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Cycles Ago

Poem by William Butler Yeats based on a July 1891 dream by Maud Gonne

Photo of Maud Gonne at age 23, in 1889, the year she and Yeats met.

[Maud] Gonne had written to [Yeats] an account of a dream, where they had been (in a past life) brother and sister, sold into slavery in Arabia. For WBY, this revelation of a spiritual association in another existence seemed to seal their love; but it was accompanied by a clear message from her about the platonic nature of their relationship. As he later remembered it, he went to her at once and asked her to marry him.

'No, she could not marry -- there were reasons -- she would never marry; but in words that had no conventional ring she asked for my friendship.'
On 4 August they visited Howth together, a part of both their pasts; he felt more bound to her than ever. On 7 August he sent her the first of a series of love-poems, 'The White Birds'. Yet for six more years her letters continued to open: 'My dear Mr Yeats'. Her unattainability had been safely fixed...

But her difficult private life had become racked with pain... her little son Georges died in France of meningitis on 31 August. When she returned to Dublin in October, WBY met her at Kingstown from the mailboat that carried [Irish nationalist leader] Parnell's body. He had died suddenly at Brighton four days before. But Maud Gonne's mourning was not for Parnell: her personal life had been shattered. Photo of Maud Gonne in profile; 1890-92

She told WBY she had adopted a child, who had died... [I.e. she still couldn't bring herself to admit to Yeats that Georges was her own child, that she'd had two children with another man.]

"I met her on the pier and went with her to her hotel, where we breakfasted. She was dressed in extravagantly deep mourning, for Parnell, people thought, thinking her very theatrical. We spoke of the child's death. She had built a memorial chapel, using some of her capital. 'What did money matter to her now?' From another I learned later on that she had the body embalmed. That day and on later days she went over again the details of the death -- speech was a relief to her. She was plainly very ill. She had for the first days of her grief lost the power of speaking French, which she knew almost as well as English, and she had acquired the habit, unlearned afterwards with great difficulty, of taking chloroform in order to sleep. We were continually together; my spiritual philosophy was evidently a great comfort to her."

The next ten days were charged with high voltage for both of them. All nationalist Ireland was in a state of shock at Parnell's death. WBY rapidly wrote a banal pièce d'occasion for United Ireland ('Mourn, and Then Onward!'), which would come back to haunt him in later life.

But he also wrote a poem which commemorated Gonne's overture to him in July, and reflected her secret sadness. It got as far as the proofs of his next collection, but he changed his mind and never published it. This decision was partly dictated by its uneven quality, but much more by the painful directness with which it reflected personal life.
Photo of W.B. Yeats, around 1891.


In memory of your dream one July night

The low crying curlew and peewit, the honey pale orb of the moon,
The dew covered grass in the valley, our mother the sea with her croon
The leaping green leaves in the woodland, the flame of the stars in the skies,
Are tossed in Love's robe for he passes, and mad with Love's feet for he flies.

You came and moved near me a little with pensive remembering grace
The sad rose colours of autumn with weariness mixed in your face,
My world was fallen and over, for your dark soft eyes on it shone;
A thousand years it had waited and now it is gone, it is gone.

'We were as if brother and sister of old in the desert land',
How softly you spake it, how softly 'I give but a friendly hand
They sold us in slavery together before this life had begun
But Love bides nobody's bidding being older than moon or sun.'

Ah cycles ago did I meet you and mingle my gaze with your gaze,
They mingled a moment and parted and weariness fell on our days,
And we went alone on our journeys and envied the grass covered dead
For Love had gone by us unheeding, a crown of stars on his head.


This is one of two extant versions of this unpublished poem; both are in Bornstein's Early Poetry (v.2), pp 487-88. I have made one spelling correction ("nobodies" to "nobody's"). The account is from R.F. Foster's W.B. Yeats: A Life (v.1, pp. 114-16)

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