“The message hits you like a lead bus” – Charlie Booker on the pseudo-subversiveness of Banksy, 2006

I didn’t realise that this piece is from as far back as 2006. Twelve years ago! Charlie Booker’s persona can grate after a fairly little while, but on Banksy he was right on the nose:

Banksy first became famous for his stencilled subversions of pop-culture images; one showed John Travolta and Samuel L Jackson in a famous pose from Pulp Fiction, with their guns replaced by bananas. What did it mean? Something to do with the glamourisation of violence, yeah? Never mind. It looked cool. Most importantly, it was accompanied by the name “BANKSY” in huge letters, so everyone knew who’d done it. This, of course, is the real message behind all of Banksy’s work, despite any appearances to the contrary.

Booker’s only getting warmed up:

Take his political stuff. One featured that Vietnamese girl who had her clothes napalmed off. Ho-hum, a familiar image, you think. I’ll just be on my way to my 9 to 5 desk job, mindless drone that I am. Then, with an astonished lurch, you notice sly, subversive genius Banksy has stencilled Mickey Mouse and Ronald McDonald either side of her.

Wham! The message hits you like a lead bus: America … um … war … er … Disney … and stuff. Wow. In an instant, your worldview changes forever. Your eyes are opened. Staggering away, mind blown, you flick v-signs at a Burger King on the way home. Nice one Banksy! You’ve shown us the truth, yeah?

That’s the spirit! The rest of the piece is on the same lines, and even in the short space of a few more paragraphs Booker’s rhetorical approach is close to outstaying its welcome – but he has already skewered Banksy’s pretensions perfectly.

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Let’s Get Sophisticated! #SophistiPop Old and New …. with Bryan Ferry, ABC, Michael Franks, Destroyer, Red Box, Aztec Camera, Marshall Crenshaw and the Style Council

“Sophisti-Pop” is a subgenre of pop that takes musical elements from jazz, MOR, synthpop and what could be best called easy listening, and mixes them with a more literary-than-visceral, slightly detached lyrical sensibility. And a lot of sax. Or at least that’s one attempt at a definition, although the songs I included on this playlist include plenty of outliers:

I also feel Sophti-Pop’s origins are obviously well before the 1980s. For me, the Roxy Music of Avalon (1981)  and Oh Yeah (1980)  are the quintessential Sophisti-Pop band and the Bryan Ferry of Slave to Love (1985) the quintessential Sophisti-pop singer but in Ferry’s 1970 solo work especially we find pop as Sophisti as it comes.  Here is Smoke Gets in Your Eyes from 1974’s Another Time, Another Place (and the tux he is rocking on the cover it the quintessential Sophisti-pop look):

Actually maybe the quintessential sophist-pop look is Martin Fry’s gold tuxedo. Final use of the word “quintessential” in this post: for me, “Valentine’s Day” is the quintessential sophisti-pop song. It has a quality of being overwrought, stylised and more than a little tongue in cheek – while at the same time being totally sincerely heartbroken. Oh and “School For Scandal/Guess Who’s Enrolled” is the quinte- sorry, archetypal Sophisti-Pop couplet:

Reviewing my playlist there are quite a few entries I felt had to be included more for representativeness rather than great enthusiasm on my part (Level 42, Temper Trap) but also many neglected artists who would shy away from the Sophisti-Pop label. Red Box are best known for The Circle and the Square, a dominant album of my childhood (the pop hit “For America” being a gateway song to a small-s-and-unironic sophisticated album) but in recent years I discovered the even stronger follow up, Motive. And here is opening song Train.

Another recent discovery has been Michael Franks, definitely from the jazz end of the spectrum, setting a rueful template which Paddy McAloon amongst others have follow. Here’s When Sly Calls (Don’t Touch That Phone):

The playlist is called Sophisti-Pop Old And New, and to my mind this kind of music has aged quite well (better than it might have seemed during the grungey 90s?). New sophisti-pop tinged music is still being made.  Destroyer’s 2011 album Kaputt is highly Sophisti, especially the title track, but here is the more downtempo Chinatown:

Not a sax to be heard in Aztec Camera’s Spanish Horses, but it’s as Sophisti as they come:

I knew  Your’e My Favourite Waste of Time best in the rather stereotypically 80s Owen Paul cover, but here is the original by Marshall Crenshaw which has a more Sophisti sensibilty :

I could go on and on and on and on (in fact, I have already written and deleted “finally” about five times in this post) but the final finally is here – and I am desperately trying to avoid the q word but the Style Council’s “Shout to the Top” is, well, um, a really good example of Sophisti Pop:

 

 

 

Non-Binary Review call for submissions on Dante’s Inferno (deadline 24th Oct 2018)

More info here:

NonBinary Review is a quarterly digital literary journal that joins poetry, fiction, essays, and art around each issue’s theme. We invite  authors to explore each theme in any way that speaks to them: re-write a  familiar story from a new point of view, mash genres together, give us a  personal essay about some aspect of our theme that has haunted you all  your life. We also invite art that will accompany the literature. All submissions must have a clear and obvious relationship to some specific aspect of the source text (a character, episode, or setting). Submissions only related by a vague, general, thematic similarity are unlikely to be accepted.

