One of the most three common themes of William Butler Yeats’ poetry is love; other two being the Irish nationalism and mysticism. He is well-recognized as a love poet in English literature, though his love poems are in many ways differ from love poems of such love poets as Donne and Marvell. The emotional power in many of Yeats' early poems is shaped by the one-sidedness but the poems themselves remain hopeful and bitter-sweet, pure in their language and attitudes about love. Most of Yeats’ love poems are dedicated consciously or subconsciously to Maud Gonne, Yeats’ unfulfilled one-sided love. Yeats love poems are simple, lyrical, and often dreamy, and they speak knowingly of innocence and beauty, passion and desire, devotion and the fear of rejection.
Prior to analyzing Yeats’ love poems we must know about Yeats emotion to Maud Gonne as his whole life as well as his writings are dominated by his feelings toward this woman. In 1889, Yeats met the Irish patriot, revolutionary, and beauty Maud Gonne. She quickly became the object of his unwavering affection and remained so for the rest of his life; virtually every reference to a beloved in Yeats’s poetry can be understood as a reference to Maud Gonne. Tragically, Gonne did not return his love and rejected his marriage proposal for five times. Though they remained closely associated as she portrayed the lead role in several of his plays, but they were never romantically involved. At one stage, Maud Gonne got married to MacBride and Yeats’ love poetry after that came to have much more poignancy. The sense of loss resulting from this failure is informed by most of his poems written after this such as “No Second Troy”, “When You Are Old”, “The Tower” etc. Even we find in the poem “A Prayer For My Daughter” which Yeats writes after the birth of his daughter also reflects his uncanny love for Maud Gonne. So, we can say Maud Gonne is the love of Yeats’ life. Though Yeats cannot be united with Maud Gonne but through his poems Maud Gonne and he remain inseparable.
Now, let us analyze some of Yeats’ poems individually to trace out how love appears in these poems-
It is totally impossible to understand Yeats’ attitude toward love without reading “No Second Troy” and “When You Are Old”. These two poems are superb examples of Yeats’ love poems where the uncanny love of a lover is expressed toward his beloved though the beloved is indifferent to his love. With the above autobiographical information it is not difficult to understand that the indifferent beloved is no one but Maud Gonne.
In the poem "When You Are Old," an anonymous narrator requests of a former lover to remember her youth and his love for her, creating a surreal sense of mystery that only reveals some shadows of his own past love life. The narrator seems to be full of regret that, with the passage of time, she never took advantage of his love for her, and that he had to watch her age without his unconditional love from afar. The woman, in the present, will see what an opportunity she is missing by ignoring his love for her and leaving him to fade into the past. Yeats chooses not to directly say that he is the narrator to match the mysterious qualities of the third stanza, but in doing so, he has allowed the reader to interpret some secrets of himself. This sad and reminiscent poem is not designed primarily to make an old woman regretful, but to keep a young woman from ignoring the narrator and making the wrong decision. Yeats hopes that the distressing ending to his poem will cause the reader to reconsider her future and not to grow old without him by her side.
Yeats's poem "No Second Troy" is undoubtedly about Maud Gonne. Though the lady is not named in the poem but everyone knew in 1910 that it was Maud Gonne. Unlike many other heroines, Maud Gonne lives a separate life with her distinct personality in Yeats's works. The poem remains masterpiece of controlled rhetoric used to express intense passion in a dramatic and indirect way. Yeats has few equals in English poetry in the way he has immortalized the beauty and charm of Maud Gonne in this poem:
“With beauty like a tightened bow, a kind
That is not natural in an age like this,
Being high and solitary and most stern?”
The poem finishes by saying that the way she turned out was beyond her control; she was born to push the boundaries and challenge authority. Maud is like Helen of Troy, who was the cause of the Trojan War and it's destruction.
After the marriage of Maud Gonne, the most poignant expression of Yeats’ come in the poem “The Tower”:
“Does the imagination dwell the most
Upon a woman won or woman lost?”
Comparison with other love poets:
Many other English poets including the modern poets tried their pen in love poems. The Love Song of J. Alfred Frufock by Eliot is also a love poem. Eliot’s love poem is anti-romantic in the sense that the lover never wholly gives himself fro love. But Yeats’ love poems are based on the actual passion felt by the day to day lovers to their beloved. Yeats celebrates the eagerness of the lovers to make love. There are other features in which Yeats differs from Eliot like Eliot is not politically conscious in his love poems. On the other hand Yeats highly conscious about contemporary politics in his love poems. Eliot portrays the decadence of love. Yeats portrays the frustration of unfulfilled love.
To conclude, Maud Gonne once told Yeats that he would must thank her refusing to marry him and the world should be inclined to agree with her, because out of that refusal sprang some of the best love poems in English literature. Thus, we can say that love is one of the main features of Yeats poetry. He wrote love poems in all stages of his career. But most of the time his love poems are based on the frustration of unrequited love rather than on the fulfillment of love.