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Hard-Nosed Realism is for Little Babies

This post is the part of a Grackle series, which like all Grackle series will most likely fizzle out after two or three posts, but which for now I am convinced is the most important thing on the internet and God Themself has assigned me to write it. I will be reading and commenting on every single line in every poem in The Collected Poems of W. B. Yeats, following mystical laws of interpretation which I don’t know yet but which I expect to reveal themselves as I proceed. The first law is that all of the poems are 100% perfect, down to the last extravagant semi-colon, not because Yeats was a genius (he was a weirdo and a fascist) but because I’ve found that I have Very Nice Thoughts when I read his poems this way, and so far these thoughts have not turned me into a weirdo and a fascist. (I was a weirdo already.) So here we go:

Last time we did this together, we met a peculiar character: a “happy shepherd” with a solemn bearing and a sad tale to tell. This fish out of water belongs in a pastoral about wisps of mist veiling the rills and ridges of a distant bluff as sheep tenderly bleat and wood doves warble all around. But his lyrical home has burned down and he’s fled, a man on the lam, to take shelter in an elegy:

The woods of Arcady are dead,
And over is their antique joy;
Of old the world on dreaming fed;
Grey Truth is now her painted toy;

W. B. Yeats, “The Song of the Happy Shepherd”, lines 1-4

Arcady’s primary export, it seems, before it died, was dreams, the food of the world, its real substance and nourishment. Wherever we are now that isn’t Arcady, we trade mainly in “Grey Truth”, which doesn’t feed the world—it provides none of the stuff she needs for her health—but idly entertains, in a mere imitation of sustenance.

We might wonder now what’s so bad about an imitation. We might inquire with the partisan of dreams and poetry why food is better than a toy. After all, isn’t a plaything something like a dream? But first we should ask, why would the world have “fed” on dreams in the first place? And why grieve the loss of these dreams? Who needs dreams anyway? Sure, you want to “follow your dreams,” but when any one of those dreams escapes you, won’t you shrug with wise indifference and reflect that “after all, it was only a dream”? You might tell someone to “dream on” in a tone enthusiastic, but isn’t it more likely you were being sarcastic? You like it when people in movies or inspo-content live out their dreams, but when the rubber hits the road, you’ve never had any regard for your own dreams.

You have to be realistic! Here in the real world, dreams are poor currency. And what matters more than currency in these (the current) times? There’s money to be made and bills to be paid and only the right-now, the present moment, this little ark in the flood of history in which we live, this here-now opening-up, this is where contracts get signed! Wake up from your foolish dreams and your fawning over the past! Carpe diem! Gather ye rosebuds while ye may, for soon they will be buying (from your competitor)! Get out there and sell! sell! sell! my hearties! Lay into that CRM, you lubbers! Lay into it, my precious little office-lobsters, lay in and sell! Hah! Dreams? (as they say) In this economy?

Nothing is what you dream it could or should be, and the sooner you recognize that, the better off you’ll be. Maybe, child, you dear heart, maybe you find it depressing to exist in a world deliberately and exhaustively drained of all life and meaning? Is that sad for the poor little baby? Does icky baby wish the world were more magical? Well, when you’re ready to grow up and join the adults, we’re all over here having a sales conference under the shadow of this red rock where we killed God. We’re the adults. We know what’s real and we can’t be fooled.

And what’s real? Whatever gives you power. And what is power? Control over the future. That is the “Truth”: the only thing you can have or want to have is in the future, and only the cunning who live beyond dreams have the wherewithal to lay their hands upon it.

Does anybody actually think that way? Perhaps not in so many words, or in any words at all. But tell me if you don’t feel that “Grey Truth” sinking into your bones whenever someone tells you to “be realistic.” It’s in the atmosphere of modern life, the post-Romantic air we breathe; and this is how we know that we are modern people, that when we’re being serious and facing facts, we know that the sun is just a lifeless system of chemical reactions; that a river is just the way matter in a liquid state interacts with the force of gravity; that history itself is the inevitable, mechanical unwinding of the taut spring of power dynamics. And if we like a little poetry in our diet all the same, poetry that tells us the sun is our brother, that river gods rage, or that a choir of beneficent voices sings our destinies to us from the end of time, that’s because we know that in our weakness, now and then, we need a little diversion from the terrible weight of being alive, as a treat, or for our “mental health,” say, and not because we ever actually believe such childish nonsense. We know that in poetry we’re not getting anything we can use, and that soon we will have to put away our toys and get back to the grind that we call “life.”

