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The Weasel's Tooth: On W.B. Yeats | The Nation

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The Weasel's Tooth: On W.B. Yeats

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In the spring of 1921, William Butler Yeats was at work on a poem he was calling “Thoughts Upon the Present State of the World.” He told a friend and former lover that he was “writing a series of poems…ot philosophical but simple & passionate, a lamentation over lost peace & lost hope.” Yeats had been living in Oxford since his marriage three years earlier. As he explained to his patron Augusta Gregory, he had decided against returning home because “the constant bad news from Ireland kills my power of poetical work…. I knew that if I did not get out of every kind of public life I would lose my poetical power.” Yeats did not mean that he lacked opinions: in February 1921, a few weeks after writing to Lady Gregory, he denounced British conduct in Ireland during an address to the Oxford Union.

Yeats and Violence
By Michael Wood.
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About the Author

Stephen Burt
Stephen Burt teaches at Harvard and is the author, most recently, of The Art of the Sonnet (with David Mikics) and...

Also by the Author

Lucia Perillo’s On the Spectrum of Possible Deaths.

Books by four poets about big modern systems whose results and failures seem inescapable.

Bad news had been frequent in Ireland for nearly a decade. In 1912 the British House of Commons approved a bill to give Ireland representative government—not independence, but what was called Home Rule. For Irish constitutional nationalists and their Irish Parliamentary Party (IPP), it was the fulfillment of decades of work. But the bill could not become law for two years. During the interlude Ulster Unionists organized mass meetings and militias to oppose it, and Irish nationalists created their own militias in response. In September 1914 the bill became law. By then, however, World War I had begun; another new law postponed Irish changes until the the war on the continent should conclude. The IPP supported the war, turning its militia into a recruitment vehicle for the British army. A smaller group of Irish nationalists refused, maintaining their own militia, the Irish Volunteers; a secret group within that group planned an armed uprising.

On the day after Easter 1916, that small group—which included the poet Padraig Pearse and the future Prime Minister Eamon de Valera—seized the Dublin General Post Office and other government buildings; they were soon removed by force. British administrators reacted hastily, executing sixteen of the rebels and incarcerating other nationalists—thus creating martyrs, as Pearse had hoped, and turning Irish opinion sharply toward the more radical nationalist party, Sinn Fein. Yeats wrote three poems in response to the insurrection, among them “Easter 1916” (“A terrible beauty is born”), but chose not to publish any of them at the time.

In December 1918 Sinn Fein won most of the Irish seats in the British Parliament. It then established its own Irish government, while the Volunteers, renamed the Irish Republican Army, began to attack the police. British reinforcements, especially the notorious Black and Tans, former soldiers untrained for police work, tried to strike back, generating by 1920 the sort of tit-for-two-tats counterinsurgency now all too familiar in other parts of the world. Eileen Quinn, a young mother and family acquaintance of Augusta Gregory, was shot dead by Black and Tans; Gregory’s daughter-in-law was nearly killed by the IRA. The Irish War of Independence, also called the Anglo-Irish War, lasted until the Treaty of 1921 created the Irish Free State, less than a republic and more than Home Rule, minus the six Ulster counties that became Northern Ireland. Dissatisfied Volunteers resumed guerrilla campaigns; the Irish Civil War between a pro-Treaty army and anti-Treaty Irregulars continued until 1923.

In 1928 Yeats published The Tower, collecting—along with such now-famous poems as “Leda and the Swan”—the sequence once called “Thoughts Upon the Present State of the World,” rechristened “Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen.” It is an ambitious, ambivalent, magnificent, complicated and bitter poem, casting its frustrations in several directions: at the whole course of history, at individual bad actors and at the poet too, along with those who believed what he had once believed, those who allowed themselves to be surprised by the wars of the 1910s, in Ireland and on the continent, regardless of whether they could have worked to prevent them. Poets, in Yeats’s day as in our own, often claim that poems should try to shape political life, or else that poets should not dirty their hands with it. In 1915, in “On Being Asked for a War Poem,” Yeats claimed that he had “no gift to set a statesman right.” But his poems on Ireland say otherwise; they contemplate failures, not of poetry but of statesmen, politics and civilizations, of public life in all its forms. “The poet finds and makes his mask in disappointment, the hero in defeat,” he wrote in an essay of 1917, and so it is with his poems on public events, which imply—none more so than “Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen”—that political art can reach its zenith only when political action, as such, has failed.

