A Lazarus beside Me
One evening in the spring of 1937 I was in London, at the Grafton Galleries. The occasion was an open meeting of the Sex Education Society. This Society was an offshoot of the World League for Sexual Reform, and existed to further an enlightened attitude to all aspects of sex. The members were progressively minded men and women from many fields of life; some were humble individuals like myself; others were distinguished persons. The president was Dr – or, as he prefers, for he is proud of being a surgeon – Mr Norman Haire.
Norman Haire, even to progressives, is an extraordinary, I might even say an incalculable being. He considered himself, and probably was, the only really qualified, practising sexologist in England. In the early days of the war he fled, somewhat sensationally, to Australia, where, although a Polish Jew (Norman Haire is not his real name), he had spent his early life. He has only just returned to this country, and I have no up-to-date knowledge of him, but at the time of which I write he was a personality, grossly condemned on the one hand, foolishly worshipped on the other. Myself, I neither worshipped nor condemned. I admired him in parts, his skill, his knowledge in his own field, and for the rest I liked him and disliked him by turns. There were times, indeed, and these I fear were the most, when I disliked him very heartily.
The speaker this evening was to be Dr Harry Benjamin, the famous Berlin endocrinologist, who had foreseen in the rise of Hitlerism the death of German, especially Jewish-German, culture, and had left his native land for America. For some years now he had been practising in New York City. His subject tonight was to be the highly controversial one of rejuvenation.
For me, this meeting was a great event, eagerly anticipated for many months and vitally connected with the welfare of the man with whom I was deeply, and because of the circumstances, now literally desperately in love: by name M.M. So it was that I called him. I had known M.M. nearly all my life. He had been my lover for a considerable part of it. The situation teemed with difficulties. He was many years my senior. Age, however, in itself, was of no account, for despite his years he was in his prime. It was all the more tragic, therefore, when he met with an accident which caused injury to the sex organs, with the result that, almost suddenly, he had become a changed man – psychologically difficult, incredibly obstinate, sexually impotent.
Haire was confident that something could be done but M.M. flatly refused to see him, and the more so as he recovered sufficiently to resume his job, which took him twice a year to the United States. It was then that Haire told me of Benjamin, suggesting that, although M.M. steadily refused to see him in England (this attitude being typical of such cases), M.M. might, perhaps, be persuaded to see Benjamin in New York. Then ensued an extraordinary correspondence between myself and Benjamin which revealed his unconventional kindness and disinterested desire to help. M.M. relented sufficiently to say that he ‘would see’. He went again, he was in fact there now, and I had just received a letter saying that he had seen Benjamin, who, however, was on the point of leaving for England, so that nothing could be done at the moment. Details, he said, should follow. My hopes were raised. That Benjamin was coming to England of course I knew; indeed, he was here, almost in the room. I was filled with excited speculation.
This, then, was the state of affairs, at least my state of affairs, as I sat in the Grafton Galleries that evening. I was intensely preoccupied, nevertheless, keenly alert to my surroundings, for they were all part of the preoccupation. I noticed that the room was arranged, or so I thought, rather oddly – lengthwise, with the rows of chairs slightly curved. And they were very uncomfortable, thin, gilded chairs. I was there early, and had chosen a seat slightly to the left, in what must have been about the middle row. Gradually the seats filled, and I saw Haire approaching, and with him a man I knew must be Benjamin. I rose to greet them, and after a few friendly words they passed on. I sat down again and resumed my thoughts, to which was now added the satisfaction that Benjamin appeared to me as kindly in person as by letter. And before long I should know the truth. I might even get the chance of a word with him later on this evening, at Haire’s house in Harley Street, where I had been invited to his party in Benjamin’s honour. I looked at my watch, translated the time for New York, and wondered what M.M. was doing just then. Everything centred round M.M. I wondered and hoped and feared; and feared and hoped and wondered, until at last I was forced to give it up.
Because something was happening, happening to me. What, I did not know, but the result was I could no longer concentrate. It was something even more urgent than my intensely excited condition. Then I was conscious that it was in the room and it emanated, or so it seemed, from behind me, and my instinct was to get up and turn round and look. But manners forbade. At last, however, I could bear it no longer. I turned as I sat. And then I saw.
