Back in college, I took a history of World War I class. The lectures took place once a week in the evening. For three hours, we would learn the intricacies of European diplomacy and the horrors of trench warfare. The most memorable of these classes to me, however, remains our study of war poetry. I still enjoy the wistful nostalgia of Rupert Brooke, the discordant and dissident lines of Siegfried Sassoon, and the incomparable bittersweet beauty of Wilfred Owen. Imagine how pleased I was to find that W. B. Yeats had reflected on the emptiness of modern war. After graduation, I chanced across his long poem, “Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen.” I think this poem, filtered through Yeats’s fantastical perspective, illustrates the hopelessness initiated (or, as we shall see, reinitiated) by the Great War.
Yeats opens with a scene from the fallen Acropolis at Athens, where “Many ingenious lovely things are gone.” This is a reminder of what the Greeks began to believe about their hegemony and cultural achievement: that they had achieved some kind of immortality. Greece would always stand to bestow its cultural blessings to the earth. Nevertheless, in the fall of Greek civilization, much was lost, including “Phidias’ famous ivories / And all the golden grasshoppers and bees.” The poet immediately ties this hubris and loss to the WWI generation when he recounts,
We too had many pretty toys when young:
A law indifferent to blame or praise,
To bribe or threat; habits that made old wrong
Melt down, as it were wax in the sun’s rays;
Public opinion ripening for so long
We thought it would outlive all future days.
O what fine thought we had because we thought
That the worst rogues and rascals had died out.
This is of course a kind of vain faith, the kind we see at the turn of the century when Europe prophesied the end of war. Darwin promised creatures progressed inevitably to better and higher species; laws and policy devoted themselves to social engineering more than merely establishing justice and concord; the rulers of Europe were all related through Queen Victoria; the once fractured German states now united together to achieve technological and military excellence; clergy preached post-millennial eschatology from the pulpit. Old sins and evils would soon to be long gone. The Enlightenment worked: the nation-state and man’s reasonableness helped erase “old wrong” and “the worst rogues and rascals.” “All teeth were drawn, all ancient tricks unlearned, / And a great army but a showy thing.” So the West told itself.
Of course, few had the foresight of Otto von Bismarck, who expected disaster for the Concert of Europe to come from “some damn thing in the Balkans.” A plethora of factors combined to unleash the storm of widespread war: nationalism, imperial powergrabs, amassed military power, jealousies, and—most important of all—human choices. Now Yeats paints the perennial memory of the post-1914 imagination, mourning,
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 reference to the dead mother points toward Yeats’s dual-object investigation: the Irish poet is musing on both the Great War (in this line, the rape of Belgium) and his own land’s civil war. Indeed, war haunted the world’s mind as well as the poet’s doorstep. The happy Victorian imagination morphed into the spoiled Edwardian consciousness; both thought more highly of man than he deserved. The totalizing nature of modern technological warfare dragged both soldiers and civilians into the category of combatant. Those who didn’t fight manufactured and aided. Indiscriminate attack became the norm especially in Ireland. Yeats concluded that modern men “are but weasels fighting in a hole.”
How can one find stability and meaning in this chaos? After all, “Man is in love and loves what vanishes.” The cyclic run of time (Yeats refers to a pagan understanding of chronology) “whirls” out old evils, not simply new goods and new evils. Man, whose only condition is supposed to be mutability in the progress towards the next epoch, is threatened by sameness. “All men are dancers and their tread / Goes to the barbarous clangour of a gong,” Yeats complains. The Great War was but an unsuspected reiteration of persistent evil.
Yeats’s answer to all this is, for lack of a better word, introspection or reflection. The “solitary soul” functions like a swan, ready “to play, or to ride / Those winds that clamour of approaching night.” A sort of human greatness—such as that found in what Carlyle called “great men”—generally produces a height of civilization, even when others suspect a coming downfall. Contemplative souls especially, according to Yeats, are these swanlike beings who understand the meaning of the passing present, untroubled by the excesses of “triumph” that “can but mar our solitude.” For some reason, this zeitgeist has “leaped into the desolate heaven,” leaving behind frustrated men to destroy the perishable joys it produced. To destroy for destruction’s sake: that nihilistic terror cannot help but strike true, especially if one has ever read Graham Greene’s “Destroyers.” Not only has mankind ceased to produce beauty; they have gone out of their way to eliminate what was left to them by their fathers.
The hubristic skepticism pushed more savage and frightful insights about God and wickedness to the margins. The “calculators, economists, and sophisters” only saw purer and purer golden ages to come. The return of true war ripped away the veil:
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.
In a sickening revelry, modern men delight to destroy goodness, proclaiming,
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.
Now, cynics mock the great, the wise, and the good. They even mock the mockers; they are weasels fighting weasels. Humans threaten to destroy themselves.
Yeats concludes darkly by pointing to ancient evils snuffing out the promises of a brighter day. For example, the reference to Herodias’ daughters reminds us of the beheading of John the Baptist. As the last prophet, he heralded the coming of the Light of the World. Pulling from his Irish roots, Yeats mentions Lady Kyteler bringing coxcombs and peacock feathers to Robert Artisson. According to legend, Kyteler was the first woman in Ireland to be condemned for witchcraft; many believed that she laid with an incubus named Robin (or Robert) Artisson. Throughout Northern mythology, the cock heralds the coming of a new age with his crowing. Having pluck feathers and harvested combs from presumably dead fowl matches with the John the Baptist reference. The heralds of any brighter days lie slaughtered.
How Yeats handled this perspective can be seen, I think, in his poem “The Stolen Child.” The “world more full of weeping” we have seen all too clearly. Yeats argues for a kind of escapism to this lost faerie realm. His conception of the “solitary soul” comes to mind—a human in touch with the fey. This world—this insight—has been lost to all but children, who in their innocence can escape but for a while from the modern world’s darkness.
This then is Yeats’s response as distanced poet to the Promethean sins of modernity. Tinkering with nature merely gave evil yet greater abilities to terrify humankind. The poet, who sees both beauty and ugliness in their fullness, seeks escape from the bonds. Nevertheless, he finds taint on his own soul. He uses “we”—Yeats, who himself took part in human common life, sees himself as guilty along with the generals, soldiers, and politicians. He envisages the world as wretched and without hope of turning back, or rather, turning over. He thus deems impossible a cosmological understanding as found in the medieval and ancient. It is inaccessible, but can be glimpsed in his art. He takes the basic founding principles of the post-Enlightenment world for granted. Postmodernism is but modernism with regrets.