at once a natural instinct of passion and doomed by social edict, was a fine thing, requiring disinterestedness. There was no worldly reward for this passion; so it became more and more high-minded and refined. The term used was fin amor, as is often pointed out, the fin element is not related to the word ‘fine’ but to ‘faithful’, fidus; this love required great fidelity because it offered no rewards. In Joyce’s Portrait, that most Dante-like of modern young men, Stephen Dedalus calls it ‘the spiritual-heroic refrigerating apparatus, invented and patented in all countries by Dante Alighieri’.11 Dante didn’t invent it, but he did patent it, making it a central plank of European literature.

18The second major consequence of this curious state of mind which I will argue is important for Yeats follows logically enough from its disinterestedness. Lack of interest in worldly reward is generally accounted a Christian virtue. So courtly love becomes a kind of heresy, another lack of interest in the practical, offering competition as an alternative challenge to the orthodox moral arrangements which were set up to serve society’s interests and exalted monogamous marriage. The lover makes a virtue out of his frustrations; by nursing them, without physical outlet, he becomes more and more refined. The object of his love, with whom he must not have sexual relations on grounds of social utility, becomes in turn a fine and unattainable ideal, a Beatrice, the blessing-conferrer. As expounded by Dante and his friends, love of woman in this mode, because of its lack of physical fulfilment and its attachment to the absent, transmutes into love of God.

19It might be objected that, if the literature of the courtly world was so important for Yeats, we might expect to find it more fully expounded by him. Yet his references to the figures of courtliness, and of medieval romance, are relatively few. The most obvious place to look is the beginning of section 5 of ‘Dove or Swan’, Book 5 of A Vision, dealing with A. D. 1050 onwards. Of course in a very evident way, the whole theme of ‘Dove or Swan’, Christian peace versus the harshness of artistic beauty, mirrors exactly the opposition between quiet-life orthodoxy and transgressive passion which courtly love centres on. It is striking, too, that the second edition of A Vision was being worked on, in the late 1930s, at the same time that De Rougemont was writing Passion and Society and a few years after Lewis wrote The Allegory of Love. Medievalism was in the air, especially the matter of courtly love. We might bear this in mind in reading this passage about Parsifal, the great thirteenth-century German epic of love and religion by Wolfram von Eschenbach. Yeats reminds us that

Throughout the German Parsifal there is no ceremony of the Church, neither Marriage nor Mass nor Baptism, but instead we discover that strangest creation of romance or of life, ‘the love trance’.
Parsifal in such a trance, seeing nothing before his eyes but the image of his absent love, overcame knight after knight, and awakening at last looked amazed upon his dinted sword and shield; and it was to his lady and not to God or the Virgin that Parsifal prayed upon the day of battle, and it was his lady’s soul, separated from her entranced or sleeping body, that went beside him and gave him victory (AVB 286–87).

20A few paragraphs later Yeats is crediting Dante with writing ‘the first sentence of modern autobiography’ in the Convito (AVB, 289). But the Parsifal passage is highly revealing. Yeats’s famous description of the first vision of Maud Gonne as ‘the troubling of his life’ is closely reminiscent of these moments of vision—the love-trance or love-potion—at the first encounter with the beloved. Dante called it his Vita Nuova, his ‘new life’; Chaucer’s Criseyde, intoxicated by her first sight of Troilus, exclaims ‘who gave me drink?’

Cryseyda gan al his chere aspien,
And leet it so softe in hir herte sinke,
That to hireself she seyde, `Who yaf me drinke?’
For of hir owene thought she wex al reed,
Remembrying hire right thus, `Lo, this is he
Which that myn uncle swerith he moot be deed,

  • 12 Troilus and Criseyde Book 2, 649–55, in F. N. Robinson (ed.), The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer (London (...)

But I on him have mercy and pitee’;12

21Who has given her a love–potion which acts with the irresistible potency that compels her to love, against all her economic interests and better instincts?—just as in the most famous love-story of all, Tristan and his Irish bride Iseult fatally drink the potion intended to tie Iseult and her husband King Mark together forever. The lives of Tristan and Iseult (like those of their literary relations Diarmuid and Grainne) are as a consequence both wrecked and exalted: the troubling of their lives indeed! It is one of the great literary conundrums: was it a blessing or a curse for Tristan and Iseult to have drunk the love-potion? Certainly it led to a grand Wagnerian passion and to a transcendent fidelity; but it led to their deaths at the end of a desperate career of subterfuge and flight from the social repercussions of their fated illicit love. We meet the dilemma again of course in the figures of Francesca da Rimini and Paolo in the fifth canto of Dante’s Inferno. As punishment for their illicit love, the lovers are condemned to be never out of each other’s sight for all eternity. But is this punishment or glory?

