One poet I find myself revisiting more and more during the current troubled times is one of my favorites, W.B. Yeats. My colleague and fishing buddy in my first years at North Dakota State College of Science was Morgan Kjer. It was he who used to marvel about how uncannily prophetic Yeats’ “The Second Coming” is. That’s the one so often quoted in its last lines: “And what rough beast/Its hour come round at last/slouches toward Bethlehem to be born?” That line likely inspired Judge Bork’s book, “Slouching Toward Gomorrah.”
But the lines of that poem that seem most descriptive of today’s world are these: “Things fall apart/The center cannot hold/Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world/The blood dimmed tide is loosed/And everywhere the ceremony of innocence is drowned/The best lack all conviction/While the worst are full of passionate intensity.”
One can hardly turn on a newscast anymore without being inundated with horrific, even gruesome killings. And anarchic vandalism is all too widespread. Our leadership seems totally confounded, and, as Hamlet so perfectly put it, “The time is out of joint/Oh cursed spite; that ever I was born to set it right.”
Against this chaotic background, the “ceremony of innocence” still goes on. Children are still being born, as parents frantically seek for some way those children can be protected and given a safe and happy childhood. That brings me back to Yeats again and his challenging poem, “A Prayer for My Daughter.”
Yeats looks at all the omens of trouble on every hand, and frames a prayer for his baby daughter, a child just born into an Ireland easily as divided and chaotic as America seems to be now. The future he longs for her to have is a rustic, simple life – full of tradition and free from strife: “And may her lover bring her to a house/Where all’s accustomed, ceremonious/For ignorance and hatred are the ares/Peddled in the thoroughfares./Nor but in merriment begin a chase/Nor but in merriment a quarrel/Oh may she live like some green laurel/Rooted in one dear perpetual place.” There she would enjoy the bounty of “the rich horn,” i.e. the horn of plenty. You see, Yeats was madly in love with a social reformer named Maude Gonne, a women who was always “gone” somewhere leading protests: “Have I not seen the loveliest woman born/Out of the mouth of Plenty’s horn/ Because of her opinionated mind,” Barter that Horn and every good/By quiet nature’s understood/For an old bellows full of angry wind?”
He wants his daughter to be beautiful, but not with “beauty that would make a stranger’s eye distraught/Nor hers before a looking glass/For such, being beautiful overmuch/Consider beauty a sufficient end/Lose natural kindness, and maybe/That heart-revealing intimacy/That chooses right/And never find a friend.”
In other words, he wants his daughter to have an inner “glad-kindness” that a wise future husband, too wise to be lured by beauty alone, would find irresistible.
In another poem, “Why Should Not Old Men Be Mad,” Yeats lists a few of the reasons: “Some have known a likely lad/Who had a sound fly-fisher’s wrist/ Turn to a drunken journalist/ A girl who knew old Dante once/Live to bear children too a dunce/A Helen of social welfare dram/Climb on a wagonette to scream./Some think it a matter of chance/That time should starve good men/ And bad advance … But if their elders figured plain/As if upon a lighted screen/No single instance would they find/Of an unbroken, happy mind/A finish worthy of the start/young men know nothing of this sort/Observant old men know it well/And when they read what old books tell/And that no better can be had/Know why an old man should be mad.”
This old man would likely have a lively debate with Willy Yeats over some of the pessimism voiced above, for I still believe in hope. Without that, few would ever start out at all. They would just stay home playing computer games or getting stoned. That would be a terrible waste of talent. Again, I say, there is hope that “springs eternal in the human breast.”
Why? Dylan Thomas, in one of his more sober moments, touched on it briefly: “There was a Savior, rarer than radium.” I’ll stand on that inspiration and change Dylan’s “was” to “is.” Jesus is still “Up there, somewhere.” I learned that in Sunday school, and that’s what I choose to believe.