Meditations in Time of Civil War

Meditations in Time of Civil War

Ancestral houses
Surely among a rich man’s flowering
Amid the rustle of his planted hills,
Life overflows without ambitious
And rains down life until the basin
And mounts more dizzy high the more
     it rains
As though to choose whatever shape
     it wills
And never stoop to a mechanical,
Or servile shape, at others’ beck and
Mere dreams, mere dreams! Yet
     Homer had not sung
Had he not found it certain beyond
That out of life’s own self-delight had
The abounding glittering jet; though
     now it seems
As if some marvellous empty sea-shell
Out of the obscure dark of the rich
And not a fountain, were the symbol
Shadows the inherited glory of the rich.
Some violent bitter man, some power-
     ful man
Called architect and artist in, that they,
Bitter and violent men, might rear in
The sweetness that all longed for night
     and day,
The gentleness none there had ever
But when the master’s buried mice
     can play,
And maybe the great-grandson of that
For all its bronze and marble, ’s but a
Oh what if gardens where the peacock
With delicate feet upon old terraces,
Or else all Juno from an urn dis-
Before the indifferent garden deities;
Oh what if leveled lawns and gravelled
Where slippered Contemplation finds
     his ease
And Childhood a delight for every
But take our greatness with our
What if the glory of escutcheoned
And buildings that a haughtier age
The pacing to and fro on polished
Amid great chambers and long
     galleries, lined
With famous portraits of our ancestors;
What if those things the greatest of
Consider most to magnify, or to bless,
But take out greatness with our
An ancient bridge, and a more ancient
A farmhouse that is sheltered by its
An acre of stony ground,
Where the symbolic rose can break in
Old ragged elms, old thorns innumer-
The sound of the rain or sound
Of every wind that blows;
The stilted water-hen
Crossing stream again
Scared by the splashing of a dozen
A winding stair, a chamber arched
     with stone,
A grey stone fireplace with an open
A candle and written page.
Il Penseroso’s Platonist toiled on
In some like chamber, shadowing forth
How the daemonic rage
Imagined everything.
Benighted travelers
From markets and from fairs
Have seen his midnight candle glim-
Two men have found here. A man-
Gathered a score of horse and spent
     his days
In this tumultuous spot,
Where through long wars and sudden
     night alarms
His dwindling score and he seemed
Forgetting and forgot;
And I, that after me
My bodily heirs may find,
To exalt a lonely mind,
Befitting emblems of adversity.
Two heavy tressels, and a board
Where Sato’s gift, a changeless sword,
By pen and paper lies,
That it may moralise
My days out of their aimlessness
A bit of an embroidered dress
Covers its wooden sheath.
Chaucer had not drawn breath
When it was forged. In Sato’s house,
Curved like new moon, moon luminous
It lay five hundred years.
Yet if no change appears
No moon; only an aching heart
Conceives a changeless work of art.
Our learned men have urged
That when and where ’twas forged
A marvellous accomplishment,
In painting or in pottery, went
From father unto son
And through the centuries ran
And seemed unchanging like the
Soul’s beauty being most adored,
Men and their business took
The soul’s unchanging look;
For the most rich inheritor,
Knowing that none could pass heaven’s
That loved inferior art,
Had such an aching heart
That he, although a country’s talk
For silken clothes and stately walk,
Had waking wits; it seemed
Juno’s peacock screamed.
Having inherited a vigorous mind
From my old fathers I must nourish
And leave a woman and a man behind
As vigorous of mind, and yet it seems
Life scarce can cast a fragrance on the
Scarce spread a glory to the morning
But the torn petals strew the garden
And there’s but common greenness
     after that.
And what if my descendants lose the
Through natural declension of the soul,
Through too much business with the
     passing hour,
Through too much play, or marriage
     with a fool?
May this laborious stair and this stark
Become a roofless ruin that the owl
May build in the cracked masonry
     and cry
Her desolation to the desolate sky.
The Primum Mobile that fashioned us
Has made the very owls in circles move;
And I, that count myself most
Seeing that love and friendship are
For an old neighbour’s friendship
     chose the house
And decked and altered it for a girl’s
And know whatever flourish and decline
These stones remain their monument
     and mine.
An affable Irregular,
A heavily built Falstaffan man,
Comes cracking jokes of civil war
As though to die by gunshot were
The finest play under the sun.
A brown Lieutenant and his men,
Half dressed in national uniform,
Stand at my door, and I complain
Of the foul weather, hail and rain,
A pear tree broken by the storm.
I could those feathered balls of soot
The moor-hen guides upon the stream,
To silence the envy in my thought;
And turn towards by chamber, caught
In the cold snows of a dream.
The bees build in the crevices
Of loosening masonry, and there
The mother birds bring grubs and flies.
My wall is loosening; honey-bees
Come build in the empty house of the
We are closed in, and the key is turned
On our uncertainty; somewhere
A man is killed, or a house burned,
Yet no clear fact to be discerned:
Come build in the empty house of the
A barricade of stone or of wood;
Some fourteen days of civil war;
Last night they trundled down the road
That dead young soldier in his blood:
Come build in the empty house of the
We had fed the heart on fantasies,
The heart’s grown brutal from the fare,
Most substance in our enmities
Than in our love; oh, honey-bees
Come build in the empty house of the
I climb to the tower top and lean upon
     broken stone,
A mist that is like blown snow is
     sweeping over all,
Valley, river, and elms, under the light
     of a moon
That seems unlike itself, that seems
A glittering sword out of the east. A
     puff of wind
And those white glimmering frag-
     ments of the mist sweep by.
Frenzies bewilder, reveries perturb
     the mind;
Monstrous familiar images swim to
     the mind’s eye.
‘Vengeance upon the murderers,’ the
     cry goes up,
‘Vengeance for Jacques Molay.’ In
     cloud-pale rags, or in lace,
The rage driven, rage tormented, and
     rage hungry troop,
Trooper belabouring trooper, biting at
     arm or at face,
Plunges towards nothing, arms and
     fingers spreading wide
For the embrace of nothing; and I,
     my wits astray
Because of all that senseless tumult,
     all but cried
For vengeance on the murderers of
     Jacques Molay.
Their legs long delicate and slender,
     aquamarine their eyes,
Magical unicorns bear ladies on their
The ladies close their musing eyes.
     No prophecies,
Remembered out of Babylonian
Have closed the ladies’ eyes, their
     minds are but a pool
Where even longing drowns under its
     own excess;
Nothing but stillness can remain when
     hearts are full
Of their own sweetness, bodies of their
The cloud-pale unicorns, the eyes of
The quivering half-closed eyelids, the
     rags of cloud or of lace,
Or eyes that rage has brightened, arms
     it has made lean,
Give place to an indifferent multitude,
     give place
To brazen hawks. Nor self-delighting
Nor hate of what’s to come, nor pity
     for what’s gone,
Nothing but grip of claw, and the eye’s
The innumerable clanging wings that
     have put out the moon.
I turn away and shut the door, and on
     the stair
Wonder how many times I could have
     proved my worth
In something that all others under-
     stand or share;
But oh, ambitious heart had such a
     proof drawn forth
A company of friends, a conscience set
     at ease,
It had but made us pine the more.
     The abstract joy,
The half read wisdom of daemonic
Suffice the ageing man as once the
     growing boy.

