#220. A SERVANT OF THE QUEEN. It was something of a tip-over, years ago, to read the autobiography of Maud Gonne, and to read the biography of Gonne by Nancy Cardozo, Lucky Eyes and a High Heart. Gonne will have been heard of first by most people as the muse to the grave and beautiful love poems written to her by William Butler Yeats; here was a relationship, surely, to match the passion and complexity of the great romances of the literary past. But we tend to allow for a degree of exaggeration from poets: they’re always feeling so much. We’re accustomed to meeting our friends’ crushes and infatuations and finding them ordinary enough, or worse. But then maybe a person’s truly extraordinary side is only revealed to someone who loves them. The poet Suzy Lamson has written “It’s not beauty that makes us loved, / it’s love that makes us beautiful.”
With Maud Gonne ordinary was just not the case. By all accounts she was, in the words of the sober George Bernard Shaw, “outrageously beautiful,” taller than most men, with masses of red-golden hair and a heart-stopping gaze, capable into great age of silencing a room simply by entering it. Her beauty was insisted on by everyone who described her, and it conditioned much of her life. Men were always falling in love with her, and she was plagued with proposals. She had two children out of wedlock by the French political activist Lucien Millevoye. (Rule of thumb for reading Victorian history: if a beautiful unmarried woman has an “adopted” child, cross out “adopted” and pencil in “illegitimate” and nine times out of ten you’ll be right.) The times being what they were, she glossed over all this in her autobiography, but the early death of her son Georges devastated her, which she was forced to keep private. Men, not least William Butler Yeats, asked, plotted, schemed to make Gonne their wife; she gave in once, to Major John MacBride, who treated her loutishly, and they divorced. The account in Cardozo’s biography of the legal wrangling in Gonne’s divorce and the terrible meddling the courts did in Gonne’s choices of where she was allowed to live conveys as well as anything I’ve ever read the horrors of having one’s life in the hands of judges and lawyers.
All this was interference in the real passion of Gonne’s life: her determination to free Ireland of the rule of England. If in these better and calmer days you begin to forget the monstrosities of the English rule in Ireland, the heartlessness of the farm evictions, the terrorizing done by the Black and Tans—the echoes of which were audible into the seventies and eighties, when I first spent time in Ireland and in the Irish community around Boston—prepare to have your temper and your memory sharpened. Gonne worked tirelessly, single-mindedly, for Ireland’s complete independence, at times ruthlessly—the failures of the Home Rule movement convinced her violence was not only permissible but necessary.
Echoes of this—the debate about the use of violence--could be heard afterward for a long time as well, often with soul-hardening, tragic results. “Too long a sacrifice / Can make a stone of the heart,” Yeats wrote (his verses to Gonne weren’t all love poems). One can hear, as the years go on, an inevitable hard tone wearing into Gonne’s voice, and her children—Iseult Gonne, her daughter by Millevoye, and Sean MacBride, who later earned a Nobel for his human rights activism—referred to her as “La Grande Patriote” when she was astride her horse. There was still another side of her, revealed in Kim Bendheim’s later biography: she was a vociferous anti-semite, grumbling about Dreyfus’s release long after his innocence had been established. This was a hole that nationalists of the time, both French and Irish, had a way of falling into, and the Jews were the handiest available scapegoats for almost everything. Nationalism can so easily turn into racism.
But what I have taken away from rereading Servant of the Queen recently—the original title of her autobiography, not a reference to Victoria but to Cathleen ni Houlihan, the mythic figure of Ireland, whom Gonne played for Yeats onstage and whose image haunted Gonne all her life—was her incredible energy, all those years spent helping people dispossessed and wounded by English rule, her unbending integrity, her physical courage (“Never be afraid of anything, not even death,” her father told her) and her genuinely indomitable determination to see Ireland freed. These are hard, often demanding, but genuine virtues. She was always, always more than merely a muse; but if she is first discovered now in some of the most beautiful love poems written in the last century, she at least deserved them. Damned poets. They always get the last word in.
Postscript: After writing this note, I lucked onto a copy of the correspondence between Gonne and Yeats. The letters are mostly Gonne’s (final score Gonne 373, Yeats 30); Gonne’s house got raided by some nosy-parker police force and they made off with the ones Yeats wrote (and it’s too late to have anyone prosecuted under the International Insults to Literature Act that some country should pass). “Neither her autobiography nor her letters are revealing,” Gonne’s granddaughter writes, but I’m not so sure. From her own hand, written in haste and often exhaustion, we see events as she rated their importance, and the interruptions of practicalities and ill health to her battle for Ireland. I felt Gonne’s vulnerability, physical and emotional, more here than anywhere else—the inevitable humanity behind the statue of fearlessness. Her letters were my company for a week of evenings, and noble company it was.
--The Autobiography of Maud Gonne: A Servant of the Queen, edited by A. Norman Jeffares and Anna MacBride White. University of Chicago Press, 1994.
--Lucky Eyes and a High Heart: The Life of Maud Gonne, by Nancy Cardozo. Bobbs-Merrill, 1978.
--The Fascination of What’s Difficult: A Life of Maude Gonne, by Kim Bendheim. Or Books, 2021.
--The Gonne-Yeats Letters, 1893-1938, edited by Anna McBride White and A. Norman Jeffares. Norton, 1993. The editing is excellent, the explanatory notes immensely helpful, and the notes excellently arranged for reference.