The chairs behind me were still only taken here and there, but two rows back stood the most striking-looking man I had ever seen: tall, somewhat gaunt, aristocratic, very dignified: a strong, yet sensitive face, crowned by untidy locks of white hair: horn-rimmed glasses, through which shone strange, otherworldly eyes. He wore evening dress, with a soft shirt. He leaned slightly forward, resting both hands on the chair in front of him, and on the little finger of his left hand was a large, exotic-looking ring. How long I looked I do not know, but I know that I saw all this, and that all the time he just stood motionless and gazed. And although those eyes seemed unseeing, I knew they had met mine.
I turned again, feeling as though I had committed a crime. Yet, I asked myself, was it my fault? What had happened? Who was this amazing creature? A magician, who had willed me to turn? I was acutely conscious now that he still stood and still gazed. Then I became aware that he had moved forward and had sat down, the row behind me, a little to my left.
The room filled up. Haire and Benjamin mounted the platform. Haire, from the chair, introduced Benjamin with appropriate remarks and Benjamin delivered his lecture. Here was quietness, assurance, scientific fact, human understanding, a vision for mankind: a German and a Jew who had found asylum in America, giving of his knowledge in England without self-interest or thought of personal gain. I was carried away beyond thought of my own gain, beyond the welfare of M.M. to a vision of a world made utopian by the fellowship of nations and the conquest of old age. ‘Life, after all, is not important,’ the speaker concluded. ‘Only living is.’
Questions and discussion followed. Two things remain in my memory. A man asked scornfully what was the connection, if any, between physical rejuvenation and the love to which the poets testified all down the ages? Strangely, I cannot recall Benjamin’s reply, but a woman got up and said that she had been ‘rejuvenated’ with the sole idea of benefiting her health, but that to her amazement she had fallen in love again and to her even greater amazement her love had been returned, and that, she submitted, was the gentleman’s answer. As far as I am aware the man who had gazed upon me said nothing. Neither did I. There seemed nothing more to say.
The meeting dispersed. I stayed behind to speak to the society’s secretary and so was one of the last to go down the stairs and out into the street. I remember how refreshing was the spring evening after the stuffy room.
The last cars, mostly large fashionable ones, were moving off. Only my poor old Singer remained, parked in the cul-de-sac outside the galleries. I knew that the battery was down so I took the starting handle and proceeded to crank up the engine. It was obstinate, and as I stooped there, struggling (somewhat incongruously, for I was in evening dress), I heard a voice say, ‘I’m sorry. I’m afraid I’m not much good with those things.’ I looked up and recognised the man who had compelled me to turn round in the lecture room. He stood on the pavement, half in shadow, at the end of the little street; motionless, as though he had always stood there, and always would. His presence there came as a shock. With my mind full of the lecture I had completely forgotten to notice what had happened to him after the meeting had broken up.
‘That’s all right,’ I said. ‘Please don’t apologise. I’m used to it.’ He looked on in silence. By the time the engine was going the place was deserted. We were the only people left. It seemed queer that so distinguished looking a person should appear so lonely and not have gone off in one of the big cars. I became acutely aware of the defects of mine, but at least it was going. It was clearly up to me to do something about it.
‘Are you, by any chance, going to Norman Haire’s party?’ I inquired. ‘I rather think that is where I’m supposed to be going,’ he replied. A little strange, that, I thought. But I said, ‘That’s where I’m going, so perhaps I may give you a lift?’ ‘Thank you,’ he said. ‘That’s very kind of you.’ And we got into the car and drove off.
At first neither of us spoke. I was concerned with joining the stream of traffic in Lower Regent Street. Then he asked abruptly: ‘Are you connected with the arts?’ ‘I don’t know about connected,’ I replied guardedly. ‘I’m interested.’ ‘And may I ask the name of my kind chauffeur?’ he continued. ‘Platt,’ I said. ‘Avies Platt. And may I ask yours?’ ‘Yeats,’ he said! ‘W.B. Yeats.’ And added: ‘I’m a poet.’
If he had said his name was Michael and declared himself to be an archangel it could not have had a more catastrophic effect upon me.
