Then … now … what difficulties here, for the mind.
Samuel Beckett, Happy Days
The Irish propensity for violence is well known; at least to the English.
Charles Townshend, Political Violence in Ireland
In 1934, Marina Tsvetaeva wrote an essay called ‘Poets with History and Poets without History’. All poets, she said, belong to one or the other of these categories, and it becomes clear that the poet with history – her examples are Goethe and Pushkin – is there for contrast, that her aim is to talk about, even justify, the existence of the poet without history. The poet with history is either defunct or everywhere, and therefore scarcely a poet at all; the poet without history is an enigma or a dissident. The poet without history resists history, as Roland Barthes once said it was the business of literature in general to do. The literary work, he argued, is ‘at once the sign of a history and resistance to that history’.
Poets with history discover themselves through discovering the world:
They walk without turning back … Had the mature Goethe met the young Goethe at a crossroads, he might actually have failed to recognise him and might have sought to make his acquaintance … Poets with history are, above all, poets of a theme. We always know what they are writing about … Rarely are they pure lyricists … Poets with history are, above all, poets of will.
‘Pure lyric poetry has no project,’ Tsvetaeva says. She adds that there is nothing more boring than hearing other people’s dreams, but when a poet tells you his or her dream – her example is Lermontov – ‘these lyric dreams are irresistible, affecting us more than our own.’ Lyric poets
came into the world not to learn, but to say. To say what they already know: everything they know (if it is a lot) or the only thing they know (if it is just one thing) … The poet with history never knows what is going to become of him. The pure lyricist always knows that nothing is going to become of him, that he will have nothing but himself: his own tragic lyric experience.
Are there no exceptions, no crossovers, no poets who manage to be both with and without history? There is one: Alexander Blok, ‘a pure lyricist who did have development and history and a path’. But then Tsvetaeva corrects herself almost immediately. ‘Development’ is not the word she wants. ‘Development presupposes harmony. Can there be a development which is – catastrophic? And can there be harmony when what we see is a soul being torn apart?’
Yeats is undeniably a poet devoted to his own tragic lyric experience, and when the mature Yeats met the young Yeats at a crossroads, as he frequently did, he certainly recognised him. If in ‘Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen’, first published in 1921, we learn that ‘the Platonic Year/Whirls out new right and wrong’, and that ‘All men are dancers and their tread/Goes to the barbarous clangour of a gong’, it was already the case in ‘The Song of the Happy Shepherd’ of 1889 that there were
many changing things
In dreary dancing past us whirled,
To the cracked tune that Chronos sings.
But Yeats was surely also a poet of will, and of an identifiable cluster of themes; and since it seems implausible anyway to claim a dramatist, autobiographer, essayist and writer of fiction as a ‘pure lyricist’, we should perhaps just move Yeats to the other camp, that of the poets with history, and line him up happily with Goethe and Pushkin, not bad company after all. And yet such a move would lose us something, the chance of a different insight. For if Blok found a catastrophic way of linking the lyric with history, tearing himself apart in the process, Yeats sought to use the lyric as, among other things, a survivable way of understanding history. As if the lyric, the mind talking musically to itself, were finally the best instrument left for hearing both the damage and the music of the world. A woman in Belfast in one of the finest poems in Tom Paulin’s Invasion Handbook
hands her dream on
to her eldest son
who wonders if mere dreams
can weigh in the record
or for that matter can poems?
Both poems and dreams, lyric poems and mere dreams, can weigh in the record – if we are lucky they are the record, they remember and reflect on what can’t be thought otherwise.
In ‘Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen’ history is the home of two forms or moments of violence. The first is represented by the instance of a young woman shot from a lorry by the Black and Tans in Galway, the particular casualty behind the sharp, grim lines that go
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, and go scot-free
The going scot-free is as important, sadly, as the woman’s death, and this emblematic event is viewed as unravelling a whole fantasy of social and political improvement. ‘One thing I did not foresee,’ Yeats wrote in 1921, ‘not having the courage of my own thought: the growing murderousness of the world.’ The second form of violence arrives at the end of the poem – ‘Violence upon the roads: violence of horses’ – and announces a new and perhaps monstrous dispensation, when bad times ‘give way to worse’, as Yeats puts it in his explanatory note. The suggestion is that the two violences are intimately connected. It is because we cannot deal with the first, cannot coherently live with the news it seems to bring, that we find ourselves, in an ugly, excitable mood of fake reluctance, half-awaiting the second.
A glance at an earlier poem, ‘The Magi’ (1914), will help us better understand this double involvement, and will allow us to make a start on the question of what a poem, as distinct from any other sort of proposition or utterance, may have to tell us, or show us, about violence.
Now as at all times I can see in the mind’s eye,
In their stiff, painted clothes, the pale unsatisfied ones
Appear and disappear in the blue depth of the sky
With all their ancient faces like rain-beaten stones,
And all their helms of silver hovering side by side,
And all their eyes still fixed, hoping to find once more,
Being by Calvary’s turbulence unsatisfied,
The uncontrollable mystery on the bestial floor.
