On Being Asked For a War Poem – W.B. Yeats

‘On Being Asked For a War Poem’

I think it better that in times like these
A poet’s mouth be silent, for in truth
We have no gift to set a statesman right;
He has had enough of meddling who can please
A young girl in the indolence of her youth,
Or an old man upon a winter’s night.



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?]



Hi there.

This blog is intended to help you in your study of the literature of the First World War. It’s a project of the staff and students of the English Department at Southfields Community College, London, UK: together we’re exploring the poetry of the Great War, 1914-18.

Using Jon Stallworthy’s ‘Oxford Book of War Poetry’ as our source text (pp. 160-225), this blog will provide notes for an ongoing discussion of 68 poems written by 36 different poets. The practical end point of all this will be the AQA AS level examination for our students here at Southfields: the notes and discussions herein will hopefully help us prepare and appreciate the literature of the First World War. If you’ve got the hard luck not to be an A-level student at Southfields, never mind: you’re welcome to use these resources, or better, enter the conversation!

Each poem’s subject is in some way related to the First World War, a conflict which in its scale and murderous technological reach definitively transformed the world. These poems are personal testaments to the terrible loss of life experienced in a wholly new kind of war; they are historical documents; some are great works of art; and in their own way, they point to a change in humanity of which we are the inheritors.

The notes are mine, and while useful are very far from perfect. Any mistakes of fact, scansion or interpretation, I take sole responsibility for. There will inevitably be errors of fact: should you drift by here and spot one, please point it out to me! Similarly there will be some errors of scansion– again, tell me.

As for errors of interpretation– well, this is where a discussion begins, isn’t it? If you have an opinion about a poem, an appreciative thought, or a different reading to the one you find jotted down here, please feel free to contribute to ‘Move Him Into the Sun’.

G. M. Griffiths

A final note: I have attempted to observe UK copyright law in reproducing the poetry on this site. Should any copyright holders find their property reproduced here, please inform me and I will take down the offending material.