W. B. Yeats,“If I Were Four and Twenty” [1919], in Explorations (London: Macmillan 1960)

[Source: Orig. in Irish Statesman (1919); rep. in The Living Age [Boston] (4 Oct. 1919); available - online at North London University [webcache]; accessed 23.03.2015.]

When I was asked to become a director of the Irish Statesman I agreed, because for many years I have been hoping for some Irish review, able and willing to submit our life and thought to a constant, precise, unexaggerated, passionate criticism. No organ of the popular party could do that; it would have too many people to please; but the Irish Statesman has done it from the first; and now I have begun to examine my own hope, to see if we can construct as well as criticize. I dislike responsibility so much that I shall have little to say to board meetings, and, besides, my thoughts are wild. I shall be content to ask myself what I would do if I were four- and-twenty, and not four- and-fifty, indolent and discouraged, with but one settled habit - that of writing verse.

I would set out once again to found a little school of Irish thought, but this time I would not confine myself to literature and to drama. One day when I was twenty-three or twenty- four this sentence seemed to form in my head, without my willing it, much as sentences form when we are half asleep: ‘Hammer your thoughts into unity.’ For days I could think of nothing else, and for years I tested all I did by that sentence. I had three interests: interest in a form of literature, in a form of philosophy, and a belief in nationality. None of these seemed to have anything to do with the other, but gradually my love of literature and my belief in nationality came together. Then for years I said to myself that these two had nothing to do with my form of philosophy, but that I had only to be sincere and to keep from constraining one by the other and they would become one interest. Now all three are, I think, one, or rather all three are a discrete expression of a single conviction. I think that each has behind it my whole character and has gained thereby a certain newness - for is not every man’s character peculiar to himself? - and that I have become a cultivated man. Certainly a cultivated man is not a man who can read difficult books or pass well at the Intermediate, but a man who brings to general converse, and business, character that informs varied intellect.

It is just the same with a nation - it is only a cultivated nation when it has related its main interests one to another. We are a religious nation. The priest of the ancient chapel of St. Michel, on Mont St. Michel, where Montaigne’s old woman offered a candle to the Dragon and a candle to the Saint, said to a certain friend of mine, ‘What faith you Irish have!’ on finding her early in the morning praying for the governing body of the National University. Yet is there any nation that- has a more irreligious intellect, or that keeps its political thought so distinct from its religious thought? It is, indeed, this distinction that makes our priests and our politicians distrust one another.

I spent two summers of the war on the coast of Normandy, and a friend read out to me Le Mystère de la Charité de Jeanne d’Arc, by Peguy, and certain poems of Jammes. Claudel I had already read myself. A school of literature, which owed something perhaps to Hauptmann’s exposition of the symbolism of Chartres Cathedral, had begun to make Christianity French, and in Peguy’s heroic patriotism had prepared young France for the struggle with Germany. These writers are full of history and of the scenery of France. The Eucharist in a continually repeated symbol makes them remember the wheat fields and the vineyards of France; and, when Joan of Arc is told that the Apostles fled from Christ before the crucifixion, she, to that moment the docile shepherd girl, cries: ‘the men of France would not have betrayed Him, the men of Lorraine would not have betrayed Him.’ It is in vain that the nun Gervaise tells her that these were the greatest of all saints and apostles, and that her words are wicked: she repeats, with halfsullen obstinacy, ‘the men of France would not have betrayed Him, the men of Lorraine would not have betrayed Him.’ Peguy - a peasant born of peasants - can, for hundreds of pages, speak as the thirteenth century spoke, and use no thought that is of our time, yet it was amid Socialist and Dreyfusard controversy that he discovered his belief, and it was so much a passion, so little an opinion, that somebody told me in Paris that he was always reminding himself to go to church and get married, or to go to church and get a child baptized, and always forgetting it.

