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Essays in Honour of Eamonn Cantwell

Warwick Gould

Essays in Honour of Eamonn Cantwell

The Puzzle of Sequence: Two Political Poems1

Helen Vendler

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  • 1 First delivered as n. 4 in the Cork Series, on 21 February, 2006 and, after pamphlet publication by (...)
  • 2 See Yeats’s note (VP 827) on ‘Meditations in Time of Civil War’: ‘These poems were written at Thoor (...)

1Although Yeats’s multi-poem sequences are the complex end-point of his lyric experimentation, I want to consider them at this early point to establish the intellectual and emotional accumulation toward which his mature lyrics tend. These sequences, which approach a single phenomenon (civil war) or concept (vacillation) from various angles, replaced in Yeats’s ambition the narrative poems of his earlier poetic career. The famous sequences in English before Yeats had linked together poems, such as sonnets, that were identical in shape; but the characteristic Yeatsian sequence—for _ which my examples here will be ‘Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen’ and ‘Blood and the Moon’—consists of poems of different shapes linked under one title. The individual members of the sequence are ‘poems’ (as Yeats usually referred to them),2 but although many of these poems can stand singly as aesthetic units, they take on weight from their presence and placement within the sequence.

2What is the imaginative impulse that wants to create a sequence rather than a single poem? And what are the characteristic methods by which such an impulse embodies itself? These methods, as we shall see, may be ‘magical’ in derivation, or they may be motivated by a desire to exemplify a particular genre, rhythm, or stanza form. Sometimes they seem fantastic. The poet’s imaginative impulse when constructing a sequence fulfils itself in its act of discovering appropriate form-and by ‘form’ I mean not only the inner and outer shapes of the individual members of the sequence, but also the chosen ordering of the poems from which we derive the implicit argument of the whole. If Yeats’s multiple choices of individual form and sequential order are not random (as they certainly are not), can we find plausible ways to describe the phenomenology both of the individual poems and of the sequence as a whole, and can we suggest the aims governing the poet’s choices? And can we see the advantage to a poem, especially a political poem, in turning away from the topical and adopting forms of abstraction? Ezra Pound, always one for the topical, was amused by Yeats’s inveterate belief that it was the symbol, abstracted from the quotidian, that could hold the quintessence of reality: in The Pisan Cantos (n. 83, 22–26), Pound, in Paris with Yeats, comments on that belief:

  • 3 Ezra Pound, The Cantos of Ezra Pound (London: Faber & Faber, 1987), 528.

Le Paradis n’est pas artificial
and Uncle William dawdling around Notre Dame in search of whatever
paused to admire the symbol
with Notre Dame standing inside it [.]

3Yeats’s symbols for the acts of violence in the two sequences discussed here, and his confidence in those imagined abstractions, needed the implementation of form. For each of my two cases, I will sketch the themes and name the forms of the entire sequence, with the aim of improving our sense of Yeats’s formal resources and his imperious management of them.

4‘Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen’ (published in 1928 in The Tower) is a long six-part sequence of 130 lines, a work too massive to be understood without study and reflection. It was in part occasioned by the guerrilla conflicts in Ireland during 1919 and 1920 between Republicans and the British police, aided by the Black and Tans (an irregular military group, so named from their uniform), composed mostly of men demobilized from the War. (These conflicts anticipated the outbreak of civil war between Republicans and Free Staters in 1922.) But it must be recalled, in order to understand Yeats’s concern with violence in ‘Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen’, that the poem was written in the wake of World War I, with its catastrophic rupture of the European status quo.

5The formal organization of ‘Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen’ (outlined more fully in the appendix to this essay) appears to be heterogeneous, mutating spontaneously from part to part. Its six poems, ranging in length from one stanza to six, employ five different rhyme schemes, four distinguishable rhythmic schemes, and three different line lengths; they also represent distinct thematic and prosodic genres. They are voiced differently, too: Yeats writes only once in the first person singular, more frequently in the first person plural, and sometimes in an impersonal voice, narrative or philosophical by turns. How can we explain not only this prosodic and syntactic variety but also the sequential ordering of the poems?

  • 4 CL InteLex 3899; L 668. J. Hillis Miller, in The Linguistic Moment: From Wordsworth to Stevens (Pri (...)
  • 5 Life 2, 193 n. 83.
  • 6 W. B. Yeats: The Poems, ed. Daniel Albright (London: J. M. Dent, 1990), 651.
  • 7 Lady Gregory’s Journals, ed. Daniel Murphy, 2 vols. (Gerrards Cross: Colin Smythe, 1978), I, 197.

6‘Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen’ was originally entitled ‘Thoughts upon the Present State of the World’ and dated ‘May, 1921’. On April 9, 1921, Yeats commented on his undertaking to Olivia Shakespear, remarking that he had been reading many books, ‘searching out signs of the whirling gyres of the historical cone as we see it’.4 In a letter to Lady Gregory, he said, ‘The first poem is rather in the mood of the Anne poem [‘A Prayer for my Daughter] but the rest are wilder’.5 As Daniel Albright remarks, ‘The retitling and redating [of the sequence] may reflect Yeats’s sense of the importance of 1919, the year in which... the rebel Irish Republican Army was opposed by the Black and Tans’.6 Lady Gregory’s journal entry of 5 November, 1920, records the atrocity that lies at the heart of Yeats’s sequence: Eileen Quinn, a young mother of three, was ‘shot dead… with her child in her arms’ by Black and Tan soldiers shooting from a passing lorry.7 We might at first think that the whole of ‘Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen’ was written to show how that actual event, mentioned in part I, burst in upon the illusions of the past:

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. (
VP 429)

7In ‘Meditations in Time of Civil War’, another political sequence, the comparable topical moment arrives late, in the penultimate poem:

A man is killed, or a house burned…
Some fourteen days of civil war;
Last night they trundled down the road
That dead young soldier in his blood. (
VP 425)

  • 8 Compare the slightly more extended account of the Troubles around Kiltartan Cross in Yeats’s addres (...)
  • 9 Dame Alice Kyteler was accused, in 1324–25, ‘of being at the head of a band of sorcerers in the cit (...)
  • 10 Jeffares, following Henn (NC, 234), speculates that Yeats, in collectivizing Salome’s dance into th (...)

8Another poet might have made more, in each case, of the local bloodshed and the earlier causes of the present tragedy; Yeats neither begins nor ends with the local event, nor does he treat it in any historical detail.8 Irish events, though they stimulated ‘Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen’, are not Yeats’s principal focus within the sequence; it is the enigma of human violence that is his subject. Why—to leap to the last enigma of ‘Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen’—would the fourteenth-century high-born Lady Alice Kyteler abase herself to an ‘evil spirit’ (Yeats’s words in his note to the poem) such as Robert Artisson, and bring him, by way of erotic offerings, the ‘red combs’ sliced off the heads of her cocks?9 Why—to return to the first enigma of the sequence—would anyone in ancient Greece become such an ‘incendiary or bigot’ that he would burn religious monuments or melt down artworks for their gold? It is not solely, or even chiefly, political violence that perplexes Yeats in ‘Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen’; it is rather the recurrent multiform and age-old violence of human beings—even if only the violence of animal sacrifice—that he investigates in the sequence. It is misleading to consider ‘Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen’ only in the context of contemporary Irish conflicts: Yeats himself takes great pains to widen the historical context within the sequence, ranging as far back as ancient Greece (in the burning of the statue of Athena) and ancient Palestine (in the decapitation of John the Baptist after Salome’s dance).10 Although the carnage in Ireland occasioned this sequence, its individual poems are neither comprehended nor exhausted by the events that prompted them.

9The originating enigma of ‘Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen’ is the human race’s urge to obliterate the very civilizations it has constructed. We might, says Yeats, expect ‘common things’ to be ‘pitched about’ by sublunary change, but surely ‘ingenious lovely things’ (the aesthetic heritage of the West) would be protected by Fate from such violence. Yeats instances, among those lovely things, religious icons such as the olive-wood image of Athena on the Acropolis, and artworks such as the ivory sculptures of Phidias or the inspired Greek simulacra in gold of humble grasshoppers and bees. The sequence begins in the voice of one who values such icons and images:

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. (
VP 428)

10Exactly halfway through its length, this opening poem turns its face away from archaic Greece to comment on present-day Ireland—’Now days are dragon-ridden, the nightmare | Rides upon sleep’—but it ends with a return to ancient Greece and a restatement of its original enigma. The poem is, then, a circular one, ending in the same perplexity with which it began. The initial confidence in the permanence of ‘ingenious lovely things’ is seen as illusion, and at the close the speaker’s language descends to reproducing, in the indirect discourse of its last three lines, the attitudes natural to the destroyers: contempt (‘that stump’), mercenary motives (‘traffic in’), and heedless violence (‘break in bits’):

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. (
VP 430)

11Poems that end where they began—with their emotions unresolved and their condition as hopeless as it was at the beginning—are a known form (Yeats was acquainted with Donne’s ‘A Nocturnall on St Lucie’s Day’). But why would Yeats cast his opening enigma into ottava rima?

