[Warning: if you are a language purist, you may find the following sentence offensive because it contains toxic levels of tautology, that rhetorical error more commonly known as redundancy, or “needless repetition”.]
Like so many of my fellow left-leaning quasi-communistic bleeding-heart progressive liberal pinkos, I listen to NPR in the mornings on the way to work and in the afternoons on my way home. I teach at an academy where I attempt to indoctrinate the sons and daughters of prominent citizens into post-Enlightenment thinking. In other words, via a survey of British literature, I guide students out of the fog-bound valleys of medieval worldviews. We begin our journey in the dragon-ridden wastes of Beowulf’s Geatland, hike along an upward trail past Canterbury Cathedral, through the killing fields of Macbeth’s Scotland, as we climb Alexander Pope’s metaphoric mountain, reaching three months later the summit of the 20th Century where we can enjoy the far-reaching vistas that history and science afford. It’s a thankless often dangerous, trek, but, by Darwin, damn it, someone needs to do it.
Anyway, listening to NPR is about as sun-splashed and uplifting as the Marianas Trench. Each morning and afternoon familiar voices catalogue the latest beheadings, mass migrant drownings, pandemics, news from Syria, coup d’etats, and/or pronouncements from Ted Cruz; in other words, I get a daily digest of TS Eliot called “the immense panorama of futility and anarchy that is contemporary history.”
I particularly find upsetting when fanatical Islamists (speaking of fog-bound medievalism) destroy the artistic heritage of their civilizations, for example the Taliban’s destruction of 1700 year-old sandstone statues known as the Bamiyan Buddhas in the Hindu Kush Mountains of central Afghanistan or ISIL’s bulldozing an 8th BCE Assyrian gateway in Arslan Tash.
It brings to mind William Butler Yeats’ poem “Nineteen-Hundred and Nineteen,” written during the Irish Civil War. The poem takes a despairing look at the human propensity to destroy what is beautiful. It’s divided into six sections marked by Roman numerals, and the first section is divided into six stanzas of ottava rima.
Here’s the first stanza, eight lines with the rhyme scheme ABABABCC, and in rhyme impoverished English, making those three rhymes sound like straightforward speech is the mark of a master poet.
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.
He’s alluding to now lost artistic wonders of the ancient world like Greek sculptor Phidias’ statue of Zeus in Olympia and his statue of Athena that once graced the Parthenon. Yeats was a mystic, so he was apt to believe that the mutability of the moon could affect earthly events. Nothing tricky here: beautiful things disappear in time.
Here’s the second stanza of Section I:
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.
He’s suggesting that like the ancients his generation also had noble “things” when they were young, “things” like established, disinterested laws, humane traditions, etc. His calling these noble institutions “toys” suggests indignation at being so naïve back in the day. Optimistic Victorians (though Irish, Yeats was born in 1865 and spent a good bit of time in London) enjoyed decades of peace and prosperity, and optimistic members of that generation thought that progress would continue perpetually. WWI, the Russian Revolution, and the Irish Revolution disabused them of that illusion. Indeed, it seems to this NPR listener that “the worst rogues and rascals” will never die out.
Stanza 3 of Section I is an elaboration of these ideas:
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.
Note the Biblical allusion to Isaiah’s prophecy in Isaiah 2:4 that swords will be changed into ploughshares in the coming ages of peace. Yeats seems to be saying, even though we didn’t literally change weaponry into agricultural implements, armies were sort of theatrical relics, “showy thing[s]” that had to be hauled out every so often in parades to make sure “drowsy chargers,” i.e., horses, would keep in practice for performances.
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.
This stanza needs no interpretation. Its anger is palatable, and I love the lines “The night can sweat with terror as before/We pieced our thoughts into philosophy,” which serve as a great description of the nakedness a tragic figure like Job or Lear suffers when his world view has been brutally stripped from him.
The next stanza, however, is not so transparent:
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.
I’ll paraphrase: he’s talking about people intellectually astute enough to look at the dead end hopelessness of the human condition without seeking escape through platitudinous bullshit, people who realize that all of civilization one day will be rubble. Despite the difficulty in carving a 55 meter Buddha in the face of a cliff or composing an oeuvre of gorgeous poems, these works will one day disappear. The “one comfort” I guess is that triumph might distract those people from their ghostly solitude, their heroic stoicism in the face of futility.
Section I ends with this stanza:
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.
Yep, what we love disappears, and vandals burn and loot and sell artifacts; they “burn” and “break in bits” and traffic in stolen artifacts.
The poem seethes with anger in a mocking tone that turns on itself. Here’s the killer 5th section:
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?
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.
A problem with Yeats — perhaps I should say the problem with Yeats — was that he had crazy ideas, ideas like history transpires in circular motions like an electric current running up the coils of an outstretched Slinky. He thought that the 20th Century had whirled us into a new age of barbarism, and, of course, the 20th Century sucked, and the 21st continues to suck. In another, better poem of his, “The Second Coming” he wrote, “The best lack all conviction/While the worst are full of passionate intensity, “ which rather aptly describes the characters featured on Morning Edition and All Things Considered – conviction-less Hillary and Jeb on the one hand and passionately intense Osama Ben Laden and Abu Bakr al-Baghdad on the other, two bigots who certainly didn’t make it very far up science’s summit.
Better, I suspect, to turn off the damn radio, roll down the window, and let the wind blow back your hair – that is, if you have hair.
 Interesting, when I used “dragon-ridden” to describe Beowulf’s Geatland, I had forgotten the term appears in Yeats’s poem. O beware of plagiarism, O seeker of academic aid. Cite your sources. Orwellian search engines lie in wait.