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Yeats’s Legacies

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Warwick Gould

Review essays and reviews

Adrian Frazier, The Adulterous Muse: Maud Gonne, Lucien Millevoye and W. B. Yeats

(Dublin: The Lilliput Press, 2016), pp. 322

Stoddard Martin

Texte intégral

1This is a compulsively readable book. One would expect no less from the author of Yale University Press’s definitive biography of George Moore (2000), who has subsequently written about ‘the Hollywood Irish’ among other subjects. Adrian Frazier is an experienced and assiduous collator of facts. In this outing he also flirts with a temptation to which biographers succumb at their peril: personal disdain. At a seminar in London presenting his book Frazier prefaced its main topic ironically with the Victorian maxim: ‘It is ungentlemanly and ignoble to speak of a lady’ s private life’. In our era, one infers, not to do so would fly in the face of what audiences expect, or at least commercial publishers. Frazier’s title declares what was not spoken of openly about Maud Gonne in her time. The book reveals as many details of it as its author can marshal—and not just adultery, but what he divines as the ugly undergarments of an icon’s celebrated politics.

2Frazier sets out elements of falsity behind Gonne’s image as heroine of Irish nationalism, from her British origins to her ‘hatred of England’, her ‘Joan of Arc’ complex to her complicity with or manipulation by French right-wing ideologues—Boulangistes, anti-Semites, anti-Dreyfusards, antidemocrats, pre-fascists and so on. Contemporary political correctness is evident in this: we are in a realm recalling Anthony Julius’s controversial 1995 study t. s. Eliot, Anti-Semitism and Literary Form; as that book crossexamined a literary reputation with lawyerly skill, so this one does a political, with collateral literary consequence. For it is not only Gonne’s politician/journalist French lover who is put in the dock by Frazier, but also her Irish poet lover, third person in a relationship which seems at times to resemble, in terms of sensation and self-promotion, the one which swirled around Princess Diana. Readers may take pleasure in feeling better or wiser than the characters they read about. An author may generate narrative pace by skewering hypocrisy and giving a wink at the ‘unbelievable’. Frazier uses the word in specific and vernacular senses in regard to what he finds as exaggeré in the septuagenarian Gonne’s autobiography A Servant of the Queen (1938); yet without her theatrical representations to undercut and lampoon, he would have less with which to entertain us. His picture of General Boulanger, for whom Millevoye (and thus at arm’s length young Maud) worked, is deliciously Trumpian—demagogues and would-be tyrants seem to have a perennial homology—and it might not be entirely inapt to extend the analogy to describe Lucien Millevoye as an elegant version of Steve Bannon. Frazier would perhaps be amused by such a thought. Happily, he repeats one French historian’s remark that ‘you can find Millevoye on every page of the history of the radical right in France “whenever there is a disaster to organize”’.