22Yeats’s other references and allusions to the major figures of courtly love are made with the passingness of what is casually well-known: thus one of his few references to Tristram (maybe the central figures) is thrown off in 1907 in the essay ‘Poetry and Tradition’: ‘it is only before such things, before a love like that of Tristan and Iseult, before noble or ennobled death, that the free mind permits itself aught but brief sorrow’ (E & I 252). Here we might note the early occurrence of the notion of tragic joy/tragic gaiety associated with the era of ‘Lapis Lazuli’ and the later poetry. This is important because, even though it is in the early poetry such as ‘The Wanderings of Oisin’ that the Medieval-Renaissance world of ‘the old high way of love’ (VP 206) is explicitly evoked, many of the ideas mentioned there are embedded into Yeats’s central concerns and are influential in the whole of his working life. The principal case I am arguing is that a framework of the grandeur and personal improvement effected by being in love is an assumption that underlies all Yeats’s poetry, even where it is not spelled out. Moreover, it is not significant only in the poems of love; Yeats’s whole conception of the poet is founded on the courtly social outlaw that emerged in the poetry schools of southern Europe in the Middle Ages and Renaissance. To summarise the relevant qualities: the poet-lover was in breach of official social edicts which were constructed for the good operation of society; he was a heretic, operating by an ethic which not only contradicted the Christian norms but was in competition with them for virtue; and above all he was a figure of refinement of sensibility. He was made more virtuous by love, as Chaucer says Troilus was. Yeats wanted to make all these three claims for himself as poet-lover.

23I will conclude by arguing that the first of these—the political outcast—gradually extended into all Yeats’s politics and forced him into positions of increasingly perverse individuality. Maud Gonne was the founding inspiration and troubler of his life; but the logic of his courtly love persona extended far beyond her: not only into other instances of the beautiful woman (notably Constance Gore-Booth/Markiewicz) but into political realms which were not to do with love at all. Exactly the same thing happened with the medieval poets, where the love-troubadours who wrote their cansos of love extended their writing outwards into sirventes, poems of public comment.

  • 13 Gloria C. Kline, The Last Courtly Lover: Yeats and the Idea of Woman (Ann Arbor: University of Mic (...)

24Next though to return to where ‘courtly love’ and its world may be found explicitly in Yeats’s writing: this is—as they say—a surprisingly neglected topic. There is only one book-length discussion of it, by Gloria C. Kline in 1983.13 Kline begins by identifying Yeats’s ‘roleplaying’ as a ‘poet in love’. In the best courtly tradition, Yeats fell in love, not with Maud Gonne ‘whom he scarcely knew, but with his own projected anima, the “woman within himself”’ (11). Kline develops this Jungian view of Yeats—and it should be said that she does it very well if you like that sort of thing. But her book is incidentally useful for its enumeration of the courtly affinities in Yeats. As early as ‘The Rose of Peace’ in 1892, the archangel Michael looks down from Heaven to acknowledge the glory of Yeats’s beloved (Maud Gonne, according to AE) and to ‘weave a chaplet for her head’. Although it is not exactly the same, we might recall that the end of the process of refinement of the beloved in the courtly love process, according to Dante and his friends, was ‘Angelicization’. The idea was that the Platonic, idealising lover was refined by the process of being in love; his love transmutes and advances from love of woman to love of God. The problem, from the twelfth century onwards, was what became of the supplanted woman, the original object of the love and its material cause. The solution, as I have said, was to exalt her dignity in parallel with the increase in spiritual worth of the love she inspired. As the love, and the lover, became more refined, the beloved became so too, to the point where she was converted from a physical, sexual entity into an angel: literally, according to medieval metaphysics. (Incidentally, the controversial reputation of Maud Gonne might also be linked to this: it is linked too perhaps to what Toomey calls her ‘strangeness’. The world at large has not been so ready to see her as a Beatrice-figure as Yeats was, seeing indeed a marked disparity between some of her views and actions, and the kind of claims Yeats made for her. But that is a different topic.)

