Critical Hospitality

It is not clear why Yeats called one of his major poems “Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen.” He didn’t write it or publish it in that year. He wrote it in the spring of 1921, published it first in The Dial in September 1921 under the title “Thoughts upon the Present State of the World,” included it in a Cuala Press chapbook, Seven Poems and a Fragment (1922), and published it again in one of his crucial books, The Tower (1928), where for some reason hard to fathom he added a date at the end of the poem, the numeral 1919. What was he up to?

True, he often misdated his poems out of forgetfulness or indifference, or for some secret reason. In 1919 he might well have had dreadful thoughts on the state of the world—thoughts arising from the Great War, the October Revolution, the chaos of Eastern Europe, and many other sources of fear and trembling. But in the poem itself, Yeats’s most powerful trembling occurs on news of violence in Ireland in November 1920 and later, especially in Lady Gregory’s Kiltartan.

Michael Wood has had the idea of taking “Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen” and letting it provoke him to concentrated reflections on violence. He might have chosen for that purpose “Meditations in Time of Civil War,” “Leda and the Swan,” “Blood and the Moon,” “Parnell’s Funeral,” or “The Ghost of Roger Casement,” among other poems. But his choice is a fine one. “Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen” has enough dire latitude of implication to keep any scholar-critic’s reflections going.

Indeed, I think Professor Wood might have kept his critical intelligence focused even more intently on that one poem. From time to time he drifts off to other poems and one play (Cathleen ni Houlihan, “The Magi,” and “The Second Coming”), but his engagement with these is somewhat offhand. He veers further into vagary in a chapter called “The Old Country,” which starts from a not-especially-significant poem by Paul Muldoon, swerves into Andrew Marvell’s “Horatian Ode,” then comes back to a poem by Yeats (“The Curse of Cromwell”) before turning to another poem by Muldoon, and then to poems by Tom Paulin and Eavan Boland. I can only assume he let his critical hospitality get the better of him. This chapter is hard reading because most of the quoted poems are botched in the printing. “Justice,” in Marvell’s poem, comes out as “injustice,” and “Are fit for highest trust” loses “fit.” In “The Curse of Cromwell” a line that begins “And there is an old beggar…” is printed as “There is a beggar.” In Muldoon’s poem “Tell,” “the stacks of straw” become “sacks of straw,” and “pass muster” becomes “must past muster.” On another page a footnote repeats, word for word, the sentence a few inches up from which it depends.

There is always a difficulty in writing about violence. Many years ago at UCLA I heard Jacques Derrida lecture on Walter Benjamin’s “Critique of Violence.” A keen student always ready to do my homework, I read the “Critique” twice in preparation for the lecture, but the effect of Benjamin-plus-Derrida was to drive my mind into a state of vertigo from which I am not sure I have recovered. Professor Wood has read not only Benjamin-plus-Derrida but most of the other modern treatises on violence—by Hannah Arendt, Giorgio Agamben, Slavoj Zizek, J. P. Stern, Charles Townshend, and others for all I know. Not surprising, then, that his effort to keep up with this bibliography seems to have choked his prose, by comparison with the precision and eloquence that constitute his norm when he is writing from his own resources.

Much the same holds for the chapter in which he reads “Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen” as if he were a formalist. He pretends to think that formalism is fine except that it has nothing to say. He smiles at Roman Jakobson’s efforts as if they amounted to nothing more than his demonstration that “Shakespeare’s ‘verbal art’ is extremely verbal and extremely artistic.” He quotes with deference Helen Vendler’s remark that “Yeats’s formal choices...are not made at random.” But then he adds:

If these battles still need to be fought, if Shakespeare’s art or Yeats’s formal choices still need to be defended, or even noticed, then I know which side I’m on and I’m happy to join the fight, and to think of this book as part of the fight.

Or even noticed? But Vendler wrote an entire book, Our Secret Discipline: Yeats and Lyric Form, to notice those choices and to show that they matter. Which side is Wood really on? He goes straight into the question of form and content, though he puts aside the equally hard one of image and concept. After some haggling, he throws down a shining gauntlet that I hope another critic will take up:

But the great temptation of formalism at its purest (and in some ways at its most splendid) is to make the redemptive act too final and too perfect, and a good deal of the art we care about doesn’t redeem disorder at all but narrowly and bravely loses the fight, a version of failure that makes success look small.

