Sunday, July 27, 2008

Iseult Gonne's portrait

I was pleased to see this colorful illustration of Iseult Stuart (née Gonne) in the New York Times article, Yeats Meets the Digital Age, Full of Passionate Intensity," July 20, 2008, by Bill Dwyer. I'm a long-time reader of the man she married, Francis Stuart, as well as a befuddled follower of the artist and her mother Maud Gonne's own alternately seductive and repellent personality. I share with my wife a curious draw towards Maud, so lovely in her youth, so forbidding in her dotage. I never saw this depiction of her daughter in its original hues before. It looks like a page from a fairytale anthology. Until this example, I'd only found a black-and-white version, even in the collected letters of Yeats, herself, and her other lover Ezra Pound-- she moved in rarified circles-- published a few years ago.

Around six summers ago, I'd been at the University of Ulster, looking for her letters in the archive at Coleraine. They were missing, along with some of Stuart's manuscripts. Since there'd been a researcher based at UU who published a critical study of FS, I suspected they may have gone missing intentionally. I'd always wanted to find out more about Iseult than the few footnotes referring to her mother, Maud, and her would-be suitor, Yeats. The intricacies of this quadrilateral, if you count Pound, became a pentagon with young Stuart's arrival into this shape-shifting set-up.

As so often in my stillborn scholarship, my ideas about compiling Iseult's correspondence stalled. Others had also nosed about Co. Antrim's epistolary treasures. Two years after my Coleraine visit, I found as a new arrival from Palgrave "The Letters to W.B. Yeats and Ezra Pound from Iseult Stuart." Note who gets first and second billing. Shades of Woolf's "A Room of One's Own." Even the publisher's blurb explains her more in relationship to her men:

Who was Iseult Gonne?

Iseult Gonne, daughter of Maud Gonne and the French politician and journalist Lucien Millevoye, attracted many admirers - among them distinguished authors such as W. B. Yeats, Ezra Pound, Arthur Symms, Lennox Robinson, Francis Stuart and Liam O'Flaherty. Yeats proposed marriage to her, Ezra Pound had a secret, passionate love affair with her and she married Francis Stuart. This book contains her hitherto unpublished letters to Yeats and Pound, edited and annotated by Anna MacBride White (Maud Gonne's granddaughter), Christina Bridgwater (Iseult's granddaughter) and A. Norman Jeffares, the distinguished Yeats scholar. It also features photographs, paintings and drawings of Iseult, some of which have not been published before.

Still, I mean to look more at this intriguing woman, and the man who married her, if imperfectly, in Kevin Kiely's new authorized biography of FS. As a young poet, Kiely met FS and struck up a friendship. As a conference attendee in Tacoma last fall, I met Kiely in a buffet line but only two days later, by accident when I got home, did I find that Kiely had just published the biography. My conversation would have been much longer than small talk if I'd known.

Dwyer's travel piece links to an amazing exhibition on Yeats. I never "got" WBY, and find him often as dull as I do Milton, as puffed up as Shelley, or as baffling as Blake. My visit to Thoor Ballylee came on a quiet Sunday morning as I drove back from Galway city to Shannon for my flight. It was blessedly empty. The speakers that I heard thundered the oracular one were silent. Only a friendly orange cat mewled politely but insistently for food. I had none, but apologized to him profusely.

It occurs to me only now. I forgot, yes, to go to the Yeats extravaganza even when I was standing outside a poster hawking it next to the entrance for the National Library of Ireland. It was about a year ago. I trudged about in my big black clodhopper shoes, comfortable but hard to navigate the crowds, the sun glaring into my face, and the signs for the buses that all seemed the same. Hemmed in by narrow streets, no way to establish north and south easily despite my pocket map, central Dublin appears south of the Liffey a warren in its older districts.

I kept looking for the 10b bus to Belfield and UCD, weary after nearly an hour, with little dinner but wine and cheese at the Chester Beatty reception for the IASIL conference I'd been attending. I imitated the "Wandering Rocks" episode of "Ulysses," a month after Bloomsday, even passing Davy Byrnes at one bewildering corner. My Joycean long trek around central Dublin, unlike Stephen at UCD, proved more frustrating. At least I did not find any whores in Monto, for better or worse, that lingering summer night. I roamed in vain hunting for the bus stop. I had already boarded the bus in the wrong direction, clunking in my 1.80 euro or whatever before the Polish driver informed me of my mistake.

These elements are especially helpful in tracing the poet’s elaborate romantic entanglements. “I don’t know how he could have done all of it and wrote so much at the same time,” said Sharon Callaghan, a visitor.

At their center was Maud Gonne, whom Yeats met in 1889, when, as he wrote, “the troubling of my life began.” With her in mind for the lead role, he composed a play, “The Countess Kathleen.” It took him 10 years. “The play was performed at the opening of the Irish Literary Theatre in 1899,” the exhibition notes. “Maud Gonne refused to take part in it.”

Unknown to Yeats, Gonne had an affair with a French journalist and secretly gave birth to a boy, who died at the age of 2; she returned with her lover to the child’s tomb to conceive again, believing that reincarnation would bring back the lost son.

The ordinary brushstrokes of life glow in their links to Yeats’s art. She kissed him on the lips for the first time in 1899, then immediately confessed the truth about the affair and the children she had told the world were adopted. Their friendship survived her regular refusals to marry him, but he was devastated after she took another nationalist, Major John MacBride, for her husband. When that marriage went bad, Yeats comforted her. They apparently were physically intimate near the end of 1908, but she ended it a few months later.

In 1916, at 51 and still a bachelor, he consulted an astrologist, then turned again to Gonne with an offer of marriage. She declined. With her permission he proposed to her 22-year-old daughter, Iseult, who had been conceived at her brother’s grave. She too said no.

Besides being barking mad, everyone in this circle, it seems, could paint. “She is just fabulous looking,” Ms. Callaghan said, gazing at a portrait of Iseult by Maud.

The Life & Times of William Butler Yeats Exhibition Caption: "A pastel portrait by Maud of her daughter, Iseult. Yeats had, at various times, asked both women to marry him."

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