Yeats’s Second Puberty

W.B. Yeats, and not I, described his last years as a second puberty. He meant the term to express his renewed sexual vigor, though he thought of it as also a psychological recovery. Just after his marriage, when he was fifty-two, he had written in a poem, “I have as healthy flesh and blood as any rhymer’s had,” yet things had changed by the time he reached sixtyeight. At that time, in 1934, he complained to a friend that his sexual powers had diminished. The friend, as much in jest as in earnest, remarked that an Austrian physiologist, Eugen Steinach, had developed in 1918 an operation for rejuvenation. It had become popular in the 1920s. In Vienna, for example, a hundred teachers and university professors had submitted to the operation, one of them being Freud in 1923.

Yeats promptly went to the library to consult the one book in English that dealt with it, Rejuvenation (1924) by the London surgeon Norman Haire. Haire wrote that he himself at that time had performed twenty-five such operations, with what he regarded as generally good results. The operation lasted only a quarter of an hour. No monkey glands took part. It was what we now know as a vasectomy: the surgeon cut the vas deferens, removed a piece of it, then tied up the two ends separately. Steinach’s theory, which I am sorry to say is no longer held, was that the production of the male hormone would thereby be increased and vitalize the whole body’s functioning.

Norman Haire was a well-known figure in London sexological circles. Yeats went to consult him and told him—as Haire wrote to me twelve years later—“that for about three years…he had lost all inspiration and been unable to write anything new. He had gone over varying versions of his poems, choosing those he preferred.” To rescue his verse as well as his potency, then, Yeats thought he must undergo the operation. (He spoke also of improving his blood pressure.) Versemaking and lovemaking had always made connections in his mind. Not to be able to do the one meant not to be able to do the other. In a late poem he declares that the spur of his poetry has always been lust and rage, the same qualities that in “Byzantium” he speaks of as “the fury and the mire of human veins.” What awakened his images to life, he insisted in a song for The King of the Great Clock Tower, was “heroic wantonness.”

Haire performed the operation on his distinguished patient during the first week of April 1934. Was it a success? Yeats thought that it was, and must have encouraged his friend, the poet Sturge Moore, to have it two years later. On the physical level it cannot have had much effect, for Norman Haire, whom Yeats authorized to discuss his case, said to me what a woman friend of Yeats also said—my curiosity was I hope …

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