‘What?’ I exclaimed, ‘Yeats! The Irish poet! My God – well, my God … well … Yeats … well …’
Then I suddenly heard the ghastly sound of my own voice and realised how incredibly rude my words would seem.
‘Forgive me,’ I stammered. ‘You see, I’m not – as you kindly suggested – except in the humblest way – connected with the arts – I’m nobody – and well – I can’t get over it … It’s a bit of a shock to find, all of a sudden, that I am driving Yeats!’
What happened after that I do not know, except that I completely lost my sense of direction, and I, who knew the map of London well, could not remember how to get from Regent Street to Harley Street. Where we drove, or rather, where I drove, I have no idea. I only know that after what seemed incredible hours of in and out and roundabout, at last we arrived – no. 127. The eerie, fate-deciding street seemed now full of cars, but fortunately there was a space left just in front of the door. Sacred or not, I took it.
We were, of course, horribly late. In the hall the man relieved us of our coats and we found ourselves in Haire’s ugly – as I think – Chinese room, with an awful crush, a great buzz of talk, clouds of smoke, many excellent things to eat, but little or nothing to drink. My instinct was to make myself scarce and look around in the hope of finding someone I knew, for I dared not monopolise him and I took it for granted that as soon as it was known he was there he would be besieged. But to my surprise, this was not so – perhaps because everybody seemed to be edging towards the corner where, I imagined, was Benjamin; perhaps because this was not, primarily, a gathering of the arts. Professor Flugel and his wife, I remember, talked with him; also Benjamin’s namesake, Dr A. Benjamin, and it was he, I think, a little later, who said we had been standing long enough and kindly found us some chairs. As to making myself scarce I now began to realise that he did not intend that I should – every time I tried to make what was, I hoped, a tactful move, he brought me back. But by now I had completely recovered from the shock of his identity and it seemed entirely natural that I should be talking with him here. He had, apparently, no desire for publicity: he was charming to anyone who approached him, but, as far as I saw, he made no approach to others. Haire, as he mixed among his guests, spoke to us now and then, and once he took me aside and said, ‘I’m afraid you’re in for a disappointment. I’ve had a word with Benjamin. He says he has seen nothing of M.M.’ ‘But I’ve had a letter,’ I said. ‘Well, talk to Benjamin when you get the chance,’ he returned. This was puzzling. But without making myself conspicuous there was no chance of my getting near Benjamin. I continued to discuss life with Yeats.
It is impossible, at this space of time, to record all that he said, but his voice, his gesture, his appearance and some of his very words, are indelibly printed on my memory. Looking back, I think now as I thought then, that his greatness lay in his simplicity, that direct simplicity only possessed by the truly great. And this simplicity shone out now in two special ways – in his quietness and dignity. I might even say beauty, in that noisy, ugly room, and in his direct sincerity of speech with me, who was, after all, an unknown stranger. And I was a woman. Do not mistake me; this is no self-deprecation! The point is, and to me it is vital, that I am acutely aware that there are many men with alleged claims to greatness, sex equality creeds, and intimate friendships with women, who, nevertheless, cannot, in their inner being, accept women as fellow humans, and are therefore, in my eyes, completely damned. Some, of course, are better than their creed: what Yeats’s creed was, whether he ever formulated one, I do not know. I do know that he accepted me now as one with himself. Obviously, I am not speaking of personal achievement but of human existence. From the sex point of view, or from any other, as I saw him, there was no trace of patronage in him. Fame had left him unspoilt.
It was this directness, this bold sincerity, yet combined with an exquisite courtesy, that at once endeared him to me. It was as though he paid me the compliment of assuming that I, too, had no time to waste on introductory trivialities and inane irrelevancies. There was a plunge, straight away, into reality, and now he renewed his attack on my ‘connection with the arts’ and asked me what I did. I confessed – and it was a hard confession, so much I hated what I did – that I had been trained as an art student but it had all been a hideous mistake, and that, to my sorrow, I was condemned to earn my living by what was called ‘teaching art’. My desire, I added, yet scarcely daring, was to write, but the primary business of getting my living kept me to the detested mill. I said all this in complete innocence, merely because he compelled me to the truth, for at that time I had no knowledge of his early youth. He exclaimed that this had been his own experience, and seemed much concerned on my behalf. He then told me of his father, a painter who wished his son to follow in his footsteps; of his student days in Dublin and how he had hated this art training; how he knew that painting was not his medium, that he knew he must write, and how, in the end, he had broken away and done so. And he begged me, if I felt like that, to try and do the same.
