The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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.

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...

(The entire section is 774 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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.”