  • 11 See my ‘Yeats and Ottava Rima’ (YA11 26–44) revised into Chapter X, ‘The Renaissance Aura: Ottava R (...)

12Ottava rima first appears in Yeats’s work in the 1928 Tower; he continued to resort to it for the next ten years, through the composition of ‘The Circus Animals’ Desertion’ in 1938. Yeats had used eight-line stanzas earlier, but not the stately and equable ottava rima, which he was to explore with such versatility.11 Although ‘Sailing to Byzantium’ was the last composed of the poems in The Tower, its stanza form takes on, by standing first in the volume, an exemplary function: ottava rima (throughout Yeats) stands for Renaissance courtly achievement, for culture, for civilization, for ‘monuments of unageing intellect’, for an achieved artifice (whether of eternity or of time). The first two stanzas of ‘Sailing to Byzantium’ exhibit the normative form of ottava rima when it is undisturbed: six lines of description or speculation (ababab), resolved with a resonant couplet (cc). Readers of The Tower, then, encountering the ottava rima opening of ‘Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen’ , might reasonably expect another salute to the perpetuity of art, Hebraic or Hellenic; and the poem’s initial praise of ingenious lovely things is a theme suitable to ottava rima. But readers find themselves abandoned, in the course of the sequence, to enigmas, questions, and outlandish folk legend. And although the first two ottava rima stanzas of the opening poem of ‘Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen’ preserve the normative integrity of their closing couplets, the last four stanzas, one way or another, break that stability. The cultural products of civilization are in view, yes, but this poem’s topic is their tragic fate. ‘He who can read the signs’ knows

no work can stand,
Whether health, wealth or peace of mind were spent
On master-work of intellect or hand,
No honour leave its mighty monument [.] (
VP 429)

13The first part of ‘Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen’ vacillates between creativity and annihilation, free will and determinism. On the one hand, man seems to possess the power not only to create, but also to ‘read the signs’ and, if he is strong enough, to withstand the temptation to ‘sink unmanned | Into the half-deceit of some intoxicant’ |‘sink unmanned | Into the half-deceit of some intoxicant’, even while the free will of the incendiary or the bigot is expending itself on destruction. At another moment, however, the poem will declare that men are but ‘weasels fighting in a hole’, devoid of human reason. And in a third formulation, the poet asserts that the objects of love are not in fact destroyed by violent outside forces, but simply, and intransitively, ‘vanish’ as we look on: ‘Man is in love and loves what vanishes | What more is there to say?’(VP 429–30). These changing speculations within part I of ‘Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen’ are not arranged in any logical or cumulative order: art does not win, reason does not win, animal viciousness does not win, philosophical insight does not win. In this tumult, civilization, in its formal analogue of ottava rima, cannot survive further within the sequence; this cultivated stanza form, with its Renaissance aura, never returns after part I.

  • 12 Warwick Gould finds here an allusion to Richard II (2.1.72): ‘What comfort, man? How is’t with aged (...)

14Yeats’s stanzas in this opening poem—all but one—repeat inflexibly a single structure: that of illusion (usually voiced somewhere in the first six lines) and that of illusion disabused (expressed most frequently in the couplet, but sometimes earlier, as in the third stanza, with its biblical warning about cannon unbeaten into ploughshares). (In a poem, such a repeated psychological pattern stands for a determinism irresistible by human will.) For a brief moment, one single stanza, the fifth, resists this fated collapse, announcing (prematurely, as we will discover) a form of comfort: the wise and realistic man is solaced by his ‘ghostly solitude’, which would be marred if he took his superior philosophical knowledge to be a form of triumph. His objectivity in the midst of disaster is disinterested—or so the stanza believes. But as soon as Yeats finds this comfort for his intellect, his emotions rebel, and he denies his pretence that there is ‘one comfort left’.12

But is there any comfort to be found?
Man is in love and loves what vanishes,
What more is there to say? (
VP 429–30)

15After this admission, there is no more talk of defeating disaster by ‘ghostly solitude’; instead, the ottava rima falls back, in conclusion, into its subjected pattern of illusion disabused, as the Greek ivories are broken and the golden jewellery traded for money. Where can Yeats’s sequence go after this apparent philosophic resignation to the depredations of violence? What is he to do with his apprehension that ‘days are dragon-ridden’, that a dragon has been loosed upon his country?

16To our surprise, the sequence proceeds, in its single-stanza part II, into an apparently trivial description of an orientalised modern dance, which, by means of its many veils wielded by the batons of ‘Chinese’ (actually Japanese) dancers, creates ‘a dragon of air’. But the poet takes this modern choreography as a symbol ratifying his sense of present ‘dragon-ridden’ history:

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 clangour of a gong. (
VP 430)

17The motion of Loie Fuller’s dancers has no sooner been described than it is immediately—within the same single stanza—analogized to the largest motion of the cosmos, the 36,000-year journey of the constellations through the entire zodiac. The scale of space expands to the astronomical, while the index of time flees back to the primitive origins of music, here represented by an Asian ‘gong’ that beats out the deterministic measure that all men are compelled to tread. Later, in ‘Supernatural Songs’, primitive music will be made on a ‘magic drum’; each of these instruments is capable of only a single on/off sound, representing the most basic form of music. Determinism asserts its absolute rule, paradoxically through the apparently spontaneous motion of the whirling dragon-dancers (directed in reality by an unseen choreographic force). Tennyson’s ‘Ring out the old’ stands behind Yeats’s more sinister variety of change in which new right and wrong are merely exchanged for old right and wrong.

  • 13 He turns to it again for part II (‘My House’) of ‘Meditations in Time of Civil War’. There, it is c (...)

18What is the stanza form containing this grim statement? And why does this part of ‘Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen’ consist of a single peculiar and very uneasy stanza? And why will Yeats immediately resort to this stanza again in the next poem, part III of the sequence?13 Here are the features of this ten-line stanza:

In rhyme, the ten-line stanza divides itself asymmetrically, 6–4, with a sestet (abcabc) followed immediately (no break) by an embraced-rhyme quatrain (deed).

In logic and punctuation, however, the stanza divides itself symmetrically (5–5) into two equal parts of five lines each, separated by a semicolon: the first part is about the dance, the second about the Platonic Year.

  • 14 It might seem that line 9 of the Loie Fuller stanza has four beats, not three; but a glance at the (...)

In rhythm, the stanza exhibits yet a third pattern, also asymmetrical: the first five lines place a single trimeter between two pentameter couplets (5–5–3–5–5); the second five lines offer four trimeters followed by a single pentameter (3–3–3–3–5).14

19The stanza is therefore a triply unsettling one: its asymmetrical 6 + 4 rhyme division does not match its 5 + 5 logical division into two equal parts; and the two logically analogous equal halves (dancer and year) are rhythmically entirely disparate. Graphically, the stanza as a whole begins broadly in pentameters, narrows to a trimeter, broadens again, narrows to trimeters again, ends in a pentameter: broad, narrow, broad, narrow, broad—a double gyre.

20Yeats ‘defines’ this strange stanza for us in the poem for which he invented it, the 1920 ‘All Souls’ Night’ (VP 470–74). After telling us first that he wishes to be ‘wound in mind’s pondering | As mummies in the mummy cloth are wound’, he closes the poem by echoing and enlarging that statement:

  • 15 VP 474. ‘All Souls’ Night’ was written in November 1920; Yeats began the composition of ‘Nineteen H (...)

Such thought—such thought have I that hold it tight
Till meditation master all its parts …
Such thought, that in it bound
I need no other thing,
Wound in mind’ s wandering
As mummies in the mummy-cloth are wound.

21This ten-line stanza created for ‘All Souls’ Night’ and reused in ‘Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen’ and ‘Meditations in Time of Civil War’ is the largest single unit in Yeats’s poetic repertoire. (When the mature Yeats writes a stanza that is longer than ten lines, such as the eighteen-line stanza that closes ‘Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen’ , he creates it by gathering together smaller uniform rhyming units, in that case, three sixains.) Because of its several asymmetries, the ten-line stanza never falls into a ‘comfortable’ shape; its syntax strains against its rhymes, its rhymes against its rhythms. In ‘Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen’ (though not in its other occurrences) the ten lines of the stanza invariably compose a single sentence, a single complex proposal in which several sub-proposals are enwound. We recall Yeats’s statement in ‘A General Introduction to My Work’ of his desire for ‘a complete coincidence between period and stanza’ (E & I 522–23). The winding of the syntax through the long sentence is the winding of Loie Fuller’s dancers’ veils, or the winding of the constellations through the circuit of the zodiac, or the winding of the mummy-cloth about the mummy. The pride of the poet in composing such an expert stanza lies in having created a texture so dense that it permits the enwinding of the large with the small, the general with the particular, the symmetrical with the asymmetrical, the expanding with the contracting. The first half of the stanza (two solidly rhyming pentameter couplets enclosing a trimeter) offers stateliness: the second half, with its four successive lines in lilting trimeter, offers a dance-rhythm stabilized by a final pentameter. By means of the internally contrastive parts of the stanza, the poet wishes to enclose in one moment tragedy and joy, discursive weight and lightness of motion.

