W.B. Yeats; The first man in the Friend Zone? – Caitríona Murphy

Irish poet William Butler Yeats (1865 - 1939), circa 1910. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

William Butler Yeats (1865 – 1939), circa 1910.


“What you attain after you fail to impress a woman you’re attracted to. Usually initiated by the woman saying, “You’re such a good friend”. Usually associated with long days of suffering and watching your love interest hop from one bad relationship to another. Verb tense is “Friend-ed”

That is the definition of the friend zone from the Urban Dictionary. It’s common terminology thrown around by anyone under a certain age and with a working internet connection. Previously known as “unrequited love”. “Friend zone” doesn’t have the same aching, nostalgic (some would say romantic) connotations of unrequited love. Being shoved in the friend zone is funny, will draw sympathy and understanding; hell, Google it and you’ll get pages of memes on the subject. “Friend zone” suggests a somewhat comic, overdramatic situation that could possibly be rectified as easily and with as little fuss as a romantic comedy.

Unrequited love suggests the same person is wandering around in something flowing and white and writing morbid poetry while the object of their obsession blatantly ignores them. The friend zone is Taylor Swift. Unrequited love is Morrissey. (Possibly Nick Cave) Regardless, they amount to the same thing. Wanting someone who does not want you as a lover, but who would certainly like to be your friend.

When I think of this dire situation, I think of W.B. Yeats and his love, his tortured, unrequited, slightly obsessive love, for his muse Maud Gonne. Yeats wrote dozens of poems for her. To her. An ode, a plea, to consider him. What he could not convince her to do in conversation he attempted to do with his poetry. Apart from one proposal Maud accepted before hastily refuting hours later, she never returned his romantic feelings, but by all accounts kept him close enough that he was heavily involved in her life. This would be an ache too sweet for Yeats to free himself from; better to have some part of her life rather than have no part at all. I feel like Yeats knew he would never be her lover, as if some small part of him knew he would forever remain on the periphery of her life; admiring her but always from a distance. Consider “When You Are Old”- “How many loved your moments of glad grace/and loved your beauty with love false or true; /But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you, /and loved the sorrows of your changing face.” Yeats always considered himself Maud’s lover, undeterred by her rebuttals; the love he could not give her was real nonetheless. Yeats was committed to his love of Gonne and nurtured it, letting the pain of it fuel his work “I had a beautiful friend /and dreamed that the old despair /would end in love in the end “The Lover Mourns for the Loss of Love”. The reader can sense Yeats’ changing moods throughout the course of his work; the optimistic, breathless praise of Gonne’s beauty in his earlier poetry giving way to undeniable bitterness and perhaps some resentment in later work. One of my favourite poems, “He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven” is heavy with wistfulness and self-awareness yet it is not depressing; rather it is a dreamy, sentimental ode to longing. Yeats knows he is poor, that materially (or perhaps politically) he has little to offer the impressive and impulsive Maud.

As the years moved by and Yeats had proposed and been rejected over and over by Gonne, there is an understandable note of animosity and even a feeling of passive aggression that begins to permeate his work. “Why should I blame her that she filled my days /with misery” (No Second Troy). Yeats moved from moody animosity to full on hostility in Never Give All The Heart “Never give all the heart, for love/Will hardly seem worth thinking of/To passionate women if it seem/Certain, and they never dream/That it fades out from kiss to kiss;/For everything that’s lovely is/But a brief, dreamy, However dark Yeats’ work can be, there is still much for the romantics to enjoy; the luscious pining and aches to be indulged and sighed over. Yeats’ poems, written in the midst of his obsession with Gonne, are a joy for anyone to read, but in this day we live in, where the sting of unrequited love has been dulled with silly terms such as “friend zone”, they are an ally, a comfort for the honeyed torment that comes with longing for the that unreciprocated. Although nothing amorous ever came from Yeats’ utopian longing, I don’t think he would have changed it, even if he could. As Nietzsche put it; “”indispensable…to the lover is his unrequited love, which he would at no price relinquish for a state of indifference”

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