Now, if I were four-and-twenty, I think I would write or persuade others to write such accounts, as our young writers might read, of these men in whom an intellectual patriotism is not distinct from religion; and I would raise such a lively agitation that the Abbey or the Drama League would find an audience for Claudel’s L’annonce fait de Marie or his L’Otage. I do -not think Claudel as pure a talent as Péguy, and do not like him with my whole heart, for he is prepense, deliberate - I am sure he never forgot his religious duties - oratorical, discursive, loving resounding words, vast sentiments, situations half melodrama and half religious ritual. He impresses me a little against my will, but then his intellect is powerful and it searches deep. Perhaps we would learn more at this moment of our history from Claudel than from Peguy, I would also, I think, read a paper to some little circle of poets on Jammes, and I would tell them that when he introduces a volume of little lyrics with a preface, repudiating beforehand any heretical conclusions that may be deduced from it, and submits all to the Pope, he is certainly poking fun. I think, indeed, that the school - in its fine moments - has been compelled to speak all that it shares with religion and patriotism by a purely literary development. There has been a development in various forms of literature - in French ‘unanisme’ for instance - toward the expression through an intellectual difference, of an emotional agreement with some historical or local group or crowd: toward the celebration, for instance, not of one’s self but of one’s neighbors, of the countryside or the street where one lives. Many have grown weary of the individualism of the nineteenth century, which now seems less able in creation than in criticism. Intellectual agreements, propagandas, dogmas, we have always had, but emotional agreements, which are so much more lasting and put no constraint upon the soul, we have long lacked.

But if I were four-and-twenty, and without rheumatism, I should not, I think, be content with getting up performances of French plays and with reading papers. I think I would go - though certainly I am no Catholic and never shall be one - upon both of our great pilgrimages, to Croagh Patrick and to Lough Derg. Our churches have been unroofed or stripped; the stained glass of St. Canice, once famous throughout Europe, was destroyed three centuries ago, and Christ Church looks as clean and unhistorical as a Methodist chapel, its sculptured tombs and tablets broken up or heaped one on t’other in the crypt; no congregation has climbed to the Rock of Cashel since the stout Church of Ireland bishop took the lead roof from the Gothic church to save his legs: but Europe has nothing older than our pilgrimages. In many little lyrics I would claim that stony mountain for all Christian and pagan faith in Ireland, believing, in the exultation of my youth, that in three generations I should have made it as vivid in the memory of all imaginative men among us, as the sacred mountain of Japan is in that of the collectors of prints; and I would, being but four-and-twenty and a lover of lost causes, memorialize the bishops to open once again that Lough Derg cave of vision once beset by an evil spirit in the form of a longlegged bird with no feathers on its wings.

A few years ago Bernard Shaw explained, what he called ‘the vulgarity and the savagery’ of his writing, by saying that he had sat once upon a time every Sunday morning in an Irish Protestant church. But mountain and lough have not grown raw and common; pillage and ravage could not abate their beauty; and the impulse that gathers these great companies in every year has outlasted armorial stone.

Then, too, I would associate that doctrine of purgatory, which Christianity has shared with neoplatonism, with the countryman’s belief in the nearness of his dead ‘working out their penance’ in rath or at garden end: and I would find in the psychical research of our day detail to make the association convincing to intellect and emotion. I would try to create a type of man whose most moving religious experience, though it came to him in some distant country, and though his intellect were wholly personal, would bring with it imagery to connect it with an Irish multitude now and in past time.

We need also a logical unity. When I was a boy William Morris came to Dublin to preach us into Socialism. After an appeal from the chairman, on the ground of national hospitality, an unwilling audience heard him out, and after gave itself to mockery, till somebody quenched the light. Now our young men sing “The Red Flag,” for any bloody catastrophe seems welcome that promises an Irish Republic. They condemned Morris’s doctrine without examination. Now for the most part they applaud it without examination; but that will change, for the execution of Connolly has given him many readers. I have already noticed Karl Marx’s Kapital in the same window with Mitchel’s Jail Journal and with Speeches from the Dock; and, being an indolent man of four-and-fifty, with no settled habit but the writing of verse, I did not remind the bookseller that he was a regular churchgoer and suggest that he display also Soloviev’s Justification of the Good, Distributive Justice, and some of those little works edited by Father Plater of Oxford.

I admit that it is a spirited action to applaud the economics of Lenine-in which I notice much that I applauded as a boy when Morris was the speaker - when we do it to affront our national enemy; but it does not help one to express the character of the nation through varied intellect. No man is less like an Englishman because he takes his opinion from the Daily Herald instead of the Morning Post; and it is likely that we shall take our opinion from one or the other till we have swung the hammer. ‘Hammer your thoughts into unity’- but for my disabilities I think I would, in exposition of that sentence, persuade some of the Sinn Fein branches, which find it hard to fill up their evenings, to study the writers I have named and perhaps, if some local library would collect enough translations, I might set some exceptional young man, some writer perhaps of Abbey plays, to what once changed all my thought: the reading of the whole Comedie Humaine.

