How words can become action
By Harry Eyres
Published: January 28 2011 22:06 | Last updated: January 28 2011 22:06
Near the end of his life, in the haunting poem “The Man and the Echo” (1938), the poet W B Yeats reflected remorsefully on his sins of commission and omission. Most dramatically, even melodramatically, he asks: “Did that play of mine send out/ Certain men the English shot?” The reference is to his play Cathleen ní Houlihan, and the unconfirmed report that some of the leaders of the Easter Rising in Dublin in 1916 were reciting lines from that play as they carried out their doomed insurrection against British rule.
In crudely literal terms, the answer to Yeats’s question is almost certainly not (and in any case Yeats’s biographer, Roy Foster, believes the play was largely written by his friend and collaborator, Lady Augusta Gregory). The Fenians who led the Rising were by 1916 suspicious of Yeats, some considering him a turncoat. They may or may not have been reciting passages from Cathleen ní Houlihan, which glorifies heroic death in the fight against the English in 18th-century Ireland, but they would have instigated the Rising anyway.
But not for nothing was Yeats still troubled by all this 20-odd years later in “The Man and the Echo”:
All that I have said and done,
Now that I am old and ill,
Turns into a question till
I lie awake night after night
And never get the answers right.
The links between saying and doing, and their opposites, not-saying and not-doing, may be impossible to prove or to unravel, but their ethical challenges are enough to keep anyone thoughtful awake.
As regards Cathleen ní Houlihan, the earlier Yeats had a ready justification. “It may be said that it is a political play of a propagandist kind,” he wrote in 1904. “I have never written a play to advocate any kind of opinion and I think that such a play would be necessarily bad art.” Roy Foster is right to say that this justification suggests unease. Cathleen ní Houlihan is, in my opinion, both propagandist and not very good art.
Why should bad art and crude political rhetoric be more likely to have bad consequences than their opposites? Two reasons come immediately to mind: oversimplification and literalism. The first move, made both in bad art and crude or cynical political rhetoric, is the oversimplification of complex issues; you have the oppressed and the oppressors, whiter-than-white heroes and jet-black villains, who may very well be scapegoats. If someone is an out-and-out villain, that person can quickly be seen as subhuman, not deserving of respect, ultimately disposable.
Literalism is an oversimplification at the level of rhetoric rather than argument. All our language is shot through with metaphor – language may even be fundamentally metaphorical – and most of us most of the time have no difficulty in distinguishing metaphorical and literal levels. We say “I’m going to kill you” or “I’d kill for a drink” and we don’t mean it, at least not literally, as children perfectly well know. The “war against terror” was, as I have argued before, a rhetorical misjudgment, a metaphor turned literal with predictably disastrous results. One of the consequences of war, in fact, is that metaphor can be collapsed into literalism.
During the Spanish civil war, the Fascist general Queipo de Llano became famous for his theatrically bloodcurdling broadcasts. Parts of them sound ridiculously hammed up – “I shall shoot 10 of you for every one of ours! If I have to drag them out of their graves to shoot them!” – and Queipo, a former Republican, was given to strange Freudian slips such as confusing Fascistas with Marxistas. But what stops these highly staged broadcasts from being funny, as Jonathan Gathorne-Hardy reminds us in his life of Gerald Brenan, is that as he delivered these diatribes, “Queipo de Llano was overseeing mass murder in Seville”.
Ten years before he wrote “The Man and the Echo”, Yeats conducted an exchange of letters with the great love of his life, the fierce Republican Maud Gonne. Gonne accused Yeats of giving up on his Republicanism and throwing in his lot with the authoritarian Free State government. Yeats replied: “You are right – I think – in saying I was once a Republican ... Today I have one settled conviction: create, draw a firm strong line and hate nothing whatever, not even, if he be your most cherished belief – Satan himself.”
The Rising of 1916 and the bitter civil war of 1922-23 had made Yeats more aware of and opposed to the politics of hate. “Great hatred, little room/ Maimed us from the start”, he wrote in the poem “Remorse for Intemperate Speech”. Intemperate speech and the politics of hate now seem dangerously entrenched across many parts of the world, including America, which does not have the excuse of “little room”. If, sadly, we humans find it easier to hate than to love, politicians should at least avoid fanning the flames with intemperate speech.
More columns at www.ft.com/eyres
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2011.