Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen” is a poem that explores the contradictions of the human condition. In a world filled with change, where the things most precious are irretrievably lost, what remains constant is a propensity toward violence and the inevitable loss that follows in its wake. The loss is twofold, at least: the loss of confidence in one’s understanding—whereby the accomplishments of humans (art, philosophy, laws) are reduced to “pretty toys”—and the actual loss of those “toys.” Time alters everything, not the least of which is perception. Additionally, the weight of the poem suggests these illusions are also delusions and diminishments, the “great army” unveiled as a “showy thing,” the towering statue by Phidias eroded to “that stump on the Acropolis.” The best that humankind can do is seen as paltry if it cannot rid the world of the “worst rogues” who slay mothers.

For all the universality of Yeats’s poetry, he remains very much an Irish bard, and it would be a mistake to overlook the Irish heart of this poem. Like “Easter 1916” (1916) and “The Second Coming” (1920), “Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen” is political, and it is a memorial to the troubles of Ireland immediately following World War I. Irish patriots, many of whom were connected intimately with Yeats, had hoped that, with England’s attention focused on Europe, the time would be propitious for freeing their country from the English yoke....

(The entire section is 495 words.)