* * *

“Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen” has six parts; all address, directly or indirectly, the Irish war and, indirectly, conflicts in Russia and elsewhere after World War I. The poem begins by expanding its temporal scope beyond the present: “Many ingenious lovely things are gone.” Those “things” include ancient Greek sculptures, belief in social progress and peace itself, in Ireland and elsewhere: “Now days are dragon ridden, the nightmare/Rides upon sleep: a drunken soldiery/Can leave the mother, murdered at her door,/To crawl in her own blood.” The six forceful eight-line stanzas of part one build up to some of Yeats’s most quotable lines:

 

But is there any comfort to be found?
Man is in love and loves what vanishes,
What more is there to say?

 

Part two describes “Loie Fuller’s Chinese dancers,” whose exotic circular motions, a “dragon of air,” suggest “the Platonic Year,” the great cycle of history by which barbarism always follows civilization.

Part three “Compares the solitary soul to a swan,” dramatic in its solitary death; however self-sufficient in one sense, the Yeatsian soul needs company in another, and so cannot help remembering the friends and allies who “dreamed to mend/Whatever mischief seemed/To afflict mankind.” The dream, of course, is gone, as part four says:

We, who seven years ago
Talked of honor and of truth,
Shriek with pleasure if we show
The weasel’s twist, the weasel’s tooth.

 “Seven years ago” means 1912 by the final title, 1914 by the first publication (as “Thoughts”) in 1921. Part five invites us to “mock,” with Yeats, the figures who tried to make great art or to establish a polity, “to leave some monument behind”: its five-line stanzas have the sound of spite, the feel of resentment, until they return on themselves:

Mock mockers after that
That would not lift a hand maybe
To help good, wise or great
To bar that foul storm out, for we
Traffic in mockery.

 Part six is a hallucinatory night scene, with “violence of horses” and figures on horseback, among them “that insolent fiend Robert Artisson,” representing the new barbarism as the Athenian sculptor Phidias represents the old civilization in part one. Artisson, Yeats’s note says, “was an evil spirit much run after in Kilkenny at the start of the fourteenth century,” an incubus, or demonic lover: he was alleged to have met the condemned witch Lady Alice Kyteler, who brought him—and here the poem ends—“Bronzed peacock feathers, red combs of her cocks.”

* * *

As a book about violence, or art, in general, Michael Wood’s Yeats and Violence can sound vague or rushed. “Violence as Yeats helps us to understand it—whether personal, political or apocalyptic—is always sudden and surprising, visible, unmistakable, inflicts or promises injury and is fundamentally uncontrollable.” Isn’t it tautological to say violence involves injury? In what sense is violence (rape, for example) always visible? To whom? Yeats and Violence intersperses such vagueness with throat-clearing, of which there is a lot for a short book: “It is among the consequences of words, or perhaps one of the conditions for the very existence of words, that they can tell us the truth, that they can lie to us…and that they can do whatever they are doing in the poems we have been looking at.” Words, words: they do whatever they do.

But Yeats and Violence gains precision by exploring one poem, “Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen,” and a few ideas that Wood finds in it, one of them being that violence demonstrates—shockingly, for those accustomed to relative peace—the fragility of all social rules. The country to which Yeats did not yet want to return in 1921 was “a world without rules but where it still feels as if rules are being broken—if not the rules we used to have, then the ones we believe we ought to have.” It is the world, as Wood says, of “terrorism,” “random killings” whose ostensibly political logic “seems broken even before it starts to operate.” Though Wood knows better than to attempt an explicit equation, the events of September 11, 2001, stand behind his book as thoroughly as the Irish war and other European conflicts stand behind Yeats’s poem.

