Yeats and Violence
Oxford University Press, $35, 156 pp.
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...