‘Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen’ by W.B. Yeats is one of the best political poems that first appeared in the journals in 1921, both in Ireland and England. Later, it was published in his collection The Tower in 1928 along with “Sailing to Byzantium,” “The Tower,” “Meditations in Time of Civil War” and other poems. The poem paints the picture of the Irish Civil War which took place during the twentieth century with painfully mixed feelings about the war. Yeats has chosen the title aptly to substantiate his view, for it is the year in which the Anglo-Irish War began.
Explore Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen
The poem, ‘Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen’ is about the subject of the temporariness of the world, war, violence, and politics depicted in the tone of idealism, frustration, pessimism, and lamentation. It speaks of how the most intelligent and beautiful things have gone from this world while war and violence are still constant in this world. Further, Yeats openly mocks at the great people, the wise, the good, and the mockers as well, who can never prevent negative things from happening in the world. Further, it gives a comprehensive image of violence that prevails in the world.
Form and Structure
The first section has six stanzas written in the “Ottava Rima” form with eight 11-syllable lines, with an ABABCDEE rhyming pattern in contrast to the other section that doesn’t follow any rhyme pattern. The second section consists of a single stanza of ten lines while the third one has three ten-line stanzas. While the fourth is the shortest section with a stanza of four lines, the sixth part is the longest with a stanza of eighteen lines. In the Fifth section, he uses four five-line stanzas. The concluding section consists of a single stanza of twenty lines. While these stanzas deal with the loss of antiquity with significant formality and stateliness, the lack of transitions between the sections contrasts each other to make them stand apart.
Yeats’ ‘Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen’ depicts the violence of his time and violence in general. The poem comments on the horrors of the war and the degradation of human nature, particularly during the bloody retribution of British soldiers against the Irish citizenry during the time of the Sinn Féin rebellion (1919-1921). Yeats talks about the universal subject matter from the perspective of a modern man as he deliberates his dreams about humanity
Literary/Poetic Devices Used
W.B. Yeats in his ‘Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen’ uses impressive poetic devices to give an architectonic quality in accordance with the theme of the poem. Some of the notable devices used include Rhetorical Questions, Symbols, Imagery, Allusion, Repetition, etc.
- Allusion. In ‘Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen’ Yeats rides on allusion. He brings in allusions from different periods of life including classical (Platonism, the Athenian sculptor Phidias), biblical (Herodias), historical (the fourteenth century Robert Artison), and contemporary (Loie Fuller). He has efficiently used these allusions to emphasize the unchanging nature of history and to compare the present with the past.
- Rhetorical Questions. Yeats uses rhetorical questions in the lines “Into a ploughshare?” “Is there any comfort to be found?” “What more is there to say?” and “Wind shrieked – and where are they?” as he tries to connects the past and the present in comparing the recurring nature of history.
- Repetition. Repetition is a poetic device where the poet repeatedly uses a word, phrase, or sentence so as to give emphasis on what he intends to convey. In section five, he repeats the phrase “Come let us mock” while he invites his readers to join him in mocking the great, wise, and good men from history.
- Symbols. Yeats’s notable use of symbol appears in the first stanza where he laments that that ‘lovely things’ which had endured ages are all gone such as an “ancient image made of olive wood”. In ancient Greece, the olive branch was used as a symbol of peace, Yeats has used it significantly to draw a line between history and the war raging between the Irish and British in 1919. Another symbol is used in the second section where like the dancers controlled by the dragon, men are controlled by the power that they have initially created.
- Imagery. Images are the visually descriptive phrases or a passage where the poet attributes to the senses through his writing. In ‘Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen’ Yeats treats his readers with the images such as “dragon-ridden” “drunken soldiery” “a floating ribbon of cloth” “the swan has leaped into the wilderness” as he describes the unfolding scene in front of him. Nevertheless, the final section has more images of true horror and pain inflicted during the time of war.
Lines 1 – 8
Many ingenious lovely things are gone
That seemed sheer miracle to the multitude,
protected from the circle of the moon
That pitches common things about. There stood
Amid the ornamental bronze and stone
An ancient image made of olive wood —
And gone are Phidias’ famous ivories
And all the golden grasshoppers and bees.
