Poets' Warning by Dennis Hamley

On Black Wednesday just past, Alex, Kay's granddaughter, wrote a plaintive message on Facebook:
Thanks, Donald, for spoiling my birthday.

Couldn't be put better!

Image result for images donald trump

I thought I'd already started my November blog. It was on a subject which, on Wednesday, I suddenly saw as a miserable and insignificant self-regarding piece of triviality and I had neither will nor energy to continue. I may  return to it next month if the present fit wears off in time.

I tried to think rationally about the disaster which took place on Tuesday night  and Wednesday morning but couldn't, though I may be on the way to doing it now.  I just wanted to express what I felt. But I didn't have the words. So I turned to poetry - other people's, not only because I can't write the stuff but  because I believe, with Shelley in his A Defence of Poetry, that 'Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.' Why? Because, he memorably says (with the obtrusive masculine pronouns substituted):

To be greatly good, (we) must imagine intensely and comprehensively; must put (ourselves) in the place of another and of many others; the pains and pleasures of (our) species must become (our) own.

During the last months it's become starkly true that pitifully few of our species can even attempt - or want - to do this. However, I like to think that, as writers, we try to. If we didn't, we couldn't write stories. But Robert Browning, regretting that he thought he wrote too many dramatic monologues, said 'I give you truth broken into prismatic hues' - which, I think, is a fair description of what we want to do in our stories - but goes on to say, 'and fear the bright white light, even if it is in me.'

Well, I certainly don't think that 'bright white light' shines in me. But, in the great poets, it certainly does. And it enables Wilfred Owen memorably to say, 'All a poet can do today is warn.' 

And warn us they certainly have. I've just found out an extraordinary and perhaps significant fact. WB Yeats's poem 'The Second Coming'  has been quoted in the first seven months of 2016 more than any other poem in English. This is, I think, not coincidence. So, even though Bill Kirton quoted it in his own moving and profound blog just a few weeks ago and though it's been called 'the most pillaged poem in the English language', which again is not a coincidence, I'm going to quote it again. In full this time.


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 the 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?

                                 Image result for lion body mans head images

Not very scary. But my first-choice chimera wouldn't load.

Just look at this extraordinary poem. Consider one or two of the phrases in it and apply them to our present position.

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold 

This is not a plea for a collection of 'sensible' Tories, resurrected Lib-Dems and less dysfunctional Labour MPs to rescue us. Such centrism as they would offer would be as useful as the familiar chocolate  teapot. No, this centre is a way of life, a way of looking at the world, reasoned, tolerant, inclusive, serious, responsible, funny, humane and humanist, a state to which I think we all aspire. Can it survive? It's already under intolerable pressure from the new blatant racism, sexism and bigotry. 

The best lack all conviction, while the worst
 Are full of passionate intensity.

For me, these are the most frightening words in the poem. Though most of us, I think, understand and share some of the despair and anger which has swept away a complacent establishment, we suspect that we may have been swept away with it. The 'passionate intensity' is winning, but dark forces are exploiting righteous anger and perverting it to its own ends to form the rough beast which  'slouches (what a brilliantly chosen verb) towards Bethlehem to be born.'

So what are we left with. Well, we have to fight on in a world 'vexed with nightmare.' But there is a bedrock which can keep us going when all else fails and may be the basis for emergence from the nightmare and it's expressed best by another great poet, Matthew Arnold, in 'Dover Beach'. It's something that has been going round and round in my head for years now and I've quoted it before in a blog here but once again I make no apology for repetition.

Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! For the world, which seems
To stand before us like a land of dreams
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;

And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.

The blight has started already. This morning (Sunday 13th) comes news that Trump really is putting derailment of the Paris agreement on climate control as his first priority. Yes, lights are going out. Are there straws in the wind on what society we will be living in? Ah we fted tp EM Forster's world of 'telegrams and anger' - and worse? Well, it's already been commented on here that major Exam Boards are abolishing History of Art at A level, have their eyes on Drama in schools and are assaulting other humanities subjects - Art and Classics for example, though they will no doubt all still flourish in private schools. When will they get round to English Literature? I would say that the way teachers are now expected to teach it says that they've done for it already.

