I’m just in from five days on the road, here to Ciudad Guzmán by way of Guadalajara and back, so the post is going to be a bit of a medley.
The heat is here but fierce, and we’re up past forty centigrade in the daytime. It’s almost eight in the evening as I write and it’s easily ninety or so in Fahrenheit here in my open-to-the-outside-air-hallway.
From now until the start of June, life gets a little less bearable. The fería started this weekend, and first you wonder why they’d pick these of all days to hold it and afterwards you wonder why they didn’t plan to fall asleep drunk through all of May, too, and how you yourself will manage to do it without the help.
I picked up two books of poetry, Keats and Yeats, over Christmas. Collections, better said, and I haven’t made much progress. I’ve only had poetry once, from a great AP Lit teacher in high school—with guidance, I get the intellectual pleasure of picking the things apart, and I like the greatest hits as much as anyone, “Two Paths Diverged” and “Walking by Woods” and all that. But alone, I’ve had trouble taking the time to sit and read, so when I went on this trip, I brought only Yeats (and The Fall, but it’s short enough to finish in an hour or two and it’s thirteen from here to Ciudad Guzmán), and, well, I’ve been reading.
The thing is that I think I might be doing it wrong. I want to read poetry because I have a vague jealousy of Englishmen who can quote Wordsworth and Tennyson and Yeats and Keats à propos and off the cuff. So I’ve been reading-as-hunting, looking for whichever lines strike me and putting them down for later committal, rather than trying to parse or discern narrative flow or pay all that much attention to any stanzas that don’t grab me right off. Better or worse, that’s the only way I seem cut to do it, so here are two of Yeats’.
The Falling of the Leaves
Autumn is over the long leaves that love us,
And over the mice in the barley sheaves,
Yellow the leaves of the rowan above us,
And yellow the wet wild-strawberry leaves.
The hour of the waning of love has beset us,
And weary and worn are our sad souls now;
Let us part, ere the season of passion forget us,
With a kiss and a tear on thy drooping brow.
This is pre-war, and like what seems like most of Keats’ pre-war poetry, it’s about love and (as his long-pursued woman marries another guy) loss. The metaphor’s clear, autumn the ‘hour of the waning of love.’ Maybe what gets me is the euphony that comes from ‘long leaves that love us’ and the symmetry of leaves-sheaves-leaves and the beginning-middle-and-end-of-word alliteration in ‘yellow the wet wild-strawberry.’ Probably too the suggestion that we’re better off leaving love than carrying it through to a disappointing bitter end. Appeals to a personal philosophy. Another:
‘Your eyes that once were never weary of mine
Are bowed in sorrow under pendulous lids,
Because out love is waning.’
And then she:
‘Although our love is waning, let us stand
By the lone border of the lake once more
Together in that hour of gentleness
When the poor tired child, Passion, falls asleep;
How far away the stars seem, and how far
Is our first kiss, and ah, how old my heart!’
Pensive they paced along the faded leaves,
While slowly he whose hand held hers replied:
‘Passion has often worn our wandering hearts.’
The woods were round them, and the yellow leaves
Fell like faint meteors in the gloom, and once
A rabbit old and lame limped down the path;
Autumn was over him, and now they stood
On the lone border of the lake once more;
Turning, he saw that she had thrust dead leaves
Gathered in silence, dewy as her eyes,
In bosom and hair.
‘Ah, do not mourn,’ he said,
‘That we are tired, for other loves await us;
Hate on and love through unrepining hours.
Before us lies eternity; our souls
Are love, and a continual farewell.
The same elements draw me to this one (and the two are of a feather: from the same work, working with the same themes): alliteration that’s sonorous instead of silly—‘While slowly he whose hand held hers’—the sense of fading and decay that creeps into life when something that was good is ending, not acrimoniously but inevitably. The at-least double meaning of ‘worn’ in ‘Passion has often worn our wandering hearts.’ Personified Passion taking control, wearing their hearts like costumes and in the wearing, wearing them down.
Above all the last two lines. Or even the whole last stanza. We’re continually seeking love with or without volition and the continual search leads to the continual farewell. That dovetails with certain things I’ve written.
