I was wondering why ‘To a Friend Whose Work Has Come to Nothing‘ swam to the surface this week. Then I sat down and thought about it and wondered no longer. A poem about shamelessness? about the difficulty of honour in a time when Might is Right? Hmm, not so difficult to fathom, perhaps, after all.
I’m not enough of Yeats biographical scholar to know exactly which events prompted this poem, nor—as you’ll have gather from my thoughts re: practical criticism the other week—am I much bovvered. As with all great art, this poem offers us a hyperlink from the particular to the universal. Like ‘The Second Coming‘, ‘To a Friend Whose Work Has Come to Nothing’ considers with distate and condemnation what is happening in public life, where power is wielded by those ‘Who were it proved [t]he[y lie]/ Were neither shamed in [their] own/ Nor in [their] neighbours’ eyes’. Unlike ‘The Second Coming’, though, this one seems (to me anyway) to be a bit less paralysed by horror—more deliriously, ‘mad[ly]’ determined to find a place for honour, that ‘harder thing’. Although ‘defeat’ has happened; although the poem concedes the rather bleak rhetorical question ‘how can you compete[?]’; although the ‘laughing string’ is played by ‘mad fingers…/ Amid a place of stone’; and although it accepts that the private exultation to which we are exhorted is ‘of all things known…/ most difficult’: still. It’s not impossible. And it’s much more possible when you know someone else is alongside you.
In a—to me anyway—more palateable and nuanced way than Kipling, Yeats asks us to redefine our terms, to hang on to the idea that cleaving to honour and decency is its own kind of triumph. That process matters, not just product. Particularly at the moment, I’ll take all the reminders of that I can get.