Yeats, Maude Gonne, and the Ideal Irish Woman

Yeats’ transitional phase is marked with his disillusionment with his muse, Maude Gonne. Yeats had previously idealized Maude, seeing her as the amazonian goddess, Cathleen ni Houlihan with “the walk of a queen”, an almost Aoife-like figure who was untouchable by Yeats because she was something noble and venerated.  This illusion was destroyed by the revelation of Maude’s affair with Lucien Millevoye, during which she had given birth to two illegitimate children. This revelation and its effect on Yeats’ poetry hints at his conception of the ideal woman, and his idealism in general: the ideal is never attainable, it is always just out of reach. But for women, this restricts their sexual liberty. The ideal woman is desired by men, but never obtained. Like the hallowed Cathleen ni Houlihan, who traps breathing woman beneath the weight of a symbol, this ideal of Yeats leaves real woman with an unsolvable quandary. As long as they are young and beautiful they can inspire desire: they are neither to let themselves be obtained, nor die old and wasted and alone.

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