Welcome back to Douglas Murray’s Sunday column, Things Worth Remembering, where he presents passages from great poets he has committed to memory—and explains why you should, too. To listen to Douglas read W. B. Yeats’s poem “To a Child Dancing in the Wind,” click below:
People often go to poetry for advice. It puts an awful lot of pressure on the poets, but some embrace that role as sage or seer.
Irish poet William Butler Yeats certainly didn’t mind the mantle. “The Second Coming,” for instance, written in the aftermath of the First World War, really does feel like a work of prophecy. There are few better descriptions of imminent collapse, of things falling apart, than his famous lines from that work.
The center cannot hold
… The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
And yet, I have always had a slight problem with Yeats. His early poetry is almost too quotable; certain works like “The Lake Isle of Innisfree” are too twee. And at the end of his career, Yeats was too immersed in the sort of nonsense mysticism that Roy Foster deals with as seriously and sympathetically as he can in his two-volume biography.
This all makes Yeats feel a bit out of date. A poet like Tennyson, who was born in 1809, might have been able to retreat into Arthurian legend, but how could a twentieth-century writer like Yeats still be into sprites and all that stuff?