In a word . . . intensity

You know that great line from Yeats "the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity." It is from his poem The Second Coming, written in 1919 in the aftermath of the first World War. A magnificent work, which reflected the mood of a world distraught.

“Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere


The ceremony of innocence is drowned.”

But the reason I bring it up here has to do with the initial quotation above. It has been used again and again over the past century, or thereabouts, to give intensity a bad name. It’s as if some believe Yeats was promulgating a profound insight into the human condition, whereas he was just making an observation from a particular place and time.

He was not saying it is a feature of human behaviour that the best lack all conviction and the worst are full of passionate intensity. Frequently the best are full of conviction AND passionate intensity. It is what can, and does, make great things happen. Intensity is hugely attractive to most people. It concentrates life wonderfully, allows us to live utterly in the present with not a thought for future or the past. An escape most profoundly to be desired every now and then.

I read once, but cannot remember where, that great art allows us to live more intensely. So too does great sport. It is what draws us to both, whether that be Macbeth confronted by Banquo's ghost, the concluding scenes in Hitchcock's film Vertigo, or watching England forego a chance to equalise in the recent World Cup Rugby match against Wales, in the hope of a try which would mean victory but which in fact brought defeat.

Central to such intensity always is an almost painful suspense and an element of precarious risk which could bring either elation or catastrophic failure. That thin edge is what attracts.

Dated in English from the 1660s, meaning an extreme depth of feeling, intensity is a combination of "intense" and the suffix "-ity". From the Latin intensus meaning "stretched, strained, tight", intense is an adjective which – "ity" transforms into an abstract noun indicating a state or condition. An earlier version of the word, dating to the first decades of the 1600s, was "intenseness".