Calvin Bedient, in The Yeats Brothers and Modernism’s Love of Motion (a fine book on William Butler and his brother Jack, the Modernist painter), highlights the poet’s “taste for chaos, for prodigality, for violence,” though “hotly contested by his love of the courtly.” That long contest had more than two sides. Yeats opined in 1907 that “Belief in the possibility of armed insurrection” against English rule during the nineteenth century fueled a noble, praiseworthy, “old romantic nationalism” in Irish art; he did not seem to think that an insurrection would actually happen or that it would eventually result in two wars. Much later, he would support some violent movements, but they were not exactly insurrections. In 1922 the poet was appointed to the Senate of the Irish Free State; during his six-year term he supported the pro-Treaty leader Kevin O’Higgins, who took draconian measures—including executions—against the Irregulars, measures designed to bring the war to a close. In 1933 Yeats wrote to his friend Olivia Shakespear, “I find myself constantly urging the despotic rule of the educated classes”; that same year he composed poems as marching songs for Ireland’s Blueshirts, fascist or quasi-fascist militias. Yeats stood in these episodes not for a prodigal chaos but for a repellently forceful order, for anything that might prevent mob rule.

The poet’s notorious late attraction to violently antidemocratic movements has obscured his earlier, sometimes muted appreciation for pragmatic politics. Yeats told an American audience in February 1914 that Home Rule would put an end to the “time when every young man in Ireland asked himself if he were not willing to die for his country…. Ireland is no longer a sweetheart but a house to be set in order.” In 1915 he denounced the Sinn Fein types who sought Irish freedom by force, writing in a letter that “All achievements are won by compromise and these men wherever they find themselves expel from their own minds—by their mind’s rigidity—the flowing & living world.” Yeats, who had run (though not alone) the Abbey Theatre in Dublin since 1904, knew something about compromise, about working with difficult people, firsthand.

We do not read Yeats first of all for contributions to political philosophy but for his arrangements of language, for his ability, as he put it in 1903, “to articulate sweet sounds together,” or else harsh sounds, with power, accuracy and grace. That ability, by 1921, was roused by his alertness to antitheses, contradictions, conflicting desires within himself and in other people, as he and they regarded public and private life. “Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen” is a poem about violence, one that includes striking carnage, from the murder of Eileen Quinn to the malevolent Artisson’s red sacrifice. But it is also a poem about a collective failure, a failure of longstanding institutions and of patient, supposedly reasonable actors in their version of the national cause. Ireland has instead been taken over by actors who at their best are violent because they believe in blood sacrifice, and at their worst are violent because they believe in nothing. In Limerick as in Ypres, Victorian and Edwardian hopes for progress—hopes, as Wood puts it, that “war was a thing of the past”—stand revealed as a “shocking delusion.” We should have known better. And yet the poem does not delight in its disillusion; through its teeth, in its self-accusation, it retains something close to nostalgia for what has failed.

Violence, even when successful (“OK—take my wallet”), implies a kind of failure, the failure of language and civil discourse to resolve a dispute; it is the failure of humane means. Poetry in general (not only Yeats’s poetry) responds to such failures; the language of poetry might be the language we want when more literal, more instrumental language no longer seems to do whatever we need. Poetry cannot usually accomplish the practical goals that conversation, oratory and prose—newspaper journalism, commission reports, a chat in the cloakroom, a speech in the Senate—have not achieved. Poems will not get many armed men to drop their weapons or coal-burning plants to stop fouling the air; but they can provide an image of success and a way to think about the feeling of failure. They do so not least through figurative language, through language arranged to affect the heart, to move; and so the hardest kind of poem to write well, among all the kinds of public poetry, is the poem in defense of half measures, of balancing acts, of patient, pragmatic compromise, in which emotion cannot rule.

* * *

Yeats did not write such poems, and did not try, when the half measures still had some chance of success. What he did write were poems—and “Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen” is one—in which the compromisers, the managers, the people who worked hard to balance competing interests in search of incremental success, had already lost. He wrote poems about his work with the Abbey Theatre, in which “The fascination of what’s difficult” and “the day’s war with every knave and dolt” frustrate him and hobble his muse. He wrote poems about the lengthy dispute over whether to build a new art gallery for Dublin, in which politics as such, patiently grim negotiations in a good cause, appears as the destroyer of men. He wrote poems about the grander collapse: the influx of barbarism, of which he first read and heard, and then thought he saw, in Ireland and elsewhere. Legal compromise does not lend itself to symbols, because it does not look much like a dream; not, that is, until we wake up and, as Yeats writes in “Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen,” “learn that we were crack-pated when we dreamed.” (Consider the grinding slowdown in the unusual metrics of that ten-syllable line.) The “forms of civil life,” to use Wood’s term, are recognized as valuable, as akin to delicate works of art, only when they are broken, like works of art.