We are open to submissions which relate to Dante Alighieri’s 14-century epic poem The Inferno, which you can find herePlease bear in mind that we’re looking for pieces that relate to the BOOK ONLY. References movies or television shows will not be accepted.

Submissions which do not tie into the plots or make use of characters/settings from the book WILL NOT be considered–there needs to be a clear connection to the source material. 

We want language that makes us reach for a dictionary or a tissue or  both. Words in combinations and patterns that leave the faint of heart a  little dizzy.

Let it snow!

Let it snow!

I have just discovered Maja Pitamic’s site, much to my pleasure. And it seems somehow fitting to reblog this in the midst of a prolonged spell of overly hot weather.

Maja Pitamic

Seasons Greetings!

Here are some of my favourite snow scenes.

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Hunters in the snow by Bruegel the elder 1563

Surely this painting is in everyone’s favourite snow paintings. The composition is flawless, we are there with the hunters surveying the wintry scene below. The ice-tone cool colours giving the feeling of relentless cold.The bending bodies of not only the hunters but the dogs too give the impression of utter weariness. There has been no luck for these hunters today.

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Winter landscape by Avercamp c 1620

Here by contrast to the Bruegel we have a classic Avercamp scene. The whole village has come out to enjoy skating on the frozen water. I love all the details from the wobbly toddler, the speeding men showing off and the courting couples they are all there.

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In complete contrast to the Avercamp we have this wood cut Winter Evening in Japan by Hokusai c…

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I dabble, with unapologetic amateurism, in drawing. There are all sorts of intellectualised reasons I could give. One influential one was reading Tristan Gooley’s observations on how well artists read landscapes. Ultimately enough to say I quite enough it and it is nice to do something without a particular thought of what others might think… and there is a nice sense of achievement when it isn’t totally awful.

Anyway one thing that dabbling in drawing and sketching has done for me is an appreciation of how skilled artists are, and a realisation that capturing water in all its forms is a stupendous human achievement. I haven’t read Tristan Gooley’s How To Read Water yet, and I wonder if he also refers to how artists treat water.

Therefore I was fascinated by this post on the blog of artist and teacher Maja Pitamic:

Water in all its forms was a source of endless fascination and interest for Turner. It was for him an almost mystical element that gave his work not just a visual impact but an emotional depth. From the rivers of the Rhine and the British Isles to the channel sea off Margate to tranquil smooth […]

via Turner and water — Maja Pitamic

“The Faber Popular Reciter”, Introduction by Kingsley Amis

In a letter of 12 August 1977 to Robert Conquest, Kingsley Amis wrote:

The Faber Book of Non-Trendy Verse has been easier and is going faster: a careful look through the Dict of Quots took me most of the way, then hymnals and old-fashioned anthologies.

“The Faber Book of Non-Trendy Verse” is The Faber Popular Reciter, edited and introduced by Amis (the “Dict of Quots” is the dictionary of quotations; obvious to most readers no doubt, but I was initially thrown!) Here is the blurb, which along with the Conquest letter quote, gives a good sense of the thing:

I have never quite taken to Martin, but the elder Amis is an interesting figure. I previously noted his judgments, too easy to dismiss as crustily reactionary, can be surprising. “Stanley and the Women” contains, amongst other things, one of the best, most realistic and least sentimental portrayals of schizophrenia in a novel. Anthony Powell commented of him that “his hatred of pretension was itself a form of pretension.”

His introduction to The Faber Popular Reciter is a splendid, at times tendentious, always interesting little essay in its own right. There are few poems I can think of since the 1930s that could possibly be considered recitation pieces in Amis’ terms (as opposed to poetry reading performances) – perhaps Heaney’s “Mid-Term Break.” As the book is out of print and I cannot find any trace of this introduction online, I have taken the liberty of reproducing it in full below.

