Sunday Night Journal, April 8, 2018
Sunday Night Journal, April 15, 2018

52 Poems, Week 15: Upon a House Shaken By the Land Agitation (Yeats)

This is not one of my favorite poems. So why am I writing about it? Because it contains one bit, one clause of a sentence, that I think of at least once a week, possibly more often than that.

The "land agitation" in the title was a series of efforts at land reform in Ireland in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. I don't know much about it and I don't want to describe it in an overly-simplified way, but it's enough for purposes of reading the poem to know that it sometimes involved the breakup of large estates. I've always assumed that the specific house (synecdoche for the whole estate, I also assume) to be Lady Augusta Gregory's, because she, her home, and her circle were so important in Yeats's life, and he often wrote about them in the sort of terms used here. Possibly it is indeed true that it was Lady Gregory's house, and that this was mentioned in a footnote when I read the poem in college, but I don't remember for sure, and it isn't essential to the poem. Very unfashionably, even in 1910 when the poem was published, Yeats is here defending such estates.

CooleParkThe house at Coole Park, Lady Gregory's estate

The part that haunts me is "Although / Mean roof-trees were the sturdier for its fall...", and it often comes to me when I think about Society And All.

It always troubles me to think about the extent to which the achievements of civilization tend to rest upon a foundation of slavery or something close to it: that it was assumed to be the natural order of things that many or even most people were there simply to perform hard labor for the benefit of a few. And I think about the fact that for all my complaints about the modern world and especially about the classical liberal tradition which defines it, it remains true that in that one respect at least modernism has been right, at least in principle. It's in modern times that the democratic idea has come to whatever fruition it has.

The idea that some people are by nature servants, if not slaves, and that there is nothing much wrong with keeping them in poverty, has been widely rejected and hardly anyone will explicitly justify it now, although the rich in general are certainly still willing to act as if they believe it. Yes, there's a strong argument that Christianity has a great deal to do with this, but nevertheless the great visible shift in fundamental attitudes, toward the presumption that everyone has an equal claim to liberty and material comfort, came as Christianity was subsiding as a cultural and social force. 

Yeats's line often comes to me when I consider the cultural degradation that's going on around us now. I don't mean just, say, the astonishing crudity of rap and other pop music lyrics. I mean also things like the sheer ugliness of our urban and suburban landscapes, which doesn't generally excite a lot of indignation. Aristocrats would not make or put up with such aesthetic messes (usually), as can still be seen when, for instance, someone tries to open a WalMart too close to an affluent neighborhood. And I think, "Well, maybe this is just the price we pay for living in a democratic society." That one line is a concession to democracy, to "leveling," in a poem that is decidedly anti-democratic, at least in the cultural sense.

 *

UPON A HOUSE SHAKEN BY THE LAND AGITATION

How should the world be luckier if this house,
Where passion and precision have been one
Time out of mind, became too ruinous
To breed the lidless eye that loves the sun?
And the sweet laughing eagle thoughts that grow
Where wings have memory of wings, and all
That comes of the best knit to the best? Although
Mean roof-trees were the sturdier for its fall,
How should their luck run high enough to reach
The gifts that govern men, and after these
To gradual Time’s last gift, a written speech
Wrought of high laughter, loveliness and ease?

*

I don't mean to say that it isn't a very good poem. It is--just not one of my favorites. I'm not sure exactly what that "lidless eye" is. The intellect that looks unblinkingly at truth, maybe? Quite possibly it's a reference to some arcane system of symbols of the sort that always fascinated Yeats.

--Mac is the proprietor of this blog.

Comments

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Yes, there's a strong argument that Christianity has a great deal to do with this, but nevertheless the great visible shift in fundamental attitudes, toward the presumption that everyone has an equal claim to liberty and material comfort, came as Christianity was subsiding as a cultural and social force.

That's true, I guess, but I think it was a result of inertia. The forward movement was there, and it would not surprise me to see it come to a stop and turn in the other direction.

