A Sign of the Times: W.B. Yeats and “Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen”

In Yeats and Violence (Oxford UP), Michael Wood convincingly argues that poetry can address violence in the world.  According to him, William Butler Yeats’s apocalyptic poem “Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen” makes the poet “an authority on violence” and invites readers to consider the difficult question: What is violence?  Wood maintains that violence “is not always a moment of rage” but rather “a moment of turbulence,” and Yeats “helps us to understand it—whether personal, political, or apocalyptic—it is always sudden and surprising, visible, unmistakable, inflicts or promises injury and is fundamentally uncontrollable.”  In supporting his claim, Wood appeals to various theorists, such as Giorgio Agamben, Slavoj Zizek, Roland Barthes, and David Lloyd.

The violence that Yeats addresses in “Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen” was not sudden or surprising to the Irish people.  It was the culmination of over two hundred years of British colonial practices.  Although Wood does not specifically mention it “Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen” is an atypical war poem—it doesn’t valorize war heroes, a national cause, or address the horrors of the battlefield.  Rather, it is primarily concerned with civil unrest in Ireland.

Wood briefly summarizes the cultural background of the poem.  In 1914, the British passed the Home Rule Bill, which provided for limited Irish independence, but its institution was postponed due to the First World War.  After the war, further delays prompted Irish nationalists to wage the 1916 Easter Rising in Dublin, which ended with the British executing rebel leaders.  In 1919, the Irish Republic was declared independent and the Irish Republican Army (IRA) began a guerilla campaign, known as the Irish War of Independence, against the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC).  In order to target the IRA, the British government established auxiliary military units to assist the RIC, called the Black-and-Tans, which notoriously tormented the civil population.

As Wood mentions, Yeats was deeply concerned about these events.  At the time, he resided in Oxford and sympathized with the impact of rebellion.  In fact, Yeats’s “Easter 1916” commemorates the political events of the uprising, beginning with the following famous opening lines:

I have met them at close of day
Coming with vivid faces
From counter or desk among grey
Eighteenth-century houses.
I have passed with a nod of the head
Or polite meaningless words,
Or have lingered awhile and said
Polite meaningless words,
And thought before I had done
Of a mocking tale or a gibe
To please a companion
Around the fire at the club,
Being certain that they and I
But lived where motley is worn:
All changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.

Yeats acknowledges that the rebels were once ordinary citizens that he met and talked to in the local pub; he ironically commends yet criticizes their vainglorious self-sacrifice.  After all, the British government may have made good on its promise to grant the Irish Republic Home Rule:

Was it needless death after all?
For England may keep faith
For all that is done and said.
We know their dream; enough
To know they dreamed and are dead.
And what if excess of love
Bewildered them till they died?

The crucial refrain is: “All changed, changed utterly: / A terrible beauty is born,” which is Yeats’s best attempt at making, as Richard Ellmann says, an “assertion without doctrine.”  For rebel violence is indeed terrible, as is the brutal logic of reprisals, but, as Wood points out, violence can be justified, and “it may alter the world,” since political sovereignty often emerges in “terrible beauty” from the barrel of a gun or the crosshairs of collective sacrifice.

Many of Yeats’s most important poems record the physical and emotional violence of war in Ireland.  “Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen,” published in The Tower (1928), is thematically similar to other poems in the volume, such as “Meditations in Time of Civil War.”  In “Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen” Wood responds to lines that had “never left my mind since I first read them, and that seemed to be asking me to do something about them.”  Since the poem is in six parts he maintains that to understand it as a whole the reader must attend to the role of violence in each part.  In discussing the structure versus the narrative plan of the poem, Wood says, “Poems…don’t usually have easily identifiable narrative plans; but they do have sequences of thematic and tonal movements that we can think of as the equivalent of plans, and they certainly have structures.”

Wood focuses primarily on thematic concerns.  In the Introduction, he offers an unnecessary justification of the critical practice, citing Roland Barthes and Henry James.  Why offer a critical apologia? In the chapter entitled “The Temptation of Form,” he argues that formalism or what used to be called the study of prosody, “is not strong on argument or indeed on any kind of intellectual urgency.”  In an attempt to avoid the New Critical bad habit or “temptation” of “talking about form while talking about content all along,” Woods chides Cleanth Brooks’s statement that “form is content,” claiming rather that “the fact the two elements live together doesn’t mean they can’t be talked about separately.”  Because Wood thinks that the “poem approaches prose,” which I don’t think is true, he summarizes the six sections of the poem.  For example, on Part 1, Wood ascertains, “We live in violent times now, all our ideas of rule overturned or destroyed.  We thought we were philosophers, but we were/are only weasels.”  This may not even qualify as summary.  Certainly, Yeats did not consider himself to be a philosopher; the poem does not classify the “we” as philosophers, nor does it claim that philosophers are weasels.