These are the Magi of the New Testament, the Three Kings of every school nativity play. They have called on Herod, delivered their gifts to the Christ child and, deciding not to let Herod know what they have seen, they have ‘departed into their own country another way’ (Matthew 2.12). They may have had a ‘cold coming of it’, as T.S. Eliot and Lancelot Andrewes thought, but they seem to be entirely benevolent figures. Yet here they are again, Yeats’s poem suggests, ‘unsatisfied’, eager for ‘turbulence’. Perhaps they have always been here, ‘now as at all times’, waiting for the right human mind to accommodate them. The repetition of ‘unsatisfied’ is very troubling because we don’t associate these figures with any appetite at all, even benign. But they came to Bethlehem, it now seems, not for what they saw there but for what they knew about or hoped for from a later scene in the same life outside the walls of Jerusalem: ‘Calvary’s turbulence’. The phrase refers no doubt to the whole grisly drama of the crucifixion of Christ and the two thieves, but it may also have, probably does have, a more specific referent: the shaking of the earth and darkness of the sky at the moment of Christ’s death: ‘And, behold, the veil of the temple was rent in twain from the top to the bottom; and the earth did quake, and the rocks rent’ (Matthew 27.51). Turbulence indeed. This, it seems, is what the Magi were after when they sought the child in the manger, and it is what they are after now as they await, ‘all their eyes still fixed’, the second coming of … what? A turbulence, or the early incarnation of a coming turbulence, even more earth-shaking than Christianity has been for the last two thousand years? ‘Once more’ is extraordinarily eerie. Last time they saw the helpless child as an ‘uncontrollable mystery’ and the peaceable animals in the stable as a sort of heraldic emblem of bestiality. If they could do this to centuries of Christian iconography before it even got started, and also think the crucifixion was not turbulent enough, what can they be looking for now?
In one sense, the answer is easy enough. These are creatures from a mythology Yeats developed over the years, a view of history as moving in 2000-year cycles. The Magi know this view intimately: the Christian cycle of which they were such famous witnesses is about to end, and they are ready to attest the transition to the next. As A.N. Jeffares puts it, ‘The Magi are unsatisfied … because they represent Yeats’s belief that the Christian revelation was not final … Christ is uncontrollable because he is not final.’
But there would be all kinds of ways of representing cyclical history without the appetite for violence that becomes the dominant mood of this poem. The Magi are not looking for a change, which may perhaps be turbulent, as historical changes often are. They are looking for turbulence. Why would they want this, hope to find it? Perhaps because they are figures for, among other things, our own hostility to, our alienation from the very life we live, as Yeats himself suggested: ‘I had noticed once again,’ he said in relation to this poem, ‘how all thought among us is frozen into “something other than human life”.’ He takes the phrase ‘something other than human life’ from Blake, who was referring to the Houses of Parliament, and not just to their or anyone else’s thought: ‘they seem to me,’ Blake wrote, ‘to be something else besides human life.’ The Magi are our frozen thoughts, our cold and continuing appetite for the disruption of human appetite.
We can go further, I think. The Magi are unsatisfied by Calvary’s turbulence not because it was insufficient or not final but because they cannot be satisfied. They are by definition ‘the pale unsatisfied ones’, something like Yeats’s personal version of the Furies. They are unsatisfaction itself, and what they long to see on the bestial floor is not what the ‘uncontrollable mystery’ means or foreshadows, but the very shape of the uncontrollable, attractive to them in the measure that each case will be more uncontrollable than the last. Is such a desire intelligible? Not entirely. But it is perceptible, and we feel it in the strange, horrified curiosity which is the main mood this poem inspires in us. The concentration and patience of the Magi are infectious and inordinately compelling. The last thing I really want to see in human history is another uncontrollable mystery on the bestial floor; but part of me, at least when I’m reading this poem, wants to see it all the same, is anxious to share the Magi’s vision when it comes, so I too am ‘hoping to find’ something in the turbulence. I know, as the Magi would too, if they lived anywhere other than in Yeats’s mythology, that the vision is not going to come, that there is only the passion of the endless waiting, the apocalypse always postponed; but that doesn’t diminish the passion, or the suspense.
The suspense concerns not the experience of violence but the witnessing of it. The Magi are not going to participate in whatever act of succession they find to Calvary’s turbulence, and it seems likely that, to whatever degree we share their sinister interest, we too are waiting for, let’s say, news – news which can only be violent because we have got ourselves into a historical condition where only violence is news.
The word that is hovering here is ‘revelation’, and it is of course the word Yeats uses in ‘The Second Coming’: ‘Surely some revelation is at hand.’ At hand: not occurring, not occurred, and not in any remote future. This is one of two key moments in so many of Yeats’s poems: just before. The other moment is not exactly symmetrical, since it is not just after, but long enough after for hindsight to claim that the intervening event has wrecked the whole earlier world. ‘Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen’ is poised between these two times, in reverse order: first the aftermath of the wrecking event, then the waiting for immediate ugly revelation.
