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An old fool
Illustration of W.B Yeats
The last passions of W.B. Yeats
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Thank the Lord all men are fools.

W. B. Yeats, "A Full Moon in March"
 

W. B. Yeats was a poet centrally interested in foolishness, and the latest addition to the John J. Burns Library's collection of Yeats papers is a group of letters and documents brimming with the inspired folly of one of the greatest poets in English. Although the new collection includes material from the last three decades of Yeats's life, its most poignant portion reveals the concerns that drove him in the 1930s, a time when he felt temporarily that his creative inspiration was flagging, along with his sexual potency.

In April 1934 Yeats underwent what was called a Steinach operation, a version of a vasectomy, pioneered in Vienna, which was believed to rejuvenate male sexual potency. Perhaps not coincidentally, in September of that year he began a relationship with the young actress and poet Margot Ruddock, who was 27 to his 69.

Their correspondence, published in 1970 by MacMillan, occupies a thick folder in the new Burns collection, and includes the song from A Full Moon in March quoted above, which he enclosed in a letter to Ruddock because, he said, it was "partly addressed" to her. Belying his public assertions that the operation had been a success, in November 1934 Yeats writes to Margot of struggling to compose a poem for her, but waking up "in utter black gloom, 'perhaps after all' I thought 'this nervous inhibition has not left me' -- I pictured Margot unsatisfied and lost. How could I finish the poem?" But he did finish "Margot," and enclosed it in the same letter, portraying himself as a uniquely vulnerable lover; has there ever been another love poem in which the lover recommends that his beloved squint at his aging body?

O how can I that interest hold?
What offer to attentive eyes?
Mind grows young and body old;
When half closed her eye-lid lies
A sort of hidden glory shall
About these stooping shoulders fall.


Envelopes torn open in anticipation attest to the "interest" Yeats's letters held for the beautiful young poet: In a time-honored exchange of sexual economy he traded an older man's knowledge for her youth and sexuality. He patiently, tenderly edited Ruddock's ragged, crystalline poems, and, having known her just two years, bailed her out financially when she descended into madness. But eventually Ruddock's importunate demands palled, and in a late letter Yeats says peevishly, "I was in my bath when you phoned having spent the whole morning on your work."

Yeats believed in the intimate connection between desire and creativity, and after his operation, despite much evidence that he remained impotent, his inspiration soared again.

In one of the gems of the Burns's new acquisition, a typed manuscript written by BBC producer George Barnes detailing Yeats's involvement with radio broadcasting on the station, Barnes says that Yeats was planning a broadcast debate with the Irish Nationalist hero James Stephens in which he would argue "That it is not the duty of the artist to paint beautiful women and beautiful places is nonsense. That the exclusion of sex appeal from poetry, painting and sculpture is nonsense. . . . That, on the contrary, all arts are an expression of desire -- exciting desirable life, exulting desirable death. . . ."

The late poems of Yeats are sharp cries in the struggle to hold on to the pleasures of the body when the body fails. "The Wild Old Wicked Man" (1938) brags that he has what no young man can have: "Words I have that can pierce the heart, / But what can he do but touch?" Settling in to compensatory pleasures, he can say with bravura that, while religion can burn out suffering eternally, "I choose the second-best, / I forget it all awhile / Upon a woman's breast."

Yeats ultimately chose the body over the soul, in late life embracing the Tantric belief in sex as the path to divinity, but sex without consummation, a philosophy that must have been all the more appealing to a post-Steinach Yeats. In 1931 he began a friendship with Shri Purohit Swami, for whose spiritual autobiography he wrote an introduction and with whom he collaborated on a translation of the Upanishads when the two stayed together in Majorca in 1935-36. St. John Ervine, one-time temporary manager of the Abbey Theatre, paid a visit to Yeats while cruising in the Mediterranean and offered this description of the poet's spiritual guru: "The Yogi, dressed in bright pink and looking like a bright carnation, sat with his hands folded on his ample paunch." Stationery from the Hotel Terramar in Palma, on which the Swami wrote letters to Margot Ruddock, included in this new acquisition, is imprinted: "Located on the famous C'as Catal Coast. Own sea beach. All comforts. Central heating."

So runs the fine line between wisdom and foolishness, the sublime and the ridiculous, inspiration and madness. Yeats never crossed this last line, though Margot Ruddock -- a Crazy Jane of a young and beautiful sort -- did. She appeared at the Hotel Terramar in May 1936 in the throes of a nervous breakdown, then went down to the shore to drown herself, only to begin to dance, a dance Yeats memorialized in two poems, "Sweet Dancer" and "A Crazed Girl." Her body had failed her spirit in a tragedy Yeats knew all too well by this stage of his life.

George Barnes's account of Yeats's adventures in broadcasting provides a vivid picture of Yeats as a kind of performance artist. Playwright as well as poet, Yeats was very sensitive to the sounds of speech and very exacting in attempting to get those reading his poems to reproduce the sounds running in his head. Margot Ruddock was one of the professional actors he approved for the broadcasts, though, as he told Barnes, he deplored professionally trained singers, preferring "the sort of people who sing when they are drunk or in love."

Barnes says of the four BBC programs in 1937, "It was Yeats's way of saying lines that made these broadcasts memorable. In 'The Irish Airman' he made Clinton [an actor] speak the lines 'A lonely impulse of delight drove to this tumult in the clouds' as though he was experiencing the physical sensation of flight. 'Ecstasy, Baddeley!' he would cry and repeat the lines lovingly to himself."

But what worked on the stage of the Abbey did not necessarily translate across radio waves. Commenting in a letter of February 2, 1937, on a broadcast of his verse from the Abbey, Yeats laments, "Broadcast a fiasco. Every human sound turned into the groans, roars, bellows of a wild [beast]. I recognize that I am a fool. . . . I got Stephenson [an actor] while singing 'Come all old Parnellites' to clap his hands in time to the music after every verse and Higgins added people in the wings clapping their hands. It was very stirring -- on the wireless it was a schoolboy knocking with the end of a pen-knife or a spoon. I am an humbled man. . . ." What Yeats called "all that I think noble and poignant in speech" could be reduced to bathos by a trick of technology.

Barnes tells an anecdote about the night of Yeats's fourth radio performance, in which he read his own poems. Although he was tired, afterward Yeats took Barnes and Ruddock to a well-known Italian restaurant at which he had had "succulent meals" in the past. But "Alas for the memory," writes Barnes, "the management had changed and a stern Scottish waitress denied us drink and eventually brought Margot a white coffee and Yeats a hard boiled egg."

These documents of the last years of Yeats's life give glimpses of a bravery and a tragic foolishness like Lear's. It is so easy to laugh, so easy to caricature (a foppish Yeats in monocle and dark cravat), so much harder to reach again and again for ecstasy when the human body was never meant to lift off from the ground.

Clare M. Dunsford

Clare M. Dunsford is an associate dean in the College of Arts and Sciences and director of BC's Cornerstone Program. She has written frequently for BCM, most recently on painter Francoise Gilot in the Fall 2000 issue.


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