The book itself is a splendid collection of splendid, and very non-trendy (to the degree they may have a trendiness of their own again) poems. There are five Wordsworth poems, despite Amis’ words below. There are two Yeats, the Lake Isle of Inisfree which I would expect and Easter 1916, which I wouldn’t (I would have thought The Second Coming, or The Ballad of Father Gilligan, or many others, were more recitation pieces…. but a terrible beauty is born is a great phrase I suppose)

When I was a schoolboy before the Second World War, the majority of the poems in this book were too well known to be worth reprinting. If they were not in one anthology they were in a couple of others; they were learned by heart and recited in class, or performed as turns at grown-up gatherings; they were sung in church or chapel or on other public occasions. Some were set as texts for classical translation, an exercise that gives you insight hard to achieve by other means: the fact, noted by my fellow and me, that Mrs Hemans’ ‘Graves of a Household’ went into Latin elegiacs with exceptional ease encourages a second look at that superficially superficial piece.

Most of that, together with much else, has gone. I suppose hymns are still sung here and there, classical verses written and – another way of gaining insight – poems learned by heart and recited. But in any real sense the last could only happen in school, as part of an academic discipline. Any adult who commits a poem to memory does so for personal satisfaction; if he utters it in company he does so to share it with like-minded friends (or as a harmless means of showing off), and as one who quotes, not as one who recites.

I should be sorry, the, if readers of this book were to be confined to those in search of material for what we usually understand by recitation. ‘Reciter’ is a nineteenth-century term used here for a collection of characteristically nineteenth-century objects: poems that sound well and go well when spoken in a declamatory style, a style very far indeed removed from any of those to be found at that (alas!) characteristically twentieth-century occasion, the poetry recital, with all its exhibitionism and sheer bad art. If recitation has died out in the family circle, reading aloud has not, and it is as material for this that my anthology is ideally intended; let me remind the doubtful that here is a third way, less troublesome that the first two, of finding out more about a piece of writing and so enjoying it more. Others will perhaps be glad to have within one binding a number of old favourites now obscured by changes in taste or fashion; yet others, younger than the other others, may make a discovery, if only that poetry need be none the worse for being neither egotistical nor formless.

I mentioned just now the nineteenth century as the main source of my selection, and sure enough is drawn from authors born either in its course or so soon before as to have done the larger part of their growing-up within in, between 1788 and 1888. More than this, the pieces from longer ago are very much of the sort that the nineteenth-century poetical outlook could accept without strain: Shakespeare at his most direct, Milton on his blindness, ballads, hymns, the patriotic, the sententious (https://www.poemhunter.com/poem/the-character-of-a-happy-life/Wotton, Gray). Thus the Elizabethan period and the years immediately following contribute more than the major part of the seventeenth century, and there is one solitary poem in the Augustan heroic couplet.

No age of course has a single poetical outlook, always half a dozen. I was talking about the kind of person of that time who was intelligent and educated without having we would now call literary tastes, who liked poetry without finding it in any way a necessity and much of whose contact with it would have been through recitation and song, both sacred and profane. What our man, or woman, required is what first verse for rendering in those ways: absolute clarity, heavy rhythms and noticeable rhymes with some break in the sense preferred at the end of the line. (Outside Shakespeare, understood to be a special case, there are only two blank-verse pieces here, both by Tennyson, a different special case) Subject-matter must suit the occasion by being public, popular, what unites the individual with some large group of his neighbours. The emotional requirement is that the reader, or hearer, be stirred and inspirited more than illuminated or moved to the gentler emotions: love poetry, for instance, can often be recited effectively, but not in the course of the kind of recitation I have described. For another set of reasons, comic poetry is likewise inappropriate.

The exclusions necessitated by all this obviously exclude a very large part of the best poetry in the language, even of that written in the nineteenth century. For instance, I have felt bound to omit Wordsworth, the poet of Nature: ‘The Solitary Reaper’ gets in because it takes an untypically detached, almost a townsman’s, view of the central figure. Shelley, Browning and Arnold are among those less than fairly represented; Charles Kingsley, Alfred Austin and Austin Dobson are not greater poets than Coleridge, Keats and (Some would add) Hopkins, who are altogether left out. Perhaps popular poetry, outside the accidental contributions of poets whose critical esteem rests on other achievements, can never be anything but what George Orwell called good bad poetry.