Towards the end of the first part of ‘Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen’ we meet what appears to be a timeless and lovely piece of verse, a proposition not inflected by anger or violence, announcing what looks like the ‘theme’ of this poem as of many poems by Yeats and others: ‘Man is in love and loves what vanishes,/What more is there to say?’ There is nothing more to say, it seems. There is only the perfect and always necessary saying again, as in Horace, or Ovid, or Virgil, or Villon, or Shakespeare: there are tears for things, there is the continuing engulfment of everything in time. But of course there is more to say, and a good deal of it has already been said in this poem. There are questions to ask. What was it we loved, and why did it vanish? Because everything vanishes? No need to get so excited then. We merely lost what we had to lose, what was made to be lost. This very long view, in context, looks like an attempt at self-consolation, beautifully disguised as mourning. If all we had to do was mourn, the suggestion is, we could be calmly sorrowful; we could just mourn. And our shock and bitterness and blame would have vanished, like the objects of our love, into a kind of eternity of loss.
In fact, the whole of the first part of ‘Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen’ invites a double reading, or tells two stories, the first about loss, the second about the folly of believing we ever had what we think we have lost. The second story is altogether more troubling, and has to do with very subtle shifts of object and forms of illustration. In one of the first appearances of the poem the opening line read as ‘Many ingenuous lovely things are gone’. I don’t really doubt that ‘ingenuous’ is the misprint most scholars think it is, but then it’s a fortunate slip, a sort of Freudian message from the printer’s font. The ‘things’ that are gone are cleverly or innocently made, they are not mighty monuments. The Parthenon, for example, may be a ruin but it’s still there. The ‘ingenious lovely things’ are the reverse of monuments: fragile instances of the art of an ancient time, a statue made from an olive tree, carved ivories, grasshoppers and bees made of gold. These things lasted, not for ever, but for a spell, because they were, it seems, magically protected ‘from the circle of the moon/That pitches common things about’. They were delicate and lovely, and the surprise is not that they are gone, but that they should have lasted beyond their own cultural moment at all. There is cause for sorrow here, but no reason to be shocked; we love fragile things, and fragile things get broken, what more is there to say?
What there is to say is what follows when Yeats moves from delicate art objects to the forms of civil life. ‘We too had many pretty toys when young,’ he says. There is already something amiss in the phrase ‘pretty toys’, since surely the ancient ivories and the rest were a little more than that, and the elegantly trivialising term looks like a gesture of self-protection: these were bearable losses, a matter of civilisation’s infancy – and perhaps the meaning of ‘ingenuous’ comes back here. But there is worse to come. What are these toys? The rule of law, lack of corruption, habits of justice, a society informed by a mature public opinion. Toys? Yes, because we didn’t have them, only their simulacra; we had only the illusion of having them. ‘O what fine thought we had because we thought/That the worst rogues and rascals had died out.’ We might believe that the continuing presence of rogues and rascals, even of ‘the worst’ rogues and rascals, is a feature of social reality, and that the law exists precisely to protect ordinary citizens from them. How could anyone have thought they would die out? But that was just what our ‘fine thought’ was: the law was ‘indifferent to blame or praise,/To bribe or threat’, because it was a dream of law, an imaginary, untested law, a law for a world without rogues and rascals. A good deal of the anger of the poem arises from the sudden and total awareness of this error. Not, did we believe what we believed, but how could we?
Immediately after the lines about days being dragon-ridden the poem pulls together and says clearly what it has been hinting at and exercising its grim and angry wit on:
The night can sweat with terror as before
We pieced our thoughts into philosophy,
And planned to bring the world under a rule,
Who are but weasels fighting in a hole.
The ‘we’ here indicts everyone who shared or even abetted the illusion, from poets to statesmen to well-intentioned parents, not only those who pieced together the philosophy or counted on doing the ruling, but also those who didn’t take the trouble to contradict the illusion they knew was wrong: all the weasels who paraded as humanitarians or complacently watched the parade.
Is there no case for the defence?
O but we dreamed to mend
Whatever mischief seemed
To afflict mankind, but now
That winds of winter blow
Learn that we were crack-pated when we dreamed.
The appeal to the dream has all kinds of echoes in Yeats, and what happens here represents an important change. We might think the dream justifies the dreamer, since that is part of the argument of ‘Easter 1916’, and this is the argument the speaker of ‘Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen’ helplessly gestures towards: ‘We know their dream,’ the earlier poem says, ‘enough/To know they dreamed and are dead.’ This particular dream had its price, even apart from the death of the dreamers. It turned hearts to stone, it was part of the old myth of sacrifice Yeats himself used to be so eloquent about. But it also changed the world, and took the dreamers out of ‘the casual comedy’ that seemed to be their life, associating them with a ‘terrible beauty’ that hindsight could only enhance, not undo. The crack-pated dreamers of ‘Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen’ by contrast are ruined by hindsight, they were only dreaming, and it is not ‘enough/To know they dreamed’, and not just because they are not all dead yet. Even death will not convert their errors into anything but folly. But why is this? And who are they?
