Splendid, subtle and stimulating
LITERARY CRITICISM: Yeats & Violence, By Michael Wood, Oxford, 272pp. £18.99
FIRST, A CAVEAT. Readers expecting this book to be exclusively a politico-literary study of the Yeats who worried that a play of his might have sent out certain men the British shot in 1916, and who in the 1930s had a brief infatuation with Irish fascism, and whose intensifying preoccupation with what is called, with typical Irish delicacy, the physical force tradition, might link him to our very own Thirty Years War in Northern Ireland, will be disappointed. Michael Wood’s concerns stretch far beyond what Joyce in Finnegans Wakecalls “Irrland’s split little pea”.
True, there is a chapter in Wood’s book devoted largely to Yeats’s views on and reaction to 1916 and the War of Independence, and inevitably, given the kind of poet Yeats was, or made himself into, the topic of political violence is treated passim. However, what we have here is really an extended close reading of a single poem, or, more properly, a poem sequence, Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen, which, confusingly, was written in 1921, and was published in The Tower, surely the greatest single volume of poetry of modern times, in 1928.
In a letter to Olivia Shakespear in 1921, Yeats informed her: “I am writing a series of poems (‘thoughts suggested by the present state of the world’ or some such name). I have written two, there may be many more. They are not philosophical but simple passionate, a lamentation over lost peace lost hope. My own philosophy does not much brighten the prospect, so far as any future we shall live to see is concerned, except that it flouts all socialist hope if that is a brightening.”
As Yeats’s biographer Roy Foster remarks apropos this passage, by “the world” Yeats really meant Ireland. Yeats had in his younger days fully intended to settle in London and be an English poet who just happened to have been born in Ireland; however, well before 1921 he had determined for good or ill to be not an Irish poet but the Irish poet. It was a shrewd and highly successful strategy, but a strategy it was, and any reader of Yeats would be advised to keep this fact firmly in mind when considering both Yeats the poet and Yeats the smiling – or increasingly, as the years went on, scowling – public man. His wife, George, as usual, had the measure of him, and took a certain humorous delight in letting his measurements be known. Writing to Thomas MacGreevy at the close of 1925 she observed: “All the pseudo-mystico-intellecto-nationalistico stuff of the last fifteen years isn’t worth a trouser-button, or rather as a trouser-button is a most necessary article, one might say a pillowcase button! As long as there was any gesture in it, as long as there was a war on and so on and so on, it was worth it.”
Michael Wood, somewhat unusually for an English critic, is no enemy of theory, and on the first page of his introduction, which he calls “Up Close and Serial” – another of his books is America in the Movies –he invokes the names of the arch-theorists Roland Barthes and Jacques Derrida in assuring us that his book is not an explication de texte, which would separate the poem into various distinct formal components, but a consideration of the work as a whole. Yeats himself, as we saw in the letter quoted above, thought of Nineteen Hundred and Nineteenas a “series of poems”, but Wood seems gently to disagree, and settles for designating as “parts” what Yeats calls “poems”. This is a not insignificant distinction.
His first chapter opens by declaring that “Yeats is a poet almost everyone associates with violence”, and quotes Yeats’s friend Ezra Pound saying of the poet that he understood “violent emotion” better than anyone else. However, it is a question whether this understanding – and one assumes that “understanding” here implies not only “knowledge of” but “affinity with” – sprang from a natural, instinctive source or was part of the “pseudo-mystico-intellecto-nationalistico stuff” that made George Yeats chuckle. Roy Foster in the biography is careful on this point: “To an extent perhaps unrecognised, [Yeats]’s affinity with Fascism (not National Socialism) was a matter of rhetorical style; and the achievement of style, as he himself had decreed long before, was closely connected to shock tactics”. Of course, “violent emotion” is not the same thing as “violence”, but Wood adduces a hair-raising instance of the ferocity of Yeats’s views when he tells us that in 1937, when the world was hurtling towards the cataclysm of world war, Yeats replied to an Indian visitor, who had asked him if he had a message for Asia, by grasping a Japanese sword and saying: “Conflict. More conflict.” He notes too, much later in his book, Yeats writing that when he was a boy he “took satisfaction in certain public disasters, felt a sort of ecstasy at the contemplation of ruin”. Yet in Nineteen Hundred and Nineteenthe poet’s “contemplation of ruin” provokes not ecstasy but a fierce – indeed, a violent – reprehension of the savage conflicts in which the world and, more particularly, Ireland were bloodily indulging. Wood mentions that when in the 1930s Yeats read over the poems in The Tower what struck him most was the bitterness of their expression. And of all Yeats’s poems Nineteen Hundred and Nineteenis surely the most bitter. Here, for example, is section IV in its entirety:
We, who seven years ago
Talked of honour and of truth,
Shriek with pleasure if we show
The weasel’s twist, the weasel’s tooth.
It is interesting to speculate who it was Yeats took to be the “we” of those lines. What the poet feared most, and most strongly warned against, especially in his Senate speeches, as Roy Foster among others has noted, was the rise to power in the nascent Irish state of the bourgeoisie, the shopkeepers, priests and small farmers who would trample upon the “many ingenious lovely things” that appear in the first line of Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen, those things that, in Yeats’s contention, he and Lady Gregory and JM Synge and a very few others had laboured to create. Nowadays, mired – a favorite Yeatsian term – as Ireland is in scandal, violence and low politics, the notion of an “indomitable Irishry” provokes only a wearied and embarrassed laugh.
Michael Wood, a subtle critic and a brilliant reader, is alive to the ambiguity that is rife among the personal pronouns in this poem. “We too,” the second stanza of section I observes, “had many pretty toys when young,” such as immutable laws, venerable habits, an informed public opinion, things that now seem lost irretrievably, but is this the same “we” who now shriek with delight at the flash of the weasel’s tooth? And then there is the fact that the “drunken soldiery” who “Can leave the mother, murdered at her door, / To crawl in her own blood, and go scot-free” are the Black and Tans sent over to pacify Ireland by the government of a country that, for all his Celtic craw-thumping, as the Irish might say, Yeats revered and treasured as one of the great centres of civilisation, and where he had very nearly made his career and his life.
Where is there a resolution to be found to these contradictions? In poetry? WH Auden famously wrote that “poetry makes nothing happen”, a line on which Wood places a wittily elegant gloss: “Poetry makes nothing happen but its drunken soldiers are always on the move.” It is one of the smaller but still significant aspects of modern Ireland’s misfortunes that Yeats’s dubious politics, expressed most strongly through a shrill insistence on the superiority of his own caste – “I suppose public life is a Protestant creation,” he once remarked – should have blunted the challenge he offered to the country of living up to the magnificent image of it that he had wrought through his poetry, through the foundation of a national theatre and through his stance as a heroic public figure in a long line of Anglo-Irish heroes such as Edmund Burke, Bishop Berkeley and Jonathan Swift.
These are some of the ironies, and some of the tragedies, that Michael Wood addresses in this splendid, subtle and stimulating book. Like George Yeats, Wood has the measure of the poet, but it is a generous measuring, and one that many pains went to the making of. He takes the poet and the poem with a deserved seriousness, and acknowledges the momentous task Yeats assumed in Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen– “Yeats, I suggest, 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”.