Knowing this contempt we have for play, the shepherd must be speaking with some irony. As an outsider, a believer in dreams, he knows that he cannot speak to us on his own terms, and that in addressing a realist, the harshest thing you can say is that they’re only playing. Rhetorically, it’s something like telling a “men’s rights activist” that misogyny is girly. Maybe the only condemnation of realism that a realist has ears to hear is that realism is a childish game, played by a demented old woman.

And if we in reading the poem find that this rhetorical strategy moves us, then we may in this discovery realize how deeply runs our own suspicion of dreams.

But the line delivering this ironical zinger ends with a semicolon; there’s more:

Grey Truth is now her painted toy;
Yet still she turns her restless head:
But O, sick children of the world,
Of all the many changing things
In dreary dancing past us whirled,
To the cracked tune that Chronos sings,
Words alone are certain good.

Lines 4-10

If you will indulge me again as you did last time, I would like your thoughts on the following questions:

  1. The word “yet” announces some kind of rejoinder, and after all the grief over the loss of dreams, we might expect something like “Yet not all dreams are dead,” but that’s not what we get. The tone of “still she turns her restless head” is hardly upbeat. So how does it act as an opposition to the morose and mournful reflections we have read so far?
  2. Would it violate Mystical Law of Interpretation #1 (All of the poems are 100% perfect) to observe that we are now mixing metaphors (Modernity as child’s play, modernity as sickness, modernity as the later steps of a “dreary dance”)?
  3. What do words have to do with any of this?

2 thoughts on “Hard-Nosed Realism is for Little Babies”

  1. 1. You, my goodly, morose and mournful friend promised a meeting with that Happy Shepherd, and at first blush your dream dead famished truths have been confirmed. But soon thereafter we are wrinkled into unfinality by this grand semi colon, whereupon the Shepherd “turns”. A turn amalgamizes an antidote to these Grey Truths even as restless is become the singular accompanying attitude for we sick children of the world. A turn connotes a moment of meeting. The Shepherd’s eyes are dark yet pierce me to the core. I turn to meet those eyes.
    2. You have undoubtedly read ahead so I must trust as you say that Modernity is the countervalent replacement to Antique joys. But as a newcomer only 10 lines in, I feel no reference to chronological time yet in the Shepherd’s lament. What else then might be inferred by these sick children’s dances to cracked tunes? Some deep perennial problem, to be sure, that was here long before Modernity arose to offer its heft and shape. Something that could rob even antiquity of its joy… of which the solution could be found only in….
    3. Words. Not just words. But … words alone. As they might occur at a time of turning, when two eyes meet. This is where I feel I’m being led to inquire as I await patiently line 11 and on.

    1. Thank you for answering in such a poetical mode. I believe that you have seen (or been seen by?) something about the situation in which poetry happens, which you’ve described as “a time of turning, when two eyes meet.” A word spoken at such a moment does have something auspicious about it.

      It is good to be reminded, while we are still at the beginning of this work, that we will accomplish nothing with our paraphrases and analyses if we don’t give the poetry what it needs to take place: a moment of turning, a meeting of eyes; whose eyes? Whom must we meet? Not the shepherd, who is fictional; nor the poet, who is dead; not a god, because gods are both fictional and dead! Or does every poem have a secret god of the poem that escaped the general cataclysm?

      Speaking of gods, is it really much of a leap to suppose the shepherd is speaking of the unfolding of chronological time when he names “Chronos”? I don’t think Chronos has ever been ritually worshipped as a deity; he’s a pure creature of allegory, just a macramé person-suit for the concept of time. At any rate, all I mean by modernity at this point is the post-Arcadian world, in which the relative values of dreams and truth have been reversed, and words are empty tokens for reality, which I think is a pretty good caricature, at least, of what people usually mean by “modernity.”

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