Exploring the Favorites is a series of posts on this blog which will explore my favorite pieces of media, from books, films, games, music, etc. It’s not meant to be a review of criticism, but simply state how I connected with the work on a personal level. Be warned that there will be spoilers. The previous episode was Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy. This one focuses on Easter 1916 by William Butler Yeats.
In many ways, Ireland and Iran are similar nations. Both have a long history of wars and revolutions, a long line of martyrs, and an omnipresent, suffocating, religious identity. No other nation’s literature puts its finger as squarely on the Iranian ache of mine as Irish literature does, from the way people’s lives intertwine with revolution and civil war, to the presence of Catholic identity, to this overall feeling of being entrapped in a historical fate. Writers like James Joyce, Elizabeth Bowen, William Trevor, Roddy Doyle, J. M Synge, and this might sound weird, but even Jonathan Swift invoke this weird sense of identity in me. But no one does it more than William Butler Yeats.
There’s no doubt that Yeats had a weird relationship with his own Irishness. The image of Yeats as Ireland’s national poet and symbol is, well, welcome, but he certainly wasn’t someone like Ferdowsi who wrote only epics for Iran. He struggled with his Irishness, and the reason that I find myself in his poetry is because I, too, struggle with my Iranian identity and history, and no other poet or writer has captured this struggle better.
For example, if you start reading The Municipal Gallery Revisited, it seems that the poem is basically the usual nostalgic walk through the history of national heroes, until it throws this line: This is not,’ I say/’The dead Ireland of my youth, but an Ireland/The poets have imagined, terrible and gay.’ From this point onward, people in the portraits are not national icons, but Yeats’s friends.
Yeats’s struggle is not an attempt and a failure at transcending the personal and the mundane into national and historical, but it is with the duality: Yeats’s subject matter are historical and personal, and his poems acknowledge this duality, Ireland is both “dead” and “terrible and gay”. And nowhere is this duality more apparent than in his greatest poem (in my opinion), Easter 1916.
This poem is about the leaders of Irish 1916 uprising which ended in their execution. These were people whom Yeats knew in person, and obviously also became major historical figures.
The poem acknowledges the personal by focusing on Yeats’s relationship with these people, and in doing so, it never glorifies or deify these people. They are individual, flawed, with unrealized potentials, some outright unpleasant. This poem is not a revolutionary march for martyrs, it’s an honest grappling with the deaths of carnal individuals:
That woman’s days were spent
In ignorant good-will,
Her nights in argument
Until her voice grew shrill.
What voice more sweet than hers
When, young and beautiful,
She rode to harriers?
This man had kept a school
And rode our wingèd horse;
This other his helper and friend
Was coming into his force;
He might have won fame in the end,
So sensitive his nature seemed,
So daring and sweet his thought.
This other man I had dreamed
A drunken, vainglorious lout.
He had done most bitter wrong
To some who are near my heart,
Yet, they have transformed now, transformed into something eternal, something both “terrible” and “beautiful”, at the cruel hands of history. They now belong to the ages:
Yet I number him in the song;
He, too, has resigned his part
In the casual comedy;
He, too, has been changed in his turn,
A terrible beauty is born.
The next stanza, the image of life going around and stone being still and eternal in the midst of this constant movement, reinforces this duality of personal/historical.
The fascinating complexity of this poem lies in the fact neither the personal nor the historical are elevated beyond the other. This poem is not about good people who were unfortunately wasted for a foolish ideal, neither about earthly people who transcended into demi-gods. Both of them are complex: personal is at the same time unpleasant and gentle with intimate friendships, and historical is both horrifying and sublime.
Revolution, in short, is this horrible beauty; and it has transformed flesh and blood flawed people into this beautiful monstrosity. What response is to be had, except ambivalence? How mundane would straightforward positions such as praise or condemnation?
Yeats himself defines his own task as recording, as capturing this personality, as being the honest witness:
O when may it suffice?
That is Heaven’s part, our part
To murmur name upon name,
As a mother names her child
I write it out in a verse—
MacDonagh and MacBride
And Connolly and Pearse
Now and in time to be,
Wherever green is worn,
Are changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.
And the reason that this poem resonates so much with me is that I, too, feel the same way about the major events in my nation’s history.
This is how I feel about the 1979 revolution: about the sudden coalition between people, from the worst of them to the best of them, all creating this movement that changed the nation forever. Theocrats, Stalinists, extremists of all types, alongside liberals and genuine democrats, all dreamed the same dream. I read the history of this revolution with incredulity.
I feel the same way about Iran-Iraq War: martyrs, adorning every street with their names and their faces, many of them foolish, many of them authoritarian, young men overcome with a sudden lust for death, yet, weren’t they fighting for the survival of this nation, to keep it from falling into the hands of Saddam Hussein, and doesn’t that make them heroes? How can you visit the martyrs’ graves, and not think of them as a terrible beauty?
Right after the war ended, the regime executed thousands of political prisoners. Some were actual terrorists, most were innocent: idealistic youths who were about to finish their prison terms, some sentenced to merely two years in prison, MEK members, communists of all types, but some not leftists at all. They were buried in unmarked graves. They, too, were individuals, flawed: some were guilty of only naivete and idealism, some were authoritarians in their own rights. But haven’t they transformed utterly? Haven’t they become this dark shadow over our history, that forever shapes every event?
And most importantly, 2009: the Green Movement protests: was I, myself, was transformed. I was also transformed into a crowd, into something impersonal, and yet, obviously, I cannot ignore my own person-hood.
It’s personal, it’s something more, it’s historical, it’s something less. It’s ambivalent, elusive, it’s greater than all individuals comprising it, and yet all the individuals are still individuals. It’s a type of living in history, and no poet captures this type of living better than Yeats.