spiritual marriage between Nobel Prize-winning Irish
poet William Butler Yeats and political activist and actress
Maud Gonne, a tender and tormented affair of the mind that lasted
nearly half a century, unfolds in a collection of letters recently
acquired by Special Collections of Emorys Robert W. Woodruff
Library. These four hundred letters370 of Gonne to Yeats,
and thirty of his to her, several of which have never been publishedrepresent
the greatest correspondence of twentieth-century Irish
literature, says Goodrich C. White Professor of English
Ronald Schuchard, an Irish literary scholar.
collection covers the whole drama of their relationship. Its
a correspondence of frustrated, unrequited love. It reflects
Irish theater history, nationalist historythe whole history
of Ireland is reflected in these letters.
addition, Schuchard says, makes Emorys Irish literature
collection extraordinary. It is the best contemporary
collection in the world. Nothing in Ireland compares.
and Gonne met socially in 1889, sparking a connection that would
surface in Yeats poetry and plays perhaps more than any
other force in his life. With this meeting, he later wrote,
The troubling of my life began. Two years later,
he proposed to Gonne for the first of several times, each of
which would be spurned. Gonne insisted marriage would dull his
beautiful and fiery Gonne was a passionate Irish nationalist
who stirred Yeats to become intensely involved in the literary
political movement and the struggle for freedom from British
rule. Gonne helped Yeats found the Abbey Theatre in Dublin and
later acted in a play he wrote for her. They also shared a deep
interest in mysticism and the occult and exchanged ideas about
the possibilities of reincarnation and telepathic, spiritual
ties. Some of Yeats most powerful poetry is known to be
inspired by his acquaintance with Gonne, often in tandem with
his study of classical tradition and Irish folklore.
Yeats devotion, Gonne bore a child with French politician
Lucien Millevoye, a boy who died before he was two; she later
conceived a daughter, Iseult, with Millevoye. In 1903, Gonne
married Irish Brigade Major John MacBridea bitter time
for Yeats. Yet the two remained friends, and when Gonnes
marriage became destructive and she and MacBride separated,
it was Yeats who helped her recover. MacBride was executed in
the aftermath of the Easter Rising of 1916.
MacBrides death, Yeats proposed to Gonne for the last
time. He was again refused, and, in an unexpected twist, went
on to propose to lovely, twenty-two-year-old Iseult, who also
rejected him. Soon after, he married a young heiress, but he
and Gonne continued to correspond until his death in 1938. Although
many of Yeats letters to her were lost due to her nomadic
lifestyle or destroyed when the Free State Police raided her
Dublin home in 1922, much of their correspondence remained with
and Emory curator of literary collections Stephen C. Ennis went
to Ireland last year to meet with Anna MacBride White, Gonnes
granddaughter, and offer a place for the letters. White brought
them out in boxes and allowed her visitors to spread the fragile
paper out on a huge coffee table. She had approached the Irish
National Library, but it didnt have the resources to purchase
and maintain the documents. They came to Emory last August in
a large suitcase which arrived alone, as if carried by a ghost.
are the preservers, the protectors, of these letters,
Schuchard says. It makes me immensely proud that Emory
has the resources and the foresight to bring this material here.
Many universities have put their resources into digitization,
but truly great libraries do both. This is the real human material.
The paper, the ink, can tell stories a reproduction cant.
Yeats and Gonne letters enrich Emorys considerable Yeats
holdings, as well as broadening a collection of Irish material
already noteworthy in its scope. In addition to the papers of
historic literary figures, Emory has gathered what Schuchard
calls a living collection of the work of living
writers, including Seamus Heaney, the Nobel laureate who spoke
at Emory Commencement this year, Derek Mahon, Ciaran Carson,
and Paul Muldoon. Muldoon, whose archive of manuscripts and
correspondence is housed at Emory, won the Pulitzer Prize for
poetry this year.
also hopes to create a new space dedicated to Special Collections
in the future, Schuchard says.
be able to take students to Special Collections to see these
manuscripts, to see the letters on their stationery, see programs
of the plays Yeats wrote for Gonnethe students are in
awe, Schuchard says. We are coming to an age where
Special Collections are changing. They have traditionally been
places of research that undergraduates were not invited to.
Now Emory is leading the way in making Special Collections part
of our teaching mission, not just our research mission. The
idea is to bring students early to the feast.P.P.P.