The phrase occurs in his entertaining and valuable review-article on Kipling, whose works he describes as ‘almost a shameful pleasure, like the taste for cheap sweets that some people secretly carry into middle life’. Orwell goes on to give other examples of good bad poetry, half of which I have included here, and remarks, accurately enough on his terms, that there was no such thing until about 1790. The characteristics of this kind of poetry, he says, are vulgarity and sentimentality, though he softens the latter term by adding: ‘ A good bad poem is a graceful monument to the obvious. It records in memorable form – for verse is a mnemonic device, among other things – some emotion which nearly every human being can share. The merit of a poem like ‘When All the World Is Young, Lad’ [‘Young and Old’] is that, however sentimental it may be, its sentiment is ‘true’ sentiment in the sense that you are bound to find yourself thinking the thought it expresses sooner or later, and then, if you happen to know the poem, it will come back into your mind and seem better than it did before,. Such poems are a kind of rhyming proverb ….’ Sentiment is usually considered different from and higher than sentimentality, and an example with almost universal appeal (which is perhaps a nice way of saying ‘vulgar’) hardly seems to deserve being called bad, even good bad. Not all popular verse, again, is in the Kipling manner; perhaps that manner deserves to be called vulgar and sentimental, though to me it does not in principle, but I can find nothing of either quality in , say, ‘The Old Squire’ 1887‘, ‘Ha’nacker Mill’ or the poems of the Great War that close the volume. Indeed, to anyone not blinkered by political prejudice, from which category I would exclude Orwell, ‘The Soldier must surely be counted one of the greatest poems of our century.

And yet … Well, I have included ‘Horatius‘ entire; I could not bear to cut so much as a single stanza; even to glance at it in the course of preparing the book sent a thrill through me; it is probably the best and most characteristic we have of military-patriotic popular verse – in it, Rome of course has the appeal of a golden-age England, though there are English notions in the ranks of Tuscany too. And yet there is something unreal, something almost ritualized about it, not vulgar not sentimental as those words are normally applied, something not of pretence but of let’s pretend. The brave days of old belong to the time when all the world was young: this is what used to be called a boy’s poem, founded on values that are few, simple and certain. They are none the less valuable for that, and certainly none the less fundamental. The distinction of Macaulay’s magnificent poem is that it enables the adult reader, or hearer, to recover in full some of the strong emotions of boyhood, an experience which is not a lapse from maturity but an endorsement of it.

For a number of reasons, a poet of our own day cannot write like that – in fact, during the 1930s, this entire literary genre quite suddenly disappeared, never to return. Such a poet would certainly lack in the first place the required skill and application. Should he possess these, he would even so find himself using a dead style and forms. Clarity, heavy rhythms, strong rhymes and the rest are the vehicles of confidence, of a kind of innocence, of shared faiths and other long-extinct states of mind. The two great themes of popular verse were the nation and the Church, neither of which, to say the least, confers much sense of community any longer. Minor themes, like admiration of or desire for a simple rustic existence, have just been forgotten. The most obvious case of it all is the disintegrative shock of the Great War.

I thought at first of grouping the poems by subject, but was defeated by a shortage both of categories and of poems that fitted squarely into one and only one. (I should perhaps explain here to readers under forty that the generous selection of war and battle pieces is due not so much to national belligerence as to the fact that their fellow-countrymen used to feel peculiarly united at such times. The feeling persisted for some years after it had become impossible to write patriotic verse.) So – the poems are arranged chronologically instead, according to the year of their authors’ births. Although this is not a perfect plan, it has the advantage of offering a view not only of literary developments but also parts of our history. Read in this way too, some poems shed an interesting, even ironical, light on those that follow them.

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“The Best Lack All Conviction, while the Worst / Are Full Of Passionate Intensity”

According to this article from August 2016, lines from Yeats’ The Second Coming were quoted more often in the first seven months of 2016 than in any of the prior 30 years. I have a feeling the final score for 2016 eclipsed the first seven months comfortably. For what it’s worth, here is the text of a poem I once learned as a Speech And Drama recitation:

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?

Since reading this passage from Alasdair MacIntyre, I can’t help thinking of Nietzsche when considering this poem. And it turns out this paper explores the relationship between the poet and the philosopher in this poem in great depth (I have excepted the paper here, omitting about half):

In the absence of a thorough examination of the impact on “The Second Coming” of Yeats’s historical thought, it is arguable that the meaning the poet intended has not only been consistently overlooked, but that in general the poem has been taken to mean the opposite of what he intended. This essay offers a reassessment of the thought and imagery, of the response Yeats wished to evoke, and of the antithetical rhetoric of his dialectical view of history.

