Iseult Gonne was conceived by her parents when they were full of grief for her brother, who had died aged one year. Maud Gonne (revolutionary and founder of Inghinidhe na hÉireann – Daughters of Ireland), and Lucien Millevoye created her in the mausoleum where her brother lay. Yeats wrote in his autobiography that “The idea came to her [Gonne] that the lost child might be reborn, and she had gone back to Millevoye, in the vault under the memorial chapel. A girl child was born, now two years old” (Memoirs 133).
Yeats wrote many poems about Maud:
With beauty like a tightened bow, a kind
That is not natural in an age like this,
Being high and solitary and most stern?
Maud hid Iseult’s illegitimate status by saying she was a niece or child she adopted, but everyone knew she was her natural born child. Maud married John MacBride, and Yeats would later accuse him of having molested Iseult.
Yeats, desperately in love with Maud Gonne, who was his muse and obsession, watched Iseult grow up and wrote poems inspired by her beauty, grace and innocence.
To a Child dancing in the Wind
Dance there upon the shore;
What need have you to care
For wind or water’s roar?
Both Maud and Yeats encouraged Iseult to write and tried to motivate her into greatness, but she didn’t show the passionate dedication to literature they desired to see in her, considering her aimless. In 1917 Yeats, rebuffed as a lover by Maud, decided marriage was what he needed to be able to write and he needed a new muse. He sought permission to court Iseult, which Maud agreed to, albeit with a warning he would be rejected. Iseult was 22, and described as a Pre-Rapehlite beauty, when he repeatedly asked her to marry him. If she took him seriously and considered it, or if she saw it as a joke, is contested between Yeats and her future husband Francis Stuart, who wrote different versions of what happened. Certainly she prevaricated, not wanting to disappoint her literary mentor (and one of the only constant, kindly paternal figures in her life). She declined in the end, and Yeats quickly married another.
Iseult would drift through life not ever really fulfilling the great destiny placed upon her, unsurprisingly, considering the dubious abusive positions her step-father MacBride may have put her in, and terrible, confusing situation created when Yeats proposed to her.
She wrote and translated, had an affair with Ezra Pound, and married the writer Francis Stuart. She had three children. The first died as an infant and Iseult was left to raise her son and daughter with her mother-in-law after Stuart abandoned them. Iseult smoked constantly and appeared idle, although she channelled her mother’s rebellious spirit when she harboured a German parachutist/ spy during the war, falling in love with him and going on trial for her treason.
My poem about Iseult considers how it felt to have Yeats position her as his muse/wife and the weight of expectation Iseult must have experienced, needing to fulfil her destiny of replacing the much-adored dead brother. You can find information about my new poetry book: I, Ursula HERE on the V.Press Poetry website.
More information on Iseult HERE by Amanda French