“. . . Till Truth obeyed his call. . .” (W.B. Yeats)

andrea
In his poem “An acre of green grass,” William Butler Yeats wrote,

. . . Or that William Blake
Who beat upon the wall
Till Truth obeyed his call. . .

Why?

I’ve asked a question I cannot answer. It’s not—by the way—a “rhetorical question.” No such thing exists. In a formal argument, asking a question one can’t answer is simply disingenuous—or, perhaps, an unintentional display of one’s ignorance.

I learned about Blake’s poetry in high school English class—“Tyger! Tyger! burning bright,” “Little Lamb who made thee,” “And did those feet in ancient time,” and so on. I’ve read his work since then. I have a Dover reprint edition of Songs of Innocence. I’d say I know something of Blake. But neither a Google nor an EBSCO search has turned up a poem with anything about “beat[ing] upon the wall.”

While I have found several scholarly articles that treat Yeats’ poem, “An acre of green grass,” I have found none so far that explains the reference. I know the story of Timon of Athens, perhaps the strangest of Shakespeare’s plays, in which Timon curses the walls of Athens and eventually tries to arrange for them to be destroyed.

We all know King Lear’s wild old-man ravings out in the countryside in the rain. Michelangelo lived to be 89 (1475-1654), but I don’t understand Yeats’ reference to him.

Perhaps Yeats (1865-1939) was confused in his old age. He wrote the poem at 73, a year before he died, so he can be forgiven for confusing the plot of Timon with some poem of Blake’s, and not remembering Michelangelo quite correctly.

"Ancient of Days," by William Blake

“Ancient of Days,” by William Blake

Perhaps someone who is more scholarly than I, or at the very least has a better memory than I, can answer my non-rhetorical question, “Why?”

Last night a friend invited me to go with him to a show at the Eisman Center in Richardson, TX, titled “4 Girls 4.” The four “girls” were Andrea McArdle (51), Christine Andreas (63), Donna McKechnie (72), and Maureen McGovern (65)—Broadway singers all, and—I think most people would assume—past their prime all. Perhaps!

Andrea McArdle is no longer the little girl who sang “Tomorrow,” but her voice is rich and enchanting (she doesn’t have to belt it out any more). Christine Andreas belted out “I love Paris” in as fine a fashion as Edith Piaf or any other cabaret singer ever did. Stunning voice control even on high notes no one her age ought to be able to sing. Donna McKechnie re-auditioned for Chorus Line with a richness and style she could only hope for in 1975—she didn’t exactly “dance,” but she moved with grace and elegance. Maureen McGovern sang “Morning After,” and then she caught the audience off guard and astonished us with her unaccompanied, “Somewhere over the rainbow,” poignant and affecting.

I have to make that list to help myself remember the show (I’ve forgotten more than I know by a factor of at least 10), but also as a companion piece to the Yeats poem.

. . . myself must I remake
Till I am Timon and Lear
Or that William Blake
Who beat upon the wall
Till Truth obeyed his call;

A mind Michael Angelo knew
That can pierce the clouds,
Or inspired by frenzy
Shake the dead in their shrouds;
Forgotten else by mankind,
An old man’s eagle mind.

“I must myself remake . . . forgotten, else by mankind, an old man’s eagle mind.” I—me, as differentiated from and not comparing myself with Yeats—have never had an eagle mind. Nor have I ever done anything approaching the art and entertainment of Donna McKechnie’s dancing. If I stood on the edge of the stage in a hushed auditorium with light only on me and sang “Somewhere over the rainbow” (or anything else), the audience would be embarrassed at my lack of ability and disbelieving at my temerity.

But I am learning to remake myself, an old man’s mind—probably not as sharp as an eagle’s.

This week I recounted in more detail than I ever have in one sitting the five most painful moments of my life. That I can name specifically the most painful moments of my life indicates I’ve never freed myself of them—forgiven myself for them.

I’ve begun working with a gerontological psychologist. (How’s that for special?)

I’m having—as I should think anyone who has any self-awareness does—some trouble thinking of and accepting myself as being 70 years old. This is one the most difficult realities we have to face. Even at 60 it is impossible to imagine how it feels to be 70.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, average life expectancy in the US is now 78.8 years. I have 8.4 or so years left.

Here’s the deal. I have 8.4 years left to do all of those things I’ve been planning to do all my life—write the Great American Novel, see the Emperor Penguins in Antarctica, learn to make my bed every morning, lose 20 pounds. All of those things. “Grant me,” Yeats says, “an old man’s frenzy, Myself must I remake.”

Not possible. I am what I am. I’m not going to remake myself (perhaps get another tattoo).

It’s OK. It’s enough. I can tutor college football players. I can devote more time to explaining what I know about Palestinian poetry. I can play the organ. The stuff I’ve been doing that has satisfied me all along.

