W. B. Yeats and the Muses

by Joseph M. Hassett

Oxford, 264 pp., $110


William Butler Yeats (1865-1939) composed poetry about history and Ireland and the occult, about swans and gyres and ancient Byzantium, but fundamentally he almost always wrote about love. At the end of his life, a seventysomething smiling public man, he intended “Politics” to be the last of his published poems:  

How can I, that girl standing there,
My attention fix
On Roman or on Russian
Or on Spanish politics?
Yet here’s a travelled man that knows
What he talks about,
And there’s a politician
That has both read and thought,
And maybe what they say is true
Of war and war’s alarms,
But O that I were young again
And held her in my arms!

Nearly anyone who reads Yeats quickly learns that the love of his life was that firebrand of the Irish Republican cause, the sternly beautiful Maud Gonne, but that he married the oddly named George Hyde-Lees, who was apparently able to communicate with the spirit world. Through her mediumship, Yeats was given the “metaphors for poetry” that led to “The Second Coming”​—​What rough beast, its hour come round at last, / Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born? —​and to the work of his single greatest collection, The Tower.

But as Joseph M. Hassett reminds us in this deeply informed and fascinating book, Yeats’s poetic development is reflected in his relationships to a long series of “muses.” Olivia Shakespear​—​whose daughter Dorothy became the wife of Ezra Pound​—​first introduced the poet to physical love; the actress Florence Farr functioned as a demanding White Goddess as she played Yeats off against her other Irish admirer, Bernard Shaw; and the married Gonne inspired a troubadour yearning that lasted for a quarter century: I strove / to love you in the old high way of love.

And then there was Maud Gonne’s daughter Iseult. Yeats was virtually her foster father, but found himself drawn to the free-spirited and deeply intelligent young woman, and not just as her intellectual mentor. Fearful of continuing his obsessive and vain pursuit of women named Gonne, Yeats suddenly revolted against his role of the sighing courtly lover and married the steady and secure Hyde-Lees. She, Hassett implies, cleverly stressed that a passionate marital relationship​—​there was much talk of orgasms​—​would allow him access to the spirit world and renew his creative energies.

A decade later, though, Yeats began to suffer from impotence and endured the notorious Steinach operation in an effort to restore his physical powers. Technically, this was unsuccessful, according to the testimony of his physician, but as Hassett writes, “It seems indisputable .  .  . that the aftermath of the operation witnessed an increase in Yeats’s sexual desire, paving the way to a new burst of poetry​—​and conduct​—​in which sexual desire is valued for its own sake.” During this period Yeats entered into passionate if unsatisfying liaisons with the troubled young actress
Margot Ruddock and the liberated novelist Ethel Mannin.

Yet even then, Yeats’s romantic pilgrimage wasn’t over. In his very last years, he explored ever more deeply the feminine in his own nature through an intense intimacy with the lesbian Dorothy Wellesley, while a final relationship with Edith Shackleton Heald helped catalyze the late poems in which Eros and Thanatos begin to merge. In them Yeats’s desire turns more and more toward a yearning for quiet and peaceful sleep. Nonetheless, he can still produce, in “News for the Delphic Oracle,” some of his most shockingly graphic lines: Belly, shoulder, bum, / Flash fishlike; nymphs and satyrs / Copulate in the foam.

Yeats and the Muses is an exceptionally lucid work of criticism, but one that nonetheless requires the reader to pay attention. Hassett, a specialist in Anglo-Irish literature, may quote Joyce Carol Oates one moment and Edward Said the next. He links individual poems (and drafts of poems) to particular women, and he can, at times, seem slightly over-programmatic in outlining Yeats’s erotic and poetic evolution. Some chapters, like that devoted to Wellesley, are strongly speculative; others almost straightforwardly biographical. Florence Farr, for example, was a leading member of the occult Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, learned to recite Yeats’s verse to the accompaniment of a stringed instrument called the psaltery, became the lover of the New York lawyer John Quinn (who helped support James Joyce and other modernists), and ended her days pursuing spiritual truth in Ceylon.

Above all, as Hassett makes clear, and as any reader knows, Yeats was a great poet of praise: He celebrated the muses in his life, and not just because each allowed him access to otherworldly knowledge and power. As Hassett repeatedly shows, the women Yeats loved were strong, independent, and accomplished. Some he slept with, some he didn’t. He once asked himself: Does the imagination dwell the most / Upon a woman won or woman lost?

In many ways, Yeats’s collected poems are his never-ending exploration of just that haunting question.


Michael Dirda is the author, most recently, of Classics for Pleasure.