That may seem a trivial complaint. But it's not. We are living in a world in which the Culture Secretary, supposedly guardian of these values, can seriously say that Bake-off should be on Channel 4 because of the huge advertising revenue it would attract. Bake-off isn't exactly a beacon of high culture but monetising it is a sure statement of intent towards anything worthwhile which may appeal to the 'liberal elite', an elusive group of people of which, apart from the 'liberal' bit, I am not a member.  So what does it mean, besides the eventual doom of the BBC?

Wilfred Owen again. In a poem relegated to 'Minor work' in C Day Lewis's edition, entitled 1914, despairingly wrote:

                                                    Rent or furled
 Are all Art's ensigns. Verse wails. Now begin 
Famines of thought and feeling. Love's wine's thin.

As at the outbreak of a World War, so now. Is this what it's going to be like? Perhaps it's the least of our worries But it's a worry no less, and a belwether for all the rest of the degradation we face. After many years, we came through Owen's forecast fate - sort of, anyway, though sadly he didn't. . Will we get through it this time? Possibly, I suppose. But I doubt that I'll be here to see it.


JO said…
Thank you for writing this. There seems to be a collective 'maybe this won't be so bad' tale being told at the moment.

But it could be that bad - it could be very bad indeed. I care less about what I live (or don't live) to see - but what sort of a world are we creating for our grandchildren?

Oh how we need writers with courage now.
Bill Kirton said…
A powerful, heartfelt piece, Dennis. Thank you. We must keep articulating our unease about all this insanity. You're evoking values that had started dragging us towards a fuller awareness of our responsibilities but which now seem to have been subverted by a different strain of our species. My own usual stance is one of optimism but I've never before felt so totally the apocalyptic menace of this 'darkling plain ... Where ignorant armies clash by night'.
Penny Dolan said…
Thank you, Dennis, for this thoughtful post. That Yeats poem has been much in my mind these last few weeks.
Sandra Horn said…
Thank you, Dennis - this needed, so much, to be said and you have done that so powerfully. Louis Macneice's 'Prayer before birth' has been running through my head, but no good to despair. Dover Beach has, at least, that note of optimisim.
Anonymous said…
Beautifully put, and to paraphrase another poet, those Old Masters were never wrong. Two things we (some of us, at least) never thought would happen have happened this year, Brexit and Trump. The future is anyone's guess. We just have to hope that sanity, reason and decency will temper some of the madder elements!
Susan Price said…
I agree with you all - and I think Jo is right when she says that it could all be very, very bad.

But I don't think Art is going to save us - indeed, as art-teaching fails in schools, the Arts themselves might come to be seen as more valuable, as may education itself. Something to be sought out rather than imposed.

I think what we're seeing, with Brexit and Trump and the rise of Daesh is a painful tightening of 'niche-space' -See Colinvaux - something that has underlain wars, invasions and revolutions throughout history.

Niche-space is about resources for a decent life: enough to eat, good clothes, a place to live, a chance to reproduce. With humans, it means more than that: a stimulating job or hobby, entertainment and the free time to enjoy it.

The elite always grab the lion's share of all this, with no justification except that they can; and they hold on to it for dear life, helped by their control of all the levers of state: the military, the justice system, government.

The very poor have to be content with the basics and throughout history, in most parts of the world, the struggle to subsist takes up most of their energy.

The b*gg*rs to watch are the middle-classes - the ones who have attained a more than subsistance lifestyle and intend to pass it on to their children. The children expect to have that lifestyle themselves.

But in times like ours, the resources available are shrinking. The very wealthy still hold on to their priviledge and there's a political shift to the Right and even further Right as they engage all possible means in defence of it.

More and more is taken from the poorest, which we've been seeing. And the middle classes begin to feel the pinch: can't get a job, won't get a pension, can't afford their own house, can't afford a child, car, etc. And understandably, they get angry.

