As the year wears on, we arrive at another anniversary. This time last year I published a piece over at On This Deity celebrating the life and remembering the death of William Butler Yeats, truly one of Ireland’s most cherished sons.
Yeats was first and foremost a poet of genuine greatness. Possibly the finest ever to hail from these shores. Though he has plenty of competition… and in the final analysis, claiming one poet is better than another is always a dubious activity. Let’s just say that there are few poets – from anywhere – whose work affects me so deeply.
Yeats, of course, was not only a wonderful poet. He was also a dedicated archivist who – along with Lady Gregory – compiled the collection of ancient tales and sagas that we now know as Irish Mythology. In so doing, he is as responsible for the form and shape of traditional Gaelic culture as any individual. And tradition was something he felt very strongly about. A friend and fellow-traveller of many of the leading lights of the modernist movement, WB Yeats strode an uneasy line between past and future. He wanted to embrace the modern world, yet despised it for its tendency to tread heavily on the best parts of the past. He saw the creative potential of industry, but despaired at the lack of wisdom guiding it. Why did we not have the discernment to welcome the advantages of the new while preserving the advantages of the old? Progress was inevitable, he understood that, but did it have to be at any cost?
And Yeats was also a political man. He spent a decade in the newly independent Irish government as a senator. One of the leading intellectuals of those early, heady days he was at the forefront of the movement to resist the influence of the catholic church on Irish politics. It was, lamentably, a battle he was to lose. How different would Ireland have been if those early progressive liberals had overcome the social conservatives! Unlike in much of Europe, the Irish revolutionary socialist movement was tightly bound to the church. There are very understandable reasons why this was the case, and in truth it’s hard to see how it could have been otherwise given the unique situation in Ireland at the time. All the same, it’s difficult to avoid a certain wistfulness when imagining an alternative history where Yeats was on the winning side of that early social struggle.
Of course, one thing the progressives, the catholics, the traditionalists, the modernists and the revolutionary socialists of early 20th century Ireland would all have agreed on would be that the present predicament in which we find ourselves is intolerable. Éamon de Valera, Michael Collins, William Cosgrave and WB Yeats would have been united in their condemnation of the present government and the capitalist attacks on the people of Ireland they facilitate. On that at least, they would have voted together, and fought side by side. The selling of our sovereignty in return for tax-breaks for the wealthy would be anathema to the men who struggled so long and sacrificed so much to win that sovereignty in the first place.
But I guess we couldn’t have the greatness of those heroes past without also taking on their flaws. And they had many. So it behoves us to reach for a brighter future rather than wallow in nostalgia for a rose-tinted past. All the same, we can – as Yeats himself always stressed – avail ourselves of the distilled wisdom of days gone by. We may not always have the strength to choose which parts of our history we are influenced by, but we are obliged to at least try to give voice to our better angels and to silence the demons. And so, with that in mind, I shall finish this piece as I finished the piece over at On This Deity a year ago today, with the words of Yeats in the poem that – above all others – lives within my heart and mind.
The Second Coming
by William Butler Yeats
Turning 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,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?