For years, poet William Butler Yeats famously courted Maude Gonne—in vain. As part of his suit, he wrote When You Are Old, in which he reproaches his beloved:
When you are old and grey and full of sleep,
And nodding by the fire, take down this book,
And slowly read, and dream of the soft look
Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep;
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;
And bending down beside the glowing bars,
Murmur, a little sadly, how Love fled
And paced upon the mountains overhead
And hid his face amid a crowd of stars.
Yeats’s attempt to draw Maude Gonne to him by conjuring up a regretful old age for her was no more successful than are most self-serving admonitions. Yet it produced a diamond of unrequited love.
In Words, another poem written long after his failed suit, Yeats asks himself how it would have affected his life if his court had succeeded. By this time, he’d “come into [his] strength” as a poet, “and words obey[ed his] call” (though Maude Gonne did not):
That had she done so who can say
What would have shaken from the sieve?
I might have thrown poor words away
And been content to live.
When life won’t oblige us, we too can draw inspiration from those who refuse our call and crush our hopes. No suitor wants to admit it, but those who don’t return our love often give us something as valuable as those who do. Like Yeats, novelist Henry James saw an upside in the failure of love, remarking stoically that he’d had to “give up life to be conscious of it.”
We tend to discount our unrequited loves. But not having our way with someone is often as important to the narrative of our lives as the outcome we so ardently desire. The next time you raise a glass to love, consider a silent toast to love unrequited.