3But something is missing here. Gonne would recall Millevoye in her memoir as her main love in a career crowded with male admirers, and he was father to the first two of her three children. What was the basis of the attraction? Need for a father figure? hunger for political intrigue? an inexperienced young woman’s yearning for a Svengali? simple narcissism? vanity? All of these Frazier touches on, but he offers no insight into any impulse more personal or romantic. Millevoye is seen from the outside, his background only vaguely sketched in, his charms unmentioned, his nous debunked. He is almost a comedic rogue or villain in this presentation, reminiscent of portraits of figures of the Irish Literary Renaissance which Frazier’s erstwhile subject Moore painted in Hail and Farewell, assuring uproar in Dublin. Yeats was a major target for Moore, and the novelist’s sly evocation of the pompous and credulous sides to the poet is not absent from Frazier’s picture of a muse-addled young man whom a power-seeking female could lead on a merry dance. The approach may cause discomfort for those drawn to Yeats, or to Gonne or—heaven forbid!—the French ‘cad’, as Frazier brands Millevoye. It may also make for twitchy reading for those who long to get their history straight. There were just reasons for Gonne to feel hostile to Britain, British though she was, and sympathetic to Ireland, Irish though she was not. Frazier recounts them—George Moore clearly felt them at the time of the Boer War—but vanity and hypocrisy remain the sauce in which they are served. There may be just explanations for why political intrigue was rife in late nineteenth century France, nor were all anti-Semitisms the same; but Frazier would be wading into deeper waters than he cares for to parse them. Perhaps in such connection, among others, he could have told us more about Gonne’s trip to Bayreuth in 1886—a moment when, as he points out, most of the impulses that would shape her adulthood were converging on a ‘late adolescent’. Would not imperious, black-clad Cosima Liszt von Bülow Wagner have caught her eye as a role model? Adultery, secret children, muse-like attraction for a great man (now dead in her case, but there were numberless adulating ‘pilgrims’), power, self-publicizing, political intrigue, anti-Semitism in high-minded guise—all were present. Might not they have coursed and sloshed through the reflections of a spellbound ‘youthlet’ shortly to lose her own beloved father as she sat in the Festspielhaus for a heady five hours of Die Walküre, drifting in and out of Wotan’s and Brünnhilde’s and the Volsungs’agonies over matters to do with adultery?

4Gonne as Brünnehilde, ready to do a deed to redeem the human race—or at least her own people—is a kind of motivation Frazier loves to play with. Though he misses this possible version of it, he notes later on that ‘both Gonne and Millevoye were [such] admirers of Wagner’ that they named their second and sole surviving love-child Iseult after ‘Tristan and Isolde, the story of a magical romance between a French knight and a Celtic princess’. Here we may pause to assess use of words. Is Tristan und Isolde quite ‘the story of a magical romance’? Few Wagnerites of the day, not even a satirizing Moore, would have been inclined to favour such a Mills & Boon description of what they took as a Schopenhauerian paean to the transcendental potency of love and death. ‘French knight and a Celtic princess’? Tristan is Breton, which makes him Celtic too and, at the time of the legend, something other than French. And why is Isolde only Celtic and not specifically the ‘Irische Kind’? Here we observe a biographer’s deft use of word-as-implication. Contemporary audiences are winked at: the pretentions of these folks! the ludicrousness.

5More of this is apparent in Frazier’s romp through an epoch’s fascination with the occult, shared in varying degree by all principals of his tale. Salons of theosophists, Rosicrucians and so on have long been a target for breezy debunking—the sheer silliness of internecine battles among warlocks like Aleister Crowley or Sâr Péladan! Frazier depends for his brief tour d’horizon on Christopher McIntosh’s 1972, Éliphas Lévi and the French Occult Revival, a source based on secondary materials questionable to some diligent scholars. Frazier properly locates Yeats’s attendance with Gonne at a five hour performance of Villiers de l’Isle-Adam’s Axël in Paris in 1894 as central to the pair’s excursions into Hermetic realms, but he dismisses Axël’s occult idea of the superiority of spiritual intercourse to the physical kind as ‘odd’ and prefigures Yeats’s later feeling of having ‘made a fool of himself’ for adhering to it with Gonne, though that is precisely what it would prove for the pair when they attempted to substitute the physical for the spiritual in 1908. Prior to that, the poet’s creation via muse might be taken as evidence that ‘natural failure becomes a symbolist victory’, to use Frazier’s deft phrase. Yet the principal fruits of it, The Wind among the Reeds and The Shadowy Waters, move him in the first case to a Moore-ian verdict of doubtful or ‘pathetic’ achievement and in the second to no mention at all.