The argument here is with Cleanth Brooks, whose name isn’t mentioned. In such books as The Well-Wrought Urn, Brooks claimed it was vital to show how poems achieve complex forms of unity against the forces that make for disorder. But I don’t think Wood can win the argument just by going through the considerations that together, he thinks, add up to form. Whatever one deems form to entail, it is not merely the sum of diction, rhyme, alliteration, enjambment, the poetic line, meter, and scansion. The form of a poem—“Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen,” for instance—is the particular principle of action that gets the poem from first word to last. It is up to individual readers to decide whether that principle is best divined in rhetorical or some other terms. Formalism may be an error of judgment, but I don’t find that the case against it has been established. Literary criticism itself may be impossible, not just because different critics have different capacities but because it may be impossible to produce a comprehensive reading of a poem or a novel responsive at every point to the largest considerations in its vicinity and to the smallest significant detail. We do what we can.

What Wood is especially good at is starting from the detail and directing his mind out in concentric circles of observance. The force at work is his sense of life, always magnanimous. Occasionally, though, he tires of the critical labor and settles for an inert conclusion: “Once days are dragon-ridden, however we explain the arrival of the dragon, neither the past nor the future can be the same.”

“Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen” is a poem in six unequal, numbered parts. The relation among the parts is not narrative or otherwise sequential: it is a relation of shifting tones, according to which the authoritative poet leads us from one scene to another. We must obey the poet, we are in his charge. A formalist critic would try to show that the poem in six numbered parts comes to aesthetic unity in the end: otherwise it would fail. Such a critic agrees with Brooks that “form is meaning.” Wood is not in that sense a formalist. Nor is he much troubled by the argument that we should ignore a writer’s intentions: he agrees with Kenneth Burke that a reader should “use all there is to use.” In reading “Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen,” Wood uses whatever is at hand and seems most telling: local murder in Kiltartan, the history of modern Ireland, the lore of Yeats’s West, the “strange death of liberal England,” as George Dangerfield called it, some of Henry James’s letters on the outbreak of the World War I, and other documents that may be brought to exert interpretive pressure on Yeats’s poem. Wood brings all these considerations to bear, for weight and force, on his reading. His seriousness is that of an immensely intelligent, widely read, and anxious moralist.

It is also part of his generous spirit that, while having many bold things to say, he always lets his readers raise their hands to dissent:

The encounter of writer and reader and poem is itself, or can be, a model of sympathetic, many-angled work and play, and a liveable answer to the violence of pacifying rule and the violence of refusing to recognize any rule at all.

Yes, but...liveable answer: How is it an answer to either of those very different violences? If I were an insurgent in Afghanistan, I might not refuse to recognize any and every form of rule, but I might reject the particular form of it that is in place. If, like my uncle Séamus Ó Néill, I were a young man in Clonmel in 1916, I might feel bound to reject British rule in Ireland and to fight against it. As for liveable: well, yes, provided there is no more cogent answer available.

Wood is concerned with external violence, Yeats’s “violence upon the roads.” He has less to say about the other kind, the violence that took possession of Yeats’s mind in his last years and is felt on every page of On the Boiler. Yeats in those last years was capable of writing superb poems—“The Statues,” “Cuchulain Comforted”—when he gave his concentrated mind to them, but he found it easier to relax into peevishness and opinion. In those moods he raged against democratic levelling and longed to see again the “rule of kindred,” as in the Ascendancy Ireland of the eighteenth century:

Eugenical and psychical research are the revolutionary movements with that element of novelty and sensation which sooner or later stir men to action. It may be, or it must be, that the best bred from the best shall claim again their ancient omens.          

There is something of this rage in “Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen,” too, as Michael Wood has most perceptively shown.

Published in the 2010-11-05 issue: 

Denis Donoghue holds the Henry James Chair in English and American Letters at New York University. His most recent book is Irish Essays (2011).

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