I don’t have to know “why” Yeats said Blake beat upon the wall. I didn’t know two weeks ago, and I don’t know today. I do, however, know the notes for the Bach Prelude and Fugue in G Major, and who the poet Sami Muhanna is. That’s enough.

And I can come to peace with those five distressing moments and disallow their power over me for the next 8.4 years.

“An Acre of Green Grass,” by William Butler Yeats

PICTURE and book remain,
An acre of green grass
For air and exercise,
Now strength of body goes;
Midnight, an old house
Where nothing stirs but a mouse.

My temptation is quiet.
Here at life’s end
Neither loose imagination,
Nor the mill of the mind
Consuming its rag and bone,
Can make the truth known.

Grant me an old man’s frenzy,
Myself must I remake
Till I am Timon and Lear
Or that William Blake
Who beat upon the wall
Till Truth obeyed his call;

A mind Michael Angelo knew
That can pierce the clouds,
Or inspired by frenzy
Shake the dead in their shrouds;
Forgotten else by mankind,
An old man’s eagle mind.

Time to see them yet.

Time to see them yet.

“The centre cannot hold.” (W.B. Yeats)

[Oh, dear me. I don’t know where this came from.]

The second coming - slouching toward Bethlehem.

The second coming – slouching toward Bethlehem.

.
In case you were wondering (wandering? pandering? laundering? sauntering? bantering? blundering? floundering? countering? countervailing? countermanding? contemplating? illuminating? ruminating? pondering? wondering?) about my prediction for the November election, I expect the election will be a watershed in the history not of American politics, but of life as we know it, simply because

The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Anyone who has even a slight list to the left as they walk will stay home on November 4 for fear of falling over. It’s not that they lack all conviction, it’s that they have already decided that it’s better not to walk at all than to risk falling. That leftward list is made more pronounced because the center of gravity has moved to the right, and they think, therefore, that it cannot hold them up.

Most of my friends are fed up with the reality that President Obama landed in the viper-ridden oligarchy of special interests in Washington, D. C., in 2009, and immediately understood a) that the agenda on which he ran was dead in the water in the political reality of the Gerrymandered US Congress that cannot (now or probably ever again) represent the majority opinion on any issue facing the nation, and b) the real power in the United States lies on Wall Street and on 37th Street North in Wichita, KS, and no one can do anything against that monolith no matter what platform they ran on or what majority of votes they won.

The most dismal truth of all of this seems to be (note, I said “seems,” not “is”) that President Obama and those tens of millions of people who elected him apparently did not understand that the causes they thought he might champion could not have been successfully championed by anyone, and, in racist America, an African American President would have virtually no power to change anything.

Now I will slip into delusion. That’s OK. I’m used to it. The earliest of my own writing about the Koch Brothers I can find is from September 3, 2011. Somewhere, however, I wrote about them long before that. It was before 2003 because my late partner demanded that I prove what I said. I eventually had enough verifiable research that he began talking about the Cock Brothers as a phenomenon that could happen only in the lower Midwest, if you get his double entendre.

[I also, by the way, wrote about the “Project for a New American Century” before the 2000 election in which its horrors were institutionalized. My friends would not believe me, but we live today in the pernicious shadow of that document.]

The centre cannot hold.

The centre cannot hold.

I was wrong when I predicted Romney’s election in 2012. I still believe had it not been for his “47%” comment he would have been elected.

I’m not trying to establish my credentials as a prognosticator. I write and think with only second-hand information, and that not very clearly. But here’s what I think.

President Obama has clearly been a disappointment to anyone who would allow the word “liberal” or “radical” or even “progressive” to be said or written in any proximity to their names. You name it, he has not done what such people want him to do.

In order to accomplish those things, he would have needed a willingness (to say nothing of an ability) to act against (do herculean battle against) the powers that be in Washington. The powers of big business, bigger money, and a Congress so Gerrymandered in favor of the Koch brothers and Donald Trump and Karl Rove, and Ted Cruz that it can never again—I’m not being hyperbolic, it will take a revolution to change it—represent majority opinion.

gerrymander
1812 as both a noun and verb, American English, from Elbridge Gerry + (sala)mander. Gerry, governor of Massachusetts, was lampooned when his party redistricted the state in a blatant bid to preserve an Antifederalist majority. One Essex County district resembled a salamander, and a newspaper editor dubbed it Gerrymander. (Harper, Douglas. “Gerrymander.” Online Etymology Dictionary. 2014. Web.)

William Butler Yeats’s poem “The Second Coming” describes our situation.

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
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 falcon, flying farther and farther out of control cannot hear the command of the falconer. The centre cannot hold. Anarchy is loosed upon the world.

Our anarchy is not, of course, the classical anarchy of the far-left. It is the anarchy of a government and society spinning out of control except for the unprincipled moment-to-moment decisions by the oligarchy in favor of actions and doctrines that will benefit them without any thought for what those doctrines will do to the vast majority of the population.