They are a class, as Roy Foster says, the old Ascendancy in Ireland. Elsewhere Yeats borrows a phrase from the poem to talk about Lady Gregory, who is said to be ‘indifferent to praise or blame’, a quality attributed to the law that was one of the pretty toys ‘we’ had when young. But then their youth in this sense goes back a while, at least to the 18th century, as Foster suggests, and by the early 20th century that class was nervous rather than idealistic, and many Protestants were arming rather than dreaming. Foster also invokes England and the Pax Britannica, and I think Yeats is skilfully creating a movable moral and political community, English, Irish, international, a now defunct club to which anyone who was wrong about the world can claim to have belonged. Or can be accused, by themselves or others, of having belonged to. Members would be, for instance, all the casualties of what George Dangerfield long ago called the strange death of liberal England; all the Irish people who hoped for a non-violent progression to independence; and in the club’s most capacious definition, all the inheritors of the Enlightenment, in Europe and across the world, all the believers in some sort of moral progress running alongside the 19th century’s manifest advances in science and technology.
Did such a club exist, except in a retrospective arrangement, to borrow a phrase from Joyce? This is hard to say, since the evidence comes mostly from the club’s repentant and guilty members, in instances full of self-parody. Of course people did say, and perhaps believe, that war was a thing of the past, and politicians spoke of putting an end to poverty. This is still some way from believing that the worst rogues and rascals have died out. There is a difference between a dream as an ideal or a programme and a dream as a damaging, and once revealed as such, shocking delusion. And yet the shock is what seems to have been most real in all this, and what cries out for interpretation. Historians can argue, we can all argue, about whether mischief was generally getting mended in the later Victorian era – medicine will tell us a quite different story from politics, and certain classes of Belle Epoque France, say, were doing very nicely compared to Russian serfs – and we can argue philosophically about whether the idea of the moral improvement of a whole civilisation is even coherent. But what Yeats is showing us is not how things were but how he and his generation dramatically felt, and they had many companions in this feeling. The historical occasion is neither now nor then but the moment formed by what now is seen as doing to then.
The shock of this moment, this breaking of a vast illusion, is pictured as having violence at its heart, and indeed as possible only through violence. The picture doesn’t make this or any other violence acceptable or welcome, but it does mean that it’s hard to deny or even deplore the new truth, because the truth is always in one respect an improvement on fantasy – in one respect only, I hasten to add, since fantasy is an improvement on truth in every other way. That is what fantasy is for. Still, this respect is important. One can’t build on error, and with truth there is at least a chance. At the same time this new perception so completely wrecks the past that for the moment the wreck is all that can be seen. Violence is the name of this wreck; it is whatever brings to our minds that knowledge which we cannot and will not gain otherwise. It would be desperate and in a horrible way romantic to believe that there is no other way in which we can ever get the knowledge we need, and we should certainly try to do without uncontrollable mysteries if we can. But it is clear that once days are dragon-ridden, however we explain the arrival of the dragon, neither the past nor the future can be the same.
Many readers believe that in the last part of ‘Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen’ there is more rhetorical swagger than poetic substance, that this otherwise wonderful poem escapes into the sort of historico-spiritualist hocus-pocus Yeats was so fond of. For them Yeats becomes the figure Seamus Heaney invokes in a moment of devil’s advocacy, representing ‘the reliable citizen’: ‘this charlatan patterning history and predicting the future by a mumbo-jumbo of geometry and Ptolemaic astrology’. I don’t disagree about the swagger and the hocus-pocus, but the final effect for me is still extremely powerful.
But now wind drops, dust settles; thereupon
There lurches past, his great eyes without thought
Under the shadow of stupid straw-pale locks,
That insolent fiend Robert Artisson
To whom the love-lorn Lady Kyteler brought
Bronzed peacock feathers, red combs of her cocks.
There is a regular iambic metre hiding in the first line, like a ghost or a well-behaved child, but almost anyone is going to read the initial phrase with several stresses in the middle, maybe five in a row (now wind drops, dust settles). It’s hard to exaggerate the ominous effect of this rhythm, especially in conjunction with what the line is saying. This is the calm after the whirlwind (after thunder and tumult and evil gathering head), the end of the violence of horses and the vision of the daughters of Herodias, and for a moment we breathe more easily. But only if we are not listening. If we are listening we hear the drumbeat of a different nightmare, and we know some sort of second coming is at hand, in this case the reappearance of the man Yeats describes as ‘an evil spirit much run after in Kilkenny at the start of the 14th century’.
The grammar does an interesting trick as we read of ‘that insolent fiend Robert Artisson’. The reasonable question is: who on earth is that? But for a moment we think we know the fellow. That Robert Artisson. We can’t remember anything about him, but surely that lurch, those eyes, that hair are familiar. The same goes for Lady Kyteler. Didn’t we always know she was associated with him in some way? And we certainly know what those peacock feathers and cocks-combs were all about: ancient witchery. The effect fades, of course; but it also lingers. There is a touch of the same familiarity in Yeats’s saying that Artisson was ‘much run after in Kilkenny’. Not the demon who terrified the Irish countryside but some sort of playboy of the spirit world, the blond beast whom all the ladies fancied.