Cleanth Brooks calls this kind of summary a ‘heresy of paraphrase,’ and I agree with him that it undermines the imaginative life of the poem. [1]   Furthermore, it defeats the purpose of understanding the distinctiveness of lyric poetry.  After all, if the thematic content and subject matter in “Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen” could have been expressed as well in prose, as Wood seems to maintain, then presumably Yeats would have done so.  The main problem with Wood’s summary of the poem’s ‘structure’ is its violent dissection of the ‘parts’ as limbs belonging to a body.

In considering parts of the poem, Wood does not acknowledge that the structure of “Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen” is conditioned by the form and material; this material establishes a problem, and the solution is in the ordering of the material.  The relationship between form and content in poetry is not that of prose.  However, Wood approaches form and content separately, ignoring Yeats’s long commitment to traditional verse patterns.  As an enactment of violence, Yeats spent much labor on end-rhymes, sound patterns, and echo-harboring rhythms.  In recognizing this, we would likely agree on the way that Yeats aestheticized violence and controlled its reception by formal techniques.  Thus, as I would argue, form and content cannot be considered separately.  A demonstration of this can be found in early sections of the poem.

“Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen,” Section 1 concludes with the images of a stump burning in the Acropolis and famous ivory statues breaking in bits:

But is there any comfort to be found?

Man is in love and loves what vanishes,

What more is there to say? That country round

None dared admit, if such a thought were his,

Incendiary or bigot could be found

To burn that stump on the Acropolis,

Or break in bits the famous ivories

Or traffic in the grasshoppers or bees.

Wood’s argument on the relevance of Yeats’s views on violence does not provide a sustained analysis of these lines.  However, as I suggest, we can recognize the image of ruins as an answer to Yeats’s rhetorical question on the profanation of cultural monuments that were built to comfort us.  One kind of violence seems to be our admiration for ephemeral things: “Man is in love and loves what vanishes.”  Another is not taking comfort in the sacred.  The chiasmus in this aphoristic line recalls Yeats’s love poetry inspired by Maud Gonne, and reminds readers in Stoic fashion that similar forms of attachment can cause much labor and suffering.  It ponders the lasting value of art in the world as time churns, history whirls in cycles, and civilizations rise and fall, its monuments in decay and ruin.  In earlier lines, Yeats cites Black-and-Tans violence, soldiers burning old aristocratic houses in the Irish countryside, murdering a pregnant woman, and he raises the issue of modern progress.  After all, bigots and incendiary men can be found anywhere who besot sublime ideas or destroy monuments.  This fact is stressed in the alliterative repetition of ‘burn’ and ‘break’ in the last three lines; the anaphora (“or”) implies that the same bigots who burn cultural treasures are similar to those who traffic in feeble wares.  But then, these too vanish, for “gone are Phidias’s famous ivories / And all the golden grasshoppers and bees.”  We’re left with harsh monosyllables: the shambles of “burn,” “break,” and “bits.”  The irony, of course, is that art can be as vulgar as bigotry, and certainly as violent.

Section 1 is linked to Section 2 in terms of rhythm patterns and imagery:

When Loie Fuller’s Chinese dancers enwound

A shining web, a floating ribbon of cloth,

It seemed that a dragon of air

Had fallen among dancers, had whirled them round

Or hurried them off on its own furious path;

So the Platonic Year

Whirls out new right and wrong,

Whirls in the old instead;

All men are dancers and their tread

Goes to the barbarous clangour of a gong.

These lines proffer much to comment on, especially their formal aspects, but Wood dwells on thematic content, saying that they demonstrate a “grim determinism, an Oriental march of fate,” and “the dance becomes an image not of art or perfection but of helplessness.”  According to him, the dancers are imprisoned, enwound, and the dragon pulls them along on its furious path.  But the opposite is true.  The rhythmic parallelism of the phrase “a shining web, a floating ribbon of cloth” describes the free movement of undulating fabric, which takes the shape of a dragon.  Chinese dancers are famous for dragon dance festivals.  If anything, these lines visually represent a “terrible beauty,” and rather than imprisonment, the image conveys the unity of form and content, the dancer and dance.

For Yeats, as Wood mentions, the whirling dancers are on a furious path of cyclical history, as the “Platonic Year” approaches them.   I would add that the intersection of good and evil rises and falls, fades and vanishes, with the rhythm of historical eras, which is on par with the imagery of twirling dancers enwound in a shining web of moral progress; the antipodes of right and wrong disintegrate and reintegrate into a metaphysical matrix of spiraling gyres.  As the “Platonic Year” nears, a new historical era comes into being, and the old disperses into fading memory.  Modern progress implies a subversion of the ‘barbaric’ status quo.  New moral systems emerge to overtake old values, but, ironically, the new is simply a revised version of the old, a historical retrieval of pre-Christian values: “So the Platonic Year / Whirls out new right and wrong, Whirls in the old instead.”

As I argue, form and thematic content are intimately connected.  The wreckage of bigots and incendiary men in Part 1 supports the generalization in Part 2 that “All men are dancers and their tread / Goes to the barbarous clangour of a gong.”  In the line ‘tread’ is synchronous with ‘break,’ ‘burn,’ ‘bits,’ and ‘gong,’ since both men and dancers step into the Platonic Year.  Finally, ‘barbarous clangour of a gong’ expresses the poet’s view on the metaphysics of violence.  As Yeats learned from his friend E.R. Dodds, author of The Greeks and the Irrational, the maddening Dionysian impulse of irrationality is inevitable in the cycles of human history.

