Maurice Harmon, "Old Age and Creativity"
Poetry Ireland May/June 2012
The question is what happens when the poet reaches old age. Does he discover new subject matter and different techniques? There are no simple answers. Very often the subjects that preoccupied him in the past still interest him although he may approach them from a different angle and in a different tone. W B Yeats made growing old itself an issue. He did not like it, hated the loss of physical strength and the waning of sexual energy. In ‘Sailing to Byzantium’ he declared, ‘An aged man is but a paltry thing’ unless ‘Soul clap its hands and sing’, unless he can counter physical decline with imaginative intensity. He proceeds to make conflict central to his later work, dramatising and imagining the contrast between youth and age, past and present, stability and change. In the process his style changed from the ringing declarations of ‘Sailing to Byzantium’ to the compressed power of ‘Leda and the Swan’ to ballad forms in Last Poems. He was that kind of poet, constantly remaking himself and becoming remarkably vigorous in old age. In these years he also extended his intellectual range, placing his sense of personal loss within the contexts of civilisations rising and falling.
The wonderful Louise Bogan on Yeats,
The Atlantic 1938
|Muse and poet|
Yeats's faith in the development of his own powers has never failed. He wrote, in 1923, after receiving from the King of Sweden the medal symbolizing the Nobel Prize:—
It shows a young man listening to a Muse, who stands young and beautiful with a great lyre in her hand, and I think as I examine it, "I was good-looking once like that young man, but my unpractised verse was full of infirmity, my Muse old as it were, and now I am old and rheumatic and nothing to look at, but my Muse is young." I am even persuaded that she is like those Angels in Swedenborg's vision, and moves perpetually "towards the dayspring of her youth."
Despite the proliferation of testicular tales, no "monkey glands" were involved in Yeats's self-renewal. He did have a vasectomy, an enactment of what Susan Johnston Graf called "sexual magic," evidently a belief that the "vital energy of procreation would be channeled into imaginary, literary, and visionary work" (W. B. Yeats: Twentieth-Century Magus, p. 203)
Graf suggests that, as Kathleen Raine--a follower of Yeats and Blake, and a poet worth reading--pointed out, the operation (and other sometimes-embarrassing-to-scholars facts like an interest in the occult) may have been one element that allowed a new flowering. His belief in its efficacy, that is, may have contributed to his powers in his late writing. If you really (really, now!) want to know more, you can google "Yeats" and "Steinach operation" to find out heaps more. Richard Ellmann and others have attempted to put the wilder stories to bed, so to speak, but it seems the rumors are a bit too lively to suppress.