The text provides a striking example of the synthetic technique which produced some of Yeats’s finest poems, one which condenses into imagery as much of the poet’s thought as is possible but which also creates interpretative problems of which he was fully aware and which he attributed to the compressed, logical rigor of the ideas: “It is hard for a writer, who has spent much labor upon his style, to remember that thought, which seems to him natural and logical like that style, may be unintelligible to others” ( Variorum 853) . However, Yeats did not believe his philosophy to be either obscure or idiosyncratic; in fact he found confirmation of it in the work of Boehme, Heraclitus, Jung, Nietzsche, Spengler, and Vico and in Neoplatonism and the Upanishads. More surprisingly, he considered the intellectual equivalent of his own imaginative richness of suggestion to be the “packed logic,” the “difficult scornful lucidity,” of Alfred North Whitehead, Professor of Applied Mathematics at Imperial College, London, and subsequently of Philosophy at Harvard, and Bertrand Russell’s collaborator on the Principia Mathematica (Letters 714). Russell’s “plebeian loquacity” infuriated Yeats who admire d “something aristocratic” in White head’s mind, a combination of terse clarity and suggestive complexity in thought and expression which he labored assiduously to attain, nowhere more so than in this poem.

Yeats wrote “The Second Coming” at the time he was collecting, from his wife’s automatic writing, the material from which he created the philosophical system later set out in A Vision, the “very profound, very exciting mystical philosophy” which was to change radically the nature of his verse, and make him feel that for the first time he understood human life: “I live with a strange sense of revelation. . . .You will be astonished at the change in my work, at its intricate passion” (Letters 643-44). In reality this philosophy was neither completely new nor entirely mystical in origin, but rather a crystallization of what Yeats had read, thought, experienced and written over many years, the result of the process whereby he had “pieced his thoughts into philosophy” (“Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen,” Variorum 429).

Despite Yeats’s own conviction that this had produced a striking change in his writing, many critics have demurred. There has often been a reluctance to take Yeats’s thinking seriously and, partly as a consequence of this, a refusal to accept that he successfully expressed his beliefs in his poetry, especially a skepticism regarding- what Graham Martin has called his “cryptic symbolism” (230). In fact the symbolism in “The Second Coming” is anything but cryptic, except in the limited sense that it embodies some of the most profound elements o his philosophy in a concentrated and complex form which he recognized might prove not immediately intelligible to the reader, but which is entirely logical and consistent. Moreover, it mines a deep and rich vein–literary, philosophical, historical, political and mythical–which has little, if anything, to do with the occult.

In the course of this discussion of “The Second Coming” I shall point to some remarkable resonances between the work of these two writers [Yeats and Nietzsche] in both language and meaning, while the critical emphasis will of course be on Yeats, not Nietzsche. Moreover, the question of literary influence is far too complex to be addressed here, and I am not in any way suggesting that either Yeats’s language or meaning is directly derived from his reading of Nietzsche.

From the outset the poet invites, indeed demands, reference to his philosophic system, the central symbol of which contains two interpenetrating gyres or cones, perpetually in conflict and alternately victorious.(4) Whatever mystical origins Yeats may have claimed for this idea, it is a recognizably dialectical, and not necessarily an occult, concept. Despite the importance of this symbolism in Yeats’s thought, it is rarely introduced into his poetry as explicitly as it is here; its use is thus a direct pointer to what he intended to be the poem’s specific philosophical and historical context:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre The falcon cannot hear the falconer, (“The Second Coming” lines 1-2)

and throughout the poem bird imagery contributes to a coherent pattern, though not explicitly.

….

Successive drafts of the poem indicate that Yeats had in mind the First World War (“bloody frivolity”) , the Bolshevik Revolution (the most striking instance of the destruction of an aristocratic society by egalitarian forces), the threat of anarchy and widespread violence in Ireland, all of which seemed to confirm Nietzsche’s predictions, and the prophecies of Macgregor Mathers in the late 1890s, of immense wars accompanied by and followed by anarchy (Stallworthy 18-19).

Violence, which for Yeats was symptomatic of the end of one era and the birth of another, becomes widespread as the inverted cone reaches its point of greatest expansion: “Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world” as the mass society promulgates its disruptive ideologies, a line that creates a singular effect from the inherent ambiguity of the word “mere” and its surprising juxtaposition with “anarchy.” Here it has a primary meaning as a superlative in the sense of “sheer anarchy,” suggestive of vastly destructive forces, and a secondary meaning as a scornful understatement, as in the phrase “a mere bagatelle.” In an early draft Yeats had written “vile anarchy,” which is more emphatic but which lacks the ambiguity and internal tension of the final version. The change was completely successful and provides for the first stanza a controlled center which does hold, and which allows the subsequent images of violence to intensify.

Yeats enjoyed the description of the Christian phenomenon as a “fabulous, formless darkness” which blotted out “every beautiful thing,” and “the darkness drops again” because the antithetical phases “are but, at the best, phases of a momentary illumination like that of a lightning flash” (A Vision 278, 284). They may even be embodied in some great man; when Yeats and his friends talked of Parnell’s pride and impassivity (shared by the sphinx symbol), “the proceeding epoch with its democratic bonhomie seemed to grin through a horse collar.” Parnell was the symbol that “made apparent, or made possible .. . that epoch’s contrary: contrary, not negation, not refutation…. I am Blake’s disciple, not Hegel’s; ‘contraries are positive. A negation is not a contrary” (Variorum 835).

