Politics, by W.B.Yeats

How can I, that girl standing there,
My attention fix
On Roman or on Russian
Or on Spanish politics,
Yet here's a travelled man that knows
What he talks about,
And there's a politician
That has both read and thought,
And maybe what they say is true
Of war and war's alarms,
But O that I were young again
And held her in my arms.
W. B. Yeats, "Politics" from Last Poems (1938-1939). Copyright © 1939 by W. B. Yeats.
Source: The Collected Works of W.B. Yeats, Volume 1 (Macmillan, 1990)1

In our time the destiny of man presents itself in political terms.

Thomas Mann

Today is the third day of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. I am travelling home after having visited my mother and my sister. This morning, the front page of my mother’s right-wing newspaper was covered with pictures of terror and pain and the business section noted that BAE systems are the best performing stock in a turbulent market. Even my mother, in her increasing dementia, raised the topic of the Russians’ massacre of the innocents when I got to her flat for breakfast.

My sister was less interested, or less obviously so. We are careful about our discussion of politics, although it animates us both, and we are sympathetic to one another’s outlooks. She is preparing for another Extinction Rebellion action, and for the appeal against her conviction for protesting against the Murdoch empire’s half-century of climate crisis denial. On Thursday night she spoke at a meeting. I spent the evening at my mother’s flat, then met Charlotte – my sister – at a pub afterwards. She was with people from her meeting; good, impassioned activists who are committed to pushing for real change in the way the world is run, in the hope of mitigating the damage done to the world by human activity.

I felt ashamed in their company. I am torn by a guilty desire to affect indifference, to the war and to the climate disaster. I had my season of political hope2 and it made me very unhappy,3 and the awareness of my impotence in public matters, and the apparently illusory nature of the virtues of democratic involvement, seem to press on me whenever I break my embargo on news. I leave my phone in another room when I sleep; I try to discipline myself to avoid the news, and I seek calm and serenity.

And yet my sister’s comrades seemed to me to be – not happier than I am – but more aware of themselves and warmed by their mutual endeavour. I’ve no idea whether there is a Christian among them, but they seem to have the clear-sighted tenacity of hope that I have always envied in true believers. I didn’t get to know them closely, but they included me in their round of goodbye hugs and I felt they were giving me access to the secret of their power, as they drew their comfort from each other and, generously, shared it with me.

I found the Yeats poem while reading an LRB article4 by Seamus Perry, on Colm Tóibín’s new novel,((http://colmtoibin.com/content/magician)) about the life of Thomas Mann. I intended to read the entire issue of the magazine, taking advantage of my train journey home, but this article has brought me up short. It seems to address perfectly the disillusionment I feel towards taking responsibility for anything outside my personal orbit. I was surprised to read that Yeats was a reluctant revolutionary. He wrote, after all, perhaps the greatest poem of struggle of the twentieth century,5 a poem that might today be applied to the awful glory of Ukrainian heroism in the face of the Russian spasm of fascist imperialism: in this horror, another “terrible beauty” is born. And yet, at least at the end of his life, in Politics, the last poem of the last collection he published, he expressed a weary indifference to worldly engagement.

I ‘did’ An Irish Airman…6 at school and I learnt the first stanza of Second Coming7 when I was a taxi driver, about twenty years ago, and I have, at times, taken a non-poetry-enthusiast’s limited interest in Yeats, as both an historical figure and an artist. I respected his reputation as one of the best of the modernist writers, but he was shaded from my enthusiasm by the fact that I despised them as a group because my teachers were all so uncritically adoring of modernism. Yeats got lumped in with (well, actually, overshadowed by) Lawrence, who was drilled into us as a paragon when he seemed to me to be a hack. It is only now that I realise that most of my English teachers just weren’t that good: they may have been devoted pedagogues, but their tastes were shaped by their polytechnic educations and their 1960s and ‘70s, lefty-ish, play-for-today political outlooks. Lawrence, with his leaden, explicit prose and his interest in sex and class, was easy to teach; Yeats, an infinitely more subtle and wide-ranging writer, was a more difficult study, even if his is the more beautiful work, by a country mile.