When we do a little digging and find out more about this couple, the results are also interesting, but different. Now we really are in a world of stereotypical black magic. Alice Kyteler – Dame Alice rather than Lady Alice, Yeats has lifted her up a class – was condemned as a witch in 1324. She had four husbands, is said to have poisoned the first three and robbed a fourth of his senses by ‘philtres and incantations’. She and her friends left dismembered animals at crossroads for ‘a spirit of low rank, named the son of Art’, who appeared in various forms, as a cat, a hairy black dog and a Negro. Black magic indeed, and good old-fashioned racism. Artisson was said to be the source of Lady Kyteler’s wealth, so he was not just a pretty face. But this intriguing lore adds up to something less than our old imagined intimacy. We knew them better before we knew them.
Michael Ragussis says this scene is ‘the exact opposite’ of an apocalypse. ‘The poet is not exalted through vision. He escapes nothing except falsehood.’ I agree there is no exaltation here, but there is surely some sort of apocalypse – a weasels’ apocalypse, if you like. There is no real encounter with evil, in spite of Yeats’s use of the term, because evil has a mind, and what we see here are ‘eyes without thought’; and ‘stupid straw-pale locks’; not the promised avatar of the next world order but a hulk of vacuous appetite, whose only mental feature appears to be insolence. Still, there is no forgetting him. Once he lurches into your mind he’s there to stay, and we shall meet him again in another form.
Yeats didn’t write ‘Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen’ in 1919, and it wasn’t called that when he first published it in magazines in England and America. He wrote it in 1921 and published it that year under the title ‘Thoughts upon the Present State of the World’. But he did write ‘The Second Coming’ in 1919, and for a long time this was something I didn’t wish to know. When I first read this poem, with its so often quoted lines, ‘The best lack all conviction, while the worst/Are full of passionate intensity,’ I was sure it referred to the 1930s, to Fascism and Appeasement, to Hitler and Mussolini and Chamberlain. When I learned its date I was baffled. The poem seemed so completely on target for what I thought was its topic. But I finally got used to being wrong, and I knew there was passionate intensity (and lack of conviction) all over the place in 1919 too. There is a question of shifting reference in the poem, though, and the whole issue of how a poem, or a play or a novel, can ‘refer’ to anything is an intriguing one. This issue in turn relates to the workings of language more generally, so that what happens in a poem can be seen as a complication or refinement or loosening of those workings. ‘How does language hook on to the world?’ Wittgenstein asked early in his career. One answer is that it never does, quite. Another would be that it does it in all kinds of ways, and that particular contexts determine how the act of hooking works, so that at this moment you know, for various contingent but sufficient reasons, that the Wittgenstein I have just mentioned is the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein and not some other member of that large and distinguished family.
The early drafts of ‘The Second Coming’, as Jon Stallworthy tells us, mention Germans and Russia; but when the poem was published these nationals and this nation were gone, and the poem, Terence Brown says, ‘seemed to bear more on Irish affairs than on the general European crisis’. But of course the poem was never not about Irish affairs, and this is where the question of reference needs some thought. We can go several ways on this matter. Paul Muldoon thinks, in so far as I understand his mischievous claim – he takes an implied but unmentioned cork from a wine bottle in the poem ‘All Soul’s Night’ as a connection to the city of Cork, which turn conjures up the mayor of Cork, Terence MacSwiney, dying in a hunger strike in Brixton jail – that Irish affairs are always present in Irish poems (but not presumably more than French affairs are present in French poems). Helen Vendler, on the other hand, writing about ‘Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen’, takes a series of steps away from Ireland. ‘Irish events,’ she says, ‘are not Yeats’s principal focus.’ It’s true that ‘the theme of the sequence’ is ‘murderous local and European bloodshed’, but the underlying subject is ‘the recurrent multiform and age-old violence of human beings’. Seamus Deane, bringing us back to ‘The Second Coming’, and making me feel I was not entirely as wrong as I thought I was, asks: ‘Can the bestial be born again as demonic? Can the mob be born again as a people, as a nation? That would truly be a second coming. It became known as Fascism.’
A poem can refer to history in more than one way, and to more than one history. I picture a poem in this respect as something like a dream in Freud’s account of it: every element in the dream reflects more than one provocation in waking life; every waking anxiety finds more than one expression in the dream. This is not to say a poem can mean anything; only that a poem, like a dream, will reveal most to us when the patient and analyst are working together. One of our problems is that literary critics and scholars often have a version of what Wittgenstein called, in philosophy, a contempt for the particular case. Well, literary critics are generally too nice to feel contempt for the particular case. They feel sorry for it, they want to lend it a bit of the dignity that comes from belonging to a larger, even universal condition. This is how we leave behind local violence, or local anything, and fly to the vaster question. I think pretty much the opposite – that the local is always more interesting than the global – but of course I can’t do without some kind of principle of generalisation. My hope is that a generalisable case might retain enough particulars to avoid falling into sheer abstraction.
