NINETEEN HUNDRED AND NINETEEN
(Poem as it appeared in The Tower, 1928)
Many ingenious lovely things are gone
That seemed sheer miracle to the multitude,
Protected from the circle of the moon
That pitches common things about. There stood
Amid the ornamental bronze and stone
An ancient image made of olive wood—
And gone are Phidias’ famous ivories
And all the golden grasshoppers and bees.
We too had many pretty toys when young:
A law indifferent to blame or praise,
To bribe or threat; habits that made old wrong
Melt down, as it were wax in the sun’s rays;
Public opinion ripening for so long
We thought it would outlive all future days.
O what fine thought we had because we thought
That the worst rogues and rascals had died out.
All teeth were drawn, all ancient tricks unlearned,
And a great army but a showy thing;
What matter that no cannon had been turned
Into a ploughshare? Parliament and king
Thought that unless a little powder burned
The trumpeters might burst with trumpeting
And yet it lack all glory; and perchance
The guardsmen’s drowsy chargers would not prance.
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;
The night can sweat with terror as before
We pieced our thoughts into philosophy,
And planned to bring the world under a rule,
Who are but weasels fighting in a hole.
He who can read the signs nor sink unmanned
Into the half-deceit of some intoxicant
From shallow wits; who knows no work can stand,
Whether health, wealth or peace of mind were spent
On master-work of intellect or hand,
No honor leave its might monument,
Has but one comfort left: all triumph would
But break upon his ghostly solitude.
But is there any comfort to be found?
Man is in love and loves what vanishes,
What more is there to say? That country round
None dared admit, if such a thought were his,
Incendiary or bigot could be found
To burn that stump on the Acropolis,
Or break in bits the famous ivories
Or traffic in the grasshoppers or bees.
When Loie Fuller’s Chinese dancers enwound
A shining web, a floating ribbon of cloth,
It seemed that a dragon of air
Had fallen among dancers, had whirled them round
Or hurried them off on its own furious path;
So the Platonic Year
Whirls out new right and wrong,
Whirls in the old instead;
All men are dancers and their tread
Goes to the barbarous clangor of a gong.
Some moralist or mythological poet
Compares the solitary soul to a swan;
I am satisfied with that,
Satisfied if a troubled mirror show it,
Before that brief gleam of its life be gone,
An image of its state;
The wings half spread for flight,
The breast thrust out in pride
Whether to play, or to ride
Those winds that glamour of approaching night.
A man in his own secret meditation
Is lost amid the labyrinth that he has made
In art of politics;
Some Platonist affirms that in the station
Where we should cast off body and trade
The ancient habit sticks,
And that if our works could
But vanish with our breath
That were a lucky death,
For triumph can but mar our solitude.
The swan has leaped into the desolate heaven:
That image can bring wildness, bring a rage
To end all things, to end
What my laborious life imagined, even
The half-imagined, the half-written page;
O but we dreamed to mend
Whatever mischief seemed
To afflict mankind, but now
That winds of winter blow
Learn that we were crack-pated when we dreamed.
We, who seven years ago
Talked of honor and of truth,
Shriek with pleasure if we show
The weasel’s twist, the weasel’s tooth.
Come let us mock at the great
That has such burdens on the mind
And toiled so hard and late
To leave some monument behind,
Nor thought of the levelling wind.
Come let us mock at the wise;
With all those calendars whereon
They fixed old aching eyes,
They never saw how seasons run,
And now but gape at the sun.
Come let us mock at the good
That fancied goodness might be gay,
And sick of solitude
Might proclaim a holiday:
Wind shrieked—-and where are they?
Mock mockers after that
That would not lift a hand maybe
To help good, wise or great
To bar that foul storm out, for we
Traffic in mockery.
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:
Herodias’ daughters have returned again,
A sudden blast of dusty wind and after
Thunder of feet, tumult of images,
Their purpose in the labyrinth of the wind;
And should some crazy hand dare touch a daughter
All turn with amorous cries, or angry cries,
According to the wind, for all are blind.
But now wind drops, dust settles; thereupon
There lurches past, his great eyes without thought
Under the shadow of stupid straw-pale locks,
That insolent fiend Robert Artisson
To whom the love-lorn Lady Kyteler brought
Bronzed peacock feathers, red combs of her cocks.
Originally titled “Things that Come Again” and later “Thoughts Upon the Present State of the World,” this poem was first published in The Dial in September, 1921 and then The London Mercury in November, 1921. The poem next appeared as the third poem in Yeats’ volume Seven Poems and a Fragment in June 1922. The poem was finally retitled “Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen” when it appeared as the fourth poem in The Tower in February, 1928.
A Closer Look: The Dial (September 1921)
This poem was originally titled “Thoughts Upon the Present State of the World” when it first appeared in the American magazine The Dial in September, 1921. Although the poem largely resembles its later version in The Tower, there are two major changes in the very beginning of the poem. In the version which appeared in The Dial, the first line holds a spelling error which alters “ingenious” to mean: “Many ingenuous lovely things are gone.” In addition, the poem’s third line originally read: “Above the murderous treachery of the moon.”
Published in an American magazine, and without the “Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen” title to provide historical context, this poem loses some of its specificity. Yeats is offering thoughts “upon the present state of the world,” but these thoughts do not feel as specifically Irish, as readers might not understand that Yeats is responding specifically to the struggle for Irish Home Rule in 1919. Instead, the poem seems to respond to more universal questions of power, violence, and time.
A Closer Look: The London Mercury (November 1921)
This poem was still titled “Thoughts upon the Present State of the World” when it appeared in The London Mercury in November of 1921. Here, the only significant change occurs in the poem’s third line, which read: “Above the murderous treachery of the moon.”
The London Mercury was a British magazine which sought to combine creative writing, literary criticism, and literary reviews. The Mercury generally took a more conservative political position, which might have altered the audience and the respond to Yeats’s “Thoughts.”
A Closer Look: Seven Poems and a Fragment (June 1922)
This poem, still entitled “Thoughts Upon the Present State of the World,” was next published in Yeats’ volume Seven Poems and a Fragment in June, 1922. It appeared as the third poem in the volume. Although closely resembling the poem as it would appear in The Tower in 1928, the poem’s third line still read: “Above the murderous treachery of the moon.” This line was altered to read… when the poem appeared, retitled as “Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen,” in Yeats’ The Tower.
Seven Poems and a Fragment features bibliographic coding and a publisher’s emblem which asserts that the volume was “printed and published by Elizabeth Corbet Yeats on paper made in Ireland… Finished in the third week of April in the year nineteen hundred and twenty-two.” The book is self-consciously constructed as a book of Irish poems printed on Irish paper. The publishers also take care to date the book’s publication to the third week of April, 1922, a politically tumultuous month in which the British granted authority to the Irish Free State and anti-Treaty IRA occupied Dublin. By aligning this explicitly-Irish volume with such a fraught time in Irish politics, Yeats identifies Seven Poems and a Fragment with the idealism and disillusion of the new Irish Free State.