The idea that some people are meant to do the hard work while living in poverty is still prevalent in a lot of places, and we participate in that in a way that would be hard to escape unless we were completely self-sufficient.

And changing the subject, one of the things we used to do on vacation is tour great houses. It doesn't bother me at all that some people live that way and that I never will. I just am glad that there are beautiful things like that in the world.

Now I don't care about houses, I just want mountains and water. It does make me kind of sad that some people get to live on the beach and I don't.

AMDG

My first impulse was to apologize for living on the beach (almost), but then I decided not to. :-)

"I think it was a result of inertia." I think so, too.

I don't feel any particular resentment or envy toward rich people, or covet their stuff...well, maybe just a little for houses actually on the water or in other really wonderful locations. But I'm comfortably situated, with a paid-for house and no serious worries about money etc. If I were poor I'd probably feel differently.

"The idea that some people are meant to do the hard work while living in poverty is still prevalent in a lot of places, and we participate in that in a way that would be hard to escape unless we were completely self-sufficient."

We do, but we also feel guilty about it. Even a lot of our rich people can be shamed about it. I don't think that was the case in pre-Christian times. It didn't seem to bother the ancients at all that some people were born to be slaves and some weren't.

My first impulse was to apologize for living on the beach (almost), but then I decided not to. :-)

It's the "almost" that keeps you from having to apologize. That and the fact that you don't have a pier.

AMDG

A narrow escape I see.

You never know when you are walking on a razor's edge.

AMDG

"The idea that some people are meant to do the hard work while living in poverty is still prevalent in a lot of places, and we participate in that in a way that would be hard to escape unless we were completely self-sufficient."

We do, but we also feel guilty about it. Even a lot of our rich people can be shamed about it.

Reading that I thought about how many/most conservative types are against things like raising the minimum wage, and without any discernible (at least to me) feeling of guilt or shame. It's one of the things that makes voting so difficult for me.

It's possible to make a principled argument about that, that raising the minimum wage actually has unintended consequences that are overall negative. *Possible*. But I very much doubt that the people actually paying the wages are looking at it that way.

I think that the minimum wage question is very complex, and that there are those unintended consequences similar to the consequences of trying to help poor people get homes by giving them loans they can't afford to pay back.

I was thinking more along the lines that we are all likely to be wearing some garment that was made by a person who was working in an unsafe building and being paid a pittance, and this is true not just of cheap clothes--Walmart clothes, for example--but for some that are more expensive.

AMDG

By the standards of most people I am wealthy, but I have a lot of anxiety about retirement, not owning a home, etc. I can't even imagine what it is like for people of meager means. I would happily leave America if one of those socialist nations in W Europe would take me in, tax me like crazy, and then take care of me until I die. God bless America.

Preferably one that controls gun ownership

I don't know for sure but I have the impression that those countries are not particularly open to immigration from countries apart from situations where they can feel self-righteous.

That's very true, Janet. It's probably difficult to find clothes that *aren't* made that way.

It's probably difficult to find clothes that *aren't* made that way.

That's true. There doesn't seem to be much you can do about it. If you made your own clothes, you would have to make them out of material that was made in that way.

AMDG

Sopposing large numbers of people didnt buy clothes made in swear shops in China? Wouldnt the swear shop owners just throw a few people out of work? Its hardly likely they will react to loss of business by increasing wages.

I have been buying fair traded clothing on and off when I could afford it for twenty five years. I certainly prefer to do so. I fear there are a lot of people behind the scenes making a fortune out of fair traded goods

Sweat shops!!

That's probably true, about people making money of fair-traded goods.

"Sopposing large numbers of people didnt buy clothes made in swear shops in China?..."

That kind of consideration is why I tend to avoid taking hard-and-fast positions on questions like this. The world is so complex that the way things work out in reality is quite likely to be different from what's intended. If nothing else, the result will probably be mixed.

