There is something of a contradiction to this poem: in a war poetry collection, it is a poem that refuses to speak about war. The poem says that it is not the place of a poet to write about politics, but that the poet instead should limit his interference in the world to pleasing his companions.
STRUCTURE NOTE: This poem is a sextet, with a rhyme scheme ABC, ABC. The first three lines refer to the poet’s attitude to writing about war; the next three lines write on the self-imposed limits of the poet’s interventions in the world.
W.B. Yeats: Yeats is one of the giants of Twentieth century poetry, and this accounts for the number of poems by him featured in the anthology. He was a modernist poet and proud Irish Republican at a time when Irish Nationalism was at its height in Ireland. A Protestant Christian, he was also a mystic and spiritualist. Like many of the modernists he was artistically radical but politically conservative, believing that politics, art and war did not easily mix. Yeats disliked Owen’s poetry, for example, saying “I consider [him] unworthy of the poets’ corner of a country newspaper… [he was] a revered sandwich-board Man of the revolution … He is all blood, dirt & sucked sugar stick” (for the reasoning behind this startling opinion, see a previous entry, on Rupert Brooke). Nonetheless, Yeats wrote a number of poems concerned with the rebellion in Ireland during the First World War– he was a committed Irish nationalist.
‘On Being Asked For a War Poem’: This poem was written after Yeats was asked to write a war poem. It is a meditation on whether poets can write war poetry. It also considers an old question: what is the role of the poet in society, and what is the function of poetry? Shelley, a great Romantic poet, once called poets “the unacknowledged legislators of the world” (meaning that poets create a culture or spirit of an age that molds its thinkers and even politicians, an “influence that moves not, but moves”: you can read a contemporary poet’s take on the role of poetry in the Guardian, here). An ancient philosopher, Plato, even thought that poetry should be banned as corrupting to society. Yeats here enters this long-standing argument in the modern age.
“I think it better…a poet’s mouth be silent”: The opening statement is forthright and conversational about “times like these”, or times of war- the enjambment, or running over the end of line, mimics everyday speech. When the poet writes of “a poet’s mouth” being silent, he is using a technique called metonymy. Like metaphor, metonymy substitutes one thing for another. Metaphor does this by contrasting different things (“He was an animal”) but in metonymy, something closely related to something else is substituted. For example: “the crown” may refer to the Queen or royalty, or “the press” may to refer to the newspapers. Both are closely connected. Here, the “poet’s mouth” represents (because it speaks) his poetry.
“We have no gift to set a statesman right;” A statesman is a political leader. Here, it is asserted that poets have no “gift”, or ability, to tell statesman how they should make decisions. This seems to say that poetry has no place in intervening in politics, and the poet no role in making big statements about wars and what causes them. Note the semi-colon: this opening statement about the world in the macrocosm ends here.
“meddling”: Another word for interfering. This key word in the poem gives us a hint of the poet’s attitude to those who try and write activist or political poems: they are ‘meddlers’, troublesome interferers. The tone is obviously negative. “Meddling” in the lives of old men and young girls carries a lighter and happier tone however- a sense of play.
“He… can please a young girl in the indolence of her youth”: A quick change in imagery and reference point, from the macrocosm to the microcosm, from the world of politics to the world of intimate acquaintances. The new scene is lazy (“indolence”), relaxed, one of beauty (“youth”) and innocence.
“an old man on a winter’s night”: this completes the scope of the poet’s influence. Does this mean that poetry is suited to everyday lessons and life? That the poet’s role is to appeal to beauty and wisdom, youth and age? These certainly seem narrower limits to the role of poetry than ‘setting statesmen right’. Yeats, however, would surely argue that poetry’s concerns are higher than political contingency.
[ANTHOLOGY NOTE: The first of the last of the poems written from poets in this group who are, or identify themselves as other than British. Yeats’ poetry provides a view of the war which is Irish and Republican, and outside of the mainstream of British responses to the war. This poem is interesting in terms of the whole anthology because it declares that poets cannot write about war in activist or political terms. This can be strongly contrasted with a poem like Owen’s ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’ or Sassoon’s ‘The General’. It also supplies a fascinating point of discussion on an absolutely fundamental question, rarely touched on: why write poetry at all?]