Friday, 30 November 2012

Yeats and Amichai: the best, the worst and trampling the garden

Like many other atheists, I was following the Church of England’s vote on women bishops with appalled fascination.  The motion in favour failed in the house of laity partly because the conservative evangelical wing of the church had organised to get its representatives elected, with such a vote in mind.  This is one of those news stories for which these two lines from Yeats’ ‘Second Coming’ seem especially appropriate:


The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

I love the tone of half-disengaged, half-horrified distaste.  Maybe, in the case of the CofE, the best will now acquire some intensity.  Why does the Church spend so much time agonising on gender issues, rather than concentrating on what’s happening to the world? I sometimes ask an Anglican friend of mine. Ah we do all that, she says, but it doesn’t get reported in the media!

In fact, I love the whole poem, which is 93 years old.  1919: the mindset behind this poem is post-First World War, post-Russian Revolution, and not least, in Ireland, post-Easter Rising.  One interesting aspect is its apparent ambiguity about revolution. But the main thing is that the poem refuses to be interpreted too easily, despite the forthrightness of many of its statements, and so it opens rather than closes the mind.  Here it is (hand-typed from Yeats’ Collected, not copied-and-pasted off the internet, in case you’re wondering).

The Second Coming

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
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.

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 towards Bethlehem to be born?

The only newspaper I buy regularly is the Guardian on Saturdays, and (like many other atheists) I enjoy Giles Fraser’s column. Recently – in the context of Israel/Palestine – he quoted from a poem new to me but immediately unforgettable. Here are the first few lines of Yehuda Amichai’s short poem, translated by Stephen Mitchell, ‘The Place Where We Are Right’:

From the place where we are right
Flowers will never grow
In the spring.

The place where we are right
Is hard and trampled
Like a yard.

This makes me think: yes, I need to remember that sometimes.  And then: but extremists are always ready to trample the ground (see Yeats, above, and organised religion) which makes it hard for anyone to stop them without doing the same.

I have just been mentally trampling the ground over this: Cameron prevents climate change expert from heading the Department of Energy and Climate Change.  (One can register to read 8 FT articles a month for free; I tend to forget to read mine, which is a waste – the FT isn’t wholly given over to Mammon, though it has less space for high quality political analysis than it used to.) 

Oh, for the poetry equivalent of Steve Bell & co to capture such crass, devious stupidity, concentrate our fury and make us laugh at the same time… And where is Yeats when we need him?
And had he been visiting the British Museum's Assyrian galleries?

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