Moreover, it is in the nature of the dialectic that one era must end, and the next begin, in violence and Yeats’s attitude to violence in his later years is unquestionably ambiguous. In terms of individual suffering he abhorred it; as an intrinsic element of historical necessity he accepted it, at times even welcomed it. Assuming the mask of Michael Robartes and employing a bird symbolism that illuminates the “shadows of the indignant desert birds,” he wrote: “Dear predatory birds, prepare for war. . . . Test art, morality, custom, thought, by Thermopylae. . . . Love war because of its horror, that belief may be changed, civilisation renewed” (A Vision 52-53). This reads like Nietzsche at his most provocative and raises the question of whether it should be interpreted literally or symbolically. Although in both Yeats and Nietzsche references to joyful or ecstatic destruction, or indeed to an apparent glorification of war, are deliberately ambiguous, they often suggest the destruction of outdated and outworn beliefs, a “transvaluation of values.” Such references are legion in Nietzsche’s work. A “definite joy even in destruction ” is one of the prime conditions of a “Dionysian life-task” and a prerequisite of creativity: “Change of values. . . .Always doth he destroy who hath to be a creator,” including self-destruction: “Ready must thou be to burn thyself in thine own flame; how couldst thou become new if thou have not first become ashes]” (Ecce Homo 113. Zarathustra 74, 79). If anything, Yeats’s invocation to love war because its horror can have a regenerative effect is even more provocative than Nietzsche’s pronouncements, one of the more notorious of which reads: “Your enemy shall ye seek; your war shall ye wage, and for the sake of your thoughts] And if your thoughts succumb, your uprightness shall still shout triumph thereby] Ye shall love peace as a means to new wars–and the short peace more than the long” (Zarathustra 62). I think that in such an instance there is little doubt that what Nietzsche was alluding to was a philosophical “enemy” and a personal, intellectual “war.” Yet this does indicate how a philosophy which purports to be inspirational can become imprisoned in its own logical systematization. Those like Yeats who advocate a transvaluation of values do not create new values but substitute opposites in place of those they wish to destroy and Nietzsche was certainly aware of this:

The time has come when we have to pay for having been Christians for two thousand years: we are losing the centre of gravity by virtue of which we have lived; we are lost for a while. Abruptly we plunge into the opposite valuations, with all the energy that such an extreme overvaluation of man has generated in man (Will to Power 20, section 30).

Apart from the fact that this could be read as a gloss on “The Second Coming,” consider how Yeats categorized his own transvaluation of values:

After an age of necessity, truth, goodness, mechanism, science, democracy, abstraction, peace, comes an age of freedom, fiction, evil, kindred, art, aristocracy, particularity, war (A Vision 52).

The substitutions are deliberate and great care has been taken in arranging the contrasting concepts. Compare this:

A primary dispensation looking beyond itself towards a transcendent power is dogmatic, levelling, unifying, feminine, humane, peace its means and end; an antithetical dispensation obeys imminent power, is expressive, hierarchical, multiple, masculine, harsh, surgical (A Vision 263).

To Yeats these were statements of fact, but more significantly they were statements of preference. Accordingly we have these symbolic contraries: a rocking cradle and a monolithic sphinx, the Second Coming and the vast image with an impassive gaze, Bethlehem and beast, since the “new civilisation was
about to be born from all that our age had rejected” (Explorations 393), and the rough beast is bound for Bethlehem because “each age unwinds the thread another age had wound” (A Vision 270).(5)

The predictable response to these contraries is likely to be disgust because the emotive impact of the language is determined by the values of the dying era, values nevertheless which Yeats frequently repudiated, sometimes, as in “The Gyres,” with “tragic joy”:

When a civilisation ends … the whole turns bottom upwards, Nietzsche’s “transvaluation of all values.” . . .Yet we who have hated the age are joyous and happy. The new discipline wherever enforced or thought will recall forgotten beautiful faces. Whenever we or our forefathers have been most Christian-not the Christ of Byzantine mosaic but the soft, domesticated Christ of the painter’s brush . . . we have been haunted by those faces dark with mystery, cast up by that other power that has ever more and more wrestled with ours, each living the other’s death, dying the other’s life (Explorations 433-34).