We too had many pretty toys when young;
A law indifferent to blame or praise,
To bribe or threat; habits that made old wrong
Melt down, as it were wax in the sun’s rays;
Public opinion ripening for so long
We thought it would outlive all future days.
O what fine thought we had because we thought
That the worst rogues and rascals had died out.

 In drafts of the poem Yeats placed himself even more clearly among “we,” the liberals (so we call them now) who believed, before 1914, “that all men soon would be both fed and learned.” (Wood cites, appositely, George Dangerfield’s The Strange Death of Liberal England.) A liberal belief in civil society, progress and constitutional improvement seems to the Yeats of “Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen” like the natural folly of children, who think their best toys cannot break. “Old wrong” got melted down, yes, but so did everything else: “public opinion” ripened, but what grows ripe in the sun can rot.

The word “violence,” as Wood says, is rare in Yeats, though it is a common idea. Almost equally prominent in “Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen” is “public opinion,” a phrase nowhere else in his verse: that idea, though not the phrase, reappears in the last segment, thoroughly rotted and drawn from medieval vignettes. Yeats writes of citizens shouting as one, with “amorous cries, or angry cries,/According to the wind, for all are blind.” It is what we, though not Yeats, might call a lynch mob.

“Let her think opinions are accursed,” Yeats wrote in “A Prayer for My Daughter,” in 1919. “Opinion is the enemy of the artist,” he wrote in his journal in 1909, “because it arms his uninspired moment against his inspiration.” Yet Yeats cared enough about the beliefs and opinions of an Irish public—its voters, its readers, its appointed and elected officials—to attack it, to wish it were different, to let its deficiencies prompt poem after poem, from squibs like “The Leaders of the Crowd” (“They must to keep their certainty accuse/All that are different of a base intent”) to majestic set pieces such as “Parnell’s Funeral” (“Leave nothing but the nothings that belong/To this bare soul, let all men judge that can/Whether it be an animal or a man”). What Yeats could never do (though he often said that he had tried) was to stand aside completely from public opinion, to cease caring what other Irish people believed. A poem of 1916 called “The People” begins with a blast against Dublin, “The daily spite of this unmannerly town,/Where who has served the most is most defamed,” to which Yeats has the tireless nationalist Maud Gonne—his “phoenix,” his unattainable beloved for much of his life—reply, “never have I, now nor any time/Complained of the people.” Yeats ends up “abashed”—he spoke out of weakness, and she, however misguided, out of strength.

Declaring “a poem is an action,” Wood cites, briefly, Hannah Arendt’s On Violence, a book that responds overtly to the Vietnam War and “the rebellion of the young” as surely as Wood responds sotto voce to 9/11. Wood is rejecting the famous quip in W.H. Auden’s elegy on Yeats that “poetry makes nothing happen.” “A poem,” Wood demurs, “is itself something that happens,” a part of the human world, just as a rally in a public square, or a basketball game, or the construction of a train station, is a part of that world, though poems (as against train stations) can seem inconsequential because they are often so canny and ambiguous. “It is characteristic of this sort of happening,” Wood says, “that we find it very hard to say what has happened.”

