At the age of 24, he met Maud Gonne, an English heiress who became an outspoken and staunch Irish Nationalist. He became infatuated with her and carried a torch for her for fifty years. Many of his poems were a tribute to his feelings for her.
Yeats proposed to her many times over the course of their relationship, but she refused him every time. Their political philosophy was miles apart and one of the things that prompted her refusals. Yeats joined the Irish nationalists, but more out of love for Maud than from his genuine belief. She could never marry a man who didn't share her zeal for the rebellion. Yeats, in time, became disenchanted with the nationalists and frightened of the intensity of Maud's passion for the cause. Yet it didn't diminish his love or end his marriage proposals.
Maud said she did literature a service by not marrying Yeats. When he told her how unhappy her rejection made him. she replied " 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."
She wrote to him after first consummating their love, "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."
Instead, she married John MacBride, an Irish soldier and rebel, later executed for his part in the Easter Rebellion.
Just before meeting Yeats, Maud had given birth to a son Georges. She separated from his father Lucien Millevoye shortly after his birth. and kept Georges' birth a secret from Yeats for some time. Georges died while still an infant and Maud went a little off the deep end. She dabbled in spiritualism and reincarnation, subjects that also fascinated Yeats.
Assured by a prominent spiritualist that a child could be reborn into a new life if the parents had sex beside the coffin of the departed child, she set out to do that. She contacted Millevoye and arranged to have intercourse with him in Georges' tomb. She did become pregnant but the resulting child was a girl, not a reborn Georges. Maud named her Isuelt, but she never managed to take the place of the mourned Georges and she and Maud had a stormy relationship.
When MacBride was dead, in 1916, Yeats proposed one more time to Maud. Again she refused and Yeats then proposed to her daughter Isuelt, now a young lady of twenty-one. She refused as well, although at the age of fifteen, the unhappy girl, unable to replace her brother and angry at her mother, hating her stepfather, had proposed to Yeats.
Yeats finally married in 1917 to Miss George Hyde-Lees who bore him a son and a daughter.
Much of Yeats' work was inspired by Maud.
"I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams."
He even wrote a poem, never published, about the death of her son, "On A Child's Death'
You shadowy armies of the dead
Why did you take the starlike head
The faltering feet, the little hand?
Yeats died in 1939 in France. His expressed wishes were to be buried quickly where he was and after a year's passing to be reburied in Ireland in County Sligo . His wishes were respected, and the person who oversaw the removal of his remains to Ireland was Sean MacBride, son of Maud Gonne and John MacBride.
:His epitaph reads:
"Cast a cold Eye
On Life, on Death.
Horseman, pass by."