Themes and Meanings
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 495
“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. Should any reader be tempted to overlook the specific and particular historical events that infuse this poem, Yeats keeps them in strong focus with his title. All Irish readers (presumably) would understand the context; all others would be expected to discover it.
“Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen” is a dense and tightly connected poem, but it also contains verses of great simplicity, such as “Violence upon the roads: violence of horses.” Herein is Yeats’s “natural world”—the world of real people and their real pain. Within the intricate structure of his many symbols and allusions, Yeats maintains the balance between direct and ornate language and keeps the poem from sliding into purely idiosyncratic or private images. It is no accident that the most spare and simple language is usually reserved for contemporary events, the ones with most urgency.
The verses more laden with symbols belong either to the world of the mind or the world of history (usually the ancient kingdoms of Greece, Rome, or Byzantium). These historical references often function as other manifestations of the creative domain. The “ingenious lovely things” of the first stanza are exemplified by “Phidias’ famous ivories” and an “ancient image made of olive wood.” When, in the second stanza, he speaks of “habits that made old wrong/ Melt down, as it were wax in the sun’s rays,” one hears echoes of the fall of Icarus, flying too close to the sun. In the bitter vision of this poem, all the golden ingenuity of humankind lies naked to the ravages of the weasel.