And with this I arrive at a famous attempt to connect Irish affairs with a European crisis, namely Conor Cruise O’Brien’s bid to link the Black and Tans to the Nazis. This remarkable essay is for most of its duration going in a different direction, since it offers a rebuke to all those readers of Yeats who like to get away from the particular case when that case is political. These readers obviously can’t deny Yeats’s involvement in politics, from the founding of the Abbey Theatre to his spell in the Irish Senate, but they can suggest this person is not the ‘true Yeats’, because the true Yeats is a lyric poet, without history, just as Tsvetaeva said such poets are. O’Brien amusingly divides these folk into three groups: ‘those who are bored by Irish politics, those who are bored by all politics, and those who are frightened of Yeats’s politics’. O’Brien insists that Yeats did far more than flirt with Fascism, and that when he stopped his more-than-flirting it was not because he had seen the liberal light but because he thought that the movement was not going to work in Ireland. O’Brien accuses Yeats of writing ‘Mussolini prose’, and also, with great relish, reminds us (twice) of Yeats’s admiration for the severity of Kevin O’Higgins as minister of the Free State. ‘Seventy-seven executions did not repel him, on the contrary, they made him admire O’Higgins all the more.’ But then, O’Brien argues in a beautiful swerving movement, the poetry tells us a different story, or allows us to see a better story hiding in the prose. We could, he suggests, think of ‘the political prose and the poetry … as cognate expressions of a fundamental force, anterior to both politics and poetry’. This force would be ‘Yeats’s profound and tragic intuitive – and intelligent – awareness … of what the First World War had set loose, of what was already moving towards Hitler and the Second World War’. O’Brien knows what we are going to say.
It may be objected that ‘Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen’ and ‘The Second Coming’ were written not about the coming of Fascism but about the Anglo-Irish War and the Black and Tans. The distinction is not absolute: the Black and Tans were in fact an early manifestation of an outlook and methods which the Nazis were later to perfect.
There are all kinds of things wrong with this line of thought, and I don’t believe these poems are about the coming of Fascism in any immediate sense – even O’Brien’s own argument suggests they are not, since Yeats would have no reason to be as horrified as we are. Of course, the Nazis and the Black and Tans recruited a lot of thugs, but you don’t need ‘an outlook and methods’ for that, still less a tragic awareness of what was wrong with the 20th century. Hitler and the two world wars have here been turned into ciphers, abstract markers of disaster, the way Auschwitz is often used as shorthand for atrocity – even by someone as careful as Adorno.
Still, I believe O’Brien is on to something, and I believe it is through Yeats, and in particular through ‘Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen’, that he has got there. There can’t be much mileage in the claim that the 20th century was more violent than any other. Think of the competition, and how would we quantify such things anyway? Nor do I think we can really argue that the 20th century invented new forms of violence – although it did invent several horrible new technologies. But I think it can be demonstrated, through Yeats and some other witnesses, that certain writers in the early 20th century had just such an awareness as O’Brien evokes, and that they intuited something more precise than a general moral disaster. When Yeats says, in another famous line from ‘The Second Coming’, that ‘mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,’ he does not mean mere disorder. He means what is perceived as a new degree of uncontrollable violence and a new realm of impunity.
Both Yeats and Walter Benjamin invoke the story of Niobe in this context. Niobe was the queen of Thebes who boasted of having so many children, and in particular of having more children than the goddess Leto. Leto had only two children. They were both gods – Apollo and Artemis – but she didn’t feel this entirely made up for the lack of numbers, and sent them off to wipe out Niobe’s entire brood. Niobe herself turned to stone out of grief – a stone that nevertheless kept on weeping. For Yeats, Niobe is an image of civilisation on the edge of ending:
A civilisation is a struggle to keep self-control, and in this is like some great tragic person, some Niobe who must display an almost superhuman will or the cry will not touch our sympathy. The loss of control over thought comes towards the end; first a sinking in upon the moral being, then the last surrender, the irrational cry, revelation – the scream of Juno’s peacock.
‘Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen’ offers first a mirror image of this story, the picture of a civilisation which had delusions at the end instead of superhuman will, and which can only arouse our fury not our sympathy; and then the poem offers a direct representation, a portrait of the last surrender, the irrational cry, and the ambiguous revelation of the lurching spirit. Juno’s peacock has become Lady Kyteler’s peacock feathers.
