Published online by Cambridge University Press: 28 January 2007
The Cambridge anthropologist Jane Harrison once posed a question that remains as challenging today as when it was first framed. She asked why “women never want to write poetry about Man as a sex - why is Woman a dream and a terror to man and not the other way around?” For Yeats, whose frustrated devotion to an unattainable Muse dominated his life and his poetry, women were more often a dream than a terror. Nevertheless the feminist poet Adrienne Rich sees him as exemplary of the asymmetrical power relation between male subject and female object:
And there were all those poems about women, written by men: it seemed to be a given that men wrote poems and women frequently inhabited them. These women were almost always beautiful, but threatened with the loss of beauty, the loss of youth - the fate worse than death. Or, they were beautiful and died young, like Lucy and Lenore. Or, the woman was like Maud Gonne, cruel and disastrously mistaken, and the poem reproached her because she had refused to become a luxury for the poet.
Rich describes three distinct poetic modes: the carpe diem genre, which threatens the mistress with the ravages of old age in order to pressure her into bed; the “cruel mistress” trope, which laments her refusal to comply; and the idealization of the dead beloved made fashionable by Dante and Petrarch. All three modes exemplify the tradition, previously noted by Jane Harrison, in which men write and women are written about.