Yeats was convinced that in two or three generations secular thought would have to accept that “mechanical theory” had no reality. Then it might be possible to recapture the sense that, in the words of the Syrian in The Resurrection, there is something human knowledge cannot explain, something of supreme importance that “lies outside knowledge, outside order”–the irrational, the supernatural, myth. Yeats’s Christ is a living part of a great tapestry, much older than “the child born in the cavern”; it is the embodiment of his belief that “the supernatural and the natural are knit together.” He was sure that this belief would become generally accepted and that it would regenerate European society: “To escape a dangerous fanaticism we must study a new science; at that moment Europeans may find something attractive in a Christ posed against a background not of Judaism but of Druidism, not shut off in dead history, but flowing, concrete, phenomenal. I was born into this faith, have lived in it, and shall die in it” (Essays and Introductions 518) . This is not a plea for irrationality, but a desire to redress the balance between mechanical theory and myth, to reach an acceptance of reality of which myth, the supernatural, that something which “lies outside knowledge, outside order,” are an integral part. Yeats’s critique of Christianity and what he considered its ramifications–humanitarianism, democracy, scientific rationalism-was not an attempt to destroy an old tradition so much as an attempt to revive an even older one, to reassert a morality which Christianity had destroyed, or at least had stood on its head, to recapture a world-view which existed before “the umbilical cord which united Christianity to the ancient world” was cut, in which nobody can say where Christianity begins and Druidism ends.

Nietzsche conceived of Christianity as “hostile to life,” an attempt to deny “the doubt and terror of reality.” He thus invented a “fundamental counter-dogma,” an anti-Christian counter-evaluation of life: “I baptized it, not without some impertinence–for who could be sure of the proper name of the Antichrist?–with the name of a Greek God: I called it Dionysian ” (Ecce Homo 140, 156). In the Greek pantheon Dionysus, like Christ, was a God who died and was reborn; he was also a god of vegetation and animal life who took on different animal forms, one of which was the lion. (Cavendish 147).(8) We have already seen that the Egyptian sphinx–part man, part lion–was a physical manifestation of just such another God, Horus, also represented by the figure of the falcon and revered as the rising sun, born afresh daily, the symbol of renewed life. Such an intricate pattern of ideas, symbols and myths cannot be coincidental nor entirely unconscious. It is a part of that pattern of thought which seemed to the poet as “natural and logical” as his style, and which gives to the sphinx/rough beast symbol the “imaginative richness of suggestion” thatYeats intended it to have.

“The Second Coming” is emblematic of the astonishing effect Yeats claimed his philosophy was having on both the intellectual content and the style of his poetry, and of the “intricate passion” that was beginning to characterize his work at this time. More than any other poem it marks the change to a more idiomatic use of language, a terse complexity of thought and imagery, an energetic muscularity of rhythm, in a word the “masculinity” he sought to achieve. L. A. G. Strong in a letter to Yeats expressed admiration for his ability to conjure up “with one swift, wrought phrase, a landscape, a sky, a weather and a history” (qtd. in Henn 111), and I have discussed what might be called Yeats’s rhetoric of history. The idea of historical recurrence provided him with a consistent, even deterministic, interpretation of past and present and more importantly a prediction for the future. It helped him to come to terms with the violence of the contemporary world as an integral, necessary, even positive manifestation of a period of historical crisis. It also freed him from any suggestion of a revolutionary, or even a reformist, intention since the dialectical movement of history was itself in the process of engendering a civilization of which he could approve. This would be the antithesis of the two-thousand-year Christian era which he believed had culminated politically in a movement founded on Hobbes and popularized by the Encyclopaedists and the French Revolution, and which, having exhausted itself, was useless for centuries to come. However, in his preface to A Vision Yeats anticipated the predictable question and so asked it of himself: did he actually believe in his system, that history fixed from “our central date,” the first day of “our era” (the birth of Christ), can be divided into contrasting periods of equal length] His answer was that he regarded them as stylistic arrangements of experience comparable to the cubes in the drawings of Wyndham Lewis, or the ovoids in Brancusi’s sculptures: “They have helped me to hold in a single thought reality and justice” (25). They were thus the building blocks of his mature aesthetic, one which produced in his late poetry what is probably the finest body of work of any poet writing in English in the twentieth century.

I have attempted to divest the language and imagery of “The Second Coming” of the preconceptions that have been grafted onto it, preconceptions that were not Yeats’s, and to explore what he intended to be its suggestive complexity. The following quotation from Richard Ellmann may be taken as indicative of the interpretation o the poem which has gained widespread currency:

In spite of his promise . . . that the next era would be subjective and preferable to the present, the god of that era, who rises from the desert sands . . . is no beneficent Dionysus but a monster. The poet’s vision of horror surmounts his vision of the cycles. . . . Whatever the new dispensation can bring, it inspires only a sense of horrible helplessness to avert what no man can desire. . . .Yeats is not fond of Christianity . . . yet at the end of the poem he envisages something far worse. The final intimation that the new god will be born in Bethlehem, which Christianity associates with passive infancy and the tenderness of maternal love, makes its brutishness particularly frightful (164-65, 259-60).

