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A poet's lust for potency

A virgin until he was 30, WB Yeats was obsessed with virility. Stephen Dodd on a new bookIN 1934, Dublin was burning with the gossip. Yeats himself had set the spark, murmuring excitedly to a friend: ``I've had it done.'' His revelation heralded astonishing news; what the 61-year-old poet had undergone was an operation designed to restore him to the sexual potency of a young man.

Oliver St John Gogarty said the surgery had made Yeats ``sex-mad''. Others were not so charitable. A rumour spread that he had been injected with the essence of monkey glands.

The talk, though exaggerated, was not far from a bizarre truth. Yeats, approaching old age with determined reluctance, had signed up at the clinic of a London sexologist. There he learned of a long sequence of scientific research by the medical profession, begun when a French doctor injected himself with an extract taken from the testicles of guinea pigs and dogs.

By 1934 the brightest minds advocated a kind of vasectomy to restore lost virility. Yeats was desperate for fresh vigour. He wrote to his first mistress: ``I shall be a sinful man to the end, and think upon my death-bed of all the nights I wasted in my youth.'' Desire, however, needed action to back up the promise of words. The poet submitted to the surgeon's knife.

The last years of William Butler Yeats' life became a quest for potency in the bedroom as much as in the written word. ``Yeats,'' writes his latest biographer Brenda Maddox, ``equated sexual drive with poetic power.'' At an age when his contemporaries had long surrendered to expected weaknesses of the flesh, Yeats conducted at least four affairs, often concurrently.

Had the operation worked? Opinions are divided. Yeats' wife Georgie known widely as George said that the trip to the Harley Street doctor, along with renewed top-up visits for injections, certainly made her husband feel better, but did nothing to cure his impotence. Other partners, though, might have furnished differing reports.

Willie and George, in their earliest years together as much as in the poet's decline, had always presented a strangely satisfied compromise to the world. They were married in haste; George long desired Yeats, and he was purred by an ethereal warning that he must wed soon and produce an heir.

George was an Englishwoman, a fellow member of Yeats' occult secret society, the Order of the Golden Dawn. The poet, 51 years old to George's 25, had been her magical sponsor at the order's initiation rite. Impelled to find a wife, he turned to her.

His fellow magician was not his first choice as a bride. In the months before his proposal, Yeats was rebuffed first by Maud Gonne and then by her daughter Iseult. Yeats went so far as to ask Maud's permission to marry Iseult, and she consented to the idea, but warned that Iseult, then little more than a teenager, would think Yeats foolish for asking. Maud was proved right.

George learned the truth of her new husband's affections during the first days of the marriage. Yeats still loved Iseult, and was plunged into black despair on their honeymoon.

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When a letter arrived from Maud's daughter, Willie confessed. It was then, claims Brenda Maddox, that his wife devised an extraordinary stratagem to keep the nascent marriage alive.

``Georgie's burst of magic was a brilliant stroke,'' writes the biographer, ``one of the most ingenious wifely strategies ever tried to take a husband's mind off other women.'' A few days into the marriage, sitting by her desk, George picked up a pen and began to move the nib through ``automatic writing'' the supposed communication of the spirits of the dead through the handwriting of the living. Yeats was wholly ready to believe spirits were using her to channel vital information to himself.

For the next four years, George's deliveries from the other world were an adroit mix of the spiritual and the utterly down-to-earth. For Yeats, she was the conduit for a remarkable flood of knowledge about the construction of life itself.

Between each flurry of revelation came earthier concerns. Yeats, the spirits instructed, should take more care of the needs of the medium herself his wife. The messages became clear. Willie was to administer to George's sexual requirements. The spirits knew that he suffered from exhaustion, and offered advice on how often the couple should make love, and sometimes even the venue for the event.

``Depends on your physical vitality,'' wrote George's hand, moving through apparent trance. ``If you are tired two days later once is enough, if your fatigue lasts over two days once a week is enough.''

When George decided they should try for a child, again the spirit guides took a hand. A new presence arrived, introducing herself as Anne Hyde, the long-dead Duchess of Ormonde from the 17th century. Anne wanted the couple to reincarnate her own dead child in their baby. Willie, enraptured by this link between the dead and a child yet to be born his own child rushed to corroborate the information about Anne Hyde's history. There were errors, but he did not seem to care. The psychic communications continued intensely for the first five years of the marriage. Once, ghostly voices, speaking through George, ordered Yeats to put his wife into a hypnotically induced sleep and make love to her.

Then, after the birth of Michael, the couple's second child, the conversations with ghosts ended.

Sex, too codified between the couple with the occult euphemism ``sun-in-moon'' virtually disappeared from the marriage, both as Willie's affections strayed elsewhere, and as increasing ill-health propelled him into an obsessive search for lost youth. His first adulterous lover was a woman who painted scenery at the Abbey Theatre. His Dublin friends soon noticed his fresh delight in the company of far younger women. Iseult despaired over his liking for telling her obscene stories.

A letter arrived from Margot Ruddock, a 27-year-old English actress who sought advice on her own writing. Yeats met her in London, and rented a room in a lodging house for them to share. He was clearly smitten, writing to Margot: ``I cannot bear the idea of a half-hour lost.''

Ethel Mannin was 34 when she met Yeats. She was a successful writer, with her first novel Crescendo described by one critic as a ``saga of sex'' already running to its 29th printing. Yeats wrote to a friend: ``Wonderful things have happened. This is Baghdad. This is not London.''

His youthful forays took their toll, however, and he returned each time to Dublin exhausted. George led an increasingly isolated life, determined to keep the marriage alive, even if it meant submitting to a system of alternative partners. In 1935 Yeats met Lady Dorothy Wellesley, a poet, who told him she saw ghosts in her bedroom, and struck an immediate chord. He embarked on a curious love affair through poetry. They exchanged verses, a raunchy narrative about a noblewoman's sexual appetites. A clearly stirred Yeats wrote to her: ``I remade myself and yourself into a single being.''

YEATS' last lover was journalist and feminist, Edith Shackleton Heald, 53. In 1937, when they met, the poet was 72. ``There is little doubt that it was a physical affair,'' writes Brenda Maddox, ``consummated as far as possible with his myriad infirmities.''

The lovers were instantly attracted, and began taking holidays together. One surviving photograph shows Willie smiling benignly as Edith sunbathes topless at her house. He sent her letters, pleading for ``a friendship from which I hope so much''.

Failing health robbed the poet of his follies. In his last months he worked as best he could to juggle his paramours, keeping secrets from one, confiding to another the extent of his infatuations. But his body betrayed the truth, that he was ill and in constant pain.

When he died in France in 1939, both George and Dorothy were sitting at his bedside. He was just days away from his last, planned indiscretion, a month-long holiday with Edith.

Lost youth had never really returned. For all his amorous adventuring, Yeats never shook from himself the awful awareness of his age.

As in his magical inquiries, though, he held the ability for both faith and delusion, and was content to become his own happy dupe. The ageing lover he recognised the foolish archetype in himself was never better praised than in his own verse. I have what no young man can have /Because he loves too much/ Words I have that can pierce the heart/ But what can he do but touch?


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