The earliest dated edition of this poem is a draft of the poem’s sixth party (“The Stare’s Nest at my Window”) and is dated 1922, entitled “Civil War.” The poem was later featured in the publications The Dial and The London Mercury in 1923 and then was featured in Yeats’s volume The Cat and the Moon and Certain Poems in 1924.

A Closer Look: The Dial (1923)

“Meditations in Time of Civil War” was first published in The Dial in 1923. At the time of publication, “Meditations” largely resembled the poem which would appear in The Tower five years later. One noticeable difference occurred in line 10, which read “But that he found more substance there than dreams” in The Dial. In the version of “Meditations” which later appeared in The Tower, this line would be altered to read, “Had he not found it certain beyond dreams.”

An American magazine, The Dial’s readers might not have been as aware of the Civil War and political turmoil occurring in Ireland, but Yeats’s deliberately-political title seems designed to assign the poem an Irish identity.

A Closer Look: The London Mercury (1923)

Concurrently with its publication in The Dial, “Meditations in Time of Civil War” was published in The London Mercury in 1923. Yeats often to chose to publish new material in two circulars at once, generally choosing one American and one British publication. After testing his poem on the small but varied audiences of these publications, he would move onto the private press format, and eventually a wider, commercial release. These staggered publications allowed Yeats time to gather reactions, to respond, and to revise.

As in The Dial, “Meditations” largely resembles its 1928 publication, apart from the change in line 10.

A Closer Look: The Cat and the Moon and Certain Poems (1924)

After the poem was published in both The Dial and The London Mercury, it was next featured in the Cuala Press volume The Cat and the Moon and Certain Poems, published in 1924.