It makes sense to invoke Arendt here. On Violence asks, as Yeats sometimes asks, and as Wood sometimes asks, when, whether and how “violence can remain rational” as a means to political ends, and when, whether and how it “belongs to the political realm.” But in Arendt’s special sense a poem is not—not in our day, not usually—an “action.” In On Violence, as in Arendt’s earlier, grander The Human Condition, “action” involves people working together, with definite (not necessarily congruent) goals, toward anticipated (not necessarily achieved) consequences for shared public life. Jury service is action; so is coordinating a cell in the French Resistance, and so too—at its best, perhaps—is elective office. Poems made largely in private, circulated once complete, reflecting individual states of mind, are not “actions” but “works,” expressions (in Arendt’s terms) of homo faber (“man the maker”), not of Aristotle’s zoon politikon (“political animal”). Societies are erected, sustained and changed by action, and while action can organize violence (the French Resistance), influential public violence is also a sign that public cooperation has failed. Violence, so says On Violence, does not extend the power of any state so much as reflect the failure of the state to retain what Arendt calls “power,” which is near kin, though not identical, to what other political thinkers call “legitimacy.” States have power when the people in them decide to obey their laws. “No government exclusively based on the means of violence,” Arendt writes, “has ever existed”: even a state organized wholly through pain and fear requires “the secret police and its net of informers.”

The persistence of violence from Phidias’ day to ours pervades “Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen” as it depicts the fragility of all power, all action (in Arendt’s senses of “power” and “action”) and all “public opinion.” “Rule by sheer violence comes into play where power is being lost,” Arendt continues; and the loss of power—of even the possibility that anyone, any part of the Irish people, might hold power—is, as much as the murder of Eileen Quinn, where “Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen” begins. For Helen Vendler in Our Secret Discipline, her recent and very persuasive book about Yeats’s lyric forms, “It is not solely, or even chiefly, political violence that perplexes Yeats” in “Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen” but “rather the recurrent multiform and age-old violence of human beings.” Yet the poem begins and ends by describing a kind of political failure to contain violence. As Vendler also points out, “Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen” uses the word “I” rarely but the first-person plural frequently: twice the word “we” appears just before the word “weasels,” as if the latter were etymologically, as well as emotionally, linked to the former. Part six of the poem, though—the part with the mob, Artisson and the horses—lacks first-person pronouns entirely, as if the collapse of civil order put paid to the very idea of a “we,” a human or a national unity that would be more than a sexual union, on the one hand, or, on the other, a mob.

Our Secret Discipline shadows Wood’s book. So does Angela Leighton’s On Form; so do poems and prose by Wood’s Princeton colleague Paul Muldoon. In Muldoon’s “The Old Country,” a set of linked sonnets built entirely from cliches (“every ditch was a last ditch,” “every cap was a cap in hand”), the cartoonish “Irish” people, says Wood, have “nothing except cliches to think with or talk with…. Language parts company with reality” there, and certainly conversational language in that poem has come unglued from ethics, from reflection, from concrete objects, from much of life, public and private. “The Old Country” remembers, among other things, a climate of violence in Muldoon’s native Northern Ireland; and such a climate, Wood implies, does damage not just to people but to language, because it demands some combination of hypocrisy, wishful thinking and self-deception (as in Muldoon’s poem), or else an “endless tactical discretion,” in which words (not least the words in poems) become “dangling, snarling, complacent, miming secrecy and silence.”

Poetry, according to Wood’s unexpectedly hopeful argument, can try to undo that damage, even as it tries (with Muldoon) to record it. “The encounter of writer and reader and poem is itself, or can be, a…livable answer to the violence of pacifying rule and the violence of refusing to recognize any rule at all.” Wood offers an image of poets as heroes, standing up against nihilism and chaos, and making their language into a “livable answer,” “both with and without history”: it is an optimistic way to read some pessimistic poems.

* * *

For Muldoon, an ironist allergic to metaphysics, no better way of speaking, no more obscure system of thought, can truly replace a common language once that language fails. Yeats, however, spent much of his life in search of replacements. “But is there any comfort to be found?” There might be, if like Yeats we can count as comfort our ability to imagine an all-encompassing order, grand and terrible but also predictable, charged with ironies and unresponsive to our clearest hopes. (One draft of “Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen” bears the rejected titles “The Things Return” and “The Things That Come Again.”) Yeats investigated—assiduously, devotedly, sometimes even skeptically—many antirationalist or supernatural orders, among them theosophy, spiritualism, neo-Platonic thought and Irish folklore, before propounding the system described in A Vision (1925, revised 1937), derived from the automatic writing of his wife, George. Set beside other attempts to imagine great orders (Christianity, for example, and Marxism), Yeats’s order, propelled by spirits and underpinned by astrology—an esoteric and irrational system fashioned from robust if arcane terms—had the great advantage, as he knew, of people not taking it as seriously outside the poems as they do while inside them, reading them. Readers too often condescend to the symbols in Yeats’s late verse, the gyres and masks and spirit voices. But those symbols hardly appear in “Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen,” and when they do they simply reinforce the sense of predestined horror and awe that the poem accumulates anyway: “All men are dancers and their tread/Goes to the barbarous clangour of a gong.”