When I was a child I heard the names of men whose lives had been changed by Balzac, perhaps because he cleared them of utopian vapors, then very prevalent; and I can remember somer one saying to an old lion painter: ‘If you had to choose, would you give up Shakespeare or Balzac?’ and his answering, ‘I would keep the yellow backs.’ Balzac is the only modern mind which has made a synthesis comparable to that of Dante, and, though certain of his books are on the Index, his whole purpose was to expound the doctrine of his Church as it is displayed, not in decrees and manuals, but in the institutions of Christendom. Yet. Nietzsche might have taken, and perhaps did take, his conception of the superman in history from his Catherine de Medici, and he has explained and proved, even more thoroughly than Darwin, the doctrine of the survival of the fittest, though as a creator of social, not of biological, species. Only, I think, when one has mastered his whole vast scheme, can one understand clearly that his social order is the creation of two struggles, that of family with family, that of individual with individual, and that our politics depend upon which of the two struggles has most affected our imagination. If it has been most affected by the individual struggle, we insist upon equality of opportunity, ‘the career open to talent,’ and consider rank and wealth fortuitous and unjust; and if it is most affected by the struggles of families, we insist upon all that preserves what that struggle has earned, upon social privilege, upon the rights of property.

Throughout the Comedie Humaine one finds - and in this Balzac was perhaps conscious of contradicting the cloudy utopian genius of Hugo - that the more noble and stable qualities, those that are spread through the personality, and not isolated in a faculty, are the results of victory in the family struggle, while those qualities of logic and of will, all those qualities of toil rather than of power, belong most to the individual struggle. For a long time after closing the last novel one finds it hard to admire deeply any individual strength that has not family strength behind it. He has shown us so many men of talent, to whom we have denied our sympathy because of their lack of breeding, and has refused to show us even Napoleon apart from his Corsican stock, its strong roots running backward to the Middle Ages.

For a while, at any rate, we must believe - and it is the doctrine of his Church - that we discover what is most lasting in ourselves in laboring for old men, for children, for the unborn, for those whom we have not even chosen. His beautiful ladies and their lovers, his old statesmen, and some occasional artist to whom he has given his heart, children of a double strength, all those who seek the perfection of some quality, love or unpersuadable justice, often have seemed to me like those great blossoming plants that rise through the gloom of some Cingalese forest to open their blossoms above the tops of the trees. He, too, so does he love all bitter things, cannot leave undescribed that gloom, that struggle, which has made them their own legislators, from the founder or renovator of their house, from some obscure toiler or notorious speculator, and often as not the beginning of it all has been some stroke of lawless rapacity. Perhaps he considers that the will is by its very nature an antagonist of the social order; if we can say ‘he considers’ of one in whom creation itself wrote and thought. I forget who has written of him: ‘If I meet him at midday he is a very ignorant man, but at midnight, when he sits beside a cup of black coffee, he knows everything in the world.’

Here and there one meets among his two thousand characters certain men, who do not interest him, and whom he is perhaps too impatient to understand, the Fourieristes and insurrectionists who would abate or abolish the struggle. I remember some artist of his who has made an absurd allegorical statue of regenerate mankind and who expects to be the most famous sculptor in the world, after the revolution; a figure of diluted emotion and a chiropodist noted for skill and delicacy of touch, who while cutting the corns of some famous man speaks of the coming abolition of all privilege - ‘genius too is a. privilege we shall abolish.’

In the world that Balzac has created it is the intensity of the struggle - an intensity beyond that of real life - which makes his common soldiers, his valets, his commercial travelers, all men of genius: and I doubt if law had for him any purpose but that of preserving the wine when the grapes had been trodden, and seeing to it that the treaders know their treads. ‘The passionate minded,’ runs an Indian saying, ‘love bitter food.’

When I close my eyes and pronounce the word ‘Christianity’ and await its unconscious suggestion, I do not see Christ crucified, or the good Shepherd from the catacombs, but a father and mother and their children, a picture by Leonardo da Vinci, most often. While Europe had still Christianity for its chief pre-occupation men painted little but that scene. Yet what Christian economists said of the family seemed to me conventional and sentimental till I had met with Balzac. Now I understand them. Soloviev writes that every industrious man has a right to certain necessities and decencies of life; and I think he would not object to Aristotle’s proposed limitation of fortunes, however much he might object to us, who are jealous and still lack philosophy, fixing the limit. But that the community should do more for a man than secure him these necessities and decencies he denounces for devil’s work. The desire of the father to see his child better off than himself, socially, financially, morally, according to his nature, is, he claims, the main cause of all social progress, of all improvements in civilization. Yet all the while his attention is too much fixed upon the direct conscious effects - he sees the world as child, father grandfather, and all virtues as derivable from our veneration for the past we inherit from, or our compassion for the future that inherits from us - and not enough upon its indirect unconscious effects, upon the creation of social species each bound together by its emotional quality.

