The poem’s warning
This poem is advice on love from the poet William Butler Yeats. The basic message is quite clear. He advises that one should never allow oneself to be completely in love with anyone and I am assuming that he would wish his advice to apply equally to men and women even though the poem is clearly addressed to men.
Yeats’s stated reason for being reserved in one’s feelings of love is based on his understanding of the psychology of women. The idea he seems to present is that if a woman is certain of a man’s affection she will lose interest. I assume that he believes that the roles could be reversed, and it may be true sometimes that someone who is overconfident in the devotion of a friend, or lover or partner, may have less respect for that person or may take advantage of the unequal strengths of feeling or may feel that the passion they are faced with is just too much to cope with.
But his idea is not very clear because he is suggesting that women do not anticipate that feelings of love may lose their intensity. He says,.”they never dream/ That it fades out from kiss to kiss.” Surely love may also grow stronger in time, just as it may fade away! And has this anything to do with his argument? I don’t think so.
His next comment isn’t logically connected to what has gone before, but is simply a comment on pleasure “For everything that’s lovely is/ But a brief, dreamy, kind delight.” This is hardly relevant, and in any case, is not always true. Does “kind” mean anything here? Is there such a thing as “an unkind delight”?
Then there is a further comment on women in love and how they will behave. “For they, for all smooth lips can say,/ Have given their hearts up to the play.” He is suggesting that in love women know how to play the game of love, or treat love as a game. This seems to be a general comment on the sincerity of women who are in love. It is just a game to them. I don’t think it is reasonable or accurate to make such a generalisation. Surely in a situation in which the strength of feeling between two people is markedly different the disappointment of one may lead to resentment and speculation about the motives of the other person. He is searching for an explanation but doesn’t actually understand what is happening.
“And who could play it well enough/ If deaf and dumb and blind with love?” So a person completely in love with a woman would hardly have a chance to be loved in return because they would be too emotionally committed to be restrained or calculating. Such a person is Yeats himself as he now makes clear.
The final two lines are a strong statement that the poet really knows what he is talking about because he has lost out in a game of love. He didn’t play the game well and as a consequence got hurt or didn’t succeed in gaining the affection of the one he loved. “He that made this knows all the cost,/ For he gave all his heart and lost.”
Don’t believe everything you read in a poem. There is a deeply felt truth in this poem but it is padded out with misunderstandings and imaginings.
The basis of Never give all the heart
Biographical records show that Yeats met the beautiful Maud Gonne in 1889 when he was 24. She was eighteen months younger. It is Maud that Yeats, in his own words, fell obsessively in love with.
[There is a photo of Maud Gonne at the end of this article.]
They had several enduring interests in common: interests in poetry, literature, the theatre, spiritualism and especially Irish Nationalism. (The present Irish Republic was part of Britain at that time.) Both wished to see Ireland independent from England, but Maud Gonne was much more committed to the cause of Irish Nationalism than Yeats. She was in favour of armed opposition to English rule. She organised pressure groups and was prominent in anti-English campaigns and protests.
Yeats proposed marriage to Maud on five occasions: 1891, 1899, 1900, 1901, 1916. One may wonder why he suffered so many rejections, but the problem may have lain in the fact that although all his marriage proposals were rejected he was not rejected as a person. In fact there was mutual admiration, common interests, mutual affection. Maud did not tell Yeats to go away and leave her alone. He featured her in his poetry and plays and as an actress she acted in at least one of his plays.
It may be that there was not that necessary physical spark of desire on her part. She wanted Yeats to join her as a Catholic and she wanted him to be more strongly committed to campaigning for Irish Independence. These two matters were extremely important to her.
How their relationship evolved
Their relationship was punctuated by some significant events.
1887 Maud Gonne inherited trust funds in excess of £13,000.
1889 Yeats met Maud Gonne
1890 Maud Gonne met a married man, French right wing journalist, Lucien Millevoye.
1891 Yeats first proposed to Maud Gonne.
1893 Maud began an affair with Millevoye. They had a baby, Georges, who died after a few months to the mother’s extreme distress. Gonne and Millevoye separated. Gonne had a memorial chapel built for the baby at Samois-sur-Seine near Paris. Gonne wanted another baby to replace the first and wanted the soul of Georges to transmigrate into a new baby. To help to achieve this she wanted Millevoye to be the father of the second baby and to conceive the baby by having sex beside Georges’ sarcophagus, so the couple met again for this purpose.
1894 the second baby, Iseult, was born.
1894 Yeats met Olivia Shakespear, a married woman.
1895 .Yeats began his first intimate relationship with a woman, Olivia Shakespear. He wrote, “after all if I could not get the woman I loved it would be a comfort for a little while to devote myself to another.” and “at last she came to me in my thirtieth year …. and we had many days of happiness.”
1897 Spring, the affair ended because it was apparent to Olivia that Yeats loved someone else.
1899 Second proposal to Maud Gonne.
1900 Third proposal to Maud Gonne.
1903 Maud Gonne married Major John McBride. Yeats hated John McBride.
1904 Sean McBride was born
1905 The marriage was ended.
1908 Yeats met Maud Gonne in Paris and they had sex together for the first and last time. It satisfied neither of them. He wrote that that “the tragedy of sexual intercourse is the perpetual virginity of the soul.” They were not as one. She wrote a declaration of love, attraction and rejection! “I have prayed so hard to have all earthly desire taken from my love for you and dearest, loving you as I do, I have prayed and I am praying still that the bodily desire for me may be taken from you too.”
