The Poem

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 774

William Butler Yeats’s “Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen,” from the 1928 collection The Tower, is not the most accessible of his poems, but it encompasses many of the themes, motifs, and techniques of his mature poetry. It is probably best understood and best enjoyed in the greater context of his work. Written in six parts of unequal length, the poem uses, as its focal point, the bloody retribution of British soldiers against the Irish citizenry during the time of the Sinn Féin rebellion (1919-1921). Although rooted in the Irish Home Rule struggle, it is more than a political poem, examining the fluctuating relationship between time and understanding, reality and illusion, and nature and artifice. What seems clear at one point in time can easily be thrown into flux by the events of a later time, perpetuating an ascending series—a metaphysical “tower”—of transformation and reappraisal. Woven together with the poet’s private pantheon of symbols are allusions to contemporary, historical, and classical events, challenging the reader to follow the byways of Yeats’s visionary landscape.

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The first section introduces all the threads that will appear, in ways reminiscent of a fugue, throughout the poem. In the first two stanzas, Yeats takes pains to emphasize the difference between appearance and reality. “Things” that seemed miraculous and “protected” have vanished; laws and opinions—presumably immutable—have changed; most tragically, the assumption that the “worst rogues and rascals had died out” has been proven wrong.

Readers familiar with Yeats’s frequently anthologized poem “Sailing to Byzantium” (1928) will recognize the same world of artifice in the “famous ivories” and “golden grasshoppers” of the first stanza. By stanza 4, however, Yeats plunges back into the writhing physical world of Ireland in 1919: “Now days are dragon-ridden.” Here is the kernel of the poem, the events that inspire this reflection. Here, as well, are the poem’s most vivid and most horrific images: the slain mother in her blood juxtaposed against the murdering, drunken soldiers who escape. The visual impact of these verses is all the greater given the contrast with the philosophical musings that have preceded them.

By the sixth stanza, the last in the first section, Yeats poses the question that is preeminent in his work: “Man is in love and loves what vanishes,/ What more is there to say?” Love and loss are the twins who inhabit every cranny of Yeats’s poetic territory. His strongest work, poems such as “Crazy Jane Talks with the Bishop” (1933) and “The Circus Animals’ Desertion” (1939), affirm the necessity and, indeed, the inevitability of love, even in the face of change and disintegration. In this context, it is significant that it is a mother, not simply a woman, who is killed, since motherhood is emblematic of both love and renewal.

The second section amplifies the theme of the recurrence of change, while at the same time emphasizing its ultimate superficiality. The poem mentions Loie Fuller, a dancer who was a contemporary of Yates and who specialized in dramatic spectacle and illusion; the grisly image of the dragon in the first section has been transformed—and tamed—into an artificial “dragon of air” in the hands of a dance troupe. In a reversal of the anticipated, the Platonic Year brings in nothing new but rather what is old. Nothing has been learned from history, no real or lasting achievements have been made. Over the course of time, humankind still participates in the same “dance,” but, ominously, the gong that sounds the music is “barbarous.”

In the third section, Yeats concentrates on classical allusions, returning to the philosophizing of the early part of the poem. The dominant image is that of the swan, or the soul, as conceived by some earlier voice. Yeats is deliberately vague about whom this might be, a “moralist or mythological poet.” History has tricked him out of any personal fame. This swan later comes to life, as it were, leaping into “the desolate heaven.” The theme continues to be one of loss.

In the fourth and shortest section, the swan has disappeared, and Yeats takes up an earlier image, that of the weasel. The cynical fifth section invites the reader to “mock at” the great, the good, and the wise for their inefficacies, and finally to mock the mockers. Both poet and reader are implicated in all those who “Traffic in mockery.”

In the final section, Yeats unleashes a whirlwind of visual scenes, hurling pell-mell on one another, a veritable “tumult of images.” Confusion reigns; “all are blind,” the poet affirms. In this maelstrom of bleakness, the final image is of misguided love bestowed on an object unworthy and “stupid.”

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 210

For effect, “Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen” relies heavily on allusion: classical (Platonism, the Athenian sculptor Phidias), biblical (Herodias), historical (the fourteenth century Robert Artisson), and contemporary (Loie Fuller). It is not as important to identify each and every reference, however, as it is to understand that the poet’s disillusionment over any real human progress dates from earliest history and permeates subsequent ages of time. The range of allusions serves to emphasize the essential sameness of history and to connect the present with the past.

These connections are reinforced by the language and the structure of the poem. Each section has its own regular rhyme scheme, but Yeats intensifies the internal pattern by frequent repetitions. Commonly, he will use a word several times in quick succession: “thought” three times in two lines in the second stanza, “dancers” three times in the second section. The fifth section turns on the word “mock” and its cognates. In addition, sections are joined by such repetitions: The short fourth section appears to exist solely to reintroduce the weasel image from the first. In the last section, none of the symbols are as important as the sheer accumulation of the language of despair: “violence” (twice in one line), “evil,” “crazy,” “angry,” “blind,” “stupid,” “insolent,” “fiend.”

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Themes