By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘On Being Asked for a War Poem’ is a poem by W. B. Yeats (1865-1939), written in 1915 and published the following year. It’s one of Yeats’s shortest well-known poems, comprising just six lines, and sets out why Yeats chooses not to write a ‘war poem’ for publication. Before we analyse ‘On Being Asked for a War Poem’, here’s a reminder of the text of the poem.
On Being Asked for a War Poem
I think it better that in times like these
A poet’s mouth be silent, for in truth
We have no gift to set a statesman right;
He has had enough of meddling who can please
A young girl in the indolence of her youth,
Or an old man upon a winter’s night.
In summary, ‘On Being Asked for a War Poem’ is a poem about refusing to write a war poem when asked to produce one. This odd act of refusal-as-assent – writing a poem, but a poem which takes a stand against writing a certain kind of poem – has the air of irony about it, and Yeats probably intended his poem to be taken as a brief ‘thanks, but no thanks’.
In terms of its form, the poem is written in iambic pentameter, rhymed abcabc. The final two lines are the only ones which might cause some real head-scratching from readers (and critics), but Yeats appears to be making an appeal to the broad readership that poetry (including his poetry, by 1915) enjoyed: young girls might enjoy his romantic verses about old Ireland, while an old man might enjoy the ballads.
But why that title? Who has ‘asked [Yeats] for a war poem’? It was the American novelists, Henry James and Edith Wharton – who were good friends and who both came to live in Britain – who approached him: Wharton was editing an anthology, The Book of the Homeless, the profits from which would go towards helping refugees of the war. That anthology appeared in 1916, complete with Yeats’s contribution, which appeared under the alternative title ‘A Reason for Keeping Silent’.
Why did Yeats refuse to write a ‘war poem’? In February 1915, Yeats had written to his friend Lady Gregory: ‘I suppose, like most wars it is at root a bagman’s war, a sacrifice of the best for the worst. I feel strangely enough most for the young Germans who are now being killed.’ Yeats goes on to say that the ‘bespectacled’ Germans he has seen remind him more of himself than the English soldiers (‘footballers’) or the French troops.
In a letter of the same year, sent to John Quinn, Yeats wrote that the First World War was ‘merely the most expensive outbreak of insolence and stupidity the world has ever seen and I give it as little thought as I can.’ These remarks leave us in little doubt about how Yeats viewed the conflict, and help to explain why he wrote ‘On Being Asked for a War Poem’.
Instead, Yeats’s poetry of this period focuses on the fighting closer to home, such as the Easter Rising of 1916 (in ‘Easter 1916’), and, just after the end of the First World War, the longer struggle for Irish independence from British rule (in ‘Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen’).
And then there is ‘An Irish Airman Foresees His Death’, in which an Irish pilot fighting for Britain in the First World War predicts that he will die in that war, but he feels no sense of patriotic duty towards Britain, the country he fights for. He is fighting for Britain because, although he is Irish, Ireland was under British rule at the time (independence, leading to the formation of the Republic of Ireland, would not be achieved until 1922, four years after the end of the war). Instead, he identifies as an Irish patriot, rather than a British one.
‘On Being Asked for a War Poem’ could be productively analysed alongside ‘An Irish Airman Foresees His Death’, for this reason. Yeats objected to the war, and could not imagine using poetry to wave the flag for the right ‘side’ (and his Irish blood would have boiled at the idea of writing a patriotic poem in support of the British troops in the war!).
His line ‘We have no gift to set a statesman right’ is a forerunner to Auden’s famous line that ‘poetry makes nothing happen’, and the similarity is no coincidence: Auden makes that well-known statement in his elegy for W. B. Yeats, written in 1939.
About W. B. Yeats
William Butler Yeats (1865-1939) is one of the greatest of all Irish poets. His first collection, Crossways, appeared in 1889 when he was still in his mid-twenties, and his early poetry bore the clear influence of Romanticism. As his career developed and literary innovations came with modernism in the early decades of the twentieth century, Yeats’s work retained its focus on traditional verse forms and rhyme schemes, but he became more political, more allusive, and more elliptical.
His late work, such as his 1927 poem ‘Sailing to Byzantium’, about growing old, show a thoughtful and contemplative poet whose imagery and references defy easy exegesis (what exactly does the ancient city of Byzantium represent in this poem?). And yet, at the same time, there is a directness to his work which makes readers feel personally addressed, and situates his work always at one remove from more famous modernist poets (such as T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound).
Yeats died in 1939. Throughout much of his life, a woman named Maud Gonne was his muse. Yeats asked her to marry him several times, but she always refused. She knew she could be of more use to him as a muse than as a wife or lover. Yeats was in favour of Irish independence but, in poems such as ‘Easter 1916’ which respond to the Easter Rising, he reveals himself to be uneasy with the violent and drastic political and military methods adopted by many of his compatriots. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1923.