Benjamin’s essay ‘On the Critique of Violence’ was written and published in 1921, and very much belongs to this mentality – although it is often taken as if it were a timeless bit of philosophising. Benjamin distinguishes between ‘mythic violence’ and ‘divine violence’, Greek and Jewish respectively, where the first is ‘pernicious’ because its only purpose is to establish power and keep it in place, and the second is calamitous but ‘pure, immediate’ in its action. Jehovah annihilating a whole company of his people compares favourably to the Greek gods leaving Niobe to suffer. Mythic violence is ‘fundamentally identical with legal violence’, the violence associated with legality itself, Rechtmässigkeit. Divine violence, whatever its costs, has to do with justice, Gerechtigkeit, and revolution would be its ‘highest’ human expression. I should insist that Benjamin says all kinds of human matters can be treated without violence, through trust and understanding and other moderate exchanges, through what Jacques Derrida, glossing this passage, calls ‘the culture of the heart’. But Benjamin doesn’t appear to believe that either politics or theology can do without violence.
For him, Niobe is a person whose ‘arrogance calls down fate upon her not because her arrogance offends against the law but because it challenges fate … Violence therefore bursts upon Niobe from the uncertain, ambiguous sphere of fate.’ This is because violence for the gods is ‘not a means to their ends, scarcely a manifestation of their will, but primarily a manifestation of their existence’. In this view the Greek gods themselves, for whose collective, unstoppable incoherence fate appears to be another name, are something like an ancient, immortal version of Yeats’s drunken soldiers; and it can’t be an accident, as they say, that they emerge in this light in 1921. By contrast, Jehovah’s justice, instanced in his destruction of the Levites of the company of Korah in Numbers 16.1-35, is lethal but intelligible. I’m not going to say any more about this argument, which I am far from understanding very well, except to suggest that such a view of the Jewish God, in Berlin in the early days of the Weimar Republic, makes most sense as a back-formation from the horror of the vision of the Greeks; the intellectual shock-effect of the perceived prevalence of random violence, of the scary sense that even legal violence is random because it serves not justice for persons but the impersonal legitimacy of the tyrannous state.
Here is another instance from the same time and culture: Augsburg, 1919. This is the poem by Brecht called ‘The Song of the Soldier of the Red Army’. There is a slight mystery about it, since Brecht performed it in a tavern when he wrote it, and afterwards, in 1927, published it in a volume. Then he refused to allow it to be reprinted at all, and it vanished from view until after his death. A friend of Brecht’s says this is because the poet was concerned, conveniently for my argument, about the uncertainty of reference in the poem: people might think it was about the Russian Red Army when it was really about the short-lived Bavarian Red Army, or vice versa. This is worth worrying about, since the difference makes a difference, and even if we thought the poem might refer to both armies, we wouldn’t want to blur the distinction between them, as if all Red Armies were alike – once you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all. Still, none of this seems to offer grounds for disowning the poem, and I want to suggest that Brecht, who could put up with all kinds of unpleasantness, much of it caused by himself, felt he had come too close in spirit to the uninformed, unappeased, sardonic anger that, among many other things, fed into Nazism – just as Benjamin had come too close, in Derrida’s reading, to the high intellectual justification for divine violence that might also have been that of some of the thinkers of the Third Reich.
Brecht’s poem has ten stanzas, quatrains; here are the last six:
In rain and in the murky wind
Hard stone seems good to sleep upon.
The rain washed out our filthy eyes and cleansed them
Of filth and many a various sin.
Often at night the sky turned red
They thought red dawn had come again.
That was a fire, but the dawn came also.
Freedom, my children, never came.
And so, wherever they might be
They looked around and said, it’s hell.
The time went by. The latest hell, though,
Was never the very last hell of all.
So many hells were still to come.
Freedom, my children, never came.
The time goes by. But if the heavens came now
These heavens would be much the same.
When once our body’s eaten up
With an exhausted heart in it
The army spews our skin and bones out
Into cold and shallow pits.
And with our body hard from rain
And with our hearts all scarred by ice
And with our blood-stained empty hands we
Come grinning into your paradise.
It’s the last turn that alters everything, and gives the poem the sudden feel of a revelation. The soldiers are cold and tired and complaining. They have lost hope and they have blood-stained hands: they are soldiers. They die, and they tell us about dying. Then all at once they are grinning and saved. Well, they have arrived in paradise. No, in our paradise, the paradise of right or left, the saved bourgeois world or the new order after the revolution, neither of which would be glad to see the dirty soldiers of the earlier conflict again. That’s why the soldiers are grinning. They know how upset we are to see them. And they seem at the end to know who they are. They are not the drunken soldiery of ‘Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen’, but they are violent dead men who won’t die, who have been through several secular hells, and their grins promise all kinds of havoc in the place we thought was perfect. They are not ‘the worst rogues and rascals’; they are not even ‘weasels fighting in a hole’. They have been fighting in a hole, but they are not weasels. But they are anarchic enough, convincing enough, lively enough, to end any dream of order. We just can’t tell what they will do when they stop grinning.
Here’s a last witness for the sense that a new, groundless, unfocused form of violence is on the march. There is a very nice academic and historical touch here, since if you turn to the acknowledgments page of the translation of Blok’s poem The Twelve by Jon Stallworthy and Peter France, you will find an expression of gratitude to Maurice Bowra, ‘who in a tutorial on Yeats’s poetry introduced the unknown name of Alexander Blok’. Bowra had made the connection long ago, and we meet yet another set of soldiers out of control.
