Violence and Art #
Yeats had some deeply held opinions on the role of the Artist in history. Violence was very much a part of the rise and fall of most civilisations. Researchers today recognise that we live in much more civilised times, though the scale and intensity of violence may merely have become more remote. Yeats accepts violence as part of change. He saw war as a necessary purification of nations.
WWImarked a seismic shift in how we viewed heroic death. The classical depiction is tragic, but celebratory; willingly and joyfully sacrificing yourself for a greater cause.
Confronted, suddenly and starkly with the senseless and meaningless slaughter of thousands who died “like cattle”, in the face of industrialised war, a new immersive picture emerged of the brutal ugly non-heroic nature of young men needlessly giving up their lives because the Generals had little idea of the real conditions and consequences of their war strategies.
Yeats, cocooned in his classical mindset, rejected the WWI war poets because he:
“felt they had made their suffering their own. Passive suffering is not a theme for poetry. In all the great tragedies, tragedy is a joy to the man who dies. In Greece the tragic chorus danced. If war is necessary it is best to forget the suffering, as we do the discomfort of fever, remembering our comfort at midnight when our fever fell.”
On the contrary, according to Warwick McFadyen, the war poets proved Yeats comprehensively wrong, by demonstrating that their was art in death and suffering. The soldiers found in the desolation of France and spirits in the war hospital wards, a voice transcendent.
Soldiers who have come back from duty, soldiers who saw their mates killed and had other horrific experiences commonly suffer shock, generally develop symptoms of traumatic illness.
According to Mike Carlton, soldiers do not die with a patriotic slogan on their lips, rather a man’s last words were most often a cry for the mother who bore him. No glory there either. Only unbearable sorrow.
Religion releases fierce passions that often turn to violence against others. See side bar menu for: Religion and violence
For Yeats there was a subtle relation between the historical process and the creative arts. Great art, for him, was a tribute to the spirit of a great age. All great art originates in the tragedy of history. Thus the art produced in the antiquity of Greece and Rome, Byzantium, and in Renaissance Italy was great because it emanated from a period when tension was high and when the history of man was in the making.
Harry Lime’s quotation from The Third Man illustrates the paradox:
“In Italy, for thirty years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder, bloodshed. They produced Michaelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love, five hundred years of democracy and peace, and what did they produce? The cuckoo clock.”
Thomas Mann wrote in “Reflections” that war is healthy and enlightenment suspect. “Art, has a fundamentally undependable, treacherous tendency; its delight in scandalous anti-reason, its inclination toward beauty-creating ‘barbarism,’ is ineradicable.”
Yeatsian thinking #
Even though men and civilizations perish, life, especially as shown through art conquers time and will survive into the future. This concept is best illustrated in “Lapis Lazuli”. Though women become hysterical because of the threat of war the artist remains aloof to the passing circumstance in the confidence that the tragedy of history will continue. The artist does not “break up his lines to weep.”, rather his works are “Gaiety transfiguring all that dread”. While Yeats is willing to admit that the world situation in 1938 dooms the western civilisation to annihilation, he points to the civilisation in the orient (China) where he expects the fuller development of a class controlled, civilization.
For the artist, violence and tragedy are not symbols of disaster. It merely illustrates human suffering. Though the artist is torn between two extremes of hope and despair he never yields to resentment or fear. Violence is really grace, the precursor of a new age. Violence is often necessary to accelerate the historical process. Looking forward to Munich and the Second World War in the desperate hope that a war declared on society by heroic men might accelerate the historical process, he prays for a world wide revolution: “Send war in our time, 0 Lord!” But soon he realizes that mankind cannot freely manipulate the laws of history and he returns to write about the constant pain of human life.
Violence was instrumental in the origin of the great classical and aristocratic era of Greece. According to myth, and developed in “Leda and the Swan” The Greek age was ushered in by the rape of Leda by Zeus, disguised in the form of a swan, through which she bore Clytemnestra (who killed Agamemnon) and Helen (the cause of the Trojan War). “Leda and the Swan” is permeated with a mood of violence arid yet it tells of the most classical story of history.
Christianity is responsible for much of the violence in the world. In “Songs from a Play” Yeats contrasts the reaction to the violent death of Dionysus to that of Christ’s death.
I saw a staring virgin stand
Where holy Dionysus died,
And tear the heart out of his side,
And lay the heart ,upon her hand
And bear that beating heart away;
And then did all the Muses sing
Of Magnus Annus at the spring,
As though God’s death were but a play.
The fact that over 200 babies were killed in Bethlehem; an attempt to eliminate the baby Jesus, and the brutality of his eventual crucifixion gave rise to a violent age.
The Greeks celebrated the death of their god with a Drama Festival each year at Athens. Some of the greatest art of the classical world originated from these festivals. In contrast Christ’s death brought anguish and breakdown.
The Roman Empire stood appalled:
It dropped the reins of peace and war
When that fierce virgin and her star
Out of the fabulous darkness called.
The Babylonian starlight brought
A fabulous, formless darkness in;
Odour of blood when Christ was slain
Made all Platonic tolerance vain
And vain all Doric discipline.
It is difficult for men, when surrounded by violence to rejoice in life. However in “Blood and Moon” he recalls that centuries ago a murder was committed on the winding stair at Thor Ballylee (a castle in Ireland). But time has washed away the stains of blood; and he hopefully adds that the gyres of history must wash away, also, the violence of our twentieth century.
In “A Prayer for my Daughter” he longs for a stable aristocratic society. “How but in custom and in ceremony/ Are innocence and beauty born?” This seems to be a plea that his daughter might grow up sheltered from the pain of human suffering.
The role of the artist in politics, according to Yeats, is to remain aloof and detached from the immediate scene of discord. When he confronts a specific issue of politics in his poetry he retreats to his tower and contemplates a beautiful work of art. In his poem entitled “Politics” he decides to leave the cares of state to politicians while he contemplates the beautiful form of a girl who has attracted his attention.
Despite his refusal to become involved in specific issues and petty politics, Yeats’ political views are evident throughout his poetry. He is extremely conservative in his views. Though he sympathizes with, and has many friends in the Easter Rising of 1916 in Dublin he does not join them. When they succeed in disrupting British rule he calls them “Philistines” and rages against their anarchic collectiveness.
His ideal state was one in which the aristocracy was in complete control. Even though he is not an aristocrat he feels that only here can “innocence and beauty be born”.
Everything he despised in the contemporary world of Ireland and Europe he blames on political democracy.
Though we may reject most of Yeats criticism of Twentieth Century Ireland, which can be read on a more universal level of the whole world, his poetry reveals the tremendous tragedy and dread of the period from l9l4. to 1938.
Though we may reject his view of history and interpretation of the modern times, and his apocalyptic “vision”, yet it is the grandeur of his art that stands out and why he is for many, the best poet of the Twentieth Century.