“It was all very romantic,” my English teacher once explained, looking more flushed and excited than any 30-something woman in her right mind should ever allow a room full of teenage girls to see her. “He loved her for years and wrote a lot of his best poetry about her. She was so beautiful!” She paused, looking down at the textbook, then back into the sneering faces of teenage girls. “Well…she probably didn’t photograph very well. She was obviously one of those people who was really beautiful in person, you know?”
What a burden poor Maud Gonne bears. Brilliant, brave and brainy, there she lies in national textbooks, relegated to a half-apology by a sentimental teacher, for daring not to be pretty enough to inspire the words of a Nobel Laureate. Yet you only had to glance around the classroom to see that decades after her death, she was still coaxing out the inner artist in all of us; I spotted several moustaches flowing out of ballpoint pens as if brought forth by Calliope herself.
Despite her apparent knack for it, there must be few things more tedious than playing the role of a living, breathing muse. Have you ever walked across a room with someone’s eyes on you? Did you suck in your stomach, consciously try and relax your shoulders? Now try doing it all the while W.B. Yeats’ beady little eyes are watching you, making mental notes for his next work. All while wearing a corset (actually, a corset would probably help keep everything sucked in, though it might impede your ability to sit down gracefully). This muse business is not an easy one. For starters, no more living in ignorance about how bad your posture is.
Yeats sees everything. You know those little blemishes your friends insist are invisible, even when you’re pointing at them in distress? Yeats sees them. If you’re a muse, you can bet your artist notices when you’ve been biting your nails. Next time you have a cold sore and feel bad about yourself, just imagine W.B Yeats is sizing you up for his next poem.
Yes, his verses were flattering at the time. He was, after all, in the middle of his run of several marriage proposals, which incidentally is the kind of insanity that happens when you can’t politely block people online and stop acknowledging their existence. In Maud’s days of low self-esteem, which we all have, did she ever wonder what he wrote about her immediately after being rejected? Is there a secret stash somewhere, detailing fading looks, eye wrinkles or an embarrassing stumble after dinner and several glasses of wine?
I’m not sure how I would feel to be immortalised in the poetry of a man who wouldn’t take no for an answer, albeit in the most respectable, upperclass way possible. I think I would rather be Nora and have James Joyce wax lyrical about my farts (not that I do that, of course). Yes, Joyce knows more about Nora than anyone ever should, but that’s love isn’t it?
Maud Gonne not only had to deal with the cultural burden of being a constant source of inspiration, she also had to deal with Yeats proposing to her own daughter, the one he knew since she was 5 years old, not once or but twice.
The traditional excuse is that he panicked when he realised he had wasted his youth pining after Maud. Maybe he should have thought about that before dedicating his life to a woman who was fairly clear in her rejection of a romantic relationship with him. William, I don’t particularly feel sorry for you I’m afraid. The only thing I am sorry about is that you must have been so unlikeable that you lacked a good friend with enough common sense to sit you down one day and say “now look, Will, it’s time to stop asking Maud or her daughter to marry you. It’s not going to happen. Stop trying to make it happen.” At least then you might have avoided the unfortunate title of being the Creeper Laureate of Irish Literature.
Like all awkward geniuses, Yeats largely escapes from scathing remarks because it turns out he’s rather brilliant, an oversight I hope I’ve corrected somewhat. If he wasn’t a genius, he would just have a toff with an unsettling obsession and reams of bad rhymes lying around his desk. Thankfully we forgive the artists we love, which is good, as there’s a huge cultural treasure trove by assholes that we’d never get to enjoy. Even writing this article has exhausted and guilted me somewhat because, well, Yeats is really rather good isn’t he? His later albums at least.
Spare a thought though, for the unfortunate muses immortalised in great works of art, even the anonymous ones. Maud must have looked in the mirror sometimes, wondering where Yeats’ ethereal beauty had gone. Poor Sharona too, she must be pushing 50, she’s hardly running down the length of anyone’s thigh now. So if any of you are thinking of immortalising me in a great work of art, try and contain yourselves. Or at least give me warning to put on some make up before you call over to scrutinise me.