6Moore had his own struggles over organized religion, evident in books such as Sister Teresa and The Lake written during the years surrounding his association with Yeats. A novelist’s preoccupation with character and the material world held him back from a poet’s urge to delve into metaphysical speculation; and when he came to write about Jesus in his next novel, The Brook Kerith, he would follow Renan and Nietzsche in depicting Jesus as a mere great individual. Constitutionally Moore was unable to join in a quest for post-Christian explanations to profound mysteries, the forces which drive the spheres and personalities of men or worlds-beyond-that-whichwe-know, which would occupy Yeats all the way down to his late major work, A Vision; or his friend AE in excursions into the paranormal, or Gonne when dabbling in séances to assuage grief over having lost her first child. Frazier is with Moore in this bias. He offers no discussion about the hunger of an era to find new faiths or reason now that ‘God is dead’, as Nietzsche had written, ‘but for millennia to come people will spy his shadow in their caves’. The attempt to spy shadows may seem pointless, even absurd, but the need for great answers may be genuine enough and viewed as more than ‘Golden Dawn play acting’ or an excuse for onanistic eroticism, as Frazier caricatures much of Yeats’s and Gonne’s correspondence re the symbolism of their dreams. Years ago in George’s Ghosts Brenda Maddox saw Yeats’s colloquies with his wife leading to A Vision in a similar light. If this is not misguided, it seems at the least exaggerated—or perhaps more precisely a distortion.

7Moore, Joyce, Oliver St John Gogarty—there is a long Irish tradition of cocking a snook at the knight-in-swan-armour romanticism of the fin-de-siècle, and Frazier has affinity for this strain in his adopted culture. Scepticism about the romance of Irish republicanism may be related, and it is apparent in his account of Gonne’s service to her great cause. An almost English public school or Home Counties variant of such attitudes inclines one to muse about Frazier’s basic perspective. How might he have developed had he stayed in his own country as an American academic? He quotes the great Richard Ellmann who, despite being a Jew, was able to see this period and its themes with judicious objectivity. Can we perhaps observe something about generations here—Frazier vs Ellmann bearing analogy to, say, Anthony Julius vs John Gross? In any case, a tone is clear. Frazier is not writing to illuminate Yeats, Gonne or least of all Millevoye from the inside, by their own lights, as flaming or guttering spirits burning within human lives; he is as assessing them for our time and by its standards. The main problem in this is a reader’s potential unease at being communicated with as what an author assumes to be ‘we’.

8Frazier’s perceived audience of now is based on temporal values. These are, by definition, transitory and writing which caters for them journalistic. A purpose of scholarship is to break free from the provinciality of the present and understand subject from the point of view of its own framework. If one veers beyond that, it might be firstly and firmly in the interests of permanency—values that transcend time. This is a big ask, but fealty to subject is less so. Thus, the most honest approach to Yeats, Gonne & Co. would be to represent them as closely as possible to how they seemed to themselves, not how they appear to ‘us’. ‘We’ are not the subject, and not even the audience finally. Books live beyond lives; the ultimate audience is unborn, and responses affected by perceived opinions of this era or that are necessarily partial. The best readers may transcend them, collating all and coming to conclusions only after scrupulous hesitation. There are few writers on his subjects as engaging as Adrian Frazier. To his credit, he often strains against his gift for easy, contemporary expression. When he is lax in this, his quality as an objective historian falters. One may read him with inevitable pleasure, but one must also remain vigilant.

9His focus in what is trailed as a book about three characters is disfigured near the end by introduction of a fourth, Gonne’s sole husband, John McBride—a monster on the basis of the portrait here, though with biographer’s prudence Frazier qualifies the dominant impression by a few final paragraphs granting that the truth may be other. We lose Millevoye in this phase; Yeats is confined to the shadows, and the book reveals itself as what it has been in essence from the first—a biography of Gonne. Rivals dispatched, Frazier’s relationship with the ‘muse’ —visceral grappling with a live spirit—is what one is left with. It could be described as an unruly, even titanic love affair, full of sensational argument and moments of disgusted passion; possibly too it bears metaphorical witness to its author’s feelings after decades as a professor in a country Gonne sought to rebirth and embody. Here I follow Frazier into a spot of cod-psychology; and like him I must revert, chagrined by my dereliction, to fact. His last chapter tracks the wind-down of his heroine into doting motherhood, religious devotion and a degree of regret for her early excesses. A kind of motif of redemption such as a post-Wagner era (and not least George Moore), took to heart sounds in Frazier’s further qualification to his inferences and last words about his principals, Millevoye excepted. The two-dimensional portrait of the Frenchman remains one of the book’s flaws. For the rest, I have to confess once again that it is hard to read without curious excitement and occasionally wicked delight.