‘If you would write,’ he said, ‘you must get away, by yourself, into another world and write according to the vision you see there. You must write what you believe and not mind what people say. It is the only way. You know,’ he added, ‘when I come down to breakfast in the morning after writing all night, it is coming back into another world. It is as though I am not the same man, yet I am.’
This ‘other world’ experience I knew, although I told myself I didn’t ‘come down’ to ‘breakfast’. I got up, drank cold water, maybe ate an apple and rushed off to the hated job. Somehow, despite his frugal eating now, I pictured him peering absent-mindedly under the covers of breakfast dishes, all arranged for him, to see what was there. But the people one had to contend with were in this world, I insisted. I was a coward. Some of them I minded very much.
This led on to the subject of friendship and here we did not understand each other quite so well. He seemed self-contradictory, for here he was, showing such friendliness to me, yet he lived, I felt, and so I said, in a charmed circle. He might have a public to face, even enemies to contend with, but his immediate acquaintances were his friends, whereas an ordinary mortal like myself had to deal with many intermediaries, neither public nor friends. These were the people who thought one mad or worse when they knew of one’s ‘other world’. All this he admitted but said it was the test of friendship, and looking at it like that all his life seemed to have been a collecting and sifting of friends, so that those who now surrounded him were indeed his friends.
By now the crowd round Benjamin seemed to be thinning so I felt I must definitely excuse myself from Yeats and make my way in Benjamin’s direction. And when I reached him it proved to be as Haire had said – he had seen nothing of M.M. This, indeed, was a bitter disappointment and the more so as it meant that M.M. had deliberately lied to me. At first I refused to believe it but Benjamin assured me that he had kept special watch to see if an Englishman approaching his description had been under an assumed name (common occurrence, he said) – but no – the only Englishman lately was a young man of thirty. He was extremely kind and sympathetic, doing all he could to soften the blow, and telling me not to be over distressed at the lie, for that also was common in these cases, and simply part of the particular psycho-physical condition. But this was not the time or place for a long conversation and we arranged to meet again a few days hence. But before we had finished speaking a quietness fell upon the room and then suddenly we were enveloped in a terrible silence and I realised that all the other guests had gone. Feeling sick with embarrassment I bade him goodnight and turned round to see Haire standing by the fireplace with his left arm leaning on the shelf and Yeats standing, impatiently, it seemed, by his side. I started to apologise to Haire and to thank him and should have taken leave of them both, but he cut me short. ‘That’s all right,’ he said. ‘But Mr Yeats is waiting for you. And I think it is getting a bit late. If you have your car perhaps you can give him a lift?’ ‘Of course,’ I said, and he came with us to the door.
The next thing I remember is Yeats getting into the car. One of his legs seemed stiff and I think gave him pain. He apologised, saying he feared he had an attack of rheumatism, but once in the car seemed perfectly well. I asked him where I could take him. He asked me where I was going. I said I was staying at Berkhamsted, thirty miles out, but no matter, I should be delighted to take him home first. Where was he staying, I asked? At his club, the Athenaeum, he said, and we set off in that direction. I was no longer suffering from loss of memory: there was no difficulty now about the route. Looking back I know that we drove straight there and yet again I am oblivious of the streets along which we passed. It can only have been a comparatively short distance, yet it seems now a journey of many miles, lasting many hours. All I remember is Yeats sitting beside me while I drove mechanically and an amazing conversation – if conversation it can be called – took place. Neither can I remember how it started, except for the first time, oddly enough, reference was made to what, after all, was the event of the evening, Benjamin’s lecture. At Haire’s house it simply hadn’t been mentioned. But now a strange thing, a very strange thing, happened. It was as though his impersonal, objective criticism of the lecture, with which he was delighted, passed imperceptibly into a paean of praise of the genius of Steinach, then mounted higher and higher to the wonder and glory of the Steinach operation, all supported by what were, to me, unintelligible statements, extraordinary evidence, and knowledge that could, it seemed, only be gained from direct, personal, subjective experience. It is impossible to convey my reaction. I sat and drove and listened, but as in a dream. For things were happening just as they do in dreams, the possible mixed with the impossible, and time and space of no account. I was mystified. I could not fathom it. My mind was incapable of receiving it. Then, with a rush, it dawned upon me and like a stupid, incredulous child I said, ‘Do you mean that you yourself have had the operation?’ ‘Yes,’ he said. ‘I’m sorry. I thought I had made it clear.’