25Nevertheless, the bearing of the general situation of the courtly lover vis-a-vis the beloved on the relations and attitudes prevailing between Yeats and Maud Gonne hardly needs elaboration. The most obvious occurrence is in ‘The Lover’ poems of The Wind Among The Reeds (1899). As is often remarked, this lover in earlier versions had several personifications, as Aedh, Mongan and others. The concentration into the generic term ‘The Lover’ or sometimes ‘He’, referring back to ‘the lover’ as the antecedent in the title of previous poems in the series, makes it clear that this is a classic love-sequence. The best-loved of all these poems, ‘He wishes for the Cloths of Heaven’, features an appeal to the beloved which could hardly be more unphysical and idealising. He would like to offer the lady the fabrics of which the night sky is composed, ‘Enwrought with golden and silver light’, but being poor he hasn’t anything as material even as the night sky. He has only his dreams to spread under her feet:

Tread softly because you tread on my dreams. (VP 176)

  • 14 Lewis, 4.

26The refining, idealising and unconsummating service (service is the word most commonly used) demanded of the courtly lover is certainly consistent with Toomey’s revising view that, when Gonne made tentative attempts to reach out to Yeats sexually (such as taking the initiative in kissing him), she was not behaving according to the poetic stereotype that Yeats required her to follow. Of course we do not have to argue that this characterization of the inaccessible, ethereal beloved came straight from the Middle Ages to Yeats; there is a good deal of intervening poetry (the Elizabethan sonneteers, the metaphysical love-poets, and the nineteenth-century Romantics, not to mention Yeats’s more immediate pre-Raphaelite and Beardsleyesque predecessors) that comes in between. Examples could be taken from almost anywhere; the whole point of the argument of books such as Lewis’s The Allegory of Love is that the motif that we find so central in all love poetry—the pain of unrequited love—which we take to be a norm not only of writing but of experience, was in fact a creation of medieval poetics which became totally dominant: Lewis says with a characteristic sweeping gesture ‘Compared with this revolution the Renaissance is a mere ripple on the surface of literature’.14 We can link Bob Dylan’s

‘And only if my own true love were waiting’

27to the theme of amor de lonh, love from afar, in the troubadours. Dylan’s ending

  • 15 “Tomorrow Is a Long Time”, written by Bob Dylan in 1962 and first recorded by him in 1963, first a (...)

And only if she were lying by me
And I in my bed once again,15

28is almost identical to the end of the fervent sixteenth-century ‘Westron Wynd’:

  • 16 Frequently anthologized, but available in a modernized spelling version in e.g., Arthur Quiller-Co (...)

Christ! If my love were in my arms
And I in my bed again.16

29There is a perfect, brief example of the qualities and circumstances in a poem from early in Yeats’s writing life, in Housman’s A Shropshire Lad (1896):

Oh, when I was in love with you,
Then I was clean and brave,
And miles around the wonder grew
How well did I behave.

  • 17 See The Collected Poems of A. E. Housman (London: Jonathan Cape, 1939, 1967), 24, ‘A Shropshire La (...)

And now the fancy passes by,
And nothing will remain,
And miles around they’ll say that I
Am quite myself again.17

  • 18 See

30(For the full effect you need to hear the beautiful song-version by Ralph Vaughan Williams.18) Despite its apparent artlessness, this captures the whole story of the refining power of love. The observing world is astonished by the behaviour of the poet in love; but once he falls back out of love (something of course you mustn’t do in courtly love), he is ‘quite [him] self again’—the same old grouch he always was.