Yeats’s vision of the Second Coming is not comforting.

Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again. . .

The monster of the Second Coming, the “anarchy . . . loosed upon the world,” has a “gaze blank and pitiless as the sun.” The Second Coming is a “rough beast . . . slouching toward Bethlehem.” Whatever we thought the “first coming” meant (wherever we thought took place), the second coming—in the same place—will mean darkness, not light.

This will happen because

The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

I don’t know if “progressives” are “the best.” I do know, however, that they have no conviction.

“The Second Coming,” by W. B. Yeats (1865 – 1939)
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
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.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

Gerrymandering to exclude progressives.

Gerrymandering to exclude progressives.

I wonder what it would be like . . .

The center will not hold

The center will not hold

This morning I wrote and wrote and have a quirky little piece nearly finished but then I got caught up in trying to do something useful for the world and all of that went away but I’m not really sure I accomplished anything because it’s me against 300,000,000 Americans with guns and hubris and a lot of other stuff that makes talking to them difficult. I don’t mean that of course because I am not any better than anyone else except on this one issue where I know I am right and public opinion and political will and some twisted desire for national self-preservation or something has allowed a group of about a million Christians and another group of I’m not sure how many Jews to formulate American foreign policy as well as domestic policy and it is the most depressing reality because it is so ridiculous and so short-sighted and so, shall I say the word I don’t really believe exists, “evil?” But I got a short email note from someone whom I respect more than almost anyone else in the world, and she said to me, Thank you Harold. Yes of course we are just as concerned. And you are very right about your conclusion re US policy towards Palestine. Had our conflict been with any other people, it would have been solved a long time ago. God bless you for your support to the cause of justice and peace. And if it is true in any way to any tiny extent that I have perhaps given that one person whom I admire and, yes, in a way that has nothing to do with close friendship or intimacy of any kind, love, a reason to think even for one moment

. . . to write a poem . . .

today that she and her people are not alone and that some day justice and peace will prevail, then what do I have to worry about or be absorbed in concerning my own little world of problems? Her gratitude is for something outside of me, something for which I have allowed myself to be the messenger and have simply done what I knew to be right, and it is an overwhelmingly sad reality that some people believe that other people are expendable because their god says so.
center cannot hold

Most people probably never have themselves so wrapped up in themselves that they allow intricate, complex feelings and ideas to get tangled up in their view of reality—how on earth do I think I can know what “most people” do, think, or feel? that’s preposterous; I can’t theorize any kind of generality for “most people” based on the cluttered and unkempt nature of my own feelings and thoughts—but reality is so hard to figure out some of the time. I heard on the radio yesterday that Isaac Newton was the first “genius” to be thought of as such and canonized as a person who helped us see the face of god, at least the face of the universe, and so we think of him as something of a great 18th-century secular saint—completely secular except to fundamentalist christians who still believe god created the heavens and the earth in seven 24-hour days, and he’s not a saint secular or sacred to them—and we revere the rationality he gave us and the enlightenment (Enlightenment) he helped bring to Western thought and

. . . from which not one, but two . . .

then the saintly mantle passed to Darwin and then to Einstein and then to Edwin Hubble and all of those people in between like Marie Currie and Thomas Edison and Jonas Salk, and—you know, the scientists, the rational thinkers, the people who have made our world what it is today. And then there are the real thinkers the abstractionists Nietzsche and Heidegger and Sartre and Foucault and all of those other people whose writing is so complex we can’t comprehend it so we declare it to be brilliant. When all I really want is to be able to think simply in some way that will help me get through today without pain and suffering and crying for an hour or two—don’t go getting all concernedly on me because it’s simple depression exacerbated by foolishly allowing myself to have feelings about people and situations any rational person like Isaac Newton would never have had—do we know who he ever fell in love with or was angry at or wanted to scream at them because their political thinking was so bizarre, or do we know him only by his brain.

. . . lines famously show up as titles . . .

slouching.
.
I used to think—no, I’ve never been able to think—imagine, hypothesize, that when I got to be 69 years old if I ever did—now don’t get all concernedly on me because I am not suicidal, just trying to be realistic—think by this time I’d be all wise and contented and one of those old guys people came to for advice and help and comfort. But you would be really not very bright to come to me for any of those things because I’m only an almost-old man who longs and yearns for someone to love and be loved by in that way the psychologists but not the Buddhist monks tell us every person needs in order to be fully

. . . of someone else’s work?

human. And I’m not the Dalai Lama so I don’t have much peace and calm and joy and serenity from all of this because I don’t want to end up (as I am partially already) that little old lonely man living by himself and craving needing someone—almost anyone—to touch him now and then and know they will be together when one or the other of them shuffles off this mortal coil so it doesn’t seem like such a fucking lonely and scary thing to do.

The Second Coming, by W. B. Yeats

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer
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.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

The center has not held

The center has not held