22What can Yeats’s purpose be—after the single-stanza part II poem of Loie Fuller and the Platonic Year—in returning to the very same stanza form for the next poem of ‘Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen’, the part III excursus comparing the soul to a swan? Why the emblematic winding stanza if there are, here, no mummy-bands, no complex veils, and no large scale heavenly circuit? It is not until the middle of part III that we find the new function of this irregular stanza: it is to represent, this time, the windings of a labyrinth, Yeats’s own maze of ‘art and politics’:

  • 16 VP 431. Recall three other Yeatsian uses of the word ‘labyrinth’: ‘The labyrinth of her days’ (‘Aga (...)

A man in his own secret meditation
Is lost amid the labyrinth that he has made
In art or politics.

23Yeats’s soul—engaged in ‘art or politics’ not only in this poem but during his entire life—seeks an adequate emblem of its own nature. The central part III of ‘Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen’—flanked on the left by parts I and II (the dragon-ridden present and the dragon of air that is the Platonic Year) and on the right by the three parts yet to come (IV, V, and VI)—is, strikingly, the only one among the six poems of the sequence that is written in the first person singular. In it, the Yeatsian ‘I’ speaks out in propria persona at the centre of the labyrinth he has made of art or politics. The rest of the sequence may be thought of as a series of indices pointing to the ‘I’ hidden among the many impersonal propositions about art and politics that are constantly being proffered and withdrawn. These several propositions, as we see them unfold within the sequence, are irreconcilable on any plane. In these various poems, we are sometimes agents of free will, sometimes helpless creatures of Fate. We are makers of beautiful things; we are destroyers of beautiful things. We live on a human scale; we live on a cosmic scale. We are rememberers; we are forgetters. We are believers; we are mockers. We are creative minds; we are creatures of erotic abjection. We are debased animals; we are the creators of abstract notions of honour and truth. All of these assertions are held in tension within the sequence.

24When Yeats decides (‘I am satisfied with that’) to accept (from the unnamed ‘mythological poet’) the solitary swan as an image for the solitary soul, he frames his central symbol of the labyrinth with two postures of the swan. In the first, the swan represents the joy of potential choice: poised for flight, he is able still to choose ‘Whether to play, or to ride | Those winds that clamour of approaching night’. But in the second posture, the moment of choice has passed: in present-perfect diction, we are told that ‘The swan has leaped into the desolate heaven’. The word ‘solitary’ in the originating ‘solitary soul’ has at this point metamorphosed, via the word ‘solitude’ in the middle stanza (both of them derivatives of solus, ‘alone’), into Keatsian word ‘desolate’ (from desolare, ‘to abandon’, ultimately also solus). (Each of these words contains in its syllable sol a graphic pun on soul.) The solitary soul has leaped not into the ‘sky’ but into a desolate ‘heaven’, desolate because it is a heaven with no resident God, and because all utopian hopes have shown themselves—in the opening poem—to be illusory. The swan in the desolate heaven is an image vacating life’s labyrinth of meaning, forcing Yeats to descend from his grand symbolic swan-sweep to a first person apocalyptic self-obliteration:

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. (
VP 431)

25Determining on a fierce self-immolation even in the actual moment of this writing Yeats checks himself and diverges—in keeping with the rhythmical habit of his asymmetrical stanza—into a trimeter lilt, this time embodying a Shakespearean song recalling King Lear:

O but we dreamed to mend
Whatever mischief seemed
To afflict mankind, but now
That winds of winter blow
Learned that we were crack-pated when we dreamed. (

26The frustrating search for an ethical centre to the labyrinth of art and politics has been forsaken in favour of the tragicomic song of a Shakespearean fool.

27Parts II and III—four labyrinthine stanzas, each a single labyrinthine sentence—are followed by another single-sentence poem. But in violent contrast to the intricacy of its predecessors, part IV is a biting trochaic epigram of collective self-mockery , repellently
thrusting the high abstractions ‘honour’ and ‘truth’ up against ‘the weasel’ s twist, the weasel’s tooth’:

We, who seven years ago
Talked of honour and of truth,
Shriek with pleasure if we show
The weasel’s twist, the weasel’s tooth. (

  • 17 These include bronze/bronzed; old wrong/new right and wrong/the old; habits/habit; thought, thought (...)
  • 18 See Ben Jonson’s verse-preface to his Epigrams, ‘To My Book’:
    It will be looked for, booke, when som

28In part I, the speaker had said of himself and his contemporaries ‘[We] are but weasels fighting in a hole’; this recapitulation in part IV is merely the most visible of many in the poem, repetitions that intensively link the members of the sequence to one another, making the whole a sequence rather than a haphazard gathering of independent poems.17 The appearance of the coarse-imaged epigram of the weasels suggests that the conditions of 1919—21 (Yeats began the poem on 9 April, 1921)—hitherto expressed in the aristocratic form of the ottava rima and the ‘masterful’ form of the labyrinthine stanza—have not yet been formulated comprehensively, or even correctly. The self-irony in part I was chiefly intellectual: ‘O what fine thought we had because we thought | That the worst rogues and rascals had died out’; ‘We pieced our thoughts into philosophy | And planned to bring the world under a rule’—with ‘philosophy’ pronounced as if in quotation marks. Although part I had momentarily lapsed into a bestial self-image (‘weasels fighting in a hole’), it departed instantly from that insight into a lofty self-comfort of believing that the reflective man could read the signs and could refuse to sink into the deception of an intoxicant. Now, reverting to the image of the weasel, the poem reifies it into physical twist and vicious tooth, trochaically shrieking in pleasure and sonically matching ‘We who’ with ‘weasel’s’ and ‘weasel’s’. The aural effects of part IV are so unpleasant that they put in question all the loftier effects of parts I, II, and III. Part IV’s weasels bring the poem to a tone of mordant self-abasement, as their bestiality—uncountered in part IV by any other image—is savagely reiterated. Of all genres, the epigram is the one that most pretends to encapsulate the (debased) essence of its subject.18 Now that Yeats seems to have repudiated, by this self-hating epigram, the discursive ground of philosophical abstraction, aesthetic mastery, and labyrinthine thought on which he has so far stood during parts I-III, how can he continue his sequence?

29He does so, in part V, with a peculiar genre—a first-person-plural exhortation to mockery. This poem is at first consistent with the baseness of weasel-pleasure, as its speaker sardonically recommends, as a form of collective enjoyment, that he and his companions turn to mocking the great, the wise, and the good. But in the fourth stanza the speaker turns on his own practice, mocking his own mockery, denouncing himself and his companions for refusing to bar the door against the ongoing political storm, and using—in the bitter phrase ‘we | Traffic in mockery’—the low verb ‘traffic’ that was so unthinkable to him in the opening poem, when he could not imagine that anyone could be so mercenary as to ‘traffic in the grasshoppers or bees’:

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. (
VP 432)

30Yeats’s shamed self-abasement, carried over from part IV’s weasels, provides a partial reason for the existence of this poem in the sequence. The true subject of part V is yet again evanescence, but this time what vanishes is not ivories and golden bees but rather striving human beings—the great who toiled to leave some monument behind, the wise who struggled with aching eyes to understand the documents of the past, the good who attempted to make virtue gay. T. R. Henn and Harold Bloom cite the devastating passage in Shelley (Prometheus Unbound, I, 625—628) from which Yeats borrows his categories of great, wise, and good:

  • 19 The categories appear as well in lines 81–83 of Shelley’s ‘Mont Blanc’, in which the mountain’s voi (...)

The good want power, but to weep barren tears.
The powerful goodness want: worse need for them.
The wise want love; and those who love want wisdom;
And all best things are thus confused to ill.

31In each of the first three stanzas of Yeats’s part V, the seasonal turn to a ‘foul storm’ with its ‘levelling wind’ (which ‘shrieks’ like the weasels) has undone the work by which the great, the wise, and the good hoped to bar out the storm. ‘Where are they?’ Yeats cries of the vanished strivers, echoing the ubi sunt of earlier poets.

  • 20 Derek Attridge, perhaps unaware of this venture of Yeats into a backwards-ballad stanza (with an ad (...)