31Despite the universality of these instances, what I want to do for the rest of the time today is to look at Yeats’s love-poetry in the light of medieval (and the derived Renaissance) precepts about love, and to suggest that—for whatever psychological reason—Yeats observed them, in the poems in particular but in prose and plays too, with far greater fidelity and explicitness, inspired perhaps by the ideas of the Pre-Raphaelite painters and poets of his father’s milieu, than had been the case in European poetry since the Renaissance. There is a set of terms which was already developed as a technical vocabulary in the twelfth century that Yeats constantly returns to: words such as ‘passion’ and its derivatives (as famously noted by Conor Cruise O’Brien), ‘trouble’ and ‘joy’, and part of what I will do is to trace the way a few of these terms run through Yeats’s love-poetry side-by-side with a terminology of his own. For a start it is clear from ‘Adam’ s Curse’ that Yeats like many of his pre-Raphaelite contemporaries thought of love as ‘fine’ or ‘high’ in this way:

I said: ‘It’ s certain there is no fine thing
Since Adam’s fall but needs much labouring.
There have been lovers who thought love should be
So much compounded of high courtesy
That they would sigh and quote with learned looks
Precedents out of beautiful old books;
Yet now it seems an idle trade enough’. (VP 205)

32What are learned looks’? And, a more obvious question, what are these ‘beautiful old books? It is striking how closely the ‘high courtesy’ and the theorists of love follow on from the question of the ‘fine thing’. Crucially too, what exactly does Yeats mean by the lightly thrown out last line? What exactly now seems ‘an idle trade enough? Surely the implication is that love nowadays is not taken seriously enough. The argument seems to be that the ideals of ‘high courtesy’ ought to be revived as a ‘fine thing’. ‘Joy’ is another term of courtoisie which repays scrutiny:

The body calls it death,
The heart remorse.
But if these be right,
What is Joy? (VP 500)

  • 19 See Stephen Maxfield Parrish (ed.), and James Allan Painter (programmer), A Concordance to the Poe (...)

33What is Joy?’ was originally the title of the opening section of this poem Vacillation’ (of which this is the end). ‘Joy’ doesn’t sound like a very technical word in Yeats’s time (though whole books have been written about its significance for the troubadours), and Yeats uses it a great deal; from The Wanderings of Oisin to ‘Vacillation’, there are sixty-six usages.19 But the opposing of it here to remorse—the appropriate Christian moral response to sin—is highly significant; in the magnificent end of’ ‘A Dialogue of Self and Soul’, Yeats declares ‘When such as I cast out remorse… Everything we look upon is blest’ (VP 479). In the fourth poem of the ‘Vacillation’ series, the wonderful mystical experience in a crowded London shop’ culminates with a priest-like sensation of power:

It seemed, so great my happiness,
That I was blessèd and could bless. (VP 501)

34This is part of the extended answer to the question ‘What is Joy?’ It is, as it was for the troubadours, an exalted—even religious—state of mind which is the opposite of penitential remorse.

  • 20 First published as one of the ‘Three Songs’ grouped as ‘Aodh to Dectora’ in The Dome May, 1898, th (...)

35Yeats is clearly—and, as he might have put it, self-delightingly—in the heretical world of courtly love here, where the state of mind which, according to the priests, ought to be followed by remorse is treated not only as a happiness but as a beatific (a Beatrice-like) virtue. And I don’t think we fully understand these references if we don’t see them in the poetic tradition they belong to. It has sometimes been said to be a deficiency in the criticism of Yeats and his contemporaries that biographical glossing and identification have been treated as, so to speak, critical solutions to the issues raised in poems. We don’t need to go on reminding ourselves that the ‘I’ of the poem is not just the writer: that as Sharon Olds famously put it: ‘“I” is not I’. But an awareness of the tradition it is written in can stop us looking, in solely biographical terms, at a poem like the ‘The Lover Mourns for the Loss of Love’ (1898), the very title of which might be seen as a reminder to move the identification of the lover into the third person.20

She looked in my heart one day
And saw your image was there;
She has gone weeping away. (VP 152)

  • 21 ‘Passion and Cunning: An Essay on the Politics of W. B. Yeats’, first in In Excited Reverie A Cent (...)

36Certainly it does seem that your image’ is Maud Gonne—Yeats’s courtly lover—and the pale-browed, ‘beautiful friend’ is Olivia Shakespear, and it is useful to be told that. But we must not forget that we are in the world of Dante’s Vita Nuova where the beautiful woman, often in a dream (and there is a dream in this poem), often goes ‘weeping away’. And of course we know, from ‘Ego Dominus Tuus’ (which takes its title from Dante) and elsewhere that Dante’s hugely influential work, compounded of poems, apparent biography and commentary, was a work of the first importance for Yeats and his Italophile predecessors. That is to say, Yeats—as Toomey implies—is organizing the whole turbulent and complicated cast of his love-drama according to well-established lines. As Conor Cruise O’Brien said in 1963, Yeats is the director of the drama, motivated by cunning (which by now we would see at least partly as the virtue of artistic control, operating in collaboration with ‘passion’, rather than only the socio-political irresponsibility that O’Brien represents it as).21

  • 22 See both Elizabeth Butler Cullingford, Yeats, Ireland and Fascism London: Macmillan, 1981) and Mar (...)
  • 23 Lewis, 29.