When Yeats told her he was not happy without her, she replied, “Oh yes, you are, because you make beautiful poetry out of what you call your unhappiness and are happy in that. Marriage would be such a dull affair. Poets should never marry. The world should thank me for not marrying you” [Jeffares, A. Norman (1988). W. B. Yeats, a new biography. London and New York: Continuum. p. 102.] Date of this remark is uncertain.
1916 Armed uprising in Dublin against the English. John McBride was arrested as one of the key conspirators and was executed. Later Yeats was called on to write a poem to commemorate the heroes of the valiant uprising. In view of his feelings he did this with extraordinary skill.
1916 Yeats, 51 years old, final proposal to Maud. Final rejection.
1916 Yeats’s proposal to Maud’s daughter, Iseult age 22. She rejected him.
1917 Yeats’ proposal to Georgie Hyde-Lees age 25. Their marriage was happy and they had two children, Anne and Michael. Yeats had several affairs during their marriage.
1922 Ireland became an independent republic.
1922 Yeats, by now a celebrated public figure, was appointed to the first Irish Senate. In a debate on divorce he had this to say “Marriage is not to us a sacrament, but, upon the other hand, the love of a man and woman, and the inseparable physical desire, are sacred. This conviction has come to us through ancient philosophy and modern literature, and it seems to us a most sacrilegious thing to persuade two people who hate each other… to live together, and it is to us no remedy to permit them to part if neither can re-marry.” [Foster, W B Yeats, A Life, 2003 p 294]
1923 Yeats awarded the Nobel prize for Literature
1934 Yeats, age 68 had an operation which ”rejuvenated him”. He had several affairs with young women.
1939 Yeats died age 73.
It appears that Yeats’s fascination with Maud Gonne lasted for about three decades. The reason for her rejections of his marriage proposals does not appear to be because he was besotted with her (“gave all his heart”) or that she was playing some sort of game with him, or deliberately manipulating him, or that she didn’t understand that “love fades out from kiss to kiss” but something much deeper – that they were not physically or ideologically quite in tune with each other and that her true passion was the cause of Irish independence.
He seemed to be unable to appreciate her different perceptions of him and life. She continued her interest in him and even stated affection for him for many years which must have made it very difficult for him to “forget her and move on.” At any time he could have abandoned his association with her. Her response to him was clear and consistent. It may be noted that she seemed to have a problem with sustaining a relationship with a man.
Why did he propose so many times? Even before the first proposal he must have had a good idea about how close their relationship was and was not. And subsequent proposals look as if he was lining himself up for humiliation. Was the problem not with Maud Gonne or the nature of “passionate women” as he understood them but his own inflexibility, his lack of ability to accept reality or even a masochistic pleasure in being hurt? Maud Gonne’s comment quoted in the 1908 section above seems to hint at this.
It seems that Maud Gonne enriched Yeats’s life by their association whilst at the same time leaving him in torment.
He wrote, in 1916 in No second Troy, presumably about her,
Why should I blame her that she filled my days
The wisdom of W B Yeats
What was he to do? He gave all his heart and lost. Does he convince us that total love for one person is a recipe for a life of torment? Surely if the feelings of two people are mutual then there is everything to gain from a shared attraction. In his case the reason that he “lost” may have been that he and Gonne appeared to lack a strong physical attraction, and a unity of shared feelings and ideals. The problem, in his case, was not “passionate women” but his inflexible, immature and masochistic nature. The sadness of the poem comes not from his account of the pain of rejection but from the sadness that Yeats’s had such an immature personality which brought him a life of misery.
It often happens that in romantic relationships the strength of feeling may be much stronger on one side than the other and this can certainly lead to discomfort and often rejection by the one who may feel overwhelmed or suffocated by an unwanted show of passion. To this extent giving “all the heart” may lead to rejection and “loss” but with balanced individuals this does not lead inevitably to a life of misery.
Poems About Love – How could you know?
My own collection of poems about love addresses the issue which Yeats considers in his poem, Never Give All The Heart.
One very long poem called 50 kinds of love is admittedly very prosaic and is hardly more than a long list. However, I believe it makes a number of valid observations about love. One section is entitled, Unbalanced love.
Another section. which is related, is about expressing affection to someone who may not be expecting it and may be a little shocked by the expression of love. This is Love that moves too fast.
About Unbalanced love
In my youth I can remember myself being quite put off a girl who seemed to want to take me over when I hardly knew her and I ended the relationship. She was very tearful and I felt very mean. Perhaps I should have been more patient and cautious.
From 50 kinds of love – part of the list
The need-to-be-loved love
that’s unequal to the task of love.
Love that hasn’t got its head screwed on.
Weak and needy love.
Love that’s just plain wrong.
The I-love-you-so-much-why-don’t-you-love-me love?
Love that cannot handle love.
Love that’s out of control.
Love that’s a sticking plaster.
Love that’s a disaster.
Love that’s an own goal.
About Love that moves too fast
It can happen that simply expressing one’s feelings too soon or too strongly may surprise or shock or “put off” the other person in a new or developing relationship. The alternative, avoiding this risk by not expressing one’s feelings may also produce unintended consequences because silence may give the impression of not really liking the other person. This is discouragement by other means.
From 50 kinds of love
Love that moves too fast
Love that moves too fast
and shows its hand too early
and put its foot in it,
and is, perhaps, a step too far,
or maybe just a slip of the tongue.
A footnote to Yeats’s life
Yeats died in the south of France in 1939 and was buried there. He wished his remains to be buried in County Sligo in Ireland. In 1948 his remains were dug up and assembled. There seems to have been some doubt about the authenticity of the bones. He was reburied in County Sligo. The person in charge of this operation working for the Irish Government was the Minister for External Affairs, Sean McBride, the son of Maud Gonne.