*

AFTERWORD

Deirdre Toomey

  • 1 See ‘Labyrinths: Yeats and Maud Gonne’ YA9 95–131; reprinted, Deirdre Toomey ed., Yeats and Women ( (...)

10When Roy Foster told me that Adrian Frazier’s ‘The Adulterous Muse’ followed on from an article of mine, ‘Labyrinths’, I was mildly intrigued.1 So I opened the monograph with some trepidation. It opens with an excellent brisk account of Maud Gonne’s pretensions to Irishness, unpicking the numerous false claims in A Servant of the Queen and moves on to the fatal encounter with Lucien Millevoye and the ‘alliance’ which Frazier reads in the light of A Portrait of a Lady, in that Maud Gonne’s vast inheritance leads her not towards true independence, but in her case to a crippling secret relationship and an illegitimate son. Frazier then reads her account of her early ‘alliance’ in the light of Boulangist politics and her orientation within the French anti-semitic radical right. Her journey to Russia, with ‘secret documents’ is revealed as part of a Boulangist plot to gain the support of the Czar. Millevoye probably accompanied her, but the plan failed.

11She then began her attempt to become the Irish Joan of Arc, donating lavishly to good causes and hovering on the fringes of nationalist movements. These activities were varied with theatrical performances, she shared with Constance Gore-Booth a confusion of the theatrical and the political. Her beauty and her great height dazzled many nationalists, but she did not join the main Nationalist group, the IRB—perhaps John O’Leary, who had spent his exile in France, was doubtful of her loyalties. Meanwhile General Boulanger’s attempt to take over France failed, he retired to Jersey, his movement a spent force. Maud Gonne evidently joined Millevoye in France at some point in early 1889 and became pregnant: although Divorce was legal in France, Millevoye was a Catholic, so they could not marry. She stayed out of the public eye for most of the year, but attended her sister’s wedding while heavily pregnant, although I presume she would have worn a maternity corset. Her son George was born in January 1890, and shortly afterwards she returned to active politics in Ireland. So far, the monograph gives a really solid sense of Maud Gonne’s French milieu, but when we come to Section VI, subtitled ‘How much did Yeats know?’ its tone changes, from that of a narrative grounded in solid historical data, to that of (largely) undocumented speculation.

12Frazier assumes that, from as early as 1891, Yeats was fully aware of Maud Gonne’s double life. The only evidence he produces for this speculation is a very strained reading of two early unpublished poems. He then examines key moments in Memoirs (a document of 1915–1916), in the light of this seemingly established thesis, thus assuming that which has to be proved. The vivid account of Maud Gonne’s arrival in deep mourning on 11 October 1891, on the same ship as carried Parnell’s body to Ireland for his funeral that day, is read by Frazier as an indication that Yeats knew that this child was not adopted, yet there is nothing in the text to support this, even though written with full knowledge in maturity. Yeats attempts with great success to recreate his youthful feelings. Nor is there any such evidence in ‘On a Child’ s Death’written on 5 September 1893.

  • 2 First published in facsimile, YA3 Plate 16. See also w. b. Yeats, The Early Poetry: Manuscript Mate (...)

You shadowy armies of the dead
Why did you take the starlike head
The faltering feet, the little hand?
For purple kings are in your band
And there the hearts of poets beat;
Why did you take the faltering feet?
She had much need of some fair thing
To make love spread his quiet wing
Above the tumult of her days
And shut out foolish blame & praise.
She has her squirrel & her birds
But these have no sweet human words
And cannot call her by her name:
Their love is but a woodland flame.
You wealthy armies of the dead
Why did you take the starlike head.2

13Yeats’s template for Maud Gonne at this time was the (childless) Countess Cathleen, a noble woman, full of altruistic self-sacrificing love. Maud Gonne’s ‘need’ of ‘some fair thing’ is not the way this poet would describe her own child.