Yesterday I came upon a little wayside well planted about with roses, a sight I had not seen before in Ireland, and it brought to mind all that planting of flowers, all that cleanness and neatness that the countryman’s ownership of his farm has brought with it in Ireland; and also the curious doctrine of Soloviev, that no family has the full condition of perfection that cannot share in what he calls ‘the spiritualization of the soil’-a doctrine derivable, perhaps, from the truth that all emotional unities find their definition through the image, unlike those of the intellect, which are defined in the logical process. However, Soloviev is a dry, ascetic half-man, and may see nothing beyond a round of the more obvious virtues approved by his Greek Church. I understand by ‘soil’ all the matter in which the soul works, the walls of our houses, the serving up of our meals, and the chairs and tables of our rooms, and the instincts of our bodies; and by ‘family ’ all institutions, classes, orders, nations that arise out of the family and are held together, not by a logical process, but by historical association, and possess a personality for whose lack men are ‘sheep without a shepherd when the snow shuts out the sun.’

Men, who did not share their privileges, have died for and lived for all these, and judged them little. Certainly, no simple age has denied to monk or nun their leisure, nor thought that the monk’s lamp and the nun’s prayer, though from the first came truth and from the second denial of self, were not recompense enough, nor has any accomplished age begrudged the expensive leisure of women, knowing that they gave back more than they received in giving courtesy.

If as these writers affirm, the family is the unit of social life, and the origin of civilization which but exists to preserve it, and almost the sole cause of progress, it seems more natural than it did before that its ecstatic moment, the sexual choice of man and woman, should be the greater part of all poetry. A single wrong choice may destroy a l family, dissipating its tradition or its biological force, and the great sculptors, painters, and poets are there that instinct may find its lamp. When a  young man imagines the woman of his hope, shaped for all the uses of life, mother and mistress and yet fitted to carry a bow in the wilderness, how little of it all is mere instinct, how much has come from chisel and brush. Educationists and statesmen, servants of the logical process, do their worst, but they are not the matchmakers who bring together the fathers and mothers of the generations, nor shall the type they plan survive.

When we compare any modern writer, except Balzac, with the writers of an older world, with, let us say, Dante, Villon, Shakespeare, Cervantes, we are in the presence of something slight and shadowy. It is natural for a man who believes that man finds his happiness here on earth, or not at all, to make light of all obstacles to that happiness and to deny altogether the insuperable obstacles seen by religious philosophy. The strength and weight of Shakespeare, of Villon, of Dante, even of Cervantes, come from their pre-occupation with evil. In Shelley in Ruskin, in Wordsworth, who for all his formal belief was, as Blake saw, a descendant of Rousseau, there is a constant resolution to dwell upon good only; and from this comes their lack of the sense of character, which is defined always by its defects or its incapacity, and their lack of the dramatic sense; for them human nature has lost its antagonist. William Morris was and is my chief of men; but how would that strong, rich nature have grasped and held the world had he not denied all that forbade the millennium he longed for? He had to believe that men needed no spur of necessity and that men, not merely those who, in the language of the Platonists, had attained to freedom and so become self-moving, but all men, would do all necessary work with no compulsion but a little argument. He was perhaps himself half aware of his lack, for in Nevis from Nowhere he makes a crochety old man complain that the novelists are not as powerful as before Socialism-was established.

Bernard Shaw, compelled to believe, not, as Morris did, that men will slaughter cattle and skin dead horses for a pastime, but that men can be found to force them to it, and yet neither bully, nor accept bribes, nor put the wrong man to the work, has invented a drama where ideas and not men are the combatants, and so dislikes whatever is harsh or incomprehensible that he complains of Shakespeare’s ‘ghosts and murders’ and of Ibsen’s ‘morbid terror of death.’ It has been the lot of both men, the one a great many-sided man, and the other a logician without rancor, and both lovers of the best, to delight the Garden City Mind. To the Garden City Mind the slightness and shadowiness may well seem that of the clouds of dawn; but how can it seem to us in Ireland who have faith,- whether heathen or Christian,- who have believed from our cradle in original sin, and that man lives under a curse, and so must earn his bread with the sweat of his face, but what comes from blotting out one half of life?

