Thursday, January 17, 2013

William Butler Yeats and World History

Betill Haggman
”Things fall apart; the centre 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.”
William Butler Yeats
Historical inquiry, philosophy and myth are important and vital parts of the writings of William Butler Yeats and Oswald Spengler. The latter’s main work, published in a first volume 1918 and a second volume five years later, The Decline of the West, was an exhibit of literary power and beauty.
Yeats connection to Spengler has not been sufficiently researched. This short essay is an attempt to point out a few possible directions for such a research.
For the Nobel Prize winner 1923 history had a position as symbol. Yeats commented that it was a remarkable coincidence between his own ideas and Spengler’s in the fact that his 1925 edition of A Vision, appeared so close in time to The Decline of the West.
Spengler’s vision was described by him as:
”In the Destiny-idea the soul reveals its world-longing, its desire to rise into the light, to accomplish and actualize its vocation. To no man is it entirely alien, and not before one has become the un-anchored ”late” man of the megalopolis is original vision quite overpowered by matter-of-fact feeling and mechanized thought. Even then, in some intense hour, the lost vision comes back to one with terrible clearness, shattering in a moment all the causality of the world’s surface.”
In A Vision, Yeats can possibly be said to fulfill the desire of the soul that Spengler describes. Both Yeats and Spengler believe in the cyclic movement of human history. It is a scheme emerging from the vast unconscious of the human race. It unites the opposing forces in the universe.
In Book V of A Vision Yeats interprets the history of western civilization in terms of his cyclic view. The expanding cones, in a great dance of spheres, reduce history to perennial and predictable cyclic movements. ”…one must consider not the movement only from the beginning to the end of the ascending cone, but the gyres that touch its sides, the horizontal dance.” (Yeats, p. 270).
All of history is encompassed in a ritual of turning and widening, winding and unwinding, disintegration and rebirth.
William Butler Yeats view of history is mythical. In A Vision he presented an opposing view of history:
”The historian thinks of Greece as an advance on Persia, of Rome as in something as rather an advance of Greece, and thinks it is impossible that any man could prefer the hunter’s age to the agricultural. I, upon the other hand, must think all civilizations equal at their best; every phase returns, therefore in some sense every civilization. I think of the hunter’s age and that which followed immediately as a time when man’s waking consciousness had not reached its present complexity and stability. There was little fear of deatch, sometimes men lay down and died at will, the world of the gods could be explored easily whether through some oriastic ceremony or in the trance of the ascetic. Apparitions came and went, bringing comfort in the midst of tragedy.” (Yeats, pp. 205-206).
Further on he wrote:
”A civilization is a struggle to keep self-control, and in this it is like some great tragic person, some Niobe who must display an almost superhuman will or the cry will not touch our sympathy. The loss of control over thought comes towards the end; first a sinking in upon the moral being, then the last surrender, the irrational cry, revelation – the screm of Juno’s peacock.”
Thus history for Yeats is personal, tragic, and heroic.
Poems of Yeats that have strong visions of the future are for instance ”The Second Coming”, ”Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen” as well as ”Meditations in Time of Civil War”. Before the predicted return of past ages, the established order must ”fall apart”. Before any rebirth must be destruction.
Other poems that would need to be interpreted are ”Sailing to Byzantium” and ”Blood and the Moon” as well as ”The Gyres”.
It is no wonder that Oswald Spengler choose Heraclitus for his doctoral dissertation. The essence of The Decline of the West is that world history performs a magnificent cosmic spectacle. There is a grand harmony of perpetual struggle, of becoming and degeneration. Spengler regarded the great achievement of Heraclitus the idea of the eternal never-ending struggle. This struggle forms the essence of life in the cosmos, in which a master law governs and is upholding a harmonious, elegant proportionality. There is thus, in my opinion, a direct line between Heraclitus, Yeats and Spengler.
The question of the permanent value of Western civilization is once more under debate after the horrible crime of September 11, 2001. It coincides well with the myth of heliotropism, that civilization is moving from East to West from Babylon, via Greece, Rome, England-Scotland, Wales and Ireland, across the Atlantic to America.
Myth now is increasingly secular. The happy optimism of Enlightenment which ended in horrible slaughter in the 20th century is opposed by counter-enlightenment. World historians and futurists have not been able to avoid the pressing questions of the eternal alteration of empires: William Butler Yeats in A Vision, Oswald Spengler in The Decline of the West, Arnold Toynbee in A Study of History, Mancur Olson in The Rise and Decline of Nations and lately Samuel Huntington in Clash of Civilizations.

Archibald MacLeish wrote:
”We wonder whether the great American dream
Was the singing of the locusts out of the grass to the west
And the West is behind us now:
The west wind’s away from us:
We wonder whether liberty is done:
The dreaming is finished.”
But that is not so. On what is now the global frontier the dream is alive. The West is a dream that can transform itself.

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