Right. And most people can't afford to buy fair trade clothes. Heck, at this point I can't even afford fair trade coffee.

AMDG

Guess I've never bought fair trade anything. I'm sure it's a good idea. I guess it's just one of those things that I more or less unconsciously decided I didn't want to deal with.

Its much more common in Europe than in America. In about 2009, before I came here, I used the term 'fair traded cookies' in a book and the copy editor kept on and on taking it out, because they thought it was incomprehensible. In a British supermarket there are whole sections with fair trade cookies, fruit, tea, coffee, chocolate. You don't have to think about it. That's not just in high end supermarkets but equally in ASDA - which is the British Walmart. The whole orientation of American supermarkets is toward bargains and deals. Little health food stores have fair traded chocolate and tea and coffee. But there's very little of that in mainstream supermarkets.

I would put in a word for fair traded chocolate in particular.

My goal is to eat expensive, fair-traded chocolate occasionally rather than frequently to consume cheap chocolate. That's fairly easily achieved. Of course it is harder with coffee and tea. With meat and eggs, the idea is to eat free range meat somewhat more rarely, say four times a week outside of fasting seasons. These have become typical aspirations of at least one section of the European middle class. They barely exist in America even as vague aspirations.

Aldi has several varieties of fair trade coffee which are pretty good and also very reasonably priced. Ditto IKEA and Trader Joe's. And you can sometimes find them in the food section of Home Goods.

If you don't have an Aldi, IKEA, or TJ's nearby you can probably order online.

We don't have TJ's in my mid Western town. We do have Aldi - which always seems like a weird downmarket outpost of Europe in America! Its weird because outposts of Europe are normally exclusive and expensive!

I get all my coffee from a local roaster whom I want to support:

https://www.fairhoperoasting.com

Not fair-trade as far as I know, but seems like a more or less even trade, virtue-wise, vs buying fair-trade from a big corporation.

I say all *my* coffee, not all *our* coffee, because my wife drinks way more coffee than I do and this locally roasted stuff is way more expensive, so she buys hers in bulk elsewhere.

I've similarly started buying beer almost exclusively from a couple of local craft breweries.

As far as I know Aldi hasn't made it down here yet. Must be infiltrating from the north, as there's one in my north Alabama home town.

"I get all my coffee from a local roaster whom I want to support"

Ditto:

https://www.hallowed-grounds.com/

It's a bit of a drive for me though so if I run out or otherwise need some in a pinch I'll generally hit Aldi, which is closer.

On local versus fair trade, I'd go local if there was a choice. Our 'local' olde fashioned health food store is currently endangered by a new Whole Foods round the corner from it. So I buy my fair traded coffee there. I don't drink much of it.

I drink a lot of tea and I'm not even going to pretend that fair trade comes into my calculations. In England, certainly, it was a factor. But in the USA it is so difficult getting loose tea that adding 'fair traded' into the equation makes it too much of a headache.

Please don't say something which implies that 'tea' can come from a tree or bush that is not a 'tea plant'.

?? Oh, you mean "herbal tea" etc.? Well, I would certainly never leave out the qualifier if I was referring to "tea" that did not come from a tea plant.

I used to share an office with a woman who would say "Sweat and blood give coffee its flavour. I've never had a fair trade coffee that didn't taste like ditch water." Which I thought was in rather poor taste, but essentially unanswerable. I've never had a fair trade coffee that didn't taste like ditch water, either.

"I've never had a fair trade coffee that didn't taste like ditch water, either."

I guess I'd have to ask what you're drinking regularly to be able to make the comparison. You'd have to compare them "apples to apples" regarding both region and roast.

I drink my coffee black (i.e. I'm not tasting anything but coffee) and can testify that there are *vast* differences in flavor. Surely that ditch water taste wasn't specifically to do with its being fair-trade.