In The Twelve, a poem of 12 sections written in January 1918 – we’re not travelling very far in time – we encounter the Red Guard, rattling through the streets of St Petersburg. The night is dark and windy, there is snow everywhere, passing pedestrians slip and fall, a banner hangs across the street: ‘Full power to the Constituent Assembly’. An old lady wonders what it means and thinks the cloth could be better used for keeping children warm. The soldiers are singing, and then catch sight of, and sneer at, a writer, a priest. The local prostitutes hold their own constituent assembly, and decide on a new set of prices. The first, long section ends:
Black sky grows blacker.
Anger, sorrowful anger
seethes in the breast …
Black anger, holy anger …
Keep your eyes skinned!
In the next sections, a single soldier takes the lead in the song. He sees his old girlfriend Katya with a new man, Vanka, a former comrade who seems to have gone over to the other side. It’s a good life, the Red Guards think, their battle against the unsleeping bourgeois enemy, they’re going to ‘light a fire through all the world’ – and deal with Katya and Vanka as well. The single soldier recalls his earlier acts of violence, which he seems to think of as a kind of sexual discipline:
Across your collarbone, my Katya,
a knife has scarred the flesh;
and there below your bosom, Katya,
that little scratch is fresh …
Do you remember that officer –
the knife put an end to him.
Then suddenly there’s shooting, Vanka is running and Katya is dead. Our soldier – ‘the poor killer’, as the poem calls him; ‘the poor murderer’ in another translation – gloats and then feels sorry for himself, sentimental as only a thug can be. But his friends cheer him up and he gets back in the marching, shouting mood.
What the hell!
It’s not a sin to have some fun!
Abusing God’s name as they go,
all twelve march onward into snow …
prepared for anything,
regretting nothing …
Their rifles at the ready
for the unseen enemy.
The soldiers ‘march with sovereign tread’, but they are getting nervous and shoot at shadows. And then all at once …
At the end of The Twelve, after the shooting and in the dark streets, the guards see something in front of them, Blok’s version of what happens when a world ends. He said that when he was writing the poem and for several days after he had finished it he heard a noise all around him – ‘probably that of the crumbling of the old world’. Here are the last lines:
So they march with sovereign tread …
Behind them limps the hungry dog,
and wrapped in wild snow at their head
carrying a blood-red flag –
soft-footed where the blizzard swirls,
invulnerable where bullets crossed –
crowned with a crown of snowflake pearls,
a flowery diadem of frost,
ahead of them goes Jesus Christ.
These soldiers of course are not quite those of Brecht and not quite those of Yeats; cousins rather than closer relatives. And the soldier has his reason for killing Katya. A stupid, ugly and inadequate reason, to be sure, but enough to acquit him of the charge of mindlessness. As Paulin says in another poem in The Invasion Handbook, ‘Contrary as it appears to all received opinion, Hitler had a mind. It was coarse, turbid, narrow, rigid, cruel, but it was a mind.’ The violence in question, the kind intuited by Yeats and half-identified by Conor Cruise O’Brien, is not always groundless; it may have grounds, even if they are phantasmic and displaced. But it is all too often groundless, like the drive-by shooting by the Black and Tans, and in every case the distance from what might look like a compelling reason is considerable. Such violence always feels random and it usually goes unpunished. It feels like an incarnation of meaninglessness; it feels like an uncontrollable mystery.
But the most startling effect of Blok’s ending, of course, is its literalisation of the Second Coming, its version of the sphinx or Robert Artisson. Here there is no rough beast, no slouching towards Bethlehem, and no lurching spirit from old Kilkenny either. No terminal question mark, as in ‘The Second Coming’, no doubt about what or who will appear when the hour comes round at last. The true successor to Jesus Christ, the victim and master of Calvary’s turbulence, is … Jesus Christ. Blok said all kinds of confusing things about Christ’s likely sympathy with the Revolution – ‘a simple matter for anyone who has read the Gospels and thought about them’, he claimed – but they scarcely tame the poem’s terror. Christ seems to have been conjured up not only by the weather and the Revolution and the raw energy of the Red Guards – ‘their only good quality, if it is one,’ Stallworthy and France say, ‘is their determination to march on through the blizzard’ – but also by the murder of Katya, that not quite groundless but nevertheless horribly random event. Blok, like Yeats, like Benjamin, like Brecht, has found an image that answers to what is felt as a new disorder, the condition of a violent world desperately in need of violent redemption or violent judgment.
I don’t think we can say that literature resists history here, to return to Barthes’s ordinarily very useful formulation. Literature is miming history, singing along, humming history’s scary tune. But that very singing along, when done in this way, by these writers, offers the possibility of a critique, the glimpse of a future understanding. This is a future understanding in two senses. We haven’t got it yet, and we are not yet looking at the horrors of the 20th century that O’Brien ascribes to Yeats’s intuition; only at Russia and Germany and Ireland around 1920; only at pieces of the ground where those horrors grew, and where they perhaps had to grow.
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