Yeats and Violence

Michael Wood

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.

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