14However, Frazier’s argument continues with ‘The Glove and the Cloak’, an uncollected poem of 1893,

I saw her glitter and gleam,
And stood in my sorrow apart,
And said: ‘She has fooled me enough,’
And thought that she had no heart.

I stood with her cloak on my arm
And said: ‘I will see her no more,
When something folded and small
Fell at my feet on the floor,—

  • 3 VP 844. Printed in Roma, 1897 and then not reprinted.

The little old glove of a child:
I felt a sudden tear start,
And murmured: ‘O long grey cloak,
Keep hidden and covered her heart!’3

which Maud Gonne begged him not to publish. This does not, in my reading, indicate Yeats’s knowledge that this ‘glove’ (rather a bootie) was that of her own child, merely that of an adopted child. Maud Gonne was indeed conscious of Parisian scandal about her relationship with Millevoye. As Yeats says, he had heard ‘much scandal’ about her, but had dismissed it (Mem 63). It is her nobility and tender-hearted altruism which he admires in this poem, which feeds into ‘Aedh thinks of those who have Spoken Evil of his Beloved’ (written 1897, published in its 1898 Dome version as below) with its grand conclusion, as strong a statement as possible of his assumptions of Maud Gonne’s heroic purity, and a condemnation of the poison of Dublin gossip:

Half close your eyelids, loosen your hair,
And dream about the great and their pride,
They have spoken against you everywhere,
But weigh this song with the great and their pride;
I made it out of a mouthful of air;
Their children’s children shall say they have lied. (VP 166vv.)

15A poet who realised that the ‘scandal’ was based on fact could not have written these lines, which Russell praised as full of the pride of art. Adrian Frazier, however, perversely reads it as indicating full knowledge of Maud Gonne’s secret life and interprets the children of the last line as their own spiritual children, rather than the descendants of her current Irish accusers, the obvious reading.

16Frazier also presents a very good account of the scandal about her private life in French journalism, which Yeats could not have read. His French was so weak that when he first dined out in Paris, he ordered soup for all three courses. By this stage in his monograph, Frazier boldly asserts that Yeats’knew the stories about Gonne must be true’.

  • 4 YA9 102–3; Yeats and Women, 9–10.

17When we come to the events of December 1898, as recalled in Memoirs, such plain statements prove more difficult. Frazier’s ingenious argument is that although Yeats already ‘knew’ about Maud Gonne’s secret life, it was still a shock to have it confirmed in some detail from her own mouth. The frantic letters to Lady Gregory indicate profound shock and disturbance. Lady Gregory recalls this ‘as distracted letters’ about ‘something that had happened’ (Diaries 196). She was herself agitated enough to hurry from Venice to Dublin to see him. But as Yeats said in a surviving letter for reasons ‘of a tragic origin’ that Maud Gonne could never marry (CL2 319–20, 15 December [1898]). Even in person, he only gave a vague censored account to Lady Gregory, and unsurprisingly she gives no indication whatsoever in her diary of being told the full story. In late 1898, Yeats was clearly devastated. As I have argued in ‘Labyrinths’4 this affected his poetry—he had a massive block, writing no new lyric poetry for nearly eighteen months and only returning in a poem of 1901, which dismantles the iconography of much of the poetry of the 1890s, as in ‘The Withering of the Boughs’ (VP 203–04).