32What does the form of part V tell us? It is a very peculiar form. It looks like some form of ballad, as we see its rhymes beginning abab—but then it adds an extra b line. In each of the first three stanzas, the ‘extra’ fifth line serves as commentary, undoing what the first four lines have established: the great toiled, but they never ‘thought of the levelling wind’; the wise studied, but now merely ‘gape at the sun’; the good attempted a collective joy in virtue, but ‘Wind shrieked—and where are they?’The effect is that of climbing up for three or four lines and then rapidly losing, in a single slide, all the ground gained. This might be a plausible stanza form, as I have so far described it, but it is rendered indigestible by its rhythms. Whereas a ballad stanza would be structured 4–3–4–3, following tetrameters with trimeters, this stanza up-ends the process, following trimeters with tetrameters, 3–4–3–4, and then closing with a trimeter, 3. This is a virtually unspeakable rhythm; I cannot think of another such example of ‘doing the ballad backwards’, as one might call it. Yeats may be casting a spell of undoing on the ballad stanza, and complicating it by a fifth-line coda. In any case, there is no ease in the form.20

33The absolutely undanceable rhythm ironizes the initial convention of the ‘come-all-ye’ and contradicts the repeated folk-derived ‘Come let us’ of each stanza. Yeats’s moral position in part V, even in the equivocal reversal of ‘Mock mockers after that’, is laden with self-contempt. The indubitable sympathy for the toils of the great, wise, and good is undone by the recurrence of their defeat. The first-person-plural part V, full of ‘we’s’ like its epigrammatic predecessor (IV), refuses high discursive language and (for all the oddity of its invented stanza) similarly refuses, by its ‘low’ ballad-like appearance, Yeats’s earlier aristocratic self-presentation, which he conveyed through ottava rima or its labyrinthine sequel, forms that imply the lofty complexity of their speaker’s thought. If Yeats’s earlier choice of ‘high’ forms belied the brutality of his savage subject, human violence, it is also true that neither the whiplash of his ‘low’ epigram nor the spell-casting of his ironic mock-ballad is equal to the theme of the sequence-murderous local and European bloodshed, with not a comfort to be had. The enigmas of violence and evanescence, free will and the agency of fate, still pose themselves, as does the implicit quarrel within the sequence between ‘civilized’ high form and ‘debased’ low form. If neither loftiness nor satire can finally illuminate the origins of human destructiveness, what form can Yeats invent to reveal more accurately the cause of the enigmas he has evoked?

34The last of Yeats’s attempts at understanding human violence is the three-scene visual fantasy of part VI. In the first of these scenes, a set of horses (most of them riderless and unadorned, but a few still garlanded and with ‘handsome riders’) run past, and, vanquished by the weariness of their repetitive courses, they break and vanish. Yeats’s note explains them as apparitions seen by country people: ‘I have assumed that these horsemen, now that the times worsen, give way to worse’ (VP 433). In the second scene, the blind daughters of Herodias, personifying the levelling and labyrinthine wind, whirl in a clamorous ‘thunder of feet, tumult of images’ in which they become objects of desire to bystanders—but should someone dare to touch one of them, their response will be unpredictable: ‘All turn with amorous cries, or angry cries, | According to the wind’ Amorous or angry, depending on the whim of the wind, these dancers incarnate Eros or Thanatos in turn; they are a violent version of Keats’s gnats, ‘Borne aloft | Or sinking, as the light wind lives or dies’, and they represent the mystifying effects of a Fate-wind as blind as its subjects. Both the first and second scenes of Yeats’s fantasy—unrestrained horses and clamorous dancers—are merely symbols of a hidden turbulence that invisibly and unaccountably generates them.

  • 21 Warwick Gould argues that Yeats would ascribe the human practice of violence not to sexual desire b (...)

35Behind these screen-images of supernatural incursions into the natural world, Yeats at last reveals the origin of human violence: the sexual satisfaction attending on it, a powerful satisfaction that is always irrational.21 He borrows his final symbol for that demonic sexual undoing of culture from the chronicles of witchcraft, invoking the tale of the empty-eyed ‘insolent fiend Robert Artisson’, insusceptible in his ‘insolence’ to all the conventions of romance, who has exercised his sexual power over ‘the love-lorn Lady Kyteler’:

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. (
VP 433)

36Already Robert Artisson has conquered; already the aristocratic woman described with irony as the ‘love-lorn Lady Kyteler’ has brought to him, as a token of her abjection, not only ‘bronzed peacock feathers’, themselves already torn from their original site, but also bloody body-parts, ‘red combs of her cocks’. The outrageous obeisance of high-born lady to low incubus is a symbol, for Yeats, of the drivenness of human desire: it will abase itself before its object, it will commit violence for its object. Robert Artisson ‘lurches’ past, just as the rough beast ‘slouches’ toward Bethlehem; their gait is a mimic version of the monstrous formlessness of their dark-of-the-moon supernatural being. By coupling with the human, they have the power to bring about an unforeseeable new order of things.

37What form did Yeats find for his concluding triple vision, which unrolls unbroken from the violent rout of beautiful if wearied horses and riders through the dust and wind, thunder and tumult, of the irrationally angry or amorous daughters of Herodias, to the single malign figure of Robert Artisson corrupting Alice Kyteler? Five lines for the horses, seven lines for the daughters of Herodias, six lines for the repellent liaison; the asymmetry of the lengths is belied by the symmetry of the rhymes (which I separate for clarity): abcabc defdef ghighi—or, more accurately, (abcabc) x 3. The three sixains succeed each other with no intervening blank space: one vision, three scenes, in a single tripartite pentameter stanza eighteen lines long. The rhymed pentameter sixains are ‘aristocratic’ in genre (because of their Petrarchan ancestry); in this they are kin to the ottava rima of part I and the long labyrinthine ‘metaphysical’ stanzas of parts II and III. However, these sixains are presented not as individual ‘stanzas’ of a lyric but as a single, impersonally voiced, ongoing flow. With their supernatural beings riding or whirling or lurching past, these sixains belong in content to the Romance tradition, and stand for the realm of fairy and folk tale, of suggestive but irrational narratives of symbolic people and actions. The horsemen and the daughters of the wind are Romance equivalents of the pagan gods called in Ireland the Sidhe; Lady Kyteler and Robert Artisson arise from narratives of witchcraft. The whole breathes Apocalypse.

  • 22 It is also the mode with which Yeats decides to end ‘Meditations in Time of Civil War’. There, too, (...)

38What would impel Yeats to end his sequence, which presented at its beginning the ‘ingenious lovely things’ of civilization, with a witch’s cauldron of these dramatis personae? We are reminded no longer of Lear but rather of Macbeth, of an uprising of dark impulse: as Yeats says, ‘Evil gathers head’. In giving up, through this final fantasy, the possibility of any rational explanation of human violence and cultural destruction, Yeats rejects any solution that might be thought to lie within the modes so far explored—not only the ‘civilized’ modes of octave and labyrinth, but also the ‘low’ modes of epigram and bespelled ballad. Fantastic images of the supernatural thrown up from the unconscious seem to Yeats to offer a better insight into the enigma of violence than do other poetic modes. It is a daring way to end.22

39Would ‘Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen’ be a different poem if the order of its component parts were rearranged? One feels immediately that an ending voiced in ottava rima discursiveness, or in a reductive folk-form, would carry a very different import from a visionary conclusion in Romance sixains—and one could say the same for any other conjectural order. In short, the order of the sequence contains an implicit argument about its speaker’s successive responses to violence. It says that almost any intellectual person, when responding to a tragic contemporary event, begins by resorting to the intellectual tools (seen in part I) of historical analogy and philosophical speculation—or by espousing a resigned determinism such as that evoked by the Platonic Year (seen in part II). Despair at the apparently inevitable ‘vanishing’ of loved things governs part III, with its desire for self-destruction and the destruction of the page under the poet’s pen. Sooner or later, however, one’s own complicity in the socio-political order is bound to suggest itself, and intellectualizing is put aside (in parts IV and V) in favour of collective self-accusation and an attempt to deny the efficacy, in human affairs, of intellectual and moral will. The only defence against complicity is an admission that, like everyone else, one is driven by implacable irrational impulses, sexual and violent, that are ultimately inexplicable—and such a realization produces part VI. The psychological order determining the succession of parts in ‘Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen’ determines as well the individual forms into which Yeats casts these poems—aristocratic, labyrinthine (collective and personal), epigrammatic, ballad-like, and Romance derived.