At the same time, population is rising, meaning that the number of people who expect, as a right, a better than subsistance living is also rising. There is no way to satisfy the expectations of all these people without the richest - our 'royals' for instance, or Trump - giving up most of their lifestyle. Which will never happen without revolution. And, as we've seen throughout history, after a revolution's won, a new elite puts itself in place.

Sorry to bore on, but I think this - Ecology - is what is driving all that is causing us despair just now, just as it drives lemmings. There is no fixing it, whether we are true to each other or not. The falcon, after all, cannot hear the falconer - but has already sighted on its own prey.
Andrew Crofts said…
I wonder perhaps if the future now belongs to Asia. What we are going through is a re-run of the fall of the Roman Empire, this time with full, 24/7 media coverage.
DragonLady said…
Sadly, I agree with Susan... Art in all its elegant manifestations will not save us, but it may record for a not-yet-assured future the passing of all that had been good and real and worthy.

I wrote in my blog, Why I'm Not OK: History does indeed repeat itself when willful ignorance and false prophets join hands in common cause.

We'll need Art if, one day, we come to find our center again, to give us a starting point and a tarnished framework on which to hang our hopes and tears.
Jan Needle said…
What worries me most, above and beyond all that written by Dennis and above, is the fact that both sides now freely admit that their campaigns were built on blatant lies, as in Britain and the famous Brexit bus. I happen, hopefully, to suggest Trumpery won't be as appalling as he made it sound. But the destruction of political argument to the realms of wilder Goebbelism is surely far more dangerous. Where can it possibly end?
Kathleen Jones said…
I agree very strongly with Susan Price. Art won't save us (though I intend to give it a very good go!) from ourselves. The most terrifying thing about Donald Trump is his dismissal of the dangers of climate change - nasa scientists are saying now that unless we do something quite brutal (and politically unacceptable) the temp could rise to 7 degrees above by 2100, not the 4.5 being bandied about. Apparently it's like compound interest - not the simple kind - it rises exponentially above a certain level.
Maybe as artists and writers we should be looking at survival techniques.
This was a very powerful and thought-provoking post Dennis - and such beautiful, bleak poetry.
Enid Richemont said…
Anything by Yeats I love, love, love, and this poem, above all, expresses the fear we feel now. The gods, fearing our disbelief, are wreaking their vengeange on us. I so often feel they're programmers simply manipulating us, and as such they should be ditched, but they won't be. And could anyone explain how a man like Trump, so clearly unqualified for anything greater than real estate and gambling, can end up in the White House?
Dennis Hamley said…
Thank you all so much for these marvellous comments. Sue, yes, I agree with you completely about Colin Vaux. His thesis is compelling and I'm sure profoundly true. I don't think I meant to say that Art will actually save us, just that it represents values which if lost will degrade humanity profoundly. Those Philistine (a word I suppose we have to use -after all, Matthew Arnold did and he really did think Art was the new substitutes religion) tendencies are the same, differ only in degree and not kind, as the Vaux analysis. The climate change thing scares the s..t out of me. But why can't the climate-change deniers accept the fact that they're going to fry along with the rest of us?

Jo, you're right. 'I won't be here to see it' wasn't a 'Blow you. Jack, I'm all right' remark. I look at my beautiful grandchildren and want to weep. And in 1945, we were so hopeful.
Dennis Hamley said…
Jan, your comment about lies and political argument are spot-on. But I don't think we do well to trust that it might not be so bad after all. Just look at that frothing little evil twat Farage. We may laugh but I reckon he'll end up with dangerous influence which could drag us down with them both.
Umberto Tosi said…
Yes, well put, Dennis. Now comes the winter of our discontent. The sane and moral imperative is: resist. Actually, reject, refuse and resist. Yeats' Second Coming has been playing in my head for the past year as this beast approached, the wind, Putin, Robert Mercer, the Republicans and racist Breitbart at its back. America has fallen. Partition sounds sensible - Hail Pacifica. Anyway, my America wants to divorce their abusive America. Now about the kids.
Dennis Hamley said…
Come and fight over here, Umberto. We need you!
julia jones said…
Brilliant Dennis - and Art has done its bit for today through the words of WBY (and one D Hamley) - nothing else very obviously helping just now

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