37O’Brien’s terms—passion and cunning—are highly significant and well chosen, to describe among other things Yeats’s recklessly indulging and exalting his own individualizing love-agenda, to impress Maud Gonne, at the cost of social responsibility, with the result that he contributed to the violence of the 1916 Rising. In political terms O’Brien’s argument is an important one, and one which of course the ageing Yeats came to worry about: ‘Did that play of mine send out | Certain men the English shot?’ | Certain men the English shot?’ But in literary terms O’Brien is King Mark to Yeats’s Tristan, or King Arthur to his Lancelot: the figure of socio-political responsibility rather than individual expression. And for most of his career, however reprehensible this was, that was how Yeats wanted it. Although I think the counter-arguments, or at least complications, of O’Brien’s charge offered by Elizabeth Cullingford and Marjorie Howes22 seem weighty to me, I think part of the value of his argument has not been sufficiently acknowledged. That is the way O’Brien moves the idea of passion—which seems at first glance to belong to a different world altogether—into the public realm. Yeats used ‘passion’ and its derivatives as a positive term (‘a poem cold and passionate as the dawn’, and so on); but O’Brien restores to it a sense which is opposed to good social order—to ‘Society’ in De Rougemont’s terms. This view has been much expounded in modern French post-Freudian, Lacanian criticism: what Leo Bersani calls ‘desire’ as the reprehensible but individually universal impulse. And we might recall, too, C. S. Lewis’s outraged Christian response to the great documents of courtly love, especially Chretien de Troyes’s Lancelot from the 1180s. Lancelot is a figure of extramarital passion/desire, like Diarmuid and Tristan. He and King Arthur’s queen Guinevere are fatally tied by the bonds of love in ways that led to the destruction of the whole great ethical society represented by the fellowship of the Round Table. There could be no clearer representation of how individual passion undermines society. Lewis sees this well enough; but his concern is less with the destruction of the social order than with what he astonishingly calls ‘these revolting passages’ in which Chretien ‘deliberately apes religious devotion’.23 He cares more about the heresy than the politics. O’Brien cares more about the politics, but he shows very acutely how this world of passion is in conflict with the general ethics of society.

38Interestingly, in The Last Courtly Lover Gloria Kline too traces a movement in Yeats from the individual lover to a literary instance which has wider repercussions, very different though her terms are. Yeats was ‘the poet who fell in love with Maud Gonne and began to create a myth of courtly love about her’ (63). She argues that he gradually moved away from this myth and constructed an alternative ‘Unity of Being’ myth of his own. Enlighteningly, but perhaps a bit too neatly, she argues that Yeats progresses chronologically from the Maud Gonne period of medieval courtly love to a Lady Gregory period of Renaissance palaces and patronage, which is of course a shift which also has political ramifications. Her view of courtly love (she was writing at a time when the whole idea of courtly love was regarded as an ‘impediment to the understanding of medieval texts’ as one commentator put it) was a mode ‘that nineteenth-century scholars had inferred from the literature of the twelfth, thirteenth, and fourteenth centuries’ (101). Yeats had inherited the system from his father:

Over the years the father… inculcated in the son the two basic precepts of Courtly Love: that what a man derives intuitively from a woman’s image is of more value to him than what he can gain from her intellect [,] and that love of that image brings out in the lover his highest spiritual qualities’ (Kline 51).