Yeats begins with his disappointment over “Many ingenious lovely things are gone” as a result of the war. He speaks of the disappearance of many things of art like the ancient figures made out of imperishable olive wood, and the famous sculpture pieces of Phidias of 500-432 B.C. The poet talks about the well-made lovely things which were protected and were nothing than a miracle as far as the common masses were concerned. There was an ancient image made from an olive tree and it stood against the ornamental bronze stone statues. But those objects are gone. Moreover, the famous ivories of Phidias and the golden grasshoppers are gone too.
Lines 9 – 16
We too had many pretty toys when young:
A law indifferent to blame or praise,
To bribe or threat; habits that made old wrong
Melt down, as it were wax in the sun’s rays;
Public opinion ripening for so long
We thought it would outlive all future days.
O what fine thought we had because we thought
That the worst rogues and rascals had died out.
In these lines between 9 and 16, the poet makes a comparison between the past and present using the toys of his young age. He claims that no one can change the ownership of such toys using blame, praise, threats or bribing. But as a grown-up, even though they had laws that they think as inviolate and lasting to protect what is theirs, they seem to be just a delusion. The common people used to think that they live in an ideal age where the worst rogues and rascals have all been wiped out. While in reality, it’s their belief than reality, for they are no better than the toys that do not last.
Lines 17 – 24
All teeth were drawn, all ancient tricks unlearned,
And a great army but a showy thing;
What matter that no cannon had been turned
Into a ploughshare? Parliament and king
Thought that unless a little powder burned
The trumpeters might burst with trumpeting
And yet it lack all glory; and perchance
The guardsmen’s drowsy chargers would not prance.
In these lines, the poet speaks about how our civilization is getting dark and dusky. Even though it is believed that the ancient tricks are unlearned and the army is just a thing for showing off. War weapons are not turned into plough materials, because bloodshed is not something of the past, even a small thing could cause harm and war. Even now, the Parliament and the King believe that some gunpowder could be used. Here the poet also believes that if this has to go on this way, there is also a chance for the guardsmen’s horses to stop dancing and swinging on their hind legs.
Lines 25 – 32
Now days are dragon-ridden, the nightmare
Rides upon sleep: a drunken soldiery
Can leave the mother, murdered at her door,
To crawl in her own blood, and go scot-free;
The night can sweat with terror as before
We pieced our thoughts into philosophy,
And planned to bring the world under a rule,
Who are but weasels fighting in a hole.
In this stanza, the poet deals with how the situation has turned reverse. The present is full of formidable forebodings. The Days are “dragon-ridden” for there is no peace but terror and torture everywhere. A band of drunken soldiers are out there who could even murder a mother and leave her in cold blood at her own door. They are even set free without punishment for their cold-blooded act. Thus, day and night people are terrified and tremble with fear. But the poet says they worked to bring their thoughts into philosophy, and plan brings the world under a rule. He also compares themselves to weasels fighting in a hole.
Lines 33 – 40
He who can read the signs nor sink unmanned
Into the half-deceit of some intoxicant
From shallow wits; who knows no work can stand,
Whether health, wealth or peace of mind were spent
On master-work of intellect or hand,
No honour leave its mighty monument,
Has but one comfort left: all triumph would
But break upon his ghostly solitude.
In this stanza, the poet is reading the defeat of two thousand years of human endeavour, in the face of Ireland. The poet observes that the unimaginable that happened to Babylon and Egypt and Athens is happening now to Ireland. He knows that no work could remain as the prospects are grim. Still, he believes that the human spirit will survive it like the earlier times, for it is the law of nature. In the view of some selected few, there is still a way of comfort that draws them away from ghostly solitude.
Lines 41 – 48
But is there any comfort to be found?
Man is in love and loves what vanishes,
What more is there to say? That country round
None dared admit, if Such a thought were his,
Incendiary or bigot could be found
To burn that stump on the Acropolis,
Or break in bits the famous ivories
Or traffic in the grasshoppers or bees.
Starting with a rhetorical question, the poet tries to look if there is any hope left in these lines of section one. He couldn’t find any comfort for man’s comfort lies in love but he loves what vanishes, thus causing trouble. He wonders how a man could destroy something if he really loved it quoting the incidents: burning the statues of Acropolis, breaking the famous art pieces of ivory or the grasshoppers, etc.
