W.B. Yeats: An Examination of Civilization and Barbarity

There is nothing more apt to write about in this political climate than the link between civilization and barbarity, beauty and violence. As a politically and ideologically motivated war breaks out about us, we can justifiably enter into the writings of W. B. Yeats – a poet who collapsed the boundary between our particular categories when he uttered a simple phrase that may be termed a paradox, an oxymoron, or an expression of absolute ambivalence – “A terrible beauty is born.”

This one refrain, the core idea of “Easter 1916”, is an emblem that represents a subjective reaction of the poet to his culture, an ambivalent reaction, to Irish national uproar.

The birth of a “terrible beauty” cannot, then, be separate from the idea of radical change: “all changed, changed utterly:/ A terrible beauty is born”. What we witness in this poem is a poet’s confusion when deeply rooted traditional ideologies are uprooted, in a process represented by its historical equivalent, “The Up-rising”. Yeats was well aware that his tradition, his ideology’s home – his das Heimliche – was over. The uncanny complication we feel when hearing the phrase “terrible beauty” is not then particularly surprising; with the loss of traditional meaning, it is uncomely; W. B. Yeats has found himself faced with spiritual eviction – his das Unheimliche. A normalcy of “Polite meaningless words” changes to a paralyzing shrillness that seems to come with overthrowing transitions.

What was once a living stream, its change continuous and natural, is now disturbed by what is perceived as stubbornness, a stone-like commitment to one political cause.

“Hearts with one purpose alone
Through summer and winter seem
Enchanted to a stone
To trouble the living stream.”

With the reference to seasonal fluidity in “The Waste Land” where spring – a typical time of positive movement and change – is met by paralysis and decay. Despite it being spring, Eliot writes,

“What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow
Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man,
You cannot say, or guess, for you know only
A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,
And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,
And the dry stone no sound of water…”
(T.S. Eliot, “The Waste Land”, l. 19-25)

In “Easter 1916”, Yeats (like Eliot) uses the universal paradigms of permanence and flux, in the form of stone and water, to show how tradition’s flow has been disturbed by a headstrong single-mindedness – a nationalistic political ideal. Yeats, rightly or wrongly, paints such unchanging ideals as futile when he surrounds them with the growth and movement of a multitude of natural processes (“Easter, 1916”, l. 40-56).

What we witness then in “Easter 1916” is the same thing we perceive in “The Waste Land” – the sense of an unwillingness to grow, an unwillingness to be renewed by spring’s call. One prefers the death of winter than the rending pains of growth. Though we might accuse Yeats of being that changeless death of winter (in the form of his traditionalism), Yeats sees it otherwise. This idea is underwritten by Yeats’ central refrain proclaiming radical “change” and the birth of a “terrible beauty”. Paradoxically, it is the very changelessness of the rebel’s ideals that cause such radical change. Historically, on Easter 1916, Dublin erupted into violence – civilization divided into barbaric confrontations. The radical change is for Yeats a reality of radical decay caused by an unwillingness to change or to grow.

Still, historically, such barbarism continued, and as it persevered, Yeats’ ambivalent connection between a sense of terror and a sense of civilization was investigated in his subsequent works.

Yeats re-evokes the metaphor of water in “The Rose Tree” where the sustaining life force of “the living stream” might “Make the green come out again/ And spread on every side/ And shake the blossom from the bud/ To be the garden’s pride”. But such water is nowhere to be found, and again, the desert planes of “The Waste Land” are evoked, drawing the same spiritual drought, and the need for the redemptive element of Water, that is, renewal. In “The Rose Tree”, the lack of water leads to a consideration of blood (one thinks “Water into Wine; wine into Blood of Christ”) and the idea of blood sacrifice. The fact that Yeats has “Pearse” suggest this in the poem distances the poet, and allows for the poet’s continued – and probably genuine – ambivalence. In context with our question then, it seems the barbaric act of self-sacrifice to a loving/vampiric “motherland” is in fact offered as a way to nurture a budding civilization. The idea of violent revolution in a time of spiritual drought is all done in the name of a new, “up-rising”, civil nation. The central idea is that the foundation of civilization is sometimes founded by uncivilized acts, and is found in much of Yeats’ poetry.

In a perfect balance, Yeats in a way also re-evokes the metaphor of the river-disturbing stone in “On a Political Prisoner”. Compare

“That woman’s days were spent
In ignorant good-will,
Her nights in argument
Until her voice grew shrill.”

Which was associated with the stone amid the flowing waters, with

“Did she in touching that lone wing
Recall the years before her mind
Became a bitter, an abstract thing,
Her thought some popular enmity:
Blind and leader of the blind
Drinking the foul ditch where they lie?”

The stone in “Easter 1916” had represented single-mindedness, even stubbornness, or “hearts with one purpose alone”, and coincide with “a bitter, an abstract thing”.

We see now that Yeats has gone further since “Easter 1916”. Now the crowd – the mob – has been incorporated into the equation as a catalyst for “her” mind’s bitterness. “The Crowd” had become a major issue in Yeats’ time, in philosophy and psychology, and Yeats had in no small way ignored the masses. He offered a popular theatre to the people of Ireland; but, Yeats quickly became disillusioned with such an ideal –

“…the dream of my early manhood, that a modern nation can return to Unity of Culture, is false; though it may be we can achieve it for some small circle of men and women, and there leave it till the moon bring round its century.”

Yeats abandoned the idea of mass politics, and retreated to the comforts of his own close group of literary acquaintances; indeed, one may say that Yeats’ poetry from this point on constitutes a lengthy process of complete retreat: a retreat from the Modern Age, the body, from life as lived (politically / practically speaking). “Sailing to Byzantium”, a poem looming in the poet’s future, holds within its words just such a reality of Yeats’ retirement from mass-politics. However, in “The Leaders of the Crowd”, Yeats still offers his unique wisdom – “truth flourishes where the student’s lamp has shone/ and there alone.” That lamp will reappear in “Sailing to Byzantium” but it will be no “singing school” this time, but rather, a study of “unageing monuments of the intellect”. It seems at this point that the barbarity (sometimes) necessary in creating a society or civilization has forced Yeats-as-poet towards Byzantine past in a form of nostalgia, but, immediately, when we reach “The Second Coming”, we see it also pushes him into the future in the form of prophecy.

In “The Second Coming” we receive Yeats’ philosophy of history:

“urning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.”

What, indeed, can we say about this? The four lines chime universal – they appeal to a grand pattern, a cosmological vision. Plus, this is the second coming, so eternal recurrence is added in to the conceptual cocktail – with a dialectical twist – we have, according to Yeats, reached an antithetical moment, a reversal or trans-valuation of values. The poet’s Hegelianism seems clear. By now the D

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