This interesting piece of poetry was written on May 24th, 1938, during the Spanish Civil War. It was also written against the backdrop of the pre-World War II period in which Adolf Hitler was amassing power in Germany. The poem also alludes to political situations in other countries worldwide, like Spain and Russia. There are several different versions of the poem.
Yeats, scholars note, wanted this piece to follow ‘The Circus Animals’ Desertion.’ This poem describes moments of Yeats’ own experience when he struggled to find a theme to write on. ‘Politics’ is also considered the last lyric poem that Yeats wrote in his lifetime. It is also the last poem printed in all posthumous collections of his work.
It should also be noted that Yeats begins this poem with a quote from Thomas Mann, It reads:
In our time the destiny of man presents its meanings in political terms.
This epigraph was added, some scholars believe, to create contrast. The quote suggests that meaning, and the future of humanity, shows itself in “political terms.” Yeats wanted to show through his text that more meaning is found within the self rather than in the public sphere.
Politics William Butler Yeats'In our time the destiny of man presents its meanings in political terms' - Thomas MannHow can I, that girl standing there,My attention fixOn Roman or on RussianOr on Spanish politics?Yet here's a travelled man that knowsWhat he talks about,And there's a politicianThat has read and thought,And maybe what they say is trueOf war and war's alarms,But O that I were young againAnd held her in my arms.
‘Politics’ by William Butler Yeats is a thoughtful poem about war and inner/outer life. It was written the year before he passed away.
In the first lines of this poem, the speaker, who is commonly considered to be Yeats himself, begins by describing a young girl. He’s unwilling to turn himself towards the world’s politics, engage with them, and ignore this symbolic woman. He discusses a man, a politician, and what it would be like to be young again. The poem concludes with a statement of longing that suggests that inner experiences outweigh his interest in the broader world.
Structure and Form
‘Politics’ by William Butler Yeats is a twelve-line poem that is contained within a single stanza of text. The poem is written in free verse. This means that the poet did not make use of a specific rhyme scheme or metrical pattern. For example, the first three lines end with the words “there,” “fix,” and “Russian.” Additionally, the lines vary in length. The first line is seven words and eight syllables while the second line is three words and five syllables.
Throughout this poem, the poet makes use of several literary devices. These include but are not limited to:
- Alliteration: the use of the same consonant sound at the beginning of multiple words. For example, “Roman or on Russian” in line three.
- Enjambment: the transition between two lines that do not use punctuation. It usually requires the reader to finish both lines to understand what the poet is saying. For example, the transition between lines two and three.
- Allusion: throughout this poem, the poet alludes to his contemporary moment as Adolf Hitler was amassing power in Germany and World War II was on the horizon.
How can I, that girl standing there,
My attention fix
On Roman or on Russian
Or on Spanish politics?
Yet here’s a travelled man that knows
What he talks about,
In the first lines of the poem, the speaker expresses his inability to turn his attention away from “that girl standing there.” He is unwilling to turn aside from this single person (who is insignificant in the larger scheme of war, politics, and governments) and face instead the world of “Roman,” “Russian,” or “Spanish” politics.
Scholars often compare the juxtaposition of this young girl with politics to the contrast of inner and outer life that Yeats often wrote on. Here, he turns away from politics, something that played a large role in his writing and his everyday life, and focuses in one love and connection. He’s suggesting that now, one is more important than the other.
The poet also, through the context and the specific references to countries, alludes to the political climate at the time. As noted above, this poem was written in the midst of the Spanish Civil War (“Spanish politics”) and during Adolf Hitler’s rise to power in Germany.
The poet also mentions a “travelled man that knows / What he talks about.” This man comes into the speaker’s view or mind and complicates the situation slightly. He, along with the “politician” in line seven suggests the different sides that Yeats could, throughout the rest of his life, engage in. He could be the one who knows what he’s talking about or the politician that “has both read and thought.”
And there’s a politician
That has read and thought,
And maybe what they say is true
Of war and war’s alarms,
But O that I were young again
And held her in my arms.
In the second half of the poem, the poet mentions the politician who “has both read and thought” and creates an allusion to the wars raging throughout Europe and the terrible conflicts that are just around the corner with the beginning of World War II. Despite knowing that it’s possible that a very serious “war” could start (he can hear “war’s alarms” or what people like the politician are saying), his only focus is on the young girl.
He expresses a longing in the final lines to be “young again” and to hold her “in my arms.” Despite the terror that the world is facing, the speaker turns away from politics and governments, things he’s cared about all his life and is interested solely in personal, intimate emotions like love.
This poem has been compared, due to its emphasis on escape and retreat, to other Yeats poems. Some of these can be explored below.
The theme is inner versus outer life. The speaker alludes to the signs around him and others that war is about to start. Then, he discusses how he could remain engaged with the nature of politics but turns his attention instead to his inner longings.
The poem’s message is that meaning comes from one’s inner life, and emotions like love and experiences like relationships, not from war, government, or politics.
The purpose is to show a desire to escape from the world and abandon all thoughts of learning, politics, and political engagement. Instead, the speaker suggests that he’s more interested in inner, emotional experiences like love and sex.
Yeats wrote this poem, as World War II was right around the corner and during the midst of the Spanish Civil War, to express his disillusionment with politics (something he cared about all his life) and desire to turn toward love, and other individual, inner experiences.
Readers who enjoyed this poem should also consider reading some related William Butler Yeats poems. For example:
- ‘A Coat’ – describes the poet’s own writing practice through the metaphor of an embroidered coat.
- ‘A Prayer for my Daughter’ – speaks about the poet’s family. It demonstrates his concern and anxiety over the future well-being and prospects of his daughter, Anne.
- ‘The Lake Isle of Innisfree’ – one of William Butler Yeats’ most celebrated poems. It promotes escaping to nature and freeing oneself from the confines of modern society.