18The truth about the existence of Iseult and the relationship with Millevoye did not in fact come out until come out until after her marriage to MacBride in February 1903, in a letter to Lady Gregory of May 1903: ‘there has been nothing between her and Milvouye for years’. However, she resolved to make a final break. ‘I married in a sudden impulse of anger’ (CL3 356). Her marriage marked the end of secrecy. As he said earlier, his whole imagination had ‘shifted its foundation’ (CL2 257). This does not seem to me to be the reaction to a suspicion confirmed, but to a completely new and utterly shocking revelation. That is how the episode is depicted in Memoirs, in which, at the age of fifty, he can hardly be lying to himself. The detail is telling; ‘the adopted child I had been told of’, ‘amid so much broken speech’ (Mem 133). Yeats is vividly recreating his shock.

19Although by this time in 1898 he was, at last, sexually experienced, the complete transformation of someone he had thought he knew well was a shock, ‘things that I had heard all twisted awry by scandal and disbelieved’ (Mem 132). The young Yeats was not a man of the twenty-first century, such a revelation was genuinely appalling to him. I conclude that in this matter Adrian Frazier has tried to make him a more modern and sophisticated figure than he could possibly have been in 1898.

  • 5 Anthony J. Jordan has written various books on this theme, e.g., Willie Yeats and the Gonne-MacBrid (...)

20Frazier’s monograph continues through the disastrous marriage to MacBride and the trauma of the legal separation. He takes MacBride’s patently biased evidence in court as to Maud Gonne’s having had three lovers before their marriage as dependable, despite Maud Gonne’s assertion to Yeats that he had accused her of having had an affair with any man whose photograph she owned, including Yeats and George Russell! The influence and prejudices of the extended MacBride family of the West is also worryingly strong in this section. MacBride’s assaults on the nine year old Iseult are minimised and his consensual affair with Eileen Wilson is swept under the carpet. Bizarrely, Frazier also compares Yeats’s marriage proposal to the twenty-four year old Iseult to MacBride’s sexual assaults on her when she was a child of nine (258), and unfortunately relies on material from Anthony Jordan, an extreme apologist for MacBride, who gives a nauseatingly sentimental account of MacBride’s execution and bases his viewpoint in several books on a MacBride/Durcan family tradition of hagiography of the hero of 1916.5 Compounding the problem of Frazier’s counter-intuitive thesis, this suggests that Frazier is prepared to rely uncritically on dubious sources. In sum, then, a fascinating but deeplyflawed monograph.

Bibliographie

Adrian Frazier, The Adulterous Muse: Maud Gonne, Lucien Millevoye and W. B. Yeats (Dublin: The Lilliput Press, 2016), pp. 322

Notes

1 See ‘Labyrinths: Yeats and Maud Gonne’ YA9 95–131; reprinted, Deirdre Toomey ed., Yeats and Women (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1991), 1–41.

2 First published in facsimile, YA3 Plate 16. See also w. b. Yeats, The Early Poetry: Manuscript Materials, ed. by George Bornstein (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1994), Vol. 2: The Wanderings of Oisin’ and Other Early Poems to 1895’, 490–92.

3 VP 844. Printed in Roma, 1897 and then not reprinted.

4 YA9 102–3; Yeats and Women, 9–10.

5 Anthony J. Jordan has written various books on this theme, e.g., Willie Yeats and the Gonne-MacBrides (Dublin: designed and printed by the Central Remedial Clinic, 1997), The Yeats-Gonne-MacBride Triangle (Westport: 2000); w. b. Yeats: Vain, Glorious, Lout: a Maker of Modern Ireland ([Dublin]: Westport Books, 2003).

Auteur

Writer, lecturer, and publisher. His books include Wagner to the Waste Land, Orthodox Heresy and The Great Expatriate Writers, published by Macmillan. He edited anthologies of Byron, Nietzsche, and d. h. Lawrence in the Duckworth ‘Sayings of’ series, which he helped to devise, and has contributed chapters to many other anthologies, including on George Moore and Ezra Pound. He has taught at Harvard, Oxford, Łódź and Warsaw universities and was for many years an associate fellow of the Institute of English Studies, University of London. He writes short fiction under the name Chip Martin.

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