Literature

A Summary and Analysis of W. B. Yeats’ ‘Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen’

Divided into six parts, ‘Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen’ is, along with ‘Easter 1916’, probably W. B. Yeats’s best-known political poem. It is also among his longer and more ambitious works. In this post, we’ll offer a summary and analysis of the poem, taking it section by section.

Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen

I.

Many ingenious lovely things are gone
That seemed sheer miracle to the multitude,
Protected from the circle of the moon
That pitches common things about. There stood
Amid the ornamental bronze and stone
An ancient image made of olive wood –
And gone are Phidias’ famous ivories
And all the golden grasshoppers and bees.

1919 was a particularly bloody year during the fight for Irish independence. Yeats was ambivalent about the Easter Rising (as his poem ‘Easter 1916’ had shown), and although he supported the cause, he was appalled by the violent action the leading revolutionaries took to achieve their aims. Yeats begins ‘Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen’ by lamenting the fact that ‘lovely things’ which had endured for years and which seemed like miracles to most people are now gone, such as an ‘ancient image made of olive wood’ (the olive branch is a symbol of peace, so Yeats’s choice of this for his symbol is loaded with significance when we consider the war raging between the Irish and British in 1919). Phidias was an ancient Athenian sculptor of the fifth century BC. Similarly, the ancient Athenian historian and general Thucydides lived during the fifth century BC. Thucydides referred to the Athenians’ habit of using golden grasshopper brooches to fasten their hair.

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.

Like ancient Athens, Ireland of the recent past had beautiful trinkets such as these, and a law that did the job well enough, and good habits which gradually eradicated old wrongs from society. Yeats says that the Irish – and he includes himself – were complacent for thinking that such a society would survive. But the ‘worst rogues and rascals’ were still there, ready to cause trouble…

All teeth were drawn, all ancient tricks unlearned,
And a great army but a showy thing;
What matter that no cannon had been turned
Into a ploughshare? Parliament and king
Thought that unless a little powder burned
The trumpeters might burst with trumpeting
And yet it lack all glory; and perchance
The guardsmen’s drowsy chargers would not prance.

Yeats continues to reflect on the change that Ireland has recently undergone, from (relative) peace to bloody war. Yeats suggests that the British believed a little war-readiness was good for the nation, to keep the armies well trained. It’s worth remembering that the bloody Irish struggle for independence had begun in 1916, during the middle of the First World War, which Britain and other nations were busy fighting Germany.

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 night can sweat with terror as before
We pieced our thoughts into philosophy,
And planned to bring the world under a rule,
Who are but weasels fighting in a hole.

Yeats’s frames of reference now become horrifically contemporary and specific. Eileen Quinn, a young pregnant mother of three children, was senselessly gunned down by British ‘Black and Tans’ in November 1920 while she stood outside her house in Kiltartan, County Galway. The soldiers responsible, who were British WWI veterans, were never convicted; the murder left a profound mark on both Yeats and his friend, Lady Gregory.

He who can read the signs nor sink unmanned
Into the half-deceit of some intoxicant
From shallow wits; who knows no work can stand,
Whether health, wealth or peace of mind were spent
On master-work of intellect or hand,
No honour leave its mighty monument,
Has but one comfort left: all triumph would
But break upon his ghostly solitude.

In other words, those of us who lament the fact that the great feats of civilisation that men can produce – from ancient Athens to modern Ireland – can be destroyed by war and thugs, have only one crumb of consolation: namely that when all civilisation is destroyed, these thugs will feel no triumph because there will be nothing left.

But is there any comfort to be found?
Man is in love and loves what vanishes,
What more is there to say? That country round
None dared admit, if such a thought were his,
Incendiary or bigot could be found
To burn that stump on the Acropolis,
Or break in bits the famous ivories
Or traffic in the grasshoppers or bees.

One of the things which mark ‘Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen’ out as a more ambitious political poem than even ‘Easter 1916’ is Yeats’s more thoughtful, dialectical approach. He immediately questions his pronouncement at the end of the previous stanza: is there any comfort to be found in such violent times? There are always going to be vandals and thugs intent on destroying beautiful products of civilisation, such as those fine ornamental grasshopper brooches Yeats mentioned at the outset of the poem, or the Parthenon (the temple of Athene) found at the top of the Acropolis in Athens.

 

II.

When Loie Fuller’s Chinese dancers enwound
A shining web, a floating ribbon of cloth,
It seemed that a dragon of air
Had fallen among dancers, had whirled them round
Or hurried them off on its own furious path;
So the platonic Year
Whirls out new right and wrong,
Whirls in the old instead;
All men are dancers and their tread
Goes to the barbarous clangour of a gong.

The section part of ‘Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen’ is much shorter, comprising just one stanza. Loie Fuller (1862-1928) was an American dancer who, accompanied by Japanese dancers (Yeats gets the nationalities confused), performed elaborate dances with fabrics – dances that were popular in the early twentieth century. Now, though, the dance that men march to is war, and the ‘old’ ways of war return instead of ushering in new things (whether those new things are good or bad). Note how the ‘dragon of air’ (perhaps suggested by the ‘Chinese’ dancers) recalls ‘dragon-ridden’ from part I.

 

III

Some moralist or mythological poet
Compares the solitary soul to a swan;
I am satisfied with that,
Satisfied if a troubled mirror show it,
Before that brief gleam of its life be gone,
An image of its state;
The wings half spread for flight,
The breast thrust out in pride
Whether to play, or to ride
Those winds that clamour of approaching night.