“All imaginative art remains at a distance and this distance once chosen must be firmly held against a pushing world.” So Yeats wrote in 1916, in an essay about Japanese Noh plays; but in his public poems—and this is part of their glory—we see the distance change, and the world push back. During the 1890s, Yeats and his allies took part in acrimonious debates among nationalists about the goals of Irish art: should it take inspiration from a national idea or serve that idea, be a means, or an end? Yeats took the former position with vigor; he and his allies (as he remembered later) made frequent “attacks…on verse which owed its position to its moral or political worth.” Much later, in verse published after his death, Yeats would ask about his early, popular romantic nationalist drama Cathleen ni Houlihan (1902), “Did that play of mine send out/Certain men the English shot?” Fifty years later Muldoon made fun of the query: “If Yeats had saved his pencil lead/Would certain men have stayed in bed?” From Yeats’s couplet and Muldoon’s rejoinder, Wood spins an argument about how passion in poetry (that apparently fruitless genre) can inspire a toxic politics devoted to apparently fruitless self-sacrifice. “The voice of the lyric in prose,” as epitomized by Cathleen ni Houlihan (“that play”) can inspire—thanks to “the association of sacrifice and bloodshed”—a desire for violent martyrdom, in its less fortunate or less reflective listeners. (Again, 9/11, though never named, comes to mind.)

Wood is not wrong; but the Yeats of “The Man and the Echo” (the late poem that Wood quotes and Muldoon mocks) is not quite asking questions about the political efficacy of future or present art, about whether to make art with goals in mind. Rather, Yeats is asking, in those late, vexed, introspective tetrameter couplets (reminiscent of Andrew Marvell’s “A Dialogue Between the Soul and Body”), whether he ought to be blamed for unintended effects that his work may, or may not, have had. He gives no answer. It is not a poem in which Yeats instructs other poets (though he did write such poems) but one in which the elderly man “stands in judgment on his soul,” passionate yet divided against himself, as the later Yeats tended to be. Because he did not normally write his poems and literary prose with instrumental purposes uppermost in mind—did not judge his art by what it would or would not cause other people to do—Yeats could try on, within and among those works, apparently opposite doctrines, claims, points of view. (His later prose about the mystic sources of personality, with its moon phases and spiritual antitheses, suggests that he felt he had to try them on.) Against the Yeats drawn to violence in principle (as an antidote to mere commerce, to drab bourgeois values), there is the Yeats repelled by violence in practice; against the Yeats who aspired in “Sailing to Byzantium” to live “Out of nature,” there is the Yeats who predicted, in 1919, that an “implacable authority” would dominate the next years. “Do I desire or dread it,” he asked, “loving as I do the gambling table of Nature where many are ruined but none is judged, and where all is fortuitous, unforeseen?”

If we are attracted to something called democracy for its own sake, to an arrangement called majority rule, we will not find much to that purpose in Yeats’s work. If we are attracted instead to something called liberalism, a way of speaking and a way of behaving that admits the justice of competing interests and seeks to reconcile them without violence, all its strife put into symbols and words, we may—for all Yeats’s attraction to archaism and anger—find a lot to like. It may even be that the Yeatsian effort to become one’s own antithesis, to discover one’s own mask and to dramatize self-division, the endeavor that the later Yeats identified in his own and in all great art, has some aspect of conjunction with the effort to understand one’s opponents, to see the motives behind their choices and their cares, which lies at the root of the political liberalism whose democratic, mercantile styles Yeats disdained. If there is a “liberal imagination”—an entity whose powers Lionel Trilling, and others since, have had reason to seek—we might even look for it today somewhere within that elusive conjunction, though we may find it only as a ruin if we seek it within “Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen.”