Absurd though it may seem, I had been totally unprepared for this revelation. It seemed more incredible than the fact that he was Yeats. I had recovered from the shock of driving the greatest living poet, but now there was a Lazarus beside me, one raised from the dead. Now, I can view the operation as a scientific fact; then, despite all that I had read on the subject, all that I had hoped for M.M., and all that Benjamin had said that evening, it seemed a miracle, and that sense of the miraculous was increased now a thousandfold by this dramatic presentation. Supposing he had said, ‘You know I was personally interested in the lecture because I’ve had the operation,’ that would have been sufficient shock. But no. That was not the way of a poet. At any rate it was not the way of Yeats.
It was Haire who had performed the operation and to understand what Yeats himself thought of the success of it one must have heard him testify with the vigour and emphasis with which he testified to me as we drove across London that night. ‘I regard it,’ he said, ‘as one of the greatest events, if not the supreme event, of my life. It is impossible to describe what I experienced when I came round from the anaesthetic. It was like a sudden rush of puberty, yet coming at a time of life that made it intelligible: it was something now that one could understand. I felt life flowing into me. Before the operation, I could scarcely walk across the room without holding on to a chair. I was tortured by desire but could do nothing, or if I tried was prostrate with exhaustion. I had not written, at least anything of worth, for years. But now I was completely cured. I’ve been potent ever since. And above all I started writing again and with a zeal I had scarcely felt before, and in my own opinion what I have written since is some of the best work of my life.’
When I had recovered from all this, enough, that is, to speak, I asked if the fact of his having had the operation was generally known, at least among his friends, for I remembered what he had said about friendship. ‘No,’ he said, and was most emphatic about it. It was only known to a very few, in fact two or three, of his most intimate friends, and it amused him that others who thought they knew him, and counted themselves his friends, did not know this, which was now, after all, the most vital thing about him. They wondered why he was as he was and why he was writing again; but he did not enlighten them – only the chosen few.[*]
Again I was overcome, but with embarrassment, for this was indeed ‘another world’ where he spoke of these things with utter simplicity and directness. But that I should be so honoured with this man’s confidence seemed incredible, and now, with the greater knowledge of the richness of his life and the fullness of his years, it seems even more so. But I tried then to show him how deeply sensible I was of the honour he paid me.
And yet, looking back, I can but admit that perhaps I showed him in a very poor way. Just how things were turning I am not sure: what turn they might have taken can only be conjectured. The turn they did take was conditioned by what, for me, was an emotional factor far outweighing even the amazing aspects of this evening. That factor was M.M. He swamped me, blinded me; the love I had for him was like a kind of disease. It is true, that for a brief space, the magnetism of Yeats was paramount. I was, so to speak, switched off from M.M. and interested in Yeats as Yeats, without any thought of his bearing upon the problem of M.M. But now it became evident that I was automatically ‘M.M.-centred’, which may even be condemned as self-centred. At any rate I asked now if I could tell my tale, and explain my personal interest in the operation? He said ‘Yes, of course.’ I could say anything I liked.
And so I told him all about the complication of myself and M.M. and of my great desire that he should have the operation. What Yeats thought I was going to tell him I do not know, but I feel sure now he was quite unprepared for this. Yet if he felt that his honouring me with his story was poorly paid by so blatantly taking away the interest from himself and placing it directly upon another man he did not betray it, except perhaps by a lessening of excitement and a more subdued tone of manner. He listened gravely, courteously, sympathetically, and said if there was anything he could do to help he would most gladly: ‘And if it will help, tell him about me,’ he said. At what point during all this we reached Pall Mall I do not know but now we found ourselves sitting outside the Athenaeum. ‘Has it gone twelve?’ he asked in a vague sort of way. ‘Ages ago,’ I said.