Yeats recalls a thinker who compared the individual soul of man to a swan – an analogy Yeats approves of. The image here is ambiguous, but the fact that the soul is like a swan with ‘wings half spread for flight’ suggests readiness for something (for living, or for battle?), and the ‘breast thrust out in pride’ suggests nationalist pride (e.g. Irish pride, but also perhaps British); there is also a volatile unpredictability to the soul being poised this way either for ‘play’ or to ‘ride’ (into battle?).

A man in his own secret meditation
Is lost amid the labyrinth that he has made
In art or politics;
Some Platonist affirms that in the station
Where we should cast off body and trade
The ancient habit sticks,
And that if our works could
But vanish with our breath
That were a lucky death,
For triumph can but mar our solitude.

In his explanatory notes to the excellent The Major Works including poems, plays, and critical prose (Oxford World’s Classics), Edward Larrissy proposes that Yeats is referring to an English Platonist philosopher named Thomas Taylor (1758-1835) here. Again, Yeats’s argument is knotty, but he seems to be saying that if the things we create as a civilisation did not outlive us, that would be the best for those objects we create, since the survival of things like ancient Greek trinkets and the Parthenon trouble individual man’s solitude. In other words, Yeats could be suggesting that some men want to destroy the works of previous civilisations because they know they, as individuals, could never hope to create something that would outlast them.

The swan has leaped into the desolate heaven:
That image can bring wildness, bring a rage
To end all things, to end
What my laborious life imagined, even
The half-imagined, the half-written page;
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 other words, the soul of each individual man has leaped into the emptiness of ‘heaven’, believing that they can create a better world by destroying the old. The rage that accompanies such a revolutionary drive for change can threaten to destroy the art that Yeats holds dear, including his own. Yeats now finds that those idealists who dreamed of creating a better world were misguided and mistaken. Again, he includes himself among these (former) idealists.

 

IV.

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.

More weasel-words (literally): in this very short single-stanza section, Yeats continues to lament the fact that idealism has given way to extremism.

 

V.

Come let us mock at the great
That had such burdens on the mind
And toiled so hard and late
To leave some monument behind,
Nor thought of the levelling wind.

Come let us mock at the wise;
With all those calendars whereon
They fixed old aching eyes,
They never saw how seasons run,
And now but gape at the sun.

Come let us mock at the good
That fancied goodness might be gay,
And sick of solitude
Might proclaim a holiday:
Wind shrieked – and where are they?

Yeats adopts a (fittingly) mocking and ironic tone, calling upon everyone to mock the great, the wise, and the good, who sought to build some monument to stand the test of time. They are all gone now. Now, the urge is to tear down rather than build up.

Mock mockers after that
That would not lift a hand maybe
To help good, wise or great
To bar that foul storm out, for we
Traffic in mockery.

Yeats concludes section V of ‘Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen’ by adding the ‘mockers’ themselves to his list of those to be mocked. In other words: everyone is mocking those who believed in building up civilisations, but perhaps it’s the cynics who know threaten civilisation who deserve our ultimate mockery, since the fashion is to mock.

 

VI.

Violence upon the roads: violence of horses;
Some few have handsome riders, are garlanded
On delicate sensitive ear or tossing mane,
But wearied running round and round in their courses
All break and vanish, and evil gathers head:
Herodias’ daughters have returned again,
A sudden blast of dusty wind and after
Thunder of feet, tumult of images,
Their purpose in the labyrinth of the wind;
And should some crazy hand dare touch a daughter
All turn with amorous cries, or angry cries,
According to the wind, for all are blind.
But now wind drops, dust settles; thereupon
There lurches past, his great eyes without thought
Under the shadow of stupid straw-pale locks,
That insolent fiend Robert Artisson
To whom the love-lorn Lady Kyteler brought
Bronzed peacock feathers, red combs of her cocks.

In this concluding section of the ‘Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen’, Yeats emphasises the violence and evil that characterises many of the men engaged in the fight for Irish independence. The reference to ‘Herodias’ daughters’ summons the world of the New Testament, although Yeats elsewhere associates tempestuous winds with the dancing daughters of Herodias (in his note to ‘The Hosting of the Sidhe’, for instance). The ‘winds of change’, if you will, are blowing violently through Ireland, and as in another 1919 poem, ‘The Second Coming’, the emphasis is on the dangerous energies being whirled up in the struggle for independence. Here, the language (‘Thunder’, ‘tumult’, ‘wind’) suggests such fomenting of chaos and disorder.

The reference to Robert Artisson and Lady Kyteler was explained in the note Yeats appended to ‘Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen’: ‘My last symbol, Robert Artisson, was an evil spirit much run after in Kilkenny at the start of the fourteenth century.’ Yeats thus ends ‘Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen’ by summoning spirits of the past, of Ireland’s past, and showing that turbulent war and conflict have been a feature of the country for a long time. Yeats’s interest in the ‘gyre’, the theory that history repeated itself (also present in ‘The Second Coming’), is relevant here, and the ‘lurching’ of the ghostly figure of Robert Artisson is strikingly similar to the ‘slouching’ of the mysterious sphinx-like creature at the end of ‘The Second Coming’.

One Comment

  1. Mike Butler

    Yeats always has something to tell us about the time we live in.

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