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Pedantic Babylon

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The Wistman


One reason why Yeats is so highly regarded is that his themes are timeless.  This next poem is long (I'll only show part 1--the most famous section) and grounded in its own era, but razor sharp and relevant to our current zeitgeist. Enjoy.

  • ref: Phidias was the classical Athenian sculptor responsible for the Parthenon friezes and the huge olive wood/ivory and gold clad statue of Athena that was inside, and is long lost.

Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen    (1)

    Many ingenious lovely things are gone
    that seemed sheer miracle to the multitude,
    protected from the circle of the moon
    that pitches common things about. There stood
    amid the ornamental bronze and stone
    an ancient image made of olive wood --
    and gone are Phidias' famous ivories
    and all the golden grasshoppers and bees.

    We too had many pretty toys when young:
    a law indifferent to blame or praise,
    to bribe or threat; habits that made old wrong
    melt down, as it were wax in the sun's rays;
    public opinion ripening for so long
    we thought it would outlive all future days.
    O what fine thought we had because we thought
    that the worst rogues and rascals had died out.

    All teeth were drawn, all ancient tricks unlearned,
    and a great army but a showy thing;
    what matter that no cannon had been turned
    into a ploughshare? Parliament and king
    thought that unless a little powder burned
    the trumpeters might burst with trumpeting
    and yet it lack all glory; and perchance
    the guardsmen's drowsy chargers would not prance.

    Now days are dragon-ridden, the nightmare
    rides upon sleep: a drunken soldiery
    can leave the mother, murdered at her door,
    to crawl in her own blood, and go scot-free;
    the night can sweat with terror as before
    we pieced our thoughts into philosophy,
    and planned to bring the world under a rule,
    who are but weasels fighting in a hole.

    He who can read the signs nor sink unmanned
    into the half-deceit of some intoxicant
    from shallow wits; who knows no work can stand,
    whether health, wealth or peace of mind were spent
    on master-work of intellect or hand,
    no honour leave its mighty monument,
    has but one comfort left: all triumph would
    but break upon his ghostly solitude.

    But is there any comfort to be found?
    man is in love and loves what vanishes,
    what more is there to say? That country round
    none dared admit, if such a thought were his,
    incendiary or bigot could be found
    to burn that stump on the Acropolis,
    or break in bits the famous ivories
    or traffic in the grasshoppers or bees.





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