‘That’s a nuisance,’ he replied, ‘because I believe there is some stupid rule that we may not take ladies in after midnight. I am so sorry. What shall we do?’
‘Let’s stay here,’ I suggested, ‘if it’s all right for you.’
He agreed and we sat in the car, and without the police moving us on – I suppose the Athenaeum is so eminently respectable. And we talked on as naturally as though we had always known each other and difference in age and genius were of no account. But just what we said seems to have vanished (I notice that Lennox Robinson who knew Yeats intimately for years speaks of conversations with him ‘vanishing’), except that he told me how restless and upset he got after a stay in London. He must get back to Dublin – he was going almost immediately – and could I meet him there?
This brought me to earth. We had found common ground in that ‘other world’ but now we were swiftly back in two different worlds, at least in so far as things practicable were concerned. It was difficult to make him see that I was not so fortunately fixed that I could take trips over to Ireland at will. ‘Then London in June’, he suggested. He would be coming over again then, perhaps before, to broadcast: he was hopeless, he said, about dates but the BBC would be sure to announce it some time before and I should be sure to see it. ‘Keep a look out in the papers,’ he said, ‘and then let me know where you are. Write to me here, at the club – that’s best. Letters will always be sent on.’
How long we stayed there I do not know but by now it must have been very late – or very early. In a few hours he had to see his publishers (I think his publishers) and I had thirty miles to drive. It seemed time to part, and a terrible ‘sadness of farewell’ descended on us. ‘Perhaps life will be kind to us,’ he said. ‘Perhaps it won’t. Perhaps we shall meet again, perhaps we shan’t. I hope we shall.’ ‘So do I,’ I said. ‘In any case, I can never thank you for tonight.’ I held out my hand. He took it and held it a long time. Then, in silence, he climbed out of the car and stood on the pavement, still holding my hand through the open door. So, I left him, still standing there. Dawn was breaking as I drove out of London.
For me, things went on as before. I looked upon this meeting with Yeats as a most extraordinary, a super extraordinary episode. I marvelled that I should have been so honoured: I felt the richer for having encountered him. I hoped I should meet him again. But M.M. was still the master motive of my life. He was back in England, he had not seen Benjamin and I was anxious and desperate beyond anything I can explain. I forgot to look at the Radio Times. I did not write to the Athenaeum. I did not hear Yeats broadcast. I made no attempt to meet him.
Then, towards the end of the summer, I was again at one of Haire’s extraordinary parties, this time in the afternoon, at Nettleden Lodge, his country house in Hertfordshire – a place of beauty compared with the Chinese house in Harley Street: it was certainly in a beautiful setting, and, as it happened, it was a spot I had known from childhood and where I had often been with M.M.
As soon as opportunity occurred he bore down upon me.
‘Well,’ he said. ‘And how is Yeats?’
‘Yeats?’ I said vaguely. I thought he meant M.M. He knew so many people it was easy to get names mixed.
‘Yes, Yeats,’ he repeated.
‘I really don’t know,’ I answered. ‘Is he ill or something?’
I thought he had made a mistake. He thought I was making a pretence, and alluded to ‘the last time he saw us’. Then he saw that I was not pretending.
‘What!’ he exclaimed. ‘You don’t mean to tell me that you’ve turned down the greatest literary man of the age?’
Then I tumbled to it. I was furiously angry.
‘What do you mean?’ I demanded. ‘There was no question of turning down. We just discussed life – and art – and he told me about his operation.’
‘Oh yes there was,’ he said. ‘I knew he was going to tell you about the operation. Why do you think he told you?’
‘Well, anyway, why ever he told me, the result was I told him about M.M.,’ I confessed.
‘Oh, I was afraid you would do that,’ he groaned.
This was one of the times when I hated Haire. ‘Afraid?’ I said. Then I told him I was quite sure he knew the last word about sex but I doubted he knew the first about love: he knew I was still in love with M.M. and he, of all people, ought to know by now that, whatever happened in other cases, it had made me psychologically incapable of taking on another man, which was not the same as being guilty of the prudery with which, I knew, he charged me. What exactly had passed between Yeats and Haire that night during those few moments I was talking with Benjamin I do not know, but Haire now gave me to understand that he knew of Yeats’s swift attraction to me and that if I had talked on about M.M. it must have been hurtful to him, and that it could only have been on account of his nobility that he accepted the situation in silence – more, he had offered what he could to the other man. But from Haire’s point of view, well, it was plain madness for me to break my heart (and my health, as he often told me) over M.M. when I could have had for a lover the greatest poet of the day.
