Book Review:Yeats and Violence: Michael Wood (Oxford University Press, 2010)
Violence moves restlessly through Yeats’ poetry. It is there in ‘The Magi‘ (written in 1913) with its Three Kings who ‘Being by Calvary’s turbulence unsatisfied’ wait for something more, another disturbance of the world order, a revelation of sorts, intimating an appetite for violence.
The violence in question is the kind which takes us by surprise: it is rational at one level — there are always ways to explain violence, sociologically, politically, psychologically, whatever – but it remains deeply irrational at some more mysterious level. What is this dimension to the possibility of violence that can make it attractive and even compelling? A thriller movie or crime fiction without violence is rare; we await its arrival. Such questions in Wood’s opening chapter and the reader looks forward to seeing how they will be answered as he embarks on a close reading of the six short poems by Yeats that first appeared as ‘Thoughts upon the Present State of the World‘ but later became ‘Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen‘.
Wood, treading familiar critical ground, reads the early parts of ‘Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen‘ as a lamentation over the collapse of a misguided dream on the part of the Anglo-Irish Ascendancy if not Europe’s intelligentsia as a whole. This misguided dream comforted itself with notions of progress and the law, the delusion that violence could be contained, that armies and guns could be kept only for showy displays — as if the enemy soldiers inside the shell of the Trojan horse had quietly retired there, not lying in wait for the right moment to reappear and take up killing once more.
Yeats had always believed in keeping the mind open to the possibility of miracles and ‘Easter 1916‘ is brilliant testimony to the magic that transformed ordinary men who ‘I have passed with a nod of the head / Or polite meaningless words’ into revolutionaries; just reciting their names enacts the aura they now possess (‘I write it out in a verse / MacDonagh and MacBride / And Connolly and Pearse’). ‘Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen‘, however, is full of anxiety, disappointment and sense of loss, devoid of the comfort that Yeats thought he had found in spirituality. He defended his mysticism as ‘stylistic arrangements of experience comparable to the cubes in the drawing of Wyndham Lewis and to the ovoids in the sculpture of Brancusi.’ It is tempting to equate this with Eliot’s misunderstanding of Homeric myth in Joyce’s Ulysses as ‘simply a way of controlling, of ordering, of giving a shape and significance to the immense panorama of futility and anarchy which is contemporary history.’ Both Yeats and Eliot gave powerful and moving expression to their struggle to make sense of their world before lapsing, respectively, into fascism and royalism. Both writers believed the impossible could happen but, responding to the antinomies of the age in a different way, so too did Lenin (‘in some respects a revolution is a miracle’ he said in 1921).
For Yeats, the antinomies are just there. Contraries exist but ‘I had never put the conflict in logical form, never thought with Hegel that the two ends of a see-saw are one another’s negation.’ He said that he wrote only for the ear and this may be the best way to read him:
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;
Michael Wood, adept at showing how the poetry works, listens to these lines about a drive-by shooting by the Black and Tans: ‘D’s give way to r’s, now is picked up by nightmare, which also conceals another r; the l’s in sleep and soldiery and leave produce a slackness of sound within these very tight lines, the two s’s add to this effect and then the d’s return us to drama, the thudding of -dered at her door almost silencing what seemed to be the central alliteration of the passage: mother, murdered.’ Wood is good at paying attention to the subtle shifts in sound and meaning in ‘Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen’ and, in ways that are often though not always illuminating, allies the poem’s sentiments with thoughts expressed by writers as different as Henry James and Paul Muldoon.
Much of what we make of the poem as a whole depends on our response to the eighteen lines that make up the final section:
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:
By 1919, the carnage of the European war just over, the Anglo-Irish War had begun. The drive-by shooting by the Black and Tans occurred in November 1920 and Yeats’ poem was composed the following year. It was published in September, two months after the truce of July 1921, in a period of respite before the unleashing of the civil war. Yeats draws his poem to an end – a conclusion? – with a disturbing and enigmatic scene: the wind has dropped, dust settles, an evil spirit from 14th-century Kilkenny, one Robert Artisson, ‘lurches past’:
To whom the love-lorn Lady Kyteler brought
Bronzed peacock feathers, red combs of her cocks.
These terminal images of an ‘insolent fiend’ and a depraved witch, not slouching towards Bethlehem but on a similar kind of journey, indicate a prescient awareness of more violence to come, an evocation of civilization at the end of its tether, the return of another cycle of violence.
Wood’s own conclusion to his understanding of the poem is to draw a family resemblance between Yeats’ vision of violence with Walter Benjamin’s ‘divine violence’, a Brecht poem and Alexander Blok’s ‘The Twelve’. What they share, according to Wood, is the feeling of ‘a new disorder, the condition of a world that can only think of its ending, and can picture that ending only as a violent and desperate imitation of a promise.’ Yeats himself would probably be happy with this as a comment on his own poem but such a likelihood may be the source of a problem with Wood’s concluding chapter. The fatalism, the vague and vatic quality discernible in Yeats’ poem cannot be simply transferred to Benjamin, Brecht and Blok (who are writing of different revolutionary moments and from perspectives where the differences from Yeats are just as, if not more, important than the similarities) without losing precious possibilities along the way – no matter how many delicate qualifications and polite modals find their way into Wood’s prose (‘perhaps’, ‘although’ ‘seems’ risk becoming his signature style). He is to be praised for his conversational, easy-on-the-eye style of writing: it is mercifully free of convoluted literary jargon, full of engaging ruminations, knowledgeably suggestive, a leisurely approach that generously extends a spacious comfort-zone to the reader. As his best, the gyroscopic turns of Yeats’ poetry are shown in slow motion and we are gently tutored to hear and appreciate its wobbles and equivocations, the fine differences in tone and meaning that define the subtlety of Yeats’ verse.
In a review of Frank Kermode’s Bury Place Papers, Wood described Kermode as ‘too multifarious a writer to have anything as dogged as a theme for his critical work; too sane and stealthy to boast of anything as limiting as an obsession.’ Kermode’s admirable grittiness, though, goes west when Wood is tempted to generalize and draw in the likes of Brecht and Blok to illuminate Yeats. All three of them may share what Badiou called a ‘passion for the Real’ but this would require a different kind of book to Yeats & Violence, one that would begin where Wood’s book ends. What’s needed is a touch of William Empson as well as Frank Kermode. A bit more violence in other words.