When I went every Sunday to the little lecture hall at the side of William Morris’s house, Lionel Johnson said to me, his tongue unloosed by slight intoxication, ‘I wish those who deny the eternity of punishment could realize their unspeakable vulgarity.’ I remember laughing when he said it, but for years I turned it over in my mind and it always made me uneasy. I do not think I believe in the eternity of punishment, and yet I am still drawn to a man that does - Swedenborg for instance - and rather repelled by those who have never thought it possible. I remember, too, old John O’Leary’s contempt for a philanthropist, a contempt he could never explain. Is it that these men, who believe what they wish, can never be quite sincere and so live in a world of half belief? But no man believes willingly in evil or in suffering, above all in eternal suffering. How much of the strength and weight of Dante and of Balzac, comes from unwilling belief, from the lack of it how much of the rhetoric and vagueness of all Shelley that does not arise from personal feeling?

Logic is loose again, as once in Calvin and Knox, or in the hysterical rhetoric of Savonarola, or in Christianity itself in its first raw centuries, and because it must always draw its deductions from what every dolt can understand, the wild beast cannot but destroy mysterious life. We do not the less need, because it is an economic and not a theological process, those Christian writers whose roots are in permanent human nature. They, too, have their solution of the- social question. To Balzac, indeed, it was but personal charity, the village providence of the eighteenth century, but Soloviev and the economists are more scientific, and have fostered a movement which, instead of attacking property, distributes it as widely as possible, and this movement has been in practice cooperation, and there Ireland is not Russia’s pupil, but her teacher. Their design is always to guard and strengthen family ambition; content to be the midwife of nature and not a juggling mechanist who would substitute an automaton for her living child.

A family is part of history and a part of the soil, and it seems to me a natural thing that cooperative Denmark should have invented the phrase: ‘to understand the peasant by the saga and the saga by the peasant.’ Socialism is as international as Capital or as Calvinism, and I have never met a Socialist who did not believe he could carry his oratory from London to Paris and from Paris to Jericho and there find himself at home.

If we could but unite our economics and our nationalism with our religion, that, too, would become philosophic and the religion that does not become philosophic, as religion is in the East, will die out of modern Europe and we, our three great interests made but one, would at last be face to face with the great riddle, and might, it may be, hit the answer. Yet no man can hit the answer till certain discoveries have had time to change the direction of speculation and research. To take but one straw from a haystack, I have known a dream to pass through a whole house - I can never blind myself to the implications of that fact - but what I do not know is whether it so passed because all were under one roof, or because all shared certain general interests, or because all had various degrees of affection for one another. Now all these writers of economics overrate the importance of work. Every man has a profound instinct that idleness is the true reward of work, even if it only come at the end of life, or if generations have to die before it comes at all, and literature and art are often little but its preparation that it may be an intensity. I have no doubt that the idleness, let us say, of a man devoted to his collection of Chinean paintings affects the mind even of men who do physical labor without spoken or written word, and all the more because physical labor increases mental pursuits.

I have studied the influence, as it were, in the laboratory, and I cannot exclude this fact, to which the world may not be converted for fifty years, from my judgment of the social system and its reformers; but I do not know if this influence would be strengthened, if laborer and idler used churches, or furniture, or listened to or read stories, and wore clothes which had all, as, let us say, in Minoan or Egyptian civilization, a common character. Albert de Rochas suspected something of the kind, and I do not know how large a portion of our day’s thought - though I suspect the greater portion - has its direction or its intensity from such influence.

Did some perception of this create among primitive people the conviction that ordinary men had no immortality, but obtained it through a magical bond with some chief or king? Perhaps it may be possible in a few years to apportion the values of idleness by a science that traces the connections of thought and by a religion that judges the result. With Christianity came the realization that a man must surrender his particular wall to an implacable will, not his, though within his, and perhaps we are restless because we approach a realization that our general will must surrender itself to another will within it, interpreted by certain men, at once economists, patriots, and inquisitors. As all realization is through opposites, men coming to believe the subjective opposite of what they do and think, we may be about to accept the most implacable authority the world has known.

Do I desire it or dread it, loving as I do the gambling table of Nature where many are ruined but none is judged, and where all is fortuitous, unforeseen?

When Dr. Hyde delivered in 1894 his lecture on the necessity of ‘the de-anglicization of Ireland,’ to a society that was a youthful indiscretion of my own, I heard an enthusiastic hearer say: ‘This lecture begins a new epoch in Ireland.’ It did that, and if I were not four-and-fifty, with no settled habit but the writing of verse, rheumatic, indolent, discouraged, and about to move to the Far East, I would begin another epoch by recommending to the nation a new doctrine, that of unity of being.