Wednesday, April 20, 2016

W. B. Yeats: "Blood and the Moon"

Yeats in 1933, photo by Pirie MacDonald

[Image source:]

Blood and the Moon

(from The Winding Stair and other poems, 1933)

Donald Davie expressed his distaste for what he saw as a Fascistic temper to this poem (quoted in full below).

“A Fascist Poem: Yeats’s ‘Blood and the Moon’” (published 1979, reprinted in Modernist Essays: Yeats, Pound, Eliot, 2004 ed. Clive Wilmer).

See also Mohammad Nabi Meimandi’s PhD thesis, “’Just as Strenuous a Nationalist as Ever’, W.B. Yeats and Postcolonialism: Tensions, Ambiguities, and Uncertainties” (University of Birmingham, 2007). 

Nevertheless this reading can't be regarded as orthodoxy. 

Try it for yourself. It's possible to piece something Fascistic together -

a bloody, arrogant power
             rose out of the race

Yeats is referring to ancient Ireland, and probably before Hitler came to power though not before Mussolini did. Perhaps the poem registers a kind of respect for the "bloody, arrogant power", which at least was not half-dead at the top; perhaps the stain of blood is identified with life itself in its fullness; perhaps the stain of blood is even in a way countenanced by the purity of the moon that cannot be stained by it. It's a possible reading, though extremely partial. But contemporary readers might pick up, as we never can, subtleties of tone or phrase that betrayed (like a class marker) very clearly where the author was coming from. Unfortunately they could also make mistakes sometimes, or read only the first four lines.

For me what's apparent in Yeats' poem is the Byzantium-style detachment of old age. That's certainly something to reckon with in our world. Life does become cheaper as one's own grave approaches... all the atrocities have been witnessed, yet somehow the world muddled on...  Only the eternal images of butterflies and the moon are lovely ...  what does it matter about passing screams and blood, now we stand above the centuries....

You might say it's a slackening of ardour for human justice, in the growing dawn of the mystery of one's own extinction, the very sources of life and death... (I'm turning Yeats' wonderful language into cliches, but anyhow)...   I wouldn't call this natural process fascistic, though I agree that the gradual indifference to small individuals contains its dangers and its terrors as well as its beauty. (It's why old people should never be in positions of power.)

Identifying Fascism or other unacceptable things in giants of literature is a game played with great intensity by all of us, university students especially. At school we get fobbed off with literature that is impeccably right-hearted, The Crucible and The Handmaid’s Tale, then our horizons widen and we have to make our own sense of the problem that famous artworks may have an uncomfortably close association with views that we find evil or actions that we find upsetting. As it happens, this provides an educative device. Not everyone knows how to be a critic, still less a reader, but everyone can be a witch-finder. There’s an enliveningly competitive aspect to the game of trying to free our own tastes from moral aspersion, and it’s an obviously relevant way of making a meaningful engagement with what would otherwise be just boring old lit. (If anything, it seems that the aspersed authors receive an unfair amount of attention.)



Blessed be this place,
More blessed still this tower;
A bloody, arrogant power
           Rose out of the race
Uttering, mastering it,
           Rose like these walls from these
           Storm-beaten cottages —
           In mockery I have set
A powerful emblem up,
And sing it rhyme upon rhyme
In mockery of a time
Half dead at the top.


Alexandria’s was a beacon tower, and Babylon’s
An image of the moving heavens, a log-book of the sun’s journey and the moon’s;
And Shelley had his towers, thought’s crowned powers he called them once.

I declare this tower is my symbol; I declare
This winding, gyring, spiring treadmill of a stair is my ancestral stair;
That Goldsmith and the Dean, Berkeley and Burke have travelled there.

Swift beating on his breast in sibylline frenzy blind
Because the heart in his blood-sodden breast had dragged him down into mankind,
Goldsmith deliberately sipping at the honey-pot of his mind,

And haughtier-headed Burke that proved the State a tree,
That this unconquerable labyrinth of the birds, century after century,
Cast but dead leaves to mathematical equality;

And God-appointed Berkeley that proved all things a dream,
That this pragmatical, preposterous pig of a world, its farrow that so solid seem,
Must vanish on the instant if the mind but change its theme;

Saeva Indignatio and the labourer’s hire,
The strength that gives our blood and state magnanimity of its own desire;
Everything that is not God consumed with intellectual fire.


The purity of the unclouded moon
Has flung its arrowy shaft upon the floor.
Seven centuries have passed and it is pure,
The blood of innocence has left no stain.
There, on blood-saturated ground, have stood
Soldier, assassin, executioner,
Whether for daily pittance or in blind fear
Or out of abstract hatred, and shed blood,
But could not cast a single jet thereon.
Odour of blood on the ancestral stair!
And we that have shed none must gather there
And clamour in drunken frenzy for the moon.


Upon the dusty, glittering windows cling,
And seem to cling upon the moonlit skies,
Tortoiseshell butterflies, peacock butterflies,
A couple of night-moths are on the wing.
Is every modern nation like the tower,
Half-dead at the top? No matter what I said,
For wisdom is the property of the dead,
A something incompatible with life; and power,
Like everything that has the stain of blood,
A property of the living; but no stain
Can come upon the visage of the moon
When it has looked in glory from a cloud.



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