While this recognizes that Yeats had little veneration for Christianity, it invests the poem’s Christian allusions with a sense of reverence which not only did he not share, but towards which he was deeply antagonistic. Because of a failure, or an unwillingness, to respond to Yeats’s antithetical rhetoric in the way he intended, such an interpretation not only attributes to him value judgments he did not make, they are to all intents and purposes the opposite of those he did make. For Yeats, “all things are from antithesis” (A Vision 268) and his rhetorical juxtapositions produce a dialectical tension as in the text he confronts: the center with a centrifugal force it cannot control; a blood-dimmed tide and the ceremony of innocence; the best and the worst, a lack of conviction and a passionate intensity; a stony sleep vexed to nightmare and a rocking cradle; a slouching, rough beast and Bethlehem. These are reinforced elsewhere by terror and beauty, horror and renewal, love and war, massacre and salvation, an altar and a turbulent child. Compared with such dynamic antitheses, the idea of a “beneficent Dionysus” would have been to both Yeats and Nietzsche a simple, and meaningless, contradiction in terms.

For Nietzsche the dionysian attitude was a passionate affirmation of life, of all aspects of life, including tragedy and pessimism, the doubt and terror of reality, pain and suffering. It led him to what he believed was his supreme philosophical insight, Eternal Recurrence, which was not so much Yeats’s cyclical view of history as the recognition that this life is our eternal life, the willingness to affirm and relive each of life’s experiences, however painful, again and again throughout eternity”amor fati,” the apotheosis of the present moment. In a sense this was Nietzsche’s attempt to reclaim and reaffirm his own life, one which he believed had been unusually filled with pain and suffering. Yeats’s idea of historical recurrence was a fusion of the personal and the world-historical. On the one hand it justified his rejection of the values and beliefs of the age, an age he characterized as looking beyond humanity to a transcendent power, as democratic, leveling, egalitarian, anarchic, heterogeneous, feminine, humane–“tender” qualities symbolized here by a rocking cradle, Bethlehem and The Second Coming. On the other hand it made it possible for him to reclaim for a future age those values he cherished, a future that would obey imminent power, would be aristocratic, hierarchical, multiple, masculine, harsh and surgical–“hard, astringent” qualities symbolized by a monolithic sphinx and a rough beast.

Thus the confrontation between the Second Coming and the rough beast occurs in Yeats’s work in numerous forms, many of them Nietzschean in tone. Also writing out of a profound contempt for his age and what he considered to be its predominant values, Nietzsche almost willfully invited his contemporaries to misunderstand his rhetoric, his “philosophizing with a hammer”: “Caesar Borgia as Pope] Do you understand me?” (Complete Works 16: 228). Not surprisingly most of them didn’t. Nevertheless, this is a provocative assertion of a consistent theme in Nietzsche’s work, the clash throughout human history of “Renaissance” and “Reformation” values–the confrontation between a “higher” order of values that are “hard” and “noble,” that “say yea to life,” that “assured a future,” and “the opposing values of degeneration,” which he characterized as the morality of decadence: “Have you understood me] Dionysus versus Christ” (Ecce Homo 24, 136, 145). What he was doing in fact was inviting his readers to be daring enough to understand him, and the same challenging themes and idioms are to be found in Yeats. In A Vision there is the same confrontation between Christianity and paganism, and between Christian and Renaissance values, which Yeats, like Nietzsche, loved to embody in representative mythological or historical figures; for example, the tender passivity of a Saint Catherine of Genoa and the hardness, the astringency of a Donatello or a Michelangelo (291).

Ultimately, however, despite their often contemptuous rhetoric, neither completely rejected Christian values. Nietzsche did believe that European culture in the second half of the nineteenth century needed a transfusion of those “hard,” “noble” qualities he admired, a radical injection of will:

Nowadays the taste and virtue of the age weaken and attenuate the will; . . . consequently, in the ideal of the philosopher, strength of will, sternness and capacity for prolonged resolution, must specially be included in the conception of “greatness”: with as good a right as the opposite doctrine, with its ideal of a silly, renouncing, humble, selfless humanity, was suited to an opposite age–such as the sixteenth century, which suffered from its accumulated energy of will, and from the wildest torrents and floods of selfishness (Beyond Good and Evil 137).