39It is true that the idea of courtly love was formulated in the late nineteenth century; the term amour courtois was invented by the French critic Gaston Paris in the 1880s, to describe the extraordinary love that prevailed between Lancelot and Guinevere in Chretien’s Lancelot as I have said. According to this strange morality the lover could—and almost invariably did—become involved sexually with women other than the courtly beloved. Repeatedly indeed the very women who aid the lover in his pursuit of the ideal courtly beloved sleep with him—or are slept with as a kind of bizarre recognition. Kline says that this view of things was found very satisfactory by Victorian mores: by ‘the nineteenth-century middle-class turn of mind that balked at sex unless it could be elevated and turned away from the body… the turn of mind that elevated and delighted in courtly love, wherein the physical became spiritually transforming’ (53). Thus Yeats’s mother, the poet tells us, ‘taught the young boy to feel disgust at the English who openly kissed at railway stations’ (Au 34). And in her Autobiography Lady Gregory attributes to Yeats the view that

  • 24 Seventy Years: Being the Autobiography of Lady Gregory, edited and with foreword by Colin Smythe ( (...)

‘We never love the woman we like, or like the woman we love, for she whom we like gives us peace, and she whom we love gives us unrest’.24

40None of this is that unfamiliar; most people have suffered unrest as a consequence of love, whether or not the inclination was an invention of the Middle Ages. Anyway, the ‘she whom we love’ here is very recognizable as Maud Gonne in Yeats’s poetry. The same poems tend to recur in evidence, although the condition is general. Ironically maybe, the classic text is Yeats’s loose 1891 translation of Ronsard, a poet from the mid-sixteenth century when, according to the development persuasively proposed by Kline, Yeats should have been on to the patronage of the Big House:

How many loved your moments of glad grace,
And loved your beauty with love false or true,
But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you,
And loved the sorrows of your changing face; (VP 121)

41The ‘pilgrim soul’, as what was appreciated by the real lover, is the essential thing here and the most cited; but the most medieval and courtly thing is the almost unnoticeable ‘love false or true’. The idea of the false lover—the bodily lover, by contrast with the exalted spiritually-motivated true lover—was the subject of many medieval treatises. Again, there is a full terminology, developed in the Middle Ages in all the major European literary vernaculars. For example, in Provencal there is an opposition between amors—true love, and the derived coinage amars—false love. The essence of the difference was that true love was not sexually directed, loving the ‘pilgrim soul’ rather than the yellow hair’, the body to which false love was sexually drawn (VP 492). This is another instance of the courtly ethic setting up an opposition which corresponds to an official Christian order: the amors/amars pairing is like such things as perfect versus imperfect contrition, motivated respectively by pure love of God or more pragmatic considerations such as fear of pain in Hell.

42I am labouring the correspondences. I would like to finish with two points: the political application of Yeats’s ideas derived from the courtly order (his indomitable Irishry, the ‘people of Burke and Grattan | Who gave though free to refuse’ are a kind of ideal order, noble heretics corresponding to the Albigensian perfecti repressed and persecuted by the medieval Church, the seeds of the Inquisition). The political influences are wider and more complex though; for example, in The Dreaming of the Bones, Diarmuid (the other Diarmuid, MacMurrough who brought the Normans to Ireland) and Devorgilla are tied together for all eternity in the same kind of courtly determinism as Dante’s Paolo and Francesca. They encounter an escapee from the GPO in 1916, in a context that believes that their alliance was politically disastrous for Ireland. Secondly, the way the courtly system hovers in the background of Yeats’s later poetry of love and allied matters is often enriching. It enriches, I think, a poem such as ‘Broken Dreams’ in 1917—which of course is not in need of any enrichment. The addressee is obviously the beloved, so the first line is a bombshell, an extraordinary intrusion of the real world into a context where it is not to be expected:

There is grey in your hair. (VP 355)

43One thing I do want to argue too is that familiarity with the requirements of the courtly-love situation can give pause to the tendency in Yeats criticism to explain poems in entirely biographical terms. Certainly Yeats did put a lot of himself into the poems. He is often confessional; the ‘sixty-year-old smiling public man’ is one way of characterizing Yeats at the time of ‘Among School Children’ (VP 443), and a pretty accurate one; but the ‘lover’ who loved the ‘pilgrim soul’ is a representative figure of wider meaning than W. B. Yeats.


1 This third lecture in the series was delivered on 18 March 2005. Further information may have been gathered since this article was prepared for publication. If you would like to find out if any further information has been discovered that may help your own research, why not write to the author at Quite apart from anything else, feedback is always welcomed.