But, as I have said, Haire is incalculable. And the truth, as Yeats saw it, I can never know. Yet I saw things now, and not least my own crudity, as I had not seen them before. How terrible if I had made him feel that I did not want him because I was, comparatively, young. How terrible if I had made him feel that I was indifferent to those things for which his life’s work stood. It was certain, at least, that he had offered me friendship, and I had been scarcely gracious about it. I had made no effort to meet him or even listen to his broadcast. And now I was in a worse dilemma.
M.M. had unexpectedly to go to Dublin – how could I let such an opportunity pass? It was still impossible for me to go to Dublin, but Yeats had said he would do anything he could. If only, then, he would talk to M.M.! If only I could get M.M. to talk to Yeats! So now I wrote to Yeats, saying as well as I could, yet without assuming too much, that I realised how horrible my behaviour had been in harping so much upon another man and yet, could he possibly see him and tell him first hand of his own recovery? Of course M.M. knew of it already from me.Yeats now wrote me several very kind letters and most gallantly offered to meet M.M. In the letters he repeated much of what he had said about his cure. The letters started formally but ended ‘Yours always’ or ‘Yours ever’ – whether this was usual with Yeats I do not know. M.M. went to Dublin but refused to see him. And I felt wretched and ashamed and went on in my wretchedness, sunk in my despair and knowing little else. The days went on, I knew not how, or what to do.
Then, after being away one weekend, I called on a friend (one who knew all) on my way from the station, late one Sunday night. ‘I’m glad you’ve come,’ she said. ‘Do you know?’ ‘Know what ?’ I asked in alarm. I was terrified that she had somehow heard of the death of M.M. who was then in Scotland. ‘No, not M.M.,’ she said. ‘But Yeats. It was on the nine o’clock news.’
It is impossible to describe how I felt.
It was announced that there would be a memorial service at St Martin-in-the-Fields and my work was such that, if I could catch the midday train, I could be there, but, to be on the safe side it would mean making arrangements to leave ten minutes early. I had a delightful chief. Permission, I knew, would be granted, yet somehow I could not bring myself to say I wanted to catch the train to get to Yeats’s service. I hoped for the best. I had the car ready and dashed to the station, to see the London train steaming out. I was shattered. The next train would get me there too late and now there seemed but one thing in the world that mattered – to get to that service. There was just the chance that by driving furiously I might get there by road. I did the seventy miles, in the car in which we had sat, as fast as it would go. But I walked up the steps of the church as the mourners were coming out. I especially remember a tall man who, I thought, might be Masefield.
But I went in. I was overcome now with emotion, yet for the first time I saw things in a clearer, if not clear, light. I was humble and ashamed. I was guilty of a ‘turning down’ of a kind, unknown, it would seem, in the philosophy of Haire. I was but a minute fraction in the pattern of that rare and rich life, yet, inevitably, I was interwoven with it. And I had not given what, in all humility, I might have given: and I had not taken, what in common graciousness, I might have taken. Even now I had failed him by not going to the service, by minding ‘what people said’. I stayed in the church a long time, trying to think life out.
The papers were full of reports, reviews, criticisms, appreciations, questions, and one question occurred again and again. What was the secret of Yeats’s perpetual youth? Of the extraordinary quality of his work in what is normally called old age?
I felt I knew the answer. Yeats was ‘ageless’ and I knew why. But my lips were sealed. Others, too, might hold the key, especially, I thought, other women, who, not blinded by love for another man as I was blinded, had eyes to see at the time, and had behaved more graciously and more gratefully. But if so they did not come forward, at least not in the press.
Then Joseph Hone undertook the Life and appealed in the Times. I wrote to him, but guardedly, and before I could say fully what I wanted to say I became very seriously ill. I recovered and had another chance yet still I did not say it. I don’t know why, except that life was unbelievably difficult, and I let things slide. Then the Life came out. I read it and for weeks lived in it. And I wrote to Mr Hone, an apology and an appreciation, but when it came to the point I could not bring myself to finish it off and post it.