40But there is another force determining the forms of the individual parts of the sequence, and that is a ‘magical’ one. Yeats at times liked to guide his poems in ‘magical’ ways; the most evident instance to me is his implication of the date of the Easter Rising—the 24th day of the 4th month of the year 1916—in the forms of his poem on the event. In ‘Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen’ a comparable ‘magical’ intent is visible. Part I (which was, in its first printing in The Dial, an unnumbered prelude to the rest) is sui generis. Part II has two halves, the dance and its analogue in the Platonic year. Part III has three stanzas. Part IV has four lines of four beats each (4 X 4, a perfect square). Part V has stanzas of five lines; and Part VI is written in six-line rhyme-groups. It does not matter, perhaps, whether the reader notices any of these correspondences, but their existence is undeniable, and clearly not random. From its beginnings, Yeats’s art had had room for such micro-techniques (as we see in his early work), and their appeal—not really distinct from the jigsaw-puzzle aspects of all prosody—ever quite faded. Constructing the grand architectonics of ‘Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen’ (and other sequences of comparable virtuosity) requires, of course, an intellectual concentration of a different order of magnitude, but for Yeats all orders, great and small, existed to cooperate in the final forming of the poem.

41What do we learn from understanding ‘Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen’ in its formal proceedings as well as in its paraphrasable content? We learn its implicit argument: that, faced with complex historical phenomena, we must guard against resting in our premature intellectualizing impulses (whether ‘aristocratic’ or ‘labyrinthine’) but must also guard against a subsequent resorting to self-debasing judgments or reductive self-categorizations. At the same time, we must admit the likelihood in our responses of such intellectualizing or self-reproachful or over-simplifying reactions. We are brought forcibly face to face with our desire to ‘make sense’ of human behaviour, while being confronted with Yeats’s final scepticism about such sense-making. We understand, too, that form for Yeats has ideological resonance: that some forms say ‘stability and order’ or ‘aristocracy’ or ‘Romance’, while others say ‘complexity of thought’ or ‘folk-material’ or ‘essence of something’. We learn that the suppression of stanza breaks (and therefore of stanza-essence) denotes the refusal to grant successive scenes discrete reality, implying, by this flowing of one cursive and disturbing ‘vision’ of disorder into another, that they are all versions of one thing, fully revealed only in the last scene. We learn that stable forms (such as ottava rima) can be destabilized to significant effect; that forms possessing several competing inner structures (such as the ten-line ‘labyrinthine’ stanza) change shape as they are considered under different categories—rhythmically, or logically, or by rhyme-pattern; that reversed forms (as in the upside-down ballad) are disturbing; that tragedy and joy (as in the ‘labyrinthine’ stanza) can coexist in a stanza’s asymmetrical and contrastive rhythms. We of course also see—as we do in all of Yeats’s work—the usefulness of the other resources of poetry: symbol, analogy, irony, narrative suspense, distinct imaginative planes, and varied dramatis personae. We come to appreciate, above all, a powerful attempt by the poet to ingest his country’s tragic contemporary moment whole, to analogize it to comparable moments of the human past, and to project his exploration of the abstract enigma of violence into a set of chosen symbolic forms, prosodic as well as thematic. An understanding of Yeats’s decisions concerning form and arrangement keeps us from acquiescing in a merely biographical and historical interpretation of ‘Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen’ , and invites us instead to consider the sequence as the product of a versatile formal imagination seeking ‘befitting emblems of adversity’ (‘Meditations in Time of Civil War’ ). If they did not have befitting form, they would not be befitting emblems.

  • 23 ‘My Table’, part III of ‘Meditations’, written in the same strange measure as ‘Demon and Beast’ (4– (...)

42Does Yeats, we wonder, return to the poetic methods that we have seen here when he is constructing his other sequences? The short answer (as we would expect) is that he finds a new set of methods for each sequence. It might seem that ‘Meditations in Time of Civil War’ (1922) is imitating ‘Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen’ (1921): after all, both sequences open with an ottava rima poem, and ‘Meditations’ contains a three-stanza poem (‘My House’) in the ten-line ‘labyrinthine’ stanza used in parts II and III of ‘Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen’ ; ‘Meditations’ exhibits ballad measures in parts V and VI, and ends, like ‘Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen’ with a tripartite visionary scheme.23 Nonetheless, the total impression left by ‘Meditations’ is not at all like the one left by the earlier sequence. ‘Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen’ has, for instance, no subtitles prefacing its ‘stations’. Who would have imagined, reading the running subtitles of ‘Meditations’ –’Ancestral Houses’, ‘My House’, ‘My Table’, ‘My Descendants’, ‘The Road at My Door’, ‘The Stare’ s Nest at My Window’ and ‘I See Phantoms, etc.’—that such topics could direct a poem on civil war? Where is the war? And even though part VI of ‘Meditations’ returns to the mode of tripartite vision seen in the close of ‘Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen’ , it does so in an entirely different prosodic form—five eight-line double-quatrain stanzas (ababcdcd) composed in vague ‘wavering’ hexameters as ‘Monstrous familiar images swim to the mind’s eye’. In short, the two sequences remain imaginatively and prosodically distinct (and ‘Meditations’ has none of the numerical play of ‘Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen’. By concentrating in ‘Meditations’ on the domestic place and objects around which the civil war rages, Yeats finds a new focus for a political poem, different from the cosmic range of ‘Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen’.

  • 24 First published in The Exile, Spring 1928 and first collected in The Winding Stair (New York: The F (...)
  • 25 CL InteLex 5013; L, 727.

43We can see Yeats turning to entirely different methods in his later sequences. Here I will offer evidence of his invention of structures in ‘Blood and the Moon’ (VP 480–82), a four-part sequence in the second of Yeats’s volumes named from his tower, The Winding Stair.24 ‘Blood and the Moon’ was occasioned by the 1927 assassination of Kevin O’Higgins, vice-president of the Free State government and a man whom Yeats considered a friend. ‘I am now at a new Tower series, partially driven to it by this murder’, Yeats wrote to Olivia Shakespear.25 Foster remarks that Higgins was killed not so much for his policies in 1927 as by his having ‘ordered seventy-seven executions of his ex-comrades during the civil war’, when he was in the Free State cabinet (Life 2, 343). As earlier executions brought about later assassination, an unstoppable circuit of blood-shedding seemed to have become an established fact in Ireland.

44Yeats’s sequence opposes the terrene stain of blood to the moon’s unstainable celestial light—but its way to that opposition is a winding one. Foster considers the sequence ‘an uneven performance, obscure and declamatory by turns’, though he adds that it is ‘replete with wonderful phrases’ (Life 2, 346). I believe there is more to be said for ‘Blood and the Moon’ if one comes to understand its strange and at first inexplicable structure, which consists of the following parts:

  1. a slender twelve-line block of three trimeter abba quatrains without stanza breaks;

  2. an eighteen-line segment consisting of six irregularly long-lined aaa tercet stanzas;

  3. a square douzain (twelve-line verse-block) consisting of three abba pentameter quatrains; and

  4. a second douzain identical in form with III.

45Why the tall trimeter-block as an opening? Why the straggling uneven tercets in the middle, separated by stanza breaks (the only stanza breaks of the poem)? Why two identical pentameter blocks at the end? And why do the two closing pentameter douzains have the same abba rhyme-pattern as the trimeter part I?

  • 26 These two ways of looking through or at a surface in ‘Sailing to Byzantium’, as the poet confronts (...)

46I confess to being long baffled by this structure. And yet (as it turns out, and as I was slow to see), Yeats himself has explained it as he goes. The tall part I is ‘this tower’; part II’s six-tercet climb through history is ‘this winding gyring, spiring treadmill of a stair,… my ancestral stair’; and the prosodically identical parts III and IV (identically square in appearance on the page) represent two ways of looking at ‘the dusty, glittering windows’ of the tower. One can see the windows as transparently ‘glittering’ as they permit the light of the moon to fall on the tower floor (III); or one can focus on their ‘dusty’ inside surface on which doomed butterflies, unable to fly out, ‘cling’ (IV).26 Yeats chooses, in ‘Blood and the Moon’ (as in no other sequence), a graphic, pictorial method of arrangement. In the first ‘station’ of the sequence he will show us, from the outside, the tall shape of the tower he has restored; then, in the second station (part II) he will laboriously climb its stair, stopping from time to time; and finally, in the third and fourth stations in the upper chamber of the tower (parts III and IV), he will contemplate its windows. (He is tempted to rise to the upper ruined battlement, but he breaks off before he does so, and the battlement does not generate any pictorial equivalent of itself.) The underlying symbolic unit of the poem is clearly three-ness: three quatrains in I, six (that is, two times three) stanzas of three lines each in II, three quatrains in III, three quatrains in IV. These threes stand, I believe, for the three architectural features of Yeats’s location depicted in the sequence: tower, stair, and windows. (In school, Yeats found geometry easy.)

  • 27 The drafts of ‘Blood and the Moon’ show that part I was originally in tetrameter, and part III in h (...)