I keep wondering if there is any tea that doesn't taste acrid and astringent. Long ago I used to drink it without milk or sugar, but I don't know how--now I find that quite unpleasant. I gave up coffee for tea this past Lent, not easy for me to do, and started out drinking straight tea, but it was so very unpleasant that I couldn't keep it up. Finally settled on a teaspoon of sugar and a few drops of lemon juice. A tablespoon of half-and-half was also acceptable.

By the way, I haven't looked for a long time, but loose tea used to be readily available in supermarkets here. I used to be it regularly. Made kind of a mess in my office with it.

The closest Trader Joes to you, Grumpy, is 65 miles. The next closest is 85 miles.

I regularly give up coffee for Lent. I've never been able to give up tea.

When I lived in Austria in the late 1970s, there was a store called "Andreas Hofer (named after a Tyrolean hero). It was just like an Aldi. When Aldi finally started showing up in Milwaukee a few years ago I said to myself, "I recognize this place!"

Hofer had a cheap chocolate called "Negerbrot," which means "Negro Bread." It is chocolate with peanuts.

It had a cartoon picture on the front with a black boy with big, light lips, like a minstrel show. Here's a picture, although I think the lips were bigger back then.

https://plus.google.com/108075432172410835246

!!

Reading my earlier (2:18) comment made me nostalgic for when I was loose tea.

The idea of someone being loose tea strikes me as very amusing.

AMDG

I think I know just what that person would be like.

Anyway, I can drink tea without tea and sugar, but not coffee. I really do not like the taste of coffee; I drink it for a feeling. It is comforting in a way that tea could never be for me, even if I liked the taste better.

AMDG

My local roasterie has this, which I first tried five or six years ago and is now a favorite. It's not my every day joe, but I have it two or three mornings a week. It tastes different than any other coffee I've ever tried. It looks light in the cup but tastes dark (but not charred or smoky) if that makes any sense. You don't want to get it roasted dark because that kills the "earthy" quality.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Monsooned_Malabar

Tea without tea doesn't sound bad, if it means replacing the tea with coffee.

I like the taste of most coffee. I love the taste of the right coffee. It's a very specific taste, not muddy, with a sort of tang. Even with the right coffee it's easy to mess up brewing it and get it either too strong or too weak. It also does something more than taste good and more than give me the caffeinated buzz, which I don't even like. It's a weird craving that I don't understand.

I get some delicious fair-trade coffee from our health food store. I'm not a connoisseur but I've never had eye rolls from those kinds of people when I offer it after lunch.

When I was in NYC I went into TJ with some anticipation because I'd heard so much about it. I couldn't see anything in there I wanted to eat, and there were enormous lines at the check out, so I left. Eventually after I got Olivier, I used to there to get some special kind of dog biscuit I heard were perfect for training puppies. Some special flavour. I love speciality food shops. I've got a slight weakness for foody stuff. But I didn't see anything remotely tempting in there. I could go to TJ when I got to Chicago for the hairdresser and St. John Cantius, and sometimes I think I might give it another shot. But it never seems worth making the dogs wait another couple of hours for me to get home.

Not sure I've ever been in one. I don't think there's one around here though I might not know if there were.

"It also does something more than taste good and more than give me the caffeinated buzz, which I don't even like. It's a weird craving that I don't understand."

I hear ya. I'm the same way about beer too. It's not related to the alcohol; there's just something about the malt/hops balance (sweet/bitter) in a good beer that nothing else approaches. Except coffee.

TJ's is like a smaller, downmarket version of Whole Foods. It's still more expensive than your average supermarket, but you can find good stuff at reasonable prices if you shop selectively. Their coffees are excellent, and they also have their own wine and beer lines which are inexpensive and surprisingly good.

They have been saying there was going to be a TJ here for years. I think they have property somewhere. It was like that for IKEA, though, and they finally opened, so we will see.

AMDG

Coffee and beer, yes!

I mean, not together, but sharing the summit of desirability in the beverage category.

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