“Yeats sometimes feared that his work would be distorted by the restrictions of Irish culture.”8 He was, throughout his life, inescapably a political and public person, serving, to his apparent regret,9 six years as an Irish senator. It seems that, as he could not escape Irish culture, neither could he escape politics, living, as he did, in the long, bitter decline of British colonialism, whose death watch has lingered for over a century now.

It must be a terrible thing to be forced to upend your life in resistance to an inescapable event. How bitter the longing for the life abandoned must be. To my modern ear, the poem seems to drift close to depicting lechery as a virtuous alternative to engagement, but my response is, no doubt, an artefact of the time, and misses some of the poem’s cultural echoes: according to the notes in my copy of the Collected Poems of Yeats10, its phrases reflect the anonymous sixteenth Century English song, Westron Wind.

Westron wynde when wyll thow blow
    the smalle rayne downe can Rayne
    Cryst yf my love were in my Armys
    And I yn my bed Agayne.11

Perry has this to say about how Yeats gives privately cherished passion a greater truth than worldly knowledge and engagement:

You could imagine a much more straightforward poem that pitted public discourse against, say, the intimate conversation of lovers, but Yeats does something much odder than that: he sets public language against the private and wordless intensity of an absorbed gaze. And here, too, Yeats was entirely in tune with Mann, who was similarly fascinated by the way that catching sight of someone you don’t know can make you forget yourself – or, rather, suddenly discover yourself to be something other than you had thought.

(( Perry (2022) ))

For Mann, apparently, aesthetics (that ‘forgetfulness’), at least partially, manifested in a life of secret and vividly focussed crushes on unsuspecting men and boys. The most famous expression of this in his art is the ecstatic fixation of Aschenbach the writer upon the boy Tadzio in Death In Venice.12 It’s decades since I read it, but I remember feeling slightly alienated by the conflict between the internal values of the story – an ambiguous mix of social self-criticism and moral reverie – and the actual sleaziness of the character, consumed, after all the angst about aesthetic ideals, by a lust which is the deepest crime of modern culture.

Like Yeats, Mann was dragged into political activity by his times: first by the German collapse into Nazism, and then by McCarthyism in the States.((Meyers, J. (2012) ‘Thomas Mann In America’ Michigan Quarterly Review, Volume 51, Issue 4, Available at: https://quod.lib.umich.edu/cgi/t/text/text-idx?cc=mqr;c=mqr;c=mqrarchive;idno=act2080.0051.419;g=mqrg;rgn=main;view=text;xc=1 Accessed 6th March 2022)) Even earlier, his Nobel acceptance speech of 192913 addressed the balance between art and the political atmosphere in which it is practised. He is, however, considered an ‘apolitical’ writer.14 After he had grasped the full stupidity and dishonesty of the McCarthy putsch…

Mann vowed not to make any more political statements, which could be dangerously distorted, and wryly remarked, “the world needs peace—but I need it too.”


Unsure how to respond to the experience of reading a poem that I feel might have been written for me in my current situation, I turned away from this post and read some news articles on my phone. The Russian attack was utterly mesmerising to watch, a dreadful deluge of iron and diesel spills, unleashed by the shrill screech of Putin’s deranged sanctimony. By the time I reached home, it had become clear that something that should be impossible was happening: the Ukrainians were standing up to their invaders and the Russians appeared to be stumbling. The Ukrainians’ courage was inhuman: it must have felt like watching a tidal wave coming at you, but as a million of them fled to the borders, hundreds of thousands of them rushed to take up arms.

By the next evening, there were interviews on the BBC’s Ukrainecast podcast with British-resident Ukrainians who were equipping themselves to return home to enlist. In answer to the predictable question, they all said they had no choice.

No choice. Like Mann, more suited to a life of bourgeois deception than to confronting evil, and like Yeats, who felt himself fettered into a conflict that reached back as far as the Norman invasion of his country and of which he was weary before he even began to publish. But unlike me. I, for now at least, seem to have a choice and I have chosen to be inactive.