For Yeats, the First World War demonstrated the irrationality of modern Europe and the maddening dance of cyclical history.  Hardly anyone had fully anticipated the horrors of war, which he addresses in the first section of the poem: “O what a fine thought we had because we thought / That the worst rogues and rascals had died out” and “All teeth were drawn, all ancient tricks unlearned, / And a great army but a showy thing.”  However, the war was devastating and it “lacked all glory,” bringing “dragon-ridden” days, relating to the “terrible beauty” of the dancers fashioning their airborne dragon, and “the nightmare / Rides upon sleep” as “a drunken soldiery / Can leave the mother, murdered at her door, / To crawl in her own blood.”

Wood explains that Yeats understood violence as a necessary force in the cycles of history but neglects to mention the poet’s view on its metaphysical inevitability.  Aside from occult interests, Yeats was deeply informed by ancient Greek thought.  For instance, as Heraclitus says, “Opposition brings concord. Out of discord [war/strife] comes the fairest harmony,” which partially explains Yeats’s interest in the “terrible beauty” of violence.

Wood is correct in saying that the nature of violence in Yeats’s work is truly enigmatic.  For Yeats, violence was a source of brutal tragedy, but he often viewed it as a catalyst of change, which could reverse the course of human destiny.  As he once wrote, “I think that all noble things are the result of warfare; great nations and classes, of warfare in the visible world, great poetry and philosophy, of invisible warfare, the division of a mind within itself, a victory, the sacrifice of a man to himself.”  For him, the horror of war was a ritualistic sacrifice to change beliefs and renew civilization.  Thus, I believe his poetry envisioned a future of renewable creation:  it enacts the rhetorical violence of death, sexuality, and the subversion hidden in the irrationality of language.  Wood neglects to consider that for Yeats the labor of poetic creation was ‘enwound’ in his own personal metaphysics of violence, a kind of necessary evil intrinsic to the act of writing, the imaginative transformation of the self and the world.  Furthermore, Yeats believed that the main problem with much contemporary poetry was that it lacked a “vision of evil.”

For all his discussion of violence, Wood scarcely addresses the last sections in “Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen,” which offer Yeats’s own ‘vision of evil’ and his litany against civilized men: the great, the wise, and the good, who he believed were most blameworthy for the “foul storm” of modern war.  As I would suggest, Yeats’s vision of evil incorporated the violence of historical events, but in the crucible of his imagination they became transformed into creative energy.  Moreover, from the depths of his personal philosophy, the spiritual storehouse that he called the Anima Mundi, he culled a “tumult of images” that comprised the metaphors of his poetry.  For instance, the whirling image of Chinese dancers anticipates the great rhetorical question in Yeats’s poem “Among School Children”: “O body swayed to music, O brightening glance, / How can we know the dancer from the dance?  Throughout his career, Yeats was obsessed with these kinds of questions: the relationship of form and content, life and art, and love’s labor lost.

Wood’s most glaring omission in his discussion of Yeats and violence is the role that women played in his life, especially those who were his lovers.  In a recent book entitled W.B. Yeats and the Muses, Joseph Hassett discusses this topic in detail.  Therein, he mentions crucial participants in Yeats’s imaginative life: Olivia Shakespear, Florence Farr, and Maud and Iseult Gonne, among others.  In fact, Yeats discussed the composition of “Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen” with several female correspondents, including Maud Gonne, whom he had met and fell in love with in his early career. On that occasion, he remarked that “all the trouble of my life began.”

Although they would remain life-long friends, Gonne was a crucial muse to Yeats, and he reified her into mythical status, often referring to her in poetry as Pallas Athena, Leda, and Helen of Troy.  Inasmuch as his acquaintance with Gonne troubled him, its passionate intensity fed his creative energies, inspiring melancholic lines such as these:

I am in love

And that is my shame.

What hurts the soul

My soul adores,

No better than a beast

Upon all fours.

Moreover, in the poem “No Second Troy” his disagreement with Gonne’s revolutionary activism prompted yet another rhetorical question: “Why, what could she have done, being what she is? / Was there another Troy for her to burn?”  Yeats condemned her propensity to violence, yet was profoundly attracted to its terrible beauty.  Indeed, as he composed the poem “Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen” it is hard not to assume that he considered Maud Gonne in the line that reads, “Man is in love and loves what vanishes.”  For, according to his favorite Heraclitus motto, opposites attract: “They die each other’s life, live each other’s death.”  As we consider a poem with disparate parts, disconnected images, and discordant rhythms, Yeats’s metaphysics of violence comes forth in a vision of evil, a whirling dance, and in dreams of higher love.

[1] The term ‘heresy of paraphrase’ is from Cleanth Brooks’s The Well-Wrought Urn.


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