Putting the poetry into politics; Podium

From the Warton Lecture in poetry, given to the British Academy by the professor of English at Oxford
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IN "NO Second Troy", Yeats contemplates the woman he was to love all his life, from a necessary distance. Within the poem we are never told the name of the lady but everyone knew in 1910 that it was Maud Gonne, the fiery political activist who turned down Yeats' proposal of marriage. In the poem the apolitical heart is transfixed when it encounters the fact that the loved woman is herself political. Thus - at least for the poet - the root of the matter may appear to be pre-political: Yeats detests violence, loves Maud Gonne, but Maud Gonne is violent:

Why should I blame her that she filled my days

With misery, or that she would of late

Have taught to ignorant men most violent ways,

Or hurled the little streets upon the great,

Had they but courage equal to desire?

What could have made her peaceful with a mind

That nobleness made simple

as a fire,

With beauty like a tightened bow, a kind

That is not natural in an age like this,

Being high and solitary and most stern?

Why, what could she have done,

being what she is?

Was there another Troy for her

to burn?

"Why should I blame her for filling my days with misery?" So far, indeed, we have a question which virtually invites a sceptical response. What better reason could a person have for resentment? But the succeeding suggestion, following swiftly, is that self-pity is an ignoble emotion and, of course, we pull back at once; we do not wish to be trapped into endorsing it.

Then, as the sentence moves from the personal plane to the political we begin to see that the poet is not after all playing a trivial game; the lady has made him wretched and, meanwhile, has stirred up revolutions, poor against rich. If the personal misery seems a puny thing, the sentence implies, then let it be so; something larger is in any case afoot here.

If I call the persona of this poem apolitical, the commonplace rejoinder would be to say: "There is no such thing as an apolitical statement; those who think they are apolitical are usually implicitly supporting the status quo."

In general I do not care for this line. It is rooted, augustly enough (I suspect), in Scripture: "He that is not with me is against me" (Matthew, xii, 30).

No doubt, if Calvin were to travel to our century in a time machine and were to read The Duck-breeder's Weekly he would say: "This is a Godless publication; commit it to the flames." The Duck-breeder's Weekly is indeed godless, but that somehow is not its most important characteristic, for the greater part of human kind.

Yet here the argument makes obvious sense. Maud Gonne and Yeats both loved Ireland but her love was programmatic, future-orientated, while his was backward-looking, enamoured of custom and ceremony. We may add that Yeats obviously got a further kick out of the (to him) exhilarating rebarbativeness of reactionary, hierarchical views; strutting, he thought, beat walking any day.

The poet's contempt for the ignorant poor is there on the page, with no attempt to conceal it. The same contempt blazes in a harsh two-line poem:

Parnell came down the road, he said to a cheering man:

"Ireland shall get her freedom and you still break stone."

The crushing effect of the measured prophecy - from the great revolutionary himself! - is to turn the "cheering man" into a suddenly arrested grotesque - like something in Picasso's Guernica. The same tic of contempt shows in the line, "Had they but courage equal to desire".

Yeats pulls off a curious technical feat here, simultaneously saying what he really thinks and speaking "in character": "These are the things people like me will always say" (this is something Evelyn Waugh was to do all his life).

But the lines are there to be at once blotted out, by the lady herself, and, in so far as she is the Unanswerable Positive of the poem, the conservative suggestion must be negatived. Hence the appropriateness of "hurled the little streets upon the great". It is as if the sophisticated political meaning, "Caused the lower classes to rise in violent struggle with the upper classes" is engulfed by a child's surrealism, houses fighting houses.

The next lines show how there is indeed no irony in the poet's carefully public decision not to resent her treatment of him. Yeats alone of 20th century poets could unleash, when he chose, authentic, over-mastering high style, which carries all before it.