Yeats, A Meditation in Time of War

A Meditation in Time of War

For one throb of the artery,
While on that old grey stone I sat
Under the old wind-broken tree,
I knew that One is animate,
Mankind inanimate phantasy.


These thoughts may be too trivial or obvious to bother putting down, but on my morning walk I was thinking about the strange way this poem clings to the memory and imagination. Perhaps interestingly, when I got home I found I’d misremembered it – I’d left out line three. Now, I wouldn’t swear that it wouldn’t be a better poem without it, old wind-broken trees being something of a personal cliché of Yeats’ poems. Leaving that aside, what makes the poem’s hold strange is that it’s hard to attach any very definite sense to it. We don’t remember it for its intellectual content, or for any very vivid image. But in a weird way I think this also partially explains what gives it such purchase on the mind. It gives a very powerful sensation of trying to focus or retain an elusive idea. It does so by sheer rhythmical and syntactical brilliance. Each line moves in a very definite way, making one feel that something very definite is being said. The heavy tread of the stresses in the first half of the first line and the second half of the second heighten this effect. This strong enunciation paradoxically makes the vision seem both more and less definite, making it seem first to hover on the edge of crystallisation and then to recede from it. The pattern of the whole poem – with or without  line three – has a similar effect. As you hear the poem in your inner ear, rhymes seem to form and dissolve themselves, suggesting a shape appearing in smoke or water rather than engraved on something solid. The effect is particularly strong with the ‘artery’ / ‘phantasy’ pair where the main echo is metrical and the unstressed second and third syllables of ‘phantasy’ makes the whole poem seem to fade out rather than conclude. Of course it’s appropriate that this fading out effect comes in the word that declares that fantasy is all we are.

Leave a Reply