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.
Does the scenario set out in these lines of poetry seem all too familiar? Does it seem a perfect description of life in twenty-first century America? Might these words have been written by a good contemporary poet lamenting our present-day lurch into anarchy? If you answered yes to these questions you might be surprised to know that the lines were written by the Irish poet, W. B. Yeats, almost a century ago… in 1919 to be precise.
Were things really as bad back then? Surely those relatively innocent times cannot be compared with our present-day predicament?
Let us take a closer look.
When Yeats wrote these lines the dust had barely settled on World War One, indubitably the bloodiest in the bloody annals of human history and arguably the craziest, which was described, laughably in the ironic context of the ensuing century, as the war to end war. In the four years of the war, around seventeen million people were killed, almost half of whom were civilians. As that disastrous war drew to a close, the Bolshevik Revolution was unleashed in Russia, establishing the first Marxist totalitarian regime, which would claim around sixty million lives before its eventual collapse more than seventy years later.
As if this were not bad enough, we need to remember that Yeats was writing as an Irishman in a particularly turbulent period in that country’s singularly turbulent history. Having lost almost 50,000 people in World War One, Ireland descended almost immediately afterwards into four years of bloody civil war which ended with the partition of the country into two mutually antagonist parts. As with all wars, the war in Ireland brought out the worst of people, prompting, no doubt, the lament that “things fall apart” as the poet witnessed the centre-ground of moderation collapsing under the weight of warring extremes: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity.”
Yet Yeats was no admirer of communism and there is also no doubt that he also had the more distant shadow of Bolshevism in mind as he wrote of “mere anarchy” and the “blood-dimmed tide” being unloosed, drowning the “ceremony of innocence.”
So were things as bad in 1919 as they are today? Well, if not worse, they could hardly be described as being much better.
There was no civil war in England in the aftermath of World War One, though the General Strike of 1926 marked the closest England has ever come to its own Bolshevik revolution, but things were hardly much better in other respects.
The unrest and disillusionment with the decadence and vacuity of post-war England was epitomized by T. S. Eliot in “The Waste Land, ” arguably the greatest poem of the twentieth century:
What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow
Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man,
You cannot say, or guess, for you know only
A heap of broken images …
Modern England, indeed the modern world taken as a whole, was likened by Eliot to a lifeless desert, lacking the living water of faith and therefore unable to sustain the living roots of tradition and the blossoming branches of a civilized culture. Nothing lasting or permanent could thrive in “this stony rubbish,” and the “hollow men” (the focus and title of a later Eliot poem) which such a desert produces “cannot say, or guess” what’s wrong with themselves or the world in which they find themselves because, lacking a sense of history, theology and philosophy, they are unable to integrate themselves with the cosmos of which they are a part. As dis-integrated men, knowing nothing but a heap of broken images, they can only preside over a disintegrating culture.
In an effort to awaken the modern somnambulist from his trance-like progress towards the abyss that awaits him, Eliot resorts to the time-honoured device of the memento mori:
I will show you something different from either
Your shadow at morning striding behind you
Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you;
I will show you fear in a handful of dust.
Seeking to show modern man something beyond the self-centred shadow of his narcissistic self, Eliot sounds a tocsin to warn him of the toxin of vanity with which he is killing himself. It seems, however, considering the heedlessness of modern man to the voice of the poet-prophets, that the warning bell is falling not merely on deaf ears but on the ears of the dead. Eliot’s beautiful carillon goes unheeded by the carrion who are its intended audience.
So were things as bad in 1922 as they are today? Well, if not worse, they could hardly be described as being much better.
Let’s now move forward to 1945 as another World War drew to a close. Surely, having seen the defeat of the menace of Nazism, and the world being made safe for democracy, there could now be grounds for optimism? Hardly. As the dust settled on the debris of Dresden, London, Stalingrad, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, it took another poet-prophet, Siegfried Sassoon, in his “Litany of the Lost,” to issue a timely warning to a world plunging from world war into cold war:
In breaking of belief in human good;
In slavedom of mankind to the machine;
In havoc of hideous tyranny withstood,
And terror of atomic doom foreseen;
Deliver us from ourselves.
Chained to the wheel of progress uncontrolled;
World masterers with a foolish frightened face;
Loud speakers, leaderless and sceptic-souled;
Aeroplane angels, crashed from glory and grace;
Deliver us from ourselves.
In blood and bone contentiousness of nations,
And commerce’s competitive re-start,
Armed with our marvellous monkey innovations,
And unregenerate still in head and heart;
Deliver us from ourselves.
So were things as bad in 1945 as they are today? Well, if not worse, they could hardly be described as being much better.
If there is a lesson that the poet-prophets teach us it is that we are our own worst enemies. The legacy of human history is a litany of the lost in which humanity is so lost that most of the time it doesn’t even know that it is lost …. And, irony of ironies, there are none so lost as those who do not know they are lost.
The irony is that we cannot begin to find a way out of the mess in which we find ourselves until we find ourselves!
The wise man knows that things are always bad because man is always a sinner. And no man is ever less wise than when he believes that he is not a sinner or when he claims that there is no such thing as sin. It is for this reason that wise men, such as J. R. R. Tolkien, refer to history as the long defeat; a long defeat which offers only occasional glimpses of final victory. Furthermore, it is a long defeat which illustrates, all too clearly, that the final victory can only come from God and not from man.
It is knowledge such as this which assures us that the present culture of death in which we find ourselves is ultimately unsustainable. It is doomed to self-destruct. The only question is whether it will explode or implode; whether it will explode in the violence of revolution or whether it will wither in the decadence of its own corruption, the victim of its own excess. In short, it is only a question of whether it will end, in Eliot’s words, with a bang or a whimper. One way or the other, it is doomed to self-destruct. But, lest we forget the words of the poet-prophets, we need to understand that the present culture of death will be replaced by something which, if not worse, could hardly be described as being much better.
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