Tuesday, July 19, 2005


by William Butler Yeats

"In our time the destiny of man presents its meaning in political terms." --Thomas Mann

How can I, that girl standing there,
My attention fix
On Roman or on Russian
Or on Spanish politics?
Yet here's a traveled man that knows
What he talks about,
And there's a politician
That has read and thought,
And maybe what they say is true
Of war and war's alarms,
But O that I were young again
And held her in my arms!

* * *

This poem pretty much describes my attitude on politics. I can accept that it's important, and yet I can't seem to fix my attention on it. I am more likely just to trust people who seem like they know what they are talking about. I myself am far more interested in whatever personal matters are on my mind at the time.

The puzzling thing about the poem is the question of the speaker. In the beginning, the speaker describes herself as, "I, that girl standing there." However, in the last two lines, the speaker wishes to be "young again" and be holding a girl. He seems to be an old man, not a young girl.

My conclusion is that there are two speakers. I can't be entirely sure where one leaves off and the other begins, but it seems to me that the only lines spoken by the old man are the last two.

Another possible conclusion is that "that girl standing there" is not really in apposition with "I," but instead is a random thought, a distraction, passing through the speaker's mind. That is not what is suggested by the grammar; still, one must make allowances for the tendency of modern poets to confuse the grammar in their poems, deliberately leaving things unclear.

It seems to me very appropriate, however, for a girl to be saying these lines. She is more interested in people than in ideas. This, it seems to me, is a reason why it took so long for women to gain the vote. A good many of them didn't want it, because they just weren't interested in politics. They preferred to let men they trusted -- their husbands and fathers -- make the decisions for them. I vote only because I think the nation needs all the help it can get to keep from going to pot. I don't enjoy political debates like men seem to.

Yet even a man, when he is in love, as seems to be the case with the speaker in the last two lines, can doubt that "the destiny of man presents its meaning in political terms." To him, the destiny of man is whether or not he gets to hold his love again in his arms. Beside that, politics can pall.


Mark said...

Thanks, and I have to say that I sympathize with your attiude toward politics. I see it's a sort of duty, which one fulfills even if it seems totally repulsive to one's nature and temperament.

If memory serves, it was Plato who said that the only thing necessary for evil men to succeed is for good men to do nothing; boy, was he right. Things haven't changed much in 23 centuries, have they?

Mark said...

Incidentally, where is that quotation of Thomas Mann taken from? It seems familiar (I've read an unhealthily large amount of his work, and enjoyed every line of it), but I can't quite place it.

John said...

I don't think that the speaker has to be a man in the last two lines. The speaker of the whole poem might be a mother who has lost a daughter, possibly to war.

Santiago said...

I think Mann's line is key. The speaker of the poem yearns for a destiny beyond the immediate realities of politics. To confine your destiny to political terms is a real tyranny--it shuts you off from the Mystery, from Transcendence. But a glance at a beautiful girl rekindles the very human desire that we all have for the true, good and beautiful. A nice girl is more attractive than an issue of the Weekly Standard...

Filia Dei said...

Couldn't it be something quite simple? Try reading it again, adding the implied 'with' after the first comma, and thinking of Yeats listening to someone arguing about war on a soap box, (just as they are in London at the moment.) Then wouldn't he be saying that political decisions are not important, but tehy are so because you have to love to make anything important?

I think it's just a gentle reminder that political philosphy, like all philosphy must be applied, and that requires really living.

Which I guess means I have just agreed with all of you in a convoluted way. I've determined WHY Mark feels obligated to be involved (He loves someone), WHO gave John the idea a woman was the central figure (the girl Yeats loved), and where Santiago will direct his trancendence, (applied politics).

Ain't I just egotistical and manipulative, now?

Sheila said...

I've no idea where the quotation came from; it's part of the original poem.

Yes, I agree with Filia Dei in agreeing with everyone in a convoluted way.

I hear Chesterton was against women's suffrage. I'm not 100% sure why. Anyone know? And anyone agree with him? I sort of wish we didn't have to vote -- but then again, I don't know if I really trust the men of this country quite enough. My opinion is that if the men really listened to the women, we wouldn't need to vote.

Filia Dei said...

Oh dear, dear, dear, you have been reading The Windmill on Chesterton, haven't you! The Chesterton text usually cited to support that is 'What's Wrong with the World.' and you can read it online at http://www.ccel.org/c/chesterton/wrongworld/wrongworld.txt

My personal reccollection was that GK was arguing against extreme forms of feminism as exhibited in his day. I don't think he was necessarily argueing against women voting, so much as argueing aginst women feeling like they were second class citizens if they had any distinction from men in practical life experience. But it's been a while since I re-read the passage.

The last bit you wrote makes me think of that line in the song from Mary Poppins: '...Though we adore men individually, we agree that, as a group, they're ra-ther stu-pid...')

If we were all GOOD, of course no one would need to vote, and we could all go live in Thomas More's Utopia.

Sheila said...

You definitely have a point.

I've been reading What's Wrong with the World already. Still no sign of anti-women's-suffrage views, but I'll keep reading.

Filia Dei said...

I think its Part 3, FEMINISM, OR THE MISTAKE ABOUT WOMAN: I: The Un-millitary Suffragette.
But always good to read the whole thing so you have the context. Especially with Chesterton!

Santiago said...

Hahaha, here in Kansas we have a lady senator who publicly said that "If men had done their job, then women wouldnt NEED to vote." She actually attends a parish staffed by priests from the Priestly Fraternity of St Peter, where I as a young high schooler was Confirmed. I remember the librarian at my middle school started a petition to have the lady recalled. I can't say that I agree with her...

She literally was a WALKING CONTRADICTION. So funny.

I ran accross GKC's critique of women's suffrage once but I stopped reading it because...YES, bcause it appeared to me to be too irrelevent. I know that relevance is not something that a lover of wisdom should care about, but in this case, I did. Long live Susan B Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, yeah!

Who here is a Feminist for Life?

Santiago said...

I said, "I can't say that I agree with her." I meant, I can't say that I agree with the Lady Senator. I did agree with the librarian, that she ought to be recalled. But I didn't like the librarian for other reasons... she was mean. I fully support women's suffrage, now and forever, just wanted to clear that up. ;)

Sheila said...

Well, you're a guy. You probably are afraid you'll get burned at the stake if you don't support women's suffrage.

As for me, I consider it (pretty much) a necessary evil, like women working. We have to be allowed to work, and we have to be paid fairly, because some women have children to support and no husbands. But that doesn't mean it wouldn't be better for them to have husbands to support them, so that they didn't have to work.

Sheila said...

And then again, maybe voting at all is a necessary evil. There's a monarchist in me that keeps trying to get out . . . ; )