47The laborious actual ‘rise’ of the tower in stone is long past, as is the ‘rise’ of the race that built it; therefore, Yeats’s symbolic tower-of-words lifts rapidly before us in a tall, slender verse. With the vertical effort of its medieval construction now over, the tower has taken on its secondary, intellectual function as an emblem: this ‘decided-upon’ status is denoted by the ‘forethought’ of the abba non-linear choice of rhyme-form (repeated in III and IV). The tower’s former defensive use prompts Yeats’s choice in first station of the martial trimeter over his original tetrameter (which be too wide and would make the image of the tower on the page too squat),27 but the tower is a ruin, ‘half dead at the top’, and so the poet’s additive song (‘rhyme upon rhyme’) becomes a ‘mockery’, as he makes a ‘mock’ word-tower arise on a virtual, not a real, plane. The whole poem—tower, stair, and windows—is the powerful ‘emblem’ the poet has set up: it ‘mocks’ (is the image of) the physical tower, stair, and windows, and ‘mocks’ (repudiates) the nation-state which is, like the tower, already ‘half dead at the top’.

48Although part I began in the first draft as a verbless noun-list of the features of the tower and its surroundings, Yeats converted the passage to an authoritative, performative speech-act, ‘Blessed be this place’:

Blessed be this place,
More blessed still this tower;
A bloody, arrogant power
Rose out of the race
Uttering, mastering it,
Rose like these walls from these
Storm beaten cottages—
In mockery I have set
A powerful emblem up,
And sing it rhyme upon rhyme
In mockery of a time
Half dead at the top. (
VP 480)

49Although this opening part introduces two of the central nouns of the sequence –‘blood’ and ‘power’—the relative ‘weightlessness’ of this trimeter tower denotes its purely virtual existence, its construction out of rhymes, not stones. It is the only ‘song’ of the sequence: Yeats ‘sing[s]’it.

50A real effort, however, is necessary as the poet subsequently climbs the winding stair within the tower to arrive at a high vantage-point. The six distinct and unwieldy tercets (two threes, of course) exert a gravitational drag, stair-portion by stair-portion, as the elderly Yeats mounts one step at a time, line by line, pausing after each three steps, finding the climb physically tiring. (The tercet-lines are based loosely on the hexameter, the measure used to mimic stilt-walking in ‘High Talk’.) As Yeats enters upon the gyre-stair of history, he recalls past towers (two real ones in Alexandria and Babylon, and other emblematical ones, Shelley’s ‘thought’s crowned powers’ in Prometheus Unbound). Still ascending, he pauses to declare (in another performative utterance) the symbolic status of this stair, what he has ordained that it should represent:

  • 28 VP 480–81. Warwick Gould recalls that in Yeats’s tale Rosa Alchemica, Swift and his ilk were to be (...)

I declare this tower is my symbol; I declare
This winding, gyring, spiring treadmill of a stair is my ancestral stair;
That Goldsmith and the Dean, Berkeley and Burke have travelled there.

51The strain of climbing the stair generates more outrageously lengthy lines as the poet summons to mind his predecessors Swift, Goldsmith, Burke, and Berkeley, describing the last of these, Berkeley, in a stanza the like of which Yeats had never before written, and which is inexplicable except as an equivalent to physical exertion: step, step, step, as in ‘this pragmatical, preposterous pig’ and ‘so solid seem’:

And God-appointed Berkeley that proved all things a dream, That this pragmatical, preposterous pig of a world, its farrow that so solid seem,
Must vanish on the instant if the mind but change its theme. (

52In the next, and last, tercet, the poet reaches the top of his towerstair. He pauses at that point to summarize, in a newly ‘high’ diction, the views and principles bequeathed to him by his mental ‘ancestors’, citing their achievements in the order in which he had mentioned them earlier, Swift and Goldsmith in the first line of the tercet, then, each with his own line, Burke and Berkeley:

Saeva Indignatio and the labourer’s hire,
The strength that gives our blood and state magnanimity of its own desire;
Everything that is not God consumed with intellectual fire. (

53Now that the stair has been climbed, and the poet has arrived at the last inhabited (therefore windowed) room, what does he see? That ‘seven centuries’ of the bloody slaughter of innocents on this terrain have left no stain on the unearthly moon, that it remains wholly untouched by human affairs. For all the efforts of executioners to cast blood upon it, it has maintained its purity. And yet it is blood that saturates this first douzain, as though the poet, having absorbed the ‘Odour of blood on the ancestral stair’ cannot forget that he, like Swift, owns a human ‘blood-sodden breast’. As he contemplates the ‘arrowy shaft’ of light aimed by the unclouded moon at the tower floor, he rages with anger at the thought that the moon remains perpetually and serenely uncontaminated. (Although the abba quatrain rhyme ensures the greatest possible distance between the ‘moon’ that ends line 1 and the ‘stain’ that ends line 4, the fact that they rhyme, even if inexactly, suggests that they are here conceptually inextricable, as are purity and contamination. By contrast, when Yeats rhymes the two words again in part IV, as the inner rhymes of the last quatrain of the poem, he reverses the order in which they rhyme: ‘stain: moon’, just as he had reversed ‘come: Byzantium’ to ‘Byzantium: come’ at the end of ‘Sailing to Byzantium’ . Such reversals represent, I believe, the doing and undoing of a poetic ‘spell’.) The poet refers to the blood-stained floor on which he stands by the distal deictic ‘there’, as though denying his own connection with it. He will not group himself with the past assassins by saying ‘here’. The first ten lines of the douzain are themselves blood-saturated:

The purity of the unclouded moon
Has flung its arrowy shaft upon the floor.
Seven centuries have passed and it is pure,
The blood of innocence has left no stain.
here, on blood-saturated ground, have stood
Soldier, assassin, executioner,
Whether for daily pittance or in blind fear
Or out of abstract hatred, and shed blood,
But could not cast a single jet thereon.
Odour of blood on the ancestral stair! (
VP 482)

54Four ‘blood’s’ in ten lines: the pure moon is still steadily shining, no matter how many ‘blood’s’ the poet casts up at it like gouts of gore, no matter how many varieties of shedders of blood (‘soldier, assassin, executioner’) he enumerates, no matter how many motives for blood-shedding (‘daily pittance… blind fear… abstract hatred’) he can summon, no matter how many centuries have passed—seven—in which innocent blood has been shed. The douzain is extraordinary in its mimicry of hurled blots of blood, all of them ineffectual.

55Even if we have shed no blood ourselves, the ‘blood-saturated’ ground of the earth repels us from its very surface, and (resisting the fact that we cannot leave the earth), we submit ourselves to ‘some intoxicant’ to make ourselves drunkenly think that we can choose a purer destiny than our mortal one. The tenth line of the douzain leads to a fantasy that one can join the moon in its purity:

  • 29 VP 482. The pictorial quality of this statement may recall Blake’s engraving of a long ladder reach (...)

Odour of blood on the ancestral stair!
And we that have shed none must gather there
And clamour in drunken frenzy for the moon.

56Yeats’s part III douzain, as he gazes at the moon, expresses two sorts of disgust—a disgust for ancestral violence (the bloody stair, like the bloody floor, is ‘there’, not ‘here’), and a disgust for man’s ‘drunken’ desire to evade his own condition. These revulsions drive the poem to its final rage against the corrupt, even ‘lunatic’ human frenzy of longing for the ideal realm of the moon.

  • 30 It may not be too fanciful to think that Yeats is here reversing George Herbert’s famous window-loo (...)

57So far, nothing in ‘Blood and the Moon’ has suggested, against the horrors of blood-slaughter mocked by an unattainable moon-purity, an alternate way of viewing the human condition. Wrenched by admitting that even his own ancestral stair reeks of blood, the poet looks a second time at a window—one of those through which he had seen, and clamoured for, the moon. (This second look explains why parts III and IV are prosodically identical: the window-frames are the same size, or the poems represent two different ways of looking at the same window.) This time, the poet does not look through the window to the inaccessible and uncontaminated moon; he looks instead at the window, stopping his gaze at the inside of the glass pane.30 All the windows in the tower, glittering on the outside with lunar light, are, he sees, covered on the dusty inside with multicoloured butterflies, butterflies with wings like tortoise-shell, wings like peacock-feathers, butterflies who, unable to escape, cling dying to the pane:

Upon the dusty, glittering windows cling,
And seem to cling upon the moonlit skies,
Tortoiseshell butterflies, peacock butterflies,
A couple of night-moths are on the wing.
Is every modern nation like the tower,
Half dead at the top? (
VP 482)

58The poet’s change in vision-focus, from the lunar absolute to the trapped butterflies, brings into view the pathos of life, rather than its violence. With pathos comes pity; with pity comes fellow-feeling, with fellow-feeling comes resignation to the ineluctable difference between the mortal and the incorruptible. The moon, remote and pure and dead, is as it is; human beings are as they are, ever subject to the greed for power that leads to the shedding of blood. Earth-creatures cannot aspire to moon-purity, moon-wisdom. Yeats closes in deep acknowledgment of that true ‘vision of reality’, using for his final conclusions Aristotelian abstractions carefully worded so as to distinguish definite from indefinite article: ‘the property… a something… everything… a property’:

  • 31 VP 482. Yeats was originally unwilling to give unequivocal glory to the lunar light. In the drafts, (...)

