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Modern poetry generally sucks. Let’s be honest about it. It’s not alone, either, to be fair. Modern civilisation cut off from the transcendent is not capable of works of the divine or greatness. The music, the art, the culture, the architecture, and the writing (keep in mind that the two most successful authors of the last decade were borderline illiterates – Ms. Grey and Mr. Brown) all share and embody this tragic loss of the divine. Alas, we were born in a technological age, but not a great one — at least when it comes to the imagination or knowledge of the divine.
So permit me to re-introduce perhaps the greatest poet of the 20th century: W.B. Yeats. Yeats in many ways was both embodied and contradicted the stereotypical image of Ireland. He was born in 1865 into the very elite of the Anglo-Irish aristocracy, and a member of the church of Ireland. But he found himself standing with all the groups this very order rejected, in part out of disdain, in part due to bare necessity: the Irish language movements, the Irish history regeneration movements, and most importantly, the Irish Republican Brotherhood (the forerunner of the Irish Republican Army), which was dedicated to expulsion of British rule in Ireland.
He supported violence when he was younger, yet later seemed to reject it when he saw the consequences of the Easter Rising – the greatest (in significance) event in Irish 20th-century history. He was intensely spiritual, but rejected organised religion, although he never formally left his Protestant heritage. He sought the rejection of British rule, but seethed with anger at Ireland when he realised such independence would mean little but church domination. He loved Ireland’s natural beauty and history, but often seemed ill at ease with its very people.
But no matter his divisiveness, he was in life and after his death always seen as a genius by all Irishmen – Catholic, Protestant, and Dissenter. The images, words, the language, the history, the alliteration, and the emotion moves all but the hard of hearts. Every year in Ireland, Yeats is standard reading for all students. So his influence is still felt, even in this uncivilized age.
Two poems stick out for me as a history teacher: Easter 1916 and The Second Coming. Easter 1916 evokes the violence of the 1916 uprising by the IRB, the deaths of its leaders, and the poet’s fear that his own poetry — which glorified those who die for country — had led many Irishmen to their deaths. He also realised in the repeated last lines, “A terrible beauty is born,” that the events in Dublin in 1916 marked a turning point in Irish history: the re-emergence of a new Ireland, but with Irish militarism and its violence reborn, too.
The Second Coming and its imagery depict the birth of the forces that stand against Christendom. It stands outside the time it was written. (Yeats was writing about the fear of communism in post-revolution Russia). Its images, its words, its emotions, and its use of biblical Apocalyptic imagery haunt me, particularly this line: The best lack all conviction, the worst are full of passionate intensity.
Look around today and tell me that that phrase isn’t true. We all know it is. That’s what so sad. That’s whats so frightening.
P.S. Is Peter Robinson a relation of Yeats?