This is a later and expanded version of a review originally published in English Studies Vol. 73, no. 4 (1892): 366-67.

W. B. Yeats’s affair with Olivia Shakespear might seem to have been the merest flicker beside his lifelong burning obsession with Maud Gonne: he described it himself as a "brief interruption" to that other passion (qtd. in Harwood 83). Nevertheless it makes a curious and revealing story, and John Harwood shows some skill in piecing it together from meagre sources, and drawing out its repercussions for Yeats’s life and poetry. In the process he offers tantalizing glimpses of an unusual woman whose presence enhanced the literary scene of her times, even though her own writing made little mark on it. More important, he makes a good case for her as "the dominant presence of the poems of 1895-6" (74) — works, for example, like "A Poet to His Beloved," in which both he and the woman he addresses have "numberless dreams." The feeling here is one of equality rather than the "helpless longing" (72) which was the keynote of his relationship with Maud Gonne.

Born near Chale on the Isle of Wight on St Patrick's Day, 1863, into a distinguished military family, Olivia Tucker (her maiden name) was the cousin of one of Yeats's closest friends, the poet Lionel Johnson. Olivia was little more than an infant when the Tuckers moved to Sussex, so she grew up in the Home Counties. Her immediate family was small by Victorian standards: she had an elder sister and a younger brother. But the wider family was more typical of the times: Lionel was one of "at least eighteen cousins" (7). She too had literary aspirations (those "numberless dreams"). For no good biographical reason that Harwood can discover, her novels are haunted by Oedipal yearnings, and were "all ... to a greater or lesser extent studies of emotional bondage" (117). The first two novels, Love on a Mortal Lease and The Journey of High Honour, were both published in 1894, the very year in which she first met Yeats. He described her then as "in her late twenties but in her looks a lovely young girl" (qtd. in Harwood 193).

Yeats quickly recognized in this new acquaintance something of her more precocious cousin’s melancholy and frustration. The immediate reasons for this were obvious enough. Olivia, already married and with an eight-year-old daughter, was trapped in a passionless partnership with a straitlaced solicitor. She was quite ready to have an affair with the dreamy-eyed poet. He, however, was cautious, not only "more in thrall to conventional morality than Olivia" (48), but probably worried about lack of funds. The possibility that he was still in love with Maud Gonne, despite her earlier rejection of him, cannot be discounted, although Harwood finds no particular proof of it at this time (49-50). At any rate, it was not until 1896 that Yeats was rather reluctantly chivied into Olivia's arms by the two women confidantes whom the pair had selected to sponsor their liaison (a strange arrangement, as Harwood himself says, see p. 48). Then in a few months, Yeats was off to Dublin, and Maud Gonne had very definitely resumed her sway over him.

Since Olivia destroyed nearly all her personal papers, it is impossible for Harwood to present the episode from her angle. Yeats did not help here: he is thought to have destroyed "all but thirty-seven of several hundred letters she wrote to him" (ix). Speculations about the mud that might have spattered her en route to her assignations, and her unhandy lover’s wrestlings with corset-laces and condoms, are a measure of the biographer’s desperation at this point. How Olivia suffered when the flame died, we can only guess from her novels, all six of which deal not only with some psychological complex, but with the search for an enduring union. But what Harwood does succeed in showing is the full impact of this relationship on Yeats himself. Attention is drawn specifically to Olivia’s role in number of the poems, especially those in The Wind Among the Reeds (1899), in which the female figure has certain characteristics — pallor and mildness, for instance — not associated with Maud Gonne. More than that, Harwood claims that this volume as a whole "contains all the elements required to make up a whole, active, potent, individual," but "distributed in such a way as to render wholeness unattainable in this life" (64). He goes on to suggest that the "disabling split" is best understood not so much as a philosophical vision of life, but as the result of a "specific and identifiable set of circumstances" — in other words, Yeats's hesitation in this particular relationship, and his failure to act when required. In general Harwood finds that the 1899 collection embodies a "quarrel with himself over the competing claims of action and reverie" (65).

One poem, especially, benefits from Harwood's analysis. This is "Aedh Laments the Loss of Love":

Pale brows, still hands and dim hair
I had a beautiful friend
And dreamed that the old despair
Would end in love in the end:
She looked in my heart one day
And saw your image was there;
She was gone weeping away.

Harwood suggests that this is "more autobiographical than any other poem in the volume" (77). Adopting here, as elsewhere, the persona of the love-smitten "Aedh," the poet recalls a hope that his new attachment would bring new happiness, new love in which his past longing would be subsumed. But the woman herself realised that his heart was set on another, and forsook him. It is clear, in fact, that "Olivia had not only initiated, but also ended, the affair of 1896-7" (160).

Olivia Shakespeare in 1897. Source: Letters of W. B. Yeats. London: Rupert Hart-Davis, 1954, facing p. 722.

Repercussions can be found in Yeats's private life as well as in his poetry. Harwood traces echoes of this affair in the emotional crisis following his marriage to the much younger Georgie Hyde-Lees — who had herself been introduced to him by Olivia (see p. 139). In this case, helped by his new wife's judicious manipulation of his belief in the spirit world, and her concoction of messages calculated to "allay [his] anxieties" (163), he was able to ride out the crisis. He "continued to dwell extensively upon his former attachments" (164), but the marriage survived. In the end, apart from its impact on individual poems, what matters most about the affair with Olivia is that it revealed and brought home to Yeats himself, for the first time, the large discrepancy between the quality of his inner life and his performance in quotidian reality. Since this was to remain one of his major preoccupations as a creative writer, its importance cannot be overestimated.

Olivia’s correspondence with Yeats continued into old age, when his anxiety about sexual impotence seems to have increased the note of nostalgia on his side. But the focus gradually shifts to Olivia’s relationships with her daughter Dorothy, her son-in-law Ezra Pound and her grandson Omar. In her correspondence here, her personality at last begins to emerge — pleasantly opinionated, frank, cultivated and generous (except on the subject of her daughter's failings). Unavoidable as it is, the absence of her voice in earlier chapters must limit the appeal and authority of Harwood’s book: mining her novels in order to illuminate her life has only produced its own puzzles, and her daughter Dorothy herself proved to be reticent. Like Harwood, we can only hope that a substantial cache of Olivia's papers will one day come to light.


Harwood, John. Olivia Shakespear and W. B. Yeats: After Long Silence. London: Macmillan, 1989. xvi + 218 pp. Hb. ISBN 9780333425183. £35.00.

Created 8 July 2021