* * *

Yeats wrote two sequences of verse about current events in the early 1920s. “Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen” comes fourth among the poems in The Tower; before it Yeats placed “Meditations in Time of Civil War,” a sequence about the later Irish conflict, written after he and his new family had returned to his country, and touched off when anti-Treaty soldiers blew up a bridge near his home. (“They forbade us to leave the house,” Yeats recalled, “but were otherwise polite, even saying at last ‘Good night, thank you,’ as though we had given them the bridge.”) Both sequences begin in ottava rima, with complaints about the failure of a collective enterprise. Both then include, in order, a visionary passage in an irregular ten-line stanza; a symbol of East Asian art and tradition (“Chinese” dancers, a samurai sword); a pair of poems derived from ballad stanzas, one of them altered by an extra rhymed line; and a concluding night scene in which supernatural riders from centuries past “swim to the mind’s eye,” symbols of chthonic violence and premonitions of mob rule.

“Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen” concludes with those symbols, on an impersonal note of menace. But “Meditations” looks back at the poet and his family in their home, the four-room tower Thoor Ballylee, in County Galway: “I turn away and shut the door,” Yeats says, “and on the stair/Wonder how many times I could have proved my worth/In something that all others understand and share.” Instead, he can have only “abstract joy,/The half-read wisdom of daemonic images.” It is as if Yeats, unsatisfied with “Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen” and faced, even less happily, with one more Irish war, decided that he had to try a sequence on art, war and public life once again. Here, too, he sees a failed liberalism and a failed “Romantic Ireland” made out of dangerous, self-defeating “fantasies”:

Last night they trundled down the road
That dead young soldier in his blood:
Come build in the empty house of the stare.
We had fed the heart on fantasies,
 
The heart’s grown brutal from the fare;
More substance in our enmities
Than in our love; O honey-bees,
Come build in the empty house of the stare.

 These are not the sentiments of a man who welcomes violence. Quite the reverse: Yeats laments the wreck of any project that could make a nation, or a people, feel like a “house.” (Note the pluperfect: “had.”) This penultimate part of “Meditations in Time of Civil War,” like the penultimate part of “Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen,” concludes with “we,” which then disappears from the last part; but though the final section of “Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen” contains no pronouns, “Meditations” concludes in the first-person singular, using ‘“I” four times. The poet turns back to his art as if art, or supernatural visions, could take place apart from the culture to which the poet belongs, and divorced from current events. Unfortunately, at least for Yeats, they cannot: the “daemonic images” that come to his “tower-top” in careful hexameters are ones that, however figurative, however majestic or horrifying, reflect the facts on the ground:

The cloud-pale unicorns, the eyes of aquamarine,
The quivering half-closed eyelids, the rags of cloud or of lace,
Or eyes that rage has brightened, arms it has made lean,
Give place to an indifferent multitude, give place
To brazen hawks.

 

No longer prepared, for the nonce, to attempt to affect public life, Yeats has knowingly chosen a Modernist aloofness, the practice of an art that is not “something that all others understand and share,” and it feels (to quote another part of “Meditations”) like “the cold snows of a dream.”

It is a necessary retreat—so he felt—but also a grim one. “Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen” and “Meditations in Time of Civil War” both address the failure of politics as such (must it always fail?), the failure of the habits and institutions that let some people, some of the time, work together and appeal to others to overcome their lesser selves. The Yeats who in other poems, including a late one called “Politics,” repudiated politics altogether comes close here to the Aristotelian, or Arendtian, notion that politics—acting together to make new and better beginnings—makes us distinctively human; except that we may not be quite human, may not fit—at least when we view ourselves in large groups—our own notions of civilization, of the humane. Art and honor might be only words. Only the inarticulate appetites that we share with other carnivores are real: we attend not to tongues but only to teeth. And yet so recently—in 1912, 1914, 1989 or even in 2009—we had thought otherwise: we cannot help remembering (we who were really, alas, always weasels) how we felt when we thought so.

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