And now, after years, I have another chance, unexpectedly and passing strange. For although by way of Ireland, it comes actually from America in the person of one Richard Ellmann of the university of Harvard who, under the auspices of the Rockefeller Foundation, has come to collect material to enable him to write on the intellectual development of Yeats. It is Hone who, despite my neglect of him, has sent Ellmann to see me. So I am moved to finish off what I started a long time ago and although its immediate purpose is to help Mr Ellmann I shall (not without a guilty conscience) send a long-delayed copy to Mr Hone. I said this new chance was passing strange, because, it must be remembered, it was America whence Benjamin had come and whither M.M. had gone at the time of my meeting Yeats. It was these combined facts that were the very cause of my meeting him and it is against this background that my portrait of him must inevitably be drawn.
M.M., eventually, did see Benjamin, who wrote to me of him as ‘a charming gentleman indeed’. He became somewhat more reasonable, but never fully recovered: he continued to be prejudiced against the operation and preferred to remain as he was. During the war he gave up going to America and died, very suddenly, in the summer of 1944. He never really grasped the part he himself had played in the story but he knew the outline and was concerned because I did not write to Hone, and chided me – oblivious that he himself was the cause – for my perpetual putting-off. Could he know that I was writing this he would, I think, ask me to be careful and then say thank God I was doing my bit about Yeats – for Yeats maybe – at last.
But it would seem presumptuous for me to assume that I could now do anything for Yeats. No man can be judged apart from his work and of that I do not speak. I do not judge at all. I only marvel that, though for so brief a space yet in so intimate a way, our lives were allowed to touch. But the very circumstances of that touching (and not the fact that we met as utter strangers and he revealed himself to me as he did) may perhaps give a fuller picture of the essential man. And if no man can be judged apart from his work, no work, at least creative work, can, I think, be judged apart from the man.
I have said that Yeats’s greatness seemed to me to lie in his direct simplicity. But whatever the essence of this simplicity I think it was only a manifestation of something beyond. My belief is that Yeats was one of those rare beings who are ageless; that he had discovered, and achieved, that quality of life that makes a mockery of mere years. I met him at that time of life when he would commonly be called an old man, I, then, being a young woman; then, as now, I found old age pitiable, often, even, repellent, but it never occurred to me to think of Yeats as old. To describe him as an old man, would, to my mind, have been insulting. But abhorrence of old age and rebellion at decay do not, in themselves, keep a man young and perpetual youth is not, in itself, the desired goal. If Yeats was ageless it was because of his attitude to life and this included, very definitely, his attitude to sex; his realisation, more, his frank acceptance, of sex as the fount from which life springs. Hence, in due course, the Steinach operation.
It was, in his own words, one of the greatest events, if not the supreme event, of his life, because by it he was enabled to attain heights he never would otherwise have attained and to finish his course in a way it would not otherwise have been finished. Whatever others may think, I am sure that to Yeats himself the operation was no isolated incident, no purely exciting episode, no mere physical or sexual rejuvenation, and indeed as Benjamin points out, we should speak rather of reactivation, revitalisation. Yeats would have been the first to say he was no longer the man of the Sargent portrait or the boy who had slept in Slish Wood. He was more, now, than these, for he had experienced a re-creation, a reassembling of himself of which lost youth was but a part. It was a re-creation sought and conditioned by his attitude to sex but it was intimately and inextricably bound up with that eternal search for truth and beauty, that life beyond life, to which his own was dedicated.
I think as he listened that spring evening to Benjamin’s paradoxical conclusion – ‘Life, after all is not important, only living is’ – he rejoiced with such exceeding great joy that he felt compelled to convey his rejoicing to another. The honour chanced to fall upon me and in that mystical torrent of words to which, as we drove across London, I listened later, was to be found, perhaps, the sum of all his words, the secret both of the man and of his work.
[*] As to Yeats saying only a few friends knew of the operation, I have since been told that he was certainly deceived, or maybe deceived himself, for Oliver Gogarty knew, and from him, doubtless, the word flew round. I can but repeat that he was insistent to me that it was ‘only the few’.