Fintan O’Toole: ‘Yeats Test’ criteria reveal we are doomed
Use of WB Yeats by politicians and media is an index of how bad world has become
There are many ways to measure the state of the world and economists, ecologists and anthropologists labour mightily over them. Opening the Yeats International Summer School in Sligo last week, I suggested another one: the Yeats Test. The proposition is simple: the more quotable Yeats seems to commentators and politicians, the worse things are. As a counter-example we might try the Heaney Test: if hope and history rhyme, let the good times roll. But these days, it is the older Irish poet who prevails in political discourse – and that is not good news.
After the election of Donald Trump, there was a massive surge in online searches for – and presumably readings of – Yeats’s magnificently doom-laden The Second Coming. Frank McNally has reported in his Irishman’s Diary, based on analysis from the media database Factiva, that the poem, written largely in response to the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, was more quoted in newspapers the first seven months of 2016 than in any other year of the past three decades. Its popularity seems not to have abated much since: there is even an entire Twitter account called Widening Gyre that does nothing except send lines from the poem out into cyberspace without further comment.
Yeats's brilliance lay in his ability to turn these immediate anxieties into words that seem capable of articulating every kind of epic political disturbance
“The centre cannot hold” was tweeted or retweeted 499 times on June 24th, 2016, the morning after the Brexit vote. Thereafter it continued to appear 38 times a day. It also appeared 249 times in newspapers in the first seven months of 2016. In a quick Twitter search of very recent usage, the phrase is quoted by everyone from the veteran US conservative Bill Kristol to the business editor of BBC Africa, Larry Madowo, from the poet laureate of Indiana Adrian Matejka to the comedian Avery Edison, and from an apocalyptic Zimbabwean preacher to an Indian nationalist campaign. (I am particularly glad to see that one of the many Africans who have tweeted it lately uses the Twitter handle Optimistic Guy.)
‘Anarchy is loosed’
Three other phrases from The Second Coming – “mere anarchy is loosed upon the world”; “The ceremony of innocence is drowned”; and “The best lack all conviction, while the worst/Are full of passionate intensity” – turn up all the time. And of course “Things fall apart” over and over. Other phrases from The Second Coming, like the “rough beast” (slouching towards the White House) have been called into service. The most frequent triggers for these quotes in 2016 were the Paris and Brussels terror attacks, the rise of Trump and the Brexit vote. But continuing global instability and the sense of foreboding it induces have made Yeats’s apocalyptic vision as quotable as a chart-topping song.
Some of this appeal is simply a tribute to the way great phrase-making acquires a timeless quality. But Yeats made lots of great non-doomy phrases too. The grim ones ring especially true right now because he lived through such turbulent times, his poetic antennae picking up the distress signals of Ireland’s civil wars, the Great War, the Russian Revolution and the rise of fascism in Europe. His brilliance lay in his ability to turn these immediate anxieties into words that seem capable of articulating every kind of epic political disturbance. As Ed Ballard noted in a Wall Street Journal article of the resurgence of Yeats quotations, he created “a sequence of images dark enough to conjure a sense of doom and vague enough to be invoked by anybody looking for a more highbrow way of saying ‘the world is going to hell in a handbasket’”.
This is demonstrably true. Yeats’s lines can be claimed by right, left and centre. The guru of the new right, Jordan Peterson, tweeted six lines from The Second Coming to his fan-base in August 2017. The post-Marxist philosopher Slavoj Zizek, in response to the Paris attacks, said the poem “seems perfectly to render our present predicament: ‘The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity’.” And here’s our own Minister for Finance Paschal Donohoe in his 2016 budget speech: “I alluded to The Second Coming by WB Yeats when I said that it was the job of those in the middle ground of Irish politics to show that things won’t just fall apart and the centre can hold – and stay firm.”
‘Heart’s grown brutal’
It is of course this very adaptability that makes Yeats’s images so useful to those of us who are in the business of reacting to the latest atrocities of word or deed. He had a genius for reflecting specific historic events in his own lifetime without allowing his language to be confined to or defined by them. “Great hatred, little room” was hard to avoid during Northern Ireland’s Troubles. (Tony Blair’s key adviser, Jonathan Powell, used it for the title of his book on the peace process.) “We are closed in, and the key is turned/On our uncertainty” from The Stare’s Nest by My Window works equally well for that conflict and for the present state of Brexit Britain. “We had fed the heart on fantasies,/The heart’s grown brutal from the fare” from the same poem seems to speak to almost every historic moment when the rhetoric of zealots is in the ascendant – and to the contemporary world of “alternative facts” and ecstatic slogans.
The problem may be that with so much bad news, the Yeats images are becoming so overused that they are sinking into the linguistic mire of cliche
In one way, the reference back to Yeats in contemporary political discourse is quite helpful. It reminds us that we’ve been here before, that the current sense of profound unsettlement is not unique in modern history. Perhaps especially on social media, where everything exists in a continuous, frantic present tense, the insertion of Yeats might do something to provoke a wider reflection on the big things that are happening around us and where they might lead.
The problem, though, may be that with so much bad news, the Yeats images are becoming so overused that they are in danger of sinking into the linguistic mire of cliche – a fate no great poet deserves. Given that the gloom is unlikely to lift anytime soon, will we get to the point where “Things fall apart” replaces “There are no strangers here; only friends you haven’t yet met” (which Yeats did not write but which bears his name on a million tea towels, T-shirts and pub signs) on kitschy consumer products?
We need to renew the store of Yeats images that seem to comment on our times. Here is one, from Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen, that says it all about fake news and the pre-fascist culture of hatred:
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.
The sense of foreboding in The Second Coming is equally well-captured in Coole Park and Ballylee:
All is changed, that high horse riderless . . . .
Where the swan drifts upon a darkening flood.
What better descriptions can there be of a Donald Trump speech than “an old bellows full of angry wind” (A Prayer for My Daughter) and “the barbarous clangour of a gong”(Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen)? Yeats even anticipated the trend for stupid hair among right-wing male politicians (Trump, Boris Johnson, Geert Wilders) in The Tower:
There lurches past, his great eyes without thought
Under the shadow of stupid straw-pale locks
That insolent fiend . . .
We really should quote him on that.