by W.B. Yeats
As someone who never took an English class post-high school, I had to teach myself literature, which I did, like most autodidacts, by reading as widely as possible – and indiscriminately. If there was any method in my madness (which involved getting a shit job in a library so I could read through the stacks from one side of the building to the other), it was to read the collected poems of anybody, famous or not, who had one. Toward the end of this weird and rather lengthy curriculum, which is to say, the end of the alphabet, I arrived at the work of William Butler Yeats. What a relief it was! Rhymey, romantic, folkloric, woman-crazy stuff with a fair amount of politics for flavor; oblivious to the fascism and self-absorption (I had those leanings myself, at that age, perhaps) what, I thought, was there not to love about Yeats? My tendency was to read the way young people do, if not untampered with: that is to say, innocently and without anxiety; in any case, I would have been too naïve or insecure to make critical judgments. Thankfully, no papers were ever due, and no professor was going to ask me to explain away a poem. If I liked one, it was good, if not, I didn’t disparage it – I just set it aside as a possible subject for further thought. There were quite a few things in Yeats’s poems that I had to figure out for myself over the years, but at the time there was only one mystery to me about his work: why was “Politics,” his very last poem (it was published thus, at any rate), so resolutely silly?
Beyond the pleasure of teaching poetry to myself, I would, much later, add the immense good fortune of finding some extraordinary poetry mentors. Among them were Derek Walcott and Christopher Ricks, each, in his own way, becoming a kind of father-figure for me; my own dad, understandably dubious about my interest in poetry, would only say, “If I read any poems, I’d read yours.” Well, a son wants to please his fathers, and now I had three. But it emerged that my poetry-fathers, when it came to Yeats, did not agree. Derek adored Yeats, and talked of him constantly; he even compelled a bunch of us to act out the strange verse play, “Purgatory.” This seemed to verify my belief that Yeats was universally loved and reverenced. But I soon discovered that Christopher was immune to the poet’s various charms and spells. In fact, he told me, with a great and sharp glint in his eyes, that Yeats was the most overrated poet in the English language. And, he added to drive the point home: every time you come across a question in Yeats’s poetry, you can answer, “Search me!” “How can we know the dancer from the dance?” Search me. “Who will go drive with Fergus now?” Search me.
I was shocked, as only a hero-worshipper can be; but Ricks’s point about the questions left me with new and real doubts. Scales fell from my eyes, but still being silly myself, I scrambled foolishly back to Walcott and filled him in on Ricks’s apercu, expecting him not, perhaps, to concede the point, but at least to share a laugh. Laugh Derek did not. His face twisted into a terrible, pained, and inelastic frown. He said, much to my surprise, “Did you punch him in the face?” If I were any kind of man or poet myself, he continued, I would have decked him: “who is a mere literary critic to judge Yeats?” Search me, I might have answered! I was startled by this, and intimidated, with my star-struck loyalties now divided in the bargain, so… I skulked back to my books in a sulk, not quite sure what to think. I’d never before heard strong opinions expressed about poetry.
After a short while, of course, I did know what to think. Both were right. You can make fun of Yeats, but he’s still a great poet. Getting back to “Politics,” I was free to engage an illuminating quip frequently made about Yeats. It goes like this: When Yeats was young, he wrote like an old man, and when he was old, he wrote like a young man. Hence “Politics.” And “Politics” has what must surely be (though Ricks also taught me to beware all uses of the word “surely”) the goofiest turn in all of English-language poetry.
We know that the poem was written on May 24, 1938, toward the end of what Auden would famously call a “low, dishonest decade.” The Spanish Civil War was being brutally fought, and the Third Reich was marching inexorably toward a Second World War; “Politics” never mentions the Nazis, apparently because Yeats didn’t think that a new world war would actually break out. But even Yeats could not deny the darkening times. How would he address them in this new poem, this last poem? Well, there’s an epigraph from Thomas Mann – whose German citizenship had been revoked by the Nazis in 1936, and who’d had to flee all the way to California: “In our time the destiny of man presents its meanings in political terms.” Characteristically, Yeats got the Mann quotation from a Yale Review essay by Archibald MacLeish, “Public Speech and Private Speech in Poetry,” which talks about… Yeats. It’s a pretty heavy-duty epigraph, and the poem that follows is not what it would lead the reader to expect. Instead, the poem comes off almost as light verse. And the most memorable part of that verse, the ending, also comes from MacLeish’s essay, for it quotes the “anonymous poet of the Western Wind,” who wrote:
O western wind when wilt thou blow
That the small rain down can rain:–
Christ, that my love were in my arms
And I in my bed again.
Mary FitzGerald suggests¹ that in ending the canon of his poetry with an allusion to these lines, Yeats presents himself as the final inheritor of the English lyric tradition: the “last romantic,” as it were. And so “How can I,” asks the grand old poet, “my attention fix / On Roman or on Russian / Or on Spanish politics,” given… given “that girl standing there”?