2 Elizabeth Butler Cullingford, Gender and History in Yeats’s Love Poetry (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993). Hereafter ‘Cullingford’.

3 C. S. Lewis, The Allegory of Love (London: Oxford University Press 1936), 2.

4 John Berryman quoted in Eileen Simpson, Poets in their Youth (London: Faber & Faber, 1982), 156.

5 Reprinted in Deirdre Toomey, Yeats and Women (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1990), 1–40.

6 Lewis, ibid.

7 Toomey’s argument here is based upon Yeats’s ‘Against Unworthy Praise’: ‘The labyrinth of her days | That her own strangeness perplexed’ (VP 259–60): see Toomey, 18–19.

8 London: Faber & Faber, 1940, translated by Montgomery Belgion.

9 ‘Little Boxes’ (1962) was composed by Malvina Reynolds. A political satire on suburbia, it became a hit for Pete Seeger in 1963.

10 ‘The Triple Foole’, in John Donne, Complete Poetry and Selected Prose, ed. John Hayward (London: The Nonesuch Press, 1929, YL 530), 10. The last two quoted lines may be a source for Yeats’s phrase in ‘Shepherd and Goatherd’, ‘For rhyme may beat a measure out of trouble | And make the daylight sweet once more… (VP 339).

11 James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1960), 252.

12 Troilus and Criseyde Book 2, 649–55, in F. N. Robinson (ed.), The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer (London: Oxford University Press, 2nd ed., 1957), 408.

13 Gloria C. Kline, The Last Courtly Lover: Yeats and the Idea of Woman (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1983). Hereafter ‘Kline’.

14 Lewis, 4.

15 “Tomorrow Is a Long Time”, written by Bob Dylan in 1962 and first recorded by him in 1963, first appeared on the album Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits Vol. II (Columbia Records, 1971).

16 Frequently anthologized, but available in a modernized spelling version in e.g., Arthur Quiller-Couch’s The Oxford Book of English Verse (Oxford: Clarendon, 1900 and later editions). There are two printings in YL, nos. 1653 and 2954, where the poem is on p. 42 under the title ‘The Lover in Winter Plaineth for the Spring’.

17 See The Collected Poems of A. E. Housman (London: Jonathan Cape, 1939, 1967), 24, ‘A Shropshire Lad’ n. 18.

18 See

19 See Stephen Maxfield Parrish (ed.), and James Allan Painter (programmer), A Concordance to the Poems of W. B. Yeats (Ithaca: Cornell, 1963), 414–15.

20 First published as one of the ‘Three Songs’ grouped as ‘Aodh to Dectora’ in The Dome May, 1898, the poem was retitled for the 1899 edition: see VP 152.

21 ‘Passion and Cunning: An Essay on the Politics of W. B. Yeats’, first in In Excited Reverie A Centenary Tribute to William Butler Yeats 1865–1939, edited by A. Norman Jeffares and K. G. W. Cross (London: Macmillan, 1965), 207–78, and much reprinted elsewhere.

22 See both Elizabeth Butler Cullingford, Yeats, Ireland and Fascism London: Macmillan, 1981) and Marjorie Howes, Yeats’s Nations: Gender, Class and Irishness (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), passim for their engagements with O’Brien’s essay.

23 Lewis, 29.

24 Seventy Years: Being the Autobiography of Lady Gregory, edited and with foreword by Colin Smythe (Gerrards Cross: Colin Smythe, Ltd., 1973), 350. This view may be compared to Yeats’s view that he ‘could not give [Olivia Shakespear] the love that was her beauty’s right… she was too near my soul, too salutary and wholesome to my inmost being’ (Mem 88).


FRSL is a noted Irish poet and Emeritus Fellow of Wadham College, Oxford. His books include his translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, his collection, The Courtly Love Tradition (1982), Seamus Heaney and the Language of Poetry (1995), and his edited Oxford Irish Quotations (1999). His poetry collections include Poaching Rights (1987), The Absent Signifier (1990), The Weakness (1991), Gunpowder (1995, which won the Whitbread Prize for Poetry), Here Nor There (1999), Poaching Rights (1999), Outliving (2003), Selected Poems (2008) and Farmers Cross (2011). He is an editor of the distinguished Oxford Poets imprint of Carcanet Press, and the senior member of the Oxford University Poetry Society


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