No matter what I said,
For wisdom is the property of the dead,
A something incompatible with life; and power,
Like everything that has the stain of blood,
A property of the living; but no stain
Can come upon the visage of the moon
When it has looked in glory from a cloud.

59By the final quatrain, as we pass from ‘blood’ to ‘stain’ to ‘moon’, we see that Yeats is ready to bless, and not to clamour for, the moon. He is remembering Shelley’s ‘Ode to a Skylark’, as it compares the song of the lark to the exalted moment when ‘from one lonely cloud | The moon rains out her beams, and heaven is overflowed’. Yeats’s moon looks in glory from a cloud, and the poet, having acquired at last the gift of pity in lieu of the torment of rage, is no longer futilely compelled to cast blood at it.

60‘Blood and the Moon’ has become an ‘abstract’ political poem (one might say) because it has abstracted the topical events of O’Higgins’s executions and his consequent assassination into a confrontation between the stained and the pure, blood and the moon. The sequence would not have made its philosophical abstractions (‘wisdom’, ‘power’, ‘a property’) and its historical abstractions (‘soldier, assassin, executioner’) so humanly credible if it had not been grounded in its solid graphic representations: Yeats’s lithe virtual tower, its exhausting real stair, its two windows. These locate the poet firmly in space as he contends with the opposition of blood and moon; and by miming the swift rise of the tower, the difficult, intermittently pausing ascent up the winding stair, and the flanking views of the windows, Yeats gradually gives us the whole tower and himself moving within it. The poet’s last question-’Is every modern nation like the tower, | Half dead at the top?’ takes us up beyond the windowed room to the ruined battlement, and makes us wonder if that region, like the tower, the stair, and the windows, will also shape itself into an emblematic lesson. But instead of looking for an answer, Yeats dismisses his question: ‘No matter what I said’. He dismisses it because the poem is dissolving into resignation to the human and admiration for the celestial. The moon does not (as, say, in Whitman) ‘look down’ on the human scene; it remains within its own region, as it looks in glory from a cloud.

  • 32 Individual poems are considered in Chapter I, and paired poems (such as the Byzantium and Oracle po (...)

61‘Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen’ and ‘Blood and the Moon’ attest to Yeats’s extraordinary capacity to confront a contemporary event, generalize it into abstraction, and deploy his reflections on it through a number of poems and symbolic forms into a meaningful sequential order. Each of the great sequences, similarly scrutinized, would reveal other Yeatsian strategies for investigating multiple aspects of complex events or concepts. I have merely wanted to claim here that Yeats’s formal choices in his sequences are not made at random, but are motivated; that we can explain Yeats’s choices and deduce his presumed intentions as he decided to cast his material into these forms and not others. With a sense of Yeats’s care in inventing adequate emblematic forms for individual poems, paired poems,32 and the sequences described here, we can go on to a more systematic study of Yeatsian forms.


I: ‘Many ingenious lovely things are gone’

Rhyme form:


Feet in line:

5 throughout (pentameter)

(ottava rima)




8 lines

Length of poem:

6 stanzas



II: ‘When Loie Fuller’s Chinese dancers enwound’

Rhyme form:


Feet in line:





10 lines

Length of poem:

1 stanza



III: ‘Some moralist or mythological poet’ (same stanza form as in II)

Rhyme form:


Feet in line:





10 lines

Length of poem:

3 stanzas

Voice (s):

‘I’, impersonal, ‘We’

IV: ‘We, who seven years ago’: (4 X 4, a perfect square)

Rhyme form:


Feet in line:

4 throughout (tetrameter)




4 lines

Length of poem:

1 quatrain-stanza



V: ‘Come let us mock at the great’

Rhyme form:


Feet in line:



iambic (with trochaic substitution)


5 lines

Length of poem:

4 stanzas



VI: ‘Violence upon the roads: violence of horses’

Rhyme form:

abcabc (x 3)

Feet in line:



iambic (with dactylic and trochaic substitution)


18 lines

Length of poem:

1 stanza




Number of poems:


Number of rhyme forms:

5 (II and III have the same rhyme form)

Number of rhythms:

4 (iambic, iambic/trochaic, iambic/dactylic/trochaic, trochaic)

Number of line lengths:

3 (trimeter, tetrameter, pentameter)

Number of stanzas:

1 (II, IV; and VI)
3 (III)
4 (V)
6 (1)


4 lines (IV)
5 lines (V)
8 lines (1)
10 lines (II, III)
18 lines [3 x 6] (VI)


1 First delivered as n. 4 in the Cork Series, on 21 February, 2006 and, after pamphlet publication by UCC in that year, was revised as Chapter III, ‘The Puzzle of Sequence: Two Political Poems’, in Helen Vendler (ed.), Our Secret Discipline: Yeats and Lyric Form (Cambridge, Mass.: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2007), 62–89 and nn. The present text is taken from that book. Grateful acknowledgement is made to Harvard University Press. Helen Vendler’

2 See Yeats’s note (VP 827) on ‘Meditations in Time of Civil War’: ‘These poems were written at Thoor Ballylee… The sixth poem is called The Stare’s Nest by My Window… In the second stanza of the seventh poem occur the words ‘“vengeance upon the murderers”’ (italics mine).

3 Ezra Pound, The Cantos of Ezra Pound (London: Faber & Faber, 1987), 528.

4 CL InteLex 3899; L 668. J. Hillis Miller, in The Linguistic Moment: From Wordsworth to Stevens (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1985), sees the whole sequence as a manifestation of the whirling of the gyres, as image succeeds image in rapid succession (see esp. pp. 320ff.). Whether all of the sections whirl deconstructively around ‘an absent center’ seems more debatable: Yeats’s centre—atrocity through the ages—is all too present.

5 Life 2, 193 n. 83.

6 W. B. Yeats: The Poems, ed. Daniel Albright (London: J. M. Dent, 1990), 651.

7 Lady Gregory’s Journals, ed. Daniel Murphy, 2 vols. (Gerrards Cross: Colin Smythe, 1978), I, 197.

8 Compare the slightly more extended account of the Troubles around Kiltartan Cross in Yeats’s address to the dead Robert Gregory in ‘Reprisals’:
Half-drunk or whole-mad soldiery
Are murdering your tenants there.
Men that revere your father yet
Are shot at on the open plain.
Where may new-married women sit
And suckle children now? Armed men
May murder them in passing by
Nor law nor parliament take heed. (
VP 791)

9 Dame Alice Kyteler was accused, in 1324–25, ‘of being at the head of a band of sorcerers in the city of Kilkenny, and of offering sacrifice to demons. Her incubus, to whom she had made the sacrifice of nine red cocks and nine peacocks’ eyes, sometimes made his appearance as a cat or black dog, sometimes as a black man’. See Myth 2005 289 n. 7. Yeats’s own note adds, ‘My last symbol, Robert Artisson, was an evil spirit much run after in Kilkenny at the start of the fourteenth century’ (VP433).

10 Jeffares, following Henn (NC, 234), speculates that Yeats, in collectivizing Salome’s dance into the dance of ‘the daughters of Herodias’, may have been prompted not only by the medieval naming of the Sidhe, who, as Yeats noted in The Wind Among the Reeds, ‘journey in whirling winds that were called the dance of the daughters of Herodias in the Middle Ages’ (VP 800), but also by Arthur Symons’s poem ‘The Dance of the Daughters of Herodias’. Warwick Gould suggests to me that Symons’s poem ‘may take its title from Yeats’s preoccupation with this subject as in the note to The Wind Among the Reeds rather than the other way around’.

11 See my ‘Yeats and Ottava Rima’ (YA11 26–44) revised into Chapter X, ‘The Renaissance Aura: Ottava Rima Poems’ in Our Secret Discipline, 262–90.