I think that on reading the poem as a callow and horny youth, this kind of insouciance kind of turned me on. After all, I’d been to parties full of many a blowhard “travelled man” – peers who’d gone to Cambridge University on scholarship, say, or had wandered away to Rome and Paris – who knew, as the poem puts it, “what they talked about,” with girls to listen to them in the bargain. I was too poor to go anywhere, and too unattractive, it would seem, to have an audience of any kind. So I liked the idea of Yeats wearily out-pompousing some partygoers by tuning out everything and everybody but that one girl in the room who’d caught his eye. The poem impressed me as a magnificent demurral, a grand gesture. I’m confessing this not because my jejune reading of the poem is in any way interesting but because I assume that young men will always read the poem in just that way, as a literary precursor of fighting for your right to party.
At any rate, the poem’s turn comes in the last couplet, which is where so many poetic turns tend to turn up, introduced by that great turn-word, “But…”
But O that I were young again
And held her in my arms!
Tada! The world is going to hell and the old man wishes to be young again so he can get the girl about whom hardly anything at all is said. She could be anybody, and so she’s nobody. It’s pretty disgraceful. You have to ask why Yeats, who’d led such a powerful life as both a writer and public political figure himself, would take this particular turn in a poem that serves as his epitaph (short of bidding the rider to pass by). The real turn here lies in the tawdry swerve away from everything he had accomplished.
You’ll by now be objecting that I’ve already spent too much time, yours and mine, on this deflated and deflating poem. But “Politics” was intended to be, and is still published as, the envoi to a much better, and better-known poem: “The Circus Animals’ Desertion.” It’s the one, yes, with the famous lines about how the poet must “lie down where all the ladders start / In the foul rag and bone shop of the heart.” Most everyone reads the poem as a greatest hit, that is to say, all by itself without any envoi (or context). But “Politics” emerges as a kind of turn itself: a turn away from that grim and despairing poem. “My ladder’s gone,” the poet says. No ascension. No erection, as it were. Time to lie down not in bed with a girl, but in the grave, with all the dark secrets and refuse of the scarcely innocent heart. “The Circus Animals’ Desertion” is so bereft, so sad, that I can just about forgive Yeats for following it up right away with its disavowal in “Politics.” So does the latter betray its very title? I’d say not. “[M]aybe what they say is true / Of war and war’s alarms.” Well, it was true. Can you blame the man for wanting to make love to someone in a dark time?
“The intellect of man is forced to choose,” Yeats famously wrote, “perfection of the life, or of the work.” Yeats put most of his own intelligence, if not his labor, into the work. So how to look back on both, near the end of it all? Some poets drastically revise their work when they get older. Geoffrey Hill (another mentor, but hardly a father figure) has said that when great poets revise their work it’s usually a “disaster” and gives Auden, John Crowe Ransom, and Marianne Moore as examples. Yeats, Hill says, is an exception. In edition after edition of his collected poems, Yeats rewrote, and rewrote again his poetry, each time with a fascinating explanation; you can read these in the respective prefaces to those successive volumes. Hill points out that Yeats became aware that he needed to be suspicious of the world-weary sound of the work of his youth: “And the loud chaunting of the unquiet leaves / Are shaken with earth’s old and weary cry,” in “The Sorrow of Love” becomes, for example: “And all that lamentation of the leaves / Could but compose man’s image and his cry.” Much better. On such revisions as these, Yeats work gyrates: it turns and turns again. Even so, Hill, who “reveres” Yeats, concedes that he could be “gauche” and finds such poems as “Adam’s Curse” – and “Politics” – to be especially so. And to be gauche, Hill declares, is to be “sterile,” unlike, say, being awkward, which can be productive. “The Sorrow of Love,” a poem given to Maud Gonne, describes Gonne as a kind of Helen of Troy; but the girl at the party in “Politics” is no Helen, let alone a Maud Gonne. She’s nameless, and he doesn’t get her, anyway; there the matter lies, inconsequentially.
I haven’t said much about my real father yet. My wife was pregnant with our child when the events of September 11, 2001, took place. How, we asked ourselves, in an anguish that was no doubt repeated in households all over the country at the time, will we be able to carry on, in the dark times to come? We were, like so many others, and to use a Yeatsian word: bewildered. I turned to my dad, who had survived the terrible times of the Depression and Second World War and beyond, and had been a father to three sons. What he said was not very poetical: “If your mother and I thought the way you two think, you wouldn’t even be here.” He had a point. During wartime, under duress, and in the worst imaginable times, we do make love; and we create not only poems, but families. “Politics” crudely acknowledges this, and constitutes Yeats’s last gauche gasp. Disillusioned, in his proud and boorish way, with himself and with the whole world, maybe, Yeats went out with a whimper, not a bang, when the new century caught up with him at last. But that was a peaceable, and also a poetical, turn.
¹ Quoted in Representing Modernist Texts: Editing As Interpretation, ed. George Bornstein (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1991), p. 36.
Don Share is Senior Editor of Poetry magazine. His books include Squandermania (Salt Publishing), Union (Zoo Press), Seneca in English (Penguin Classics), and most recently a new book of poems, Wishbone (Black Sparrow), and Bunting’s Persia (Flood Editions). Share’s translations of Miguel Hernández, collected in I Have Lots of Heart (Bloodaxe Books) were awarded the Times Literary Supplement Translation Prize, and will appear in a revised edition from NYRB Classics. With Christian Wiman, he co-hosts the monthly Poetry magazine podcast and has co-edited The Open Door: One Hundred Poems, One Hundred Years of Poetry Magazine (University of Chicago Press).