Lines 49 – 58
When Loie Fuller’s Chinese dancers enwound
A shining web, a floating ribbon of cloth,
It seemed that a dragon of air
Had fallen among dancers, had whirled them round
Or hurried them off on its own furious path;
So the platonic Year
Whirls out new right and wrong,
Whirls in the old instead;
All men are dancers and their tread
Goes to the barbarous clangour of a gong.
In this short section of ten lines, the poet reminds the readers of the famous American dancer, Loie Fuller, and her troupe of dancers. Similar to Fuller’s act of creating a dragon-like figure made with ribbons that seemed to control her fellow dancers’ steps, the poet feels everyone to have become the dancers to the measure of the platonic year. In reality, all men are like controlled dancers who dance to the ‘barbarous clangour of a gong’ not a free entity.
Lines 59 – 68
Some moralist or mythological poet
Compares the solitary soul to a swan;
I am satisfied with that,
Satisfied if a troubled mirror show it,
Before that brief gleam of its life be gone,
An image of its state;
The wings half spread for flight,
The breast thrust out in pride
Whether to play, or to ride
Those winds that clamour of approaching night.
In the first stanza of section three, the poet talks about a moralist or a mythological poet who has compared the soul to a swan. He is happy for this comparison, yet what he sees in the troubled time is something different than the olden times. The poet wants the soul (Swan) to be seen in the light of the current scenario where he sees it being dead before it could take flight. He gives a description of how pathetically it has been killed. The poet feels that the breasts thrust out in pride could be an indication of the approaching death.
Lines 69 – 78
A man in his own secret meditation
Is lost amid the labyrinth that he has made
In art or politics;
Some Platonist affirms that in the station
Where we should cast off body and trade
The ancient habit sticks,
And that if our works could
But vanish with our breath
That were a lucky death,
For triumph can but mar our solitude.
In this stanza, the poet tells us that man tends to lose himself while anxious to meditate. He is lost in a labyrinth of his own creation in art or politics. Some Platonists say that when the soul is about to leave the body, some of the old habits stick to the body which could destroy the soul’s solitude after death. Thus, if one wants to forget the grimness of reality one must destroy all his work and all that he created.
Lines 79 – 88
The swan has leaped into the desolate heaven:
That image can bring wildness, bring a rage
To end all things, to end
What my laborious life imagined, even
The half-imagined, the half-written page;
O but we dreamed to mend
Whatever mischief seemed
To afflict mankind, but now
That winds of winter blow
Learn that we were crack-pated when we dreamed.
In continuation to what said in the previous stanza, the poet expresses his distress over the picture of the swan flying away so easily. He believes that in the current situation simply flying away will not help, because, the soul could still cling on to the glitters and glamours of the world foolishly. Thinking of this the poet is enraged, which he believes could annihilate both the past and the half-imagined, half-written pages, the future. He knows very well that most of the dreams were directed at mending or improving every mischief that seems to afflict mankind.
Lines 89 – 92
We, who seven years ago
Talked of honour and of truth,
Shriek with pleasure if we show
The weasel’s twist, the weasel’s tooth.
In this shortest section of four lines, the poet institutes a comparison between the past and the present. Seven years ago, before the Irish rebellion, the poet says they talked of honor and truth. Contrastingly, today they are shrieking with pleasure like over the weasel’s twist (unreliability) and the weasel’s tooth (cruelty). He observes that this moral degeneration is the most deplorable kind of tragedy that can befall mankind.
Lines 93 – 97
Come let us mock at the great
That had such burdens on the mind
And toiled so hard and late
To leave some monument behind,
Nor thought of the levelling wind.
Yeats begins section five with an invitation for the readers to join hands in mocking “the great” and everything that is considered as an achievement of the past. These great people had a burden of leaving behind some monuments, and for that, they have toiled hard and for long hours. Unfortunately, they haven’t thought of the wind that levels every aspect and achievement. With reference to his perspectives and the impact of war, everything has been leveled thus making their hard works go astray.
Lines 98 – 102
Come let us mock at the wise;
With all those calendars whereon
They fixed old aching eyes,
They never saw how seasons run,
And now but gape at the sun.
In this stanza, Yeats invites the readers to join him in mocking the wise men of the past. These people fixed their aching eyes at calendars yet they couldn’t really tell how the seasons run. All they did but to gape at the sun. Otherwise, they would have long been predicted what to happen and saved themselves from ending in a fiasco.