Those are the two I’ve put down so far. I also went and found ‘The Second Coming’ because I like to see the texts that famous titles hail from (Things Fall Apart) and between that poem, a book of Hemingway’s journalism, and Lady Chatterley’s Lover, I’m developing some thoughts on the difference in the way we (Americans) and Europeans (mostly the British) felt during the inter-war period (and maybe about history and historical forces generally). Hemingway, throughout the thirties, addresses what he sees as the feeling in Europe.
What makes you feel bad is the perfectly calm way everyone speaks about the next war. It is accepted and taken for granted. All right. Europe has always had wars. But we can keep out of the next one. And then only way to keep out of it is to not go in it; not for any reason…If kids want to go to see what war is like, for love of any nation, let them go as individuals.
He sees the first war as we’re taught to see it in school. Provoked by an excess of élan and an optimism as to the result, in material gain and national invigoration. And he opposes it. Just as matter-of-factly, when it later becomes obvious (to him) that Hitler will neither be placated nor contented with merely European conquest, he advises that we go in, as a matter of logical course.
It would be unfair—and wrong—to say that Hemingway went as a dilettante to the first war when he served as an ambulance driver an Italy, but he wasn’t bound to it in the way that European young men were. He could take a detached view while they, the youth of France and England and Italy, Germany and Russia and Austria, went off to it gladly and then sadly and then by force—the war was a thing unto itself by the end, a generational charnel that had to be fed until the thing was done.
And though he spent much of the inter-war as the quintessential American expatriate, Hemingway didn’t seem to have the same almost mythical sense of the inevitability of the next one. I don’t know that ‘The Second Coming’ was about the coming of the second war, given that Yeats wrote it long before, but doesn’t it capture some sense of impending, unavoidable disaster?
The Second Coming
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the center cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches toward Bethlehem to be born?
Those last two lines in particular; a war to end all wars, the most disastrous event in the then-history of man with all of mankind’s hopes pinned to it had birthed what must have seemed only a lull before the advent of yet greater horror slouching towards Europe. From Lady Chatterley’s Lover:
…It seemed to Connie there again it was not a manifestation of energy, it was the bruise of the war that had been in abeyance, slowly rising to the surface and creating the great ache of unrest, and the stupor of discontentment. The bruise was deep, deep, deep, the bruise of the false, inhuman war. It would take many years for the living blood of the generations to dissolve the vast black clot of bruised blood, deep inside their souls and bodies.
The American position, then and now, has been to fix and to fix as quickly and efficiently as possible. Hemingway is against and then for the war as political realism dictates (and when the morality is undeniable; he never waffles on the essential rightness of the Republic’s cause in the Spanish Civil War). Whereas the European feeling, the feeling that draws on that continent’s thousands of years of history, its ever-visible, ever-tangible oldness, seems to be that certain things cannot be avoided, that they must be had out, a kind of fatalism that, given the meagre successes we’ve had trying to sort the world’s problems, may be the awful truth of things.
That everyone, everywhere has to muddle (or, as it happens, murder) their own way through, and no matter the apparent moral imperative of intervention, it can only be ineffective until the critical moment—the end of the first war, and then what was effectively the end of the second war, in 1945 when the Russians were already winning it.
If that’s the underlying order, it gives lie to the faith that people like me have in interventionism (though not, by and large, the interventionism that we’ve engaged in) and the work of development.
Camus puts the nails in the coffin even of peacetime in The Fall. Man (in Europe), having overcome tyranny and achieved widespread bourgeois democracy, is unable to contend with the unprecedented freedom that the postwar peace affords him; he seeks, through societal strictures and social convention, to shackle himself as he was shackled of old.
But I’m not being crazy; I’m well aware that slavery is not immediately realizable. It will be one of the blessings of the future, that’s all.
I don’t know if the zeitgeist of all culture becoming mass culture, the devaluation and decay of democracy, the subsuming of real individuality in a sea of avowed individuals are components of the slavery Camus’ novel-length monologue describes, but there’s an inkling.
Either way, we carry on, maybe acquiescing and dreading like Yeats, maybe analyzing and fighting like Hemingway, but borne along all the same.