Category Archives: On Writers & Writing

Men & Their Muses: The Stuff of Dreams and Art

William Butler Yeats Poetry, Drama and ProseToday, for some reason, “The Song of the Wandering Aengus” by William Butler Yeats came into my head. I was a mess in college, had trouble getting papers in, with far too many written by hand on paper with no lines. But the one on this poem did pretty well, and the last stanza stayed with me:

Though I am old with wandering
Through hollow lands and hilly lands,
I will find out where she has gone,
And kiss her lips and take her hands;
And walk among long dappled grass,
And pluck till time and times are done
The silver apples of the moon,
The golden apples of the sun.

It is compact, yet vast in scope, generating so many ideas, uniting so many opposite things: male, female; sun, moon; silver, gold; plucking an apple, reaching for the heavens. In fifty-four short, two dollar words, Yeats travels a very great distance, leaping from the physical world to a metaphysical plane.

Above all there is grace. The writing of Yeats is drenched with grace. He can’t help it; it’s in him, unmistakable. The poem is also about reaching for the the unobtainable, and about physically unrequited love.

Maud Gonne
Maud Gonne

Yeats great muse was Maud Gonne, an English-born Irish revolutionary, suffragette, and actress. He loved her perhaps as George Balanchine loved Suzanne Farrell: as a creature less of the world than the realm of art. It was there in the ballet studio and on the page that these great loves were consummated. Enshrined in art, they live on and inspire people today.

Suzanne Farrell & George Balanchine in Don Quixote ©Orlando Fernandez
Suzanne Farrell & George Balanchine in Don Quixote ©Orlando Fernandez

Yeats claimed he could not be happy without Gonne, but she replied: “Oh yes, you are, because you make beautiful poetry out of what you call your unhappiness and are happy in that.”* Maybe she was onto something. Suzanne Farrell must have feared the magic in the studio would vanish if she married Balanchine. She knew the fates of those who came before, including his wives Tamara Geva, Vera Zorina, Maria Tallchief, and Tanaquil LeClercq. Wedded and bedded meant being replaced. And yet, in their wary way, muses respond.

Suzanne Farrell & George Balanchine in Don Quixote in the 1960s (LIFE Magazine?)
Suzanne Farrell & George Balanchine in Don Quixote in the 1960s (LIFE Magazine?)

As Farrell said in a 2003 article in BOMB Magazine: “I am behind him, and I put one hand over his eyes and with the other hand point him toward his destiny.”

“Destiny” being the key word, for muse love is a strange and wonderful thing, not easily understood by regular folk. Its highs lead to exhilaration and glorious art; its lows to fallowness and soul-wrenching despair. Sometimes it’s disguised and secretly nourished; other times out there, on display for all the world to see.

Love is what it is, wherever it falls: a magic that touches all people, occasionally lifting the stuff of life into the wonderous realm of art.

– Catherine Kirkpatrick

*W.B. Yeats: A New Biography by A. Norman Jeffares