Charlotte told me, when she first threw herself into Extinction Rebellion, that she didn’t expect to change anything. She just wanted to be on the right side of history. I understood that, but I still believed in the virtue of political hope and was, at the time, deeply involved in the Labour party. I felt that party politics offered the best opportunity to make a change, but that all fell apart with the 2019 election. At the time I wrote:

So, I’m looking at my position…the idea of becoming a social activist, working on practical projects, rather than just being a political campaigner, appeals to me. Food banks, advice and support networks, and care volunteers are all able to affect lives in a way that…is more useful than arguing over dogma and political tactics…I am ambivalent about Extinction Rebellion, but I think it’s all we’ve got left. We are into a period of resistance, not participation.


Instead, I crumbled when it became apparent that Starmer had lied to gain the leadership and was just another capitalist lackey, pushing the anti-Semitism lie to squeeze out any supporters of real social justice, in favour of returning the party to right-wing conformity.((https://www.jewishvoiceforlabour.org.uk/article/whet-does-starmer-stand-for/)) Rather than take my energy elsewhere, I retreated.

I have been surprised by how deeply I have fallen into nihilism, and how unable I am to rekindle hope. I have always believed that optimism is my natural state, and that pessimism is a pointless self-scourging: why anticipate sorrow? For the past two years, though, I have felt that our last hope of stopping the end of the democratic era has died, and that the drift towards authoritarian tribalism is unstoppable.

And yet, my ideals have not changed. I still believe that economic equality is a necessary first-condition of a just society. I still believe that the maltreatment of animals is at the core of the rapacious relationship of capitalism to the planet. What I have not done is find, “the private and wordless intensity of an absorbed gaze” that Perry describes as the state in which one might, “suddenly discover yourself to be something other than you had thought”. My fugues have been fruitless. I am as adrift as I was two and a half years ago, when my political hopes died. My courage – my optimism – has been overwhelmed by the sense that the world really is spiralling towards destruction.

Is it just a question of courage? Raymond Williams said that, “To be truly radical is to make hope possible, rather than despair convincing,” but I never wanted to be radical. I don’t see my politics as radical: the belief that one life is no less valuable than the next should not be a radical assertion. It is the basis of decency, and its denial is obscene. I think, fundamentally, I’m not suited to political engagement: I’m too self-conscious and too naked; too heart-on-sleeve.

That’s an excuse, though, of course. Yeats didn’t want to be drawn into politics:

…But the strife engendered when an intensely inward mind finds itself cast into remorselessly political times was perhaps more of an epochal predicament than it sounds. The great works of Yeats…are all about a lonely romanticism finding itself forced to enter the public world of ‘what’s difficult’, and finding that one way of attempting the task was to become a man of masks.


What to do? What to do?

  1. I sought permission from Simon and Schuster to post this poem back in March. I heard nothing, and I did nag, so I’m going tp do it anyway. I own the book, and this post only makes sense if you’ve read the poem, so let’s see what happens. I expect I am beneath their notice, but if they do notice me, it will be exciting. []
  2. The Election: A Post-Non-Mortem []
  3. Defeat []
  4. Perry, S, (2022) ‘Closet Virtuoso’, London Review of Books, Vol. 44 No. 4, https://www.lrb.co.uk/the-paper/v44/n04/seamus-perry/closet-virtuoso []
  5. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/43289/easter-1916 []
  6. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/57311/an-irish-airman-foresees-his-death []
  7. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/43290/the-second-coming []
  8. Albright, D. (1994) ‘Introduction’ in The Poems, Yeats, W.B., London, J M Dent (Orion Publishing Group) []
  9. Ibid []
  10. Yeats, W.B., The Poems, Ed. Albright, Daniel, 1994, J M Dent (Orion Publishing Group) []
  11. https://www.jstor.org/stable/2872415 , retrieved 5th March 2022 []
  12. My review of Death In Venice []
  13. https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/literature/1929/mann/speech/ []
  14. https://www.upi.com/Entertainment_News/2005/08/12/Marking-writer-Thomas-Manns-life/79951123853113/?u3L=1 []


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