A Deep-Sworn Vow



    Others because you did not keep
    That deep-sworn vow have been friends of mine;
    Yet always when I look death in the face,
    When I clamber to the heights of sleep,
    Or when I grow excited with wine,
    Suddenly I meet your face.

    - William Butler Yeats

With the deftness of a master performer, Yeats narrates a story in a half dozen lines that grow to be breathtaking when assembled. Try reading the first two lines like this:

    Others, (because you did not keep
    That deep-sworn vow), have been friends of mine;

Many readers are convinced that Yeats wrote in this style to give his poetry its magnificent lyrical swing. The poem was first published in The Wild Swans at Coole (1919). It exemplifies the development of Yeats' later work and his distinguishing brand of brilliance. It’s a personal anthology and contains some of his best known work, including Easter 1916 ('A terrible beauty is born'), and The Second Coming ('What rough beast slouches toward Bethlehem...to be born'). At once ultramodern and bardic, Yeats' poetry converses with the 21st century through authenticity and mystical clarity.

The tenacity of the gripping lines is potent and personal, wholly human and almost hallowed. The reader is deeply drawn into a startling connection with the speaker, suffused with guilt over a profound promise that had been shattered. By the time the reader fully incorporates the shock, they have been nimbly conveyed into the subdued and unavoidable reality of the closing line. The innate isolation in the verse is disregarded - it does not rage, there is no tirade; this is a simple acceptance. This bond will never be reconciled.

    The blinds drawn up"; Maud Gonne at Howth station waiting a train,
    Pallas Athena in that straight back and arrogant head;

    - Beautiful Lofty Things

Recognizable as everyone's first love, the one who drifted away, the verse is also about what is probably the most famous unrequited love story in literature. Maud Gonne (1886-1953) was the daughter of an Army officer and an energetic Irish revolutionary and nationalist. During the late 1800’s Yeats met the devote and gifted Irish beauty and wrote, “From that moment the troubling of my life began." He fell deeply in love with her and first proposed to her in 1891. She refused.

    Why, what could she have done being what she is?
    Was there another Troy for her to burn.

    -No Second Troy

Five years later he would join her, along with Arthur Griffith, for organized protests against the Queen's Jubilee. In 1899,1900, and 1901 she would refuse his second, third and fourth proposals and then perform the leading role in Yeats’ play Cathleen Ní Houlihan in the spring of 1902. Written especially for and about her, Maud would turn his production into a powerful acting performance. Later on that year, Maud joined the Roman Catholic Church. Her rejections of Yeats’ numerous proposals were because she saw him as not being enough of a nationalist, as well as his reluctance to convert to Catholicism.

    This other man I had dreamed
    A drunken, vainglorious lout.
    He had done most bitter wrong
    To some who are near my heart,

    -Easter 1916

The following year Maud married Major John MacBride, but the marriage ended in divorce and MacBride would return to the fight in Ireland where he was executed in 1916 along with James Connolly and other leaders of the Easter Rising. The 51 year old Yeats would propose to Maud one last time this year and then go on to preserve his romantic longings for her throughout his work for the remainder of his life. Yeats eventually met Georgie Hyde-Lees. Married in the fall of the following year, they had two children.

In early 1917 Yeats bought a dilapidated Norman stone tower near Coole Park called Thoor Ballyle. After renovations it became his summer residence and an essential emblem in his later poetry. There is no doubt that Maude Gonne was the inspiration for much of Yeats’ work. “No poet has celebrated a woman's beauty,” notes Wikipedia, “to the extent Yeats did in his lyric verse about Maud. In his final collection Last Poems (1939), she became the Rose, Helen of Troy, the Ledaean Body, Cathleen Ní Houlihan, Pallas Athene and Deirdre.” Their legacy to lost love survives in today’s Irish bands that refer to her in their lyrics. Bell X1 where the songwriter measures an unrequited love against the zealous Maud in the song Alphabet Soup and The Cranberries stand at Yeats' Grave and compare yet another unrequited love to his love for Maud.

By the end of his life, William Butler Yeats was honored world wide as one of the most significant poets of the century and was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. Following a number of illnesses Yeats died in Menton, France in 1939 at the age of 73 and is buried in County Sligo, Ireland. His muse and source of unreciprocated devotion would live another 14 years. Maud Gonne passed away in 1953 at the age of 86 and is buried 135 miles away in Dublin. Inspiring much of his life’s work, she drew Yeats into the Irish nationalist movement for independence. Madly in love with her, he would repeatedly ask for her hand in marriage. It was all but hopeless because her passions were destined to be lavished upon their beloved Ireland.

Sources

Maud Gonne
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maud_Gonne
Accessed December 18, 2006.

Yeats, William Butler
www.britannica.com/nobel/micro/648_91.html
Accessed December 18, 2006.

William Butler Yeats - Books and Biography
www.readprint.com/author-93/William-Butler-Yeats
Accessed December 18, 2006.

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