Lines 103 – 107
Come let us mock at the good
That fancied goodness might be gay,
And sick of solitude
Might proclaim a holiday:
Wind shrieked — and where are they?
In these lines between 103 and 107, the poet mocks at the so-called “good” people. They believed that goodness may mean some kind of escaping, but, in fact, that too didn’t prevent them from the sweep of the leveling wind. This changed wind has cast them away and they were nowhere to be found.
Lines 108 – 113
Mock mockers after that
That would not lift a hand maybe
To help good, wise or great
To bar that foul storm out, for we
Traffic in mockery.
In this concluding part of the fifth section, the poet mocks the mockers. For all they do is mocking at others and being an obstacle than being of much use. They neither lifted a hand to help “good, wise or great” in their deeds nor helped to bar the storm. Altogether, Yeats observes that destruction is an awful reality that cannot be stopped by anyone or anything.
Lines 114 – 131
Violence upon the roads: violence of horses;
Some few have handsome riders, are garlanded
On delicate sensitive ear or tossing mane,
But wearied running round and round in their courses
All break and vanish, and evil gathers head:
Herodias’ daughters have returned again,
A sudden blast of dusty wind and after
Thunder of feet, tumult of images,
Their purpose in the labyrinth of the wind;
And should some crazy hand dare touch a daughter
All turn with amorous cries, or angry cries,
According to the wind, for all are blind.
But now wind drops, dust settles; thereupon
There lurches past, his great eyes without thought
Under the shadow of stupid straw-pale locks,
That insolent fiend Robert Artisson
To whom the love-lorn Lady Kyteler brought
Bronzed peacock feathers, red combs of her cocks.
The final section of the poem brings a vivid description of the violence unleashed upon the world. All around, there is violence on the roads. Mounted soldiers move about dealing with death and destructions and in the end falling down themselves exhausted. It looks as if the daughters of Herodias have returned again. Following this was an image of a sudden blast of dusty wind that has also come in and signifies the end of the world. Yeats also brings in the image of Robert Artison, that fourteenth-century fiend staggering, and Dame Alice Kyteler.
The poem ‘Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen’ refers to the year the Anglo-Irish War has begun. Yeats describes the aftermath of the war through his depiction of Post-War-Ireland. He compares both the past and present before coming to the conclusion that War and Violence are the persistent things on earth while everything around goes on.
This is one of the few poems Yeats has written to expresses his view on politics. Yeats has originally published the poem 1920. However, the poem was republished in the year 1928 along with other notable poems such as in his collection, “The Tower.”
The year “1919” marks the beginning of the Irish War of Independence. The war lasted for about three years starting from 1919 leading to many internal conflicts and civil war. Thus, the poet felt it right to name the poem after the year of actual happening. The War made a huge impact turning the lives of people into a mess.
Weasels are weak creature yet they fight to protect themselves when exposed to a threat. In this poem when the poet tries to mock at the people who think that they could bring the world under one roof, he compares them to “Weasels fighting in a hole.” For he knows their fighting is not going to change anything.
Yeats was a born member of the Protestant Ascendancy, yet he was in love with Maude Gonne, a revolutionary. Thus, he had mixed feelings about the independence movement in Ireland. However, his strong affinity for art and history, made him horrid as he observed the destruction around him. All he was worried about was losing their rich history, culture and monuments.
Yeats’ ‘Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen’ as the title suggests, is about Ireland in the year 1919. It was the period of the Irish War of Independence. It was a guerrilla conflict between the British forces in Ireland and the Irish Republican Army. The war said to have lasted between 1919 and 1921, but violence both preceded and continued even after the end of War. It eventually to followed by the Irish Civil War.
Throughout history, War has played a major role including in inspiring literary personalities. Readers who enjoyed this poem can also read some of the best war poems.
Also, read the following poems of W. B. Yeats:
- ‘A Prayer for my Daughter‘ speaks about the poet’s family. It demonstrates his concern and anxiety over the future wellbeing and prospects of his daughter, Anne.
- ‘Lapis Lazuli,’ written on 25th July 1936 is dedicated to Harry Clifton, who presented him with such a precious stone on his 70th birthday.
- ‘Byzantium‘ talks of the poet’s experience at Byzantium.
- ‘The Tower‘ written during his mature period speaks of his deteriorating physical health and his growing passions in political and personal matters.