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.
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.