12 Warwick Gould finds here an allusion to Richard II (2.1.72): ‘What comfort, man? How is’t with aged Gaunt?’

13 He turns to it again for part II (‘My House’) of ‘Meditations in Time of Civil War’. There, it is composed in a vortex-structure, in which external features of Ballylee (bridge, farmhouse, acre of ground) lead (in stanza 2) to entering the tower, going up the winding stair, finding a chamber and its fireplace, and finally, at the narrowed point of the vortex, stopping at ‘A candle and a written page’. This ‘gyre-structure’ is repeated, in reverse, to show Yeats’s literary ancestry, beginning with the single figure of Milton’s ‘Platonist’ toiling ‘in some like chamber’, and widening out to the ‘benighted travellers’ passing outside who see his ‘lighted candle glimmering’. The third vortex in the poem is one of time, not space: it begins with the ancient founder of the tower among his score of men; descends to Yeats, the present occupant; and at its narrowest point looks forward to his ‘bodily heirs’. The vortex may be seen as a version of the labyrinth and of the gyre.

14 It might seem that line 9 of the Loie Fuller stanza has four beats, not three; but a glance at the other stanzas of this pattern reveals that Yeats always intends lines 6, 7, 8, and 9 to be trimeters. The correct scansion is probably ‘All men are dancers and their tread’.

15 VP 474. ‘All Souls’ Night’ was written in November 1920; Yeats began the composition of ‘Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen’ on April 9, 1921. See CL InteLex 3899 and 3900.

16 VP 431. Recall three other Yeatsian uses of the word ‘labyrinth’: ‘The labyrinth of her days’ (‘Against Unworthy Praise’) and ‘the labyrinth of another’s being’ and ‘From a great labyrinth out of pride’ (‘The Tower’, II, lines 112,116): see VP 260 and 413.

17 These include bronze/bronzed; old wrong/new right and wrong/the old; habits/habit; thought, thought, thought/thoughts/thought; triumph/triumph; solitude/solitary/ solitude/solitude; break/break; vanishes/vanish/vanish; dragon-ridden/dragon; traffic/traffic; work/master-work/works; show/show; shriek/shrieked; winds/winds/wind/wind/wind/wind/wind/wind; labyrinth/labyrinth; image/image/imagined/images; eyes/eyes; sun’s/sun. This list does not mention all the internal repetitions within single poems, which are numerous; it gives only repetitions across from one poem in the sequence to another.

18 See Ben Jonson’s verse-preface to his Epigrams, ‘To My Book’:
It will be looked for, booke, when some but see
Thy title,
Epigrammes, and nam’d of me,
Thou should’st be bold, licentious, full of gall,
Wormewood and sulphure, sharp and tooth’d withal,
Become a petulant thing, hurle ink, and wit
As mad-men stones: not caring whom they hit.
Poems, ed. George Burke Johnston (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1960), 7.

19 The categories appear as well in lines 81–83 of Shelley’s ‘Mont Blanc’, in which the mountain’s voice is ‘Not understood | By all, but which the wise, and great, and good | Interpret’.

20 Derek Attridge, perhaps unaware of this venture of Yeats into a backwards-ballad stanza (with an added line), invents (for his catalogue of rhythms) a 3–4–3–4 stanza, and comments, ‘It’s an invented example, since such stanzas don’t occur normally in the tradition… The movement of the stanza is ungainly…. If we rearrange the lines [so as to give a 4–3–4–3 stanza], they take on the familiar lilt which tells us immediately that we’re reading a deeply-ingrained rhythmic structure’. See his Poetic Rhythm: An Introduction (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 61.

21 Warwick Gould argues that Yeats would ascribe the human practice of violence not to sexual desire but to ‘belief in the supernatural’, citing the passage in Autobiographies in which Yeats recalls accompanying Lady Gregory ‘from cottage to cottage collecting folk-lore… My object was to find actual experience of the supernatural, for I did not believe, nor do I now, that it is possible to discover in the text-books of the schools, in the manuals sold by religious booksellers, even in the subtle reverie of saints, the most violent force in history’ (Au 399–400; CW3 298–99). Yeats’s scenes in part VI of ‘Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen’ are indeed expressed with the ‘supernatural’ symbols of the Sidhe, the Daughters of Herodias, and Robert Artisson; but the hand attempting to touch one of the daughters, and Alice Kyteler in her subjection to her incubus, are human beings motivated by sexual desire.

22 It is also the mode with which Yeats decides to end ‘Meditations in Time of Civil War’. There, too, he has a tripartite vision, as his subtitle tells us: ‘I See Phantoms of Hatred and of the Heart’s Fullness and of the Coming Emptiness’. The Phantoms of Hatred are medieval Templars crying for vengeance on the murderers of their Grand Master, Jacques Molay; the Phantoms of the Heart’s Fullness are female figures riding upon unicorns, who represent the moment (Phase 14) when ‘all thought becomes an image’ (‘The Phases of the Moon’); the Phantoms of the Coming Emptiness are brazen hawks whose wings have put out the moon; these hawks are symbols, according to Yeats, of ‘the straight road of logic, and so of mechanism’ (VP 827). But after this tripartite vision, Yeats adds—as he does not in ‘Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen’—a personal postscript. He turns away from the local soldiers representing the life of action, and recommits himself to his poetic vocation: ‘The abstract joy, | The half-read wisdom of demonic images, | Suffice the ageing man as once the growing boy’. Since this closing statement does not adopt a new form, but is included within the hexameter octaves of Yeats’s tripartite vision, it does not undo the visionary Romance-mode that ends the sequence. The resemblance of the close of ‘Meditations’ to the ending of the later ‘Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen’ is striking, although by closing ‘Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen’ with ‘Romance’ pentameter sixains, Yeats distinguishes it from ‘Meditations’ , with its ‘Renaissance’ hexameter octaves (ababcdcd).

23 ‘My Table’, part III of ‘Meditations’, written in the same strange measure as ‘Demon and Beast’ (4–4–3–3, aabb), breaks the pattern of resemblance to ‘Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen’. The 32 lines of part III appear as one unbroken block (while the 50-line ‘Demon and Beast’ is divided into stanzas of unequal length). Because ‘Demon and Beast’ adds a two-line 4–4 coda, it exhibits a more stable close than ‘My Table’.

24 First published in The Exile, Spring 1928 and first collected in The Winding Stair (New York: The Fountain Press, 1929).

25 CL InteLex 5013; L, 727.

26 These two ways of looking through or at a surface in ‘Sailing to Byzantium’, as the poet confronts the sage-mosaic, are discussed in Our Secret Discipline, pp. 32–33.

27 The drafts of ‘Blood and the Moon’ show that part I was originally in tetrameter, and part III in hexameter. Yeats quickly decided on the non-linear abba rhyme scheme for part I, but the pentameter for part III was longer in arriving. Part II always had its ‘spiring’ staircase-shape in ungainly tercets. See The Winding Stair (1929): Manuscript Materials by W. B. Yeats, ed. David R. Clark (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1995), 61–99. Hereafter WS.

28 VP 480–81. Warwick Gould recalls that in Yeats’s tale Rosa Alchemica, Swift and his ilk were to be found ‘joking and railing’ on the staircase of the narrator’s house in Dublin. See Myth 179; Myth 2005 179 and n. 20.

29 VP 482. The pictorial quality of this statement may recall Blake’s engraving of a long ladder reaching from earth toward the moon, with the caption referring to the cry of the child at the foot of the ladder yearning for the moon: ‘I want! I want!’

30 It may not be too fanciful to think that Yeats is here reversing George Herbert’s famous window-looks in ‘The Elixir’, which Yeats had imitated in his look at and through the mosaic in ‘Sailing to Byzantium’:
A man may look on glass,
And on it stay his eye,
Or if he pleaseth, through it pass,
And then the heaven espy.
In ‘Blood and the Moon’, Yeats, dissatisfied with espying the heaven and its moon, chooses to ‘stay his eye’ on the surface; he replaces Herbert’s stained glass with the multicoloured butterflies. (In one of his more creative spellings in the drafts, Yeats refers to ‘tortashel’ butterflies, proving how much the sound, rather than the derivation, of words mattered to him.)

31 VP 482. Yeats was originally unwilling to give unequivocal glory to the lunar light. In the drafts, we read two antitheses: ‘Wisdom has no stain, | Whether a crescent or a waning moon, | Whether unclouded, or in clouds beset’ (WS, 95). If the moon is ‘waning’, or ‘beset’ by clouds, it might seem diminished in power, even in its own celestial realm. In ‘Blood and the Moon’, Yeats finally decides that there can be no commerce between ideal power and political power: the moon remains full and unstained, the tower is irremediably tainted by blood.

32 Individual poems are considered in Chapter I, and paired poems (such as the Byzantium and Oracle poems) in Chapter II of my Our Secret Discipline, pp. 1–26 and 27–61.


A. Kingsley Porter University Professor at Harvard University. Among her many books are Yeats’s Vision and the Later Plays (1963), Poets Thinking, Coming of Age as a Poet, The Art of Shakespeare’s Sonnets, and Our Secret Discipline: Yeats and Lyric Form (2007). Her latest book is The Ocean, the Bird and the Scholar: Essays on Poets and Poetry (2015). Email:


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