The myth of modernity has relegated some genuine heroes to unjustified obscurity. In certain instances, a crucial figure of the past is remembered, if at all, for the wrong reasons with isolated or obscure or flamboyant details obscuring the greatness of the totality of the person. Such a fate has overtaken one of the noble figures of the early twentieth century: Maud Gonne, patriot, rebel, fighter for freedom, and the beloved of William Butler Yeats. Yet unfortunately she is remembered for the poems about her, not for her accomplishments in her own right; and they were many. In fact, it may not be far from the truth to maintain that Maud Gonne mothered an entire nation, the Republic of Ireland.
Maud Gonne MacBride was in every way a remarkable woman. She was much more than a fascinating footnote to the biography of Yeats, although in another sense their names, even as their lives, must remain inextricably intertwined.
Nancy Cardozo’s new biography Lucky Eyes and a High Heart takes its title from a love poem by Yeats:
She could have called over the rim of the worldWhatever woman’s lover had hit her fancy,And yet had been great-bodied and great limbed,Fashioned to be the mother of strong children;And she’d had lucky eyes and a high heart,And wisdom that caught fire like the dried flax,At need, and made her beautiful and fierce,Sudden and laughing.
This biography does more, however, than simply detail the famous relationship from Gonne’s viewpoint rather than Yeats’s; it sets the record straight. Maud Gonne would have been a great woman even if she had never met Yeats. A vigorous book written with insight and passion, it corrects the misinterpretations of forgetful historians. Throughout its more than 450 pages, it re-creates an era too little known to Americans, despite the large number of people in this country of Irish descent. Cardozo is an impeccable researcher, and her book is filled with enough facts to satisfy even the most erudite Yeats scholar. But the facts—the names, the dates, the places, the obscure facets of Irish history or British parliamentary maneuvering—never obscure Cardozo’s central purpose: to make Maud Gonne live again.
Born in England in December, 1866, the daughter of a captain in the British Army, Gonne liked to say that she was two months old before she first breathed the air of freedom when her father was transferred to Ireland. Her love of Ireland and hatred of English oppression of the Irish never left her, even when the aims of the Easter Rising of 1916 came to fruition with the birth of the Republic of Ireland several decades later. In fact, one of the most interesting of the small details that crowd the pages of this book is Cardozo’s story of Gonne’s attitude toward Richard Ellmann, the great biographer of Yeats and Joyce. Ellmann visited Gonne in 1946, several years before her death in 1953. She wrote of him that “He appeared to be pro-British though he said nothing to make me think this and therefore may be inclined to underestimate Ireland’s influence on Willie’s [Yeats’s] thought and work.” Thus, even when the victories had been won and Ireland was free under the tricolor flag of the Republic, Gonne continued the battle for Ireland.
Cardozo is careful to indicate, however, that while Gonne’s interests were centered upon Ireland and the struggle (violent if necessary) to achieve Irish freedom from what she conceived to be the yoke of English tyranny, her sympathies were essentially universal. Her humanitarianism manifested itself in struggles for women’s suffrage in both England and America; in attempts to win freedom for political prisoners of whatever ilk; and, toward the end of her life, in her ability to equate the devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki with the annihilation of the Jews in the Nazi gas chambers. Maud Gonne, in other words, was a woman of passion, of great pity, and of great capacity for love. Her passion, however, became a passion put to use largely on behalf of Ireland.
Everywhere Cardozo’s personal affection for her subject shines through...
(The entire section is 1794 words.)