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.)