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Ora sono ubriaco d'universo. (Ungaretti)

War and Peace: On Yeats’ "When Helen Lived"

Originally posted on WritingUp over a year ago. I don’t know if that site will ever be back up again, so I’m going to start transferring the entries I have saved here for good now:

When Helen Lived
W.B. Yeats

We have cried in our despair
That men desert,
For some trivial affair
Or noisy, insolent, sport,
Beauty that we have won
From bitterest hours;
Yet we, had we walked within
Those topless towers
Where Helen walked with her boy,
Had given but as the rest
Of the men and women of Troy,
A word and a jest.

Commentary:

What destroys civilization is not war, but negligence when there is peace. Negligence when there is peace is the same thing as desertion in wartime: duty is neglected for the sake of some private good.

In wartime, we leave battles because we think a greater love lies elsewhere, or that we can achieve so much more in another arena, one where lives are not at stake. What is ironic in both instances is the lack of recognition that there is a real prize for the struggles of war, that there is a real peace that can be effected because of war.

War is not being glorified in the first 6 lines in any way. To see that, one must consider what condition man is in perpetually: according to the Social Contract theorists, man began in a state of war before society; according to Judges, even life with God can be indistinguishable from primordial chaos because of our human fallibility. Life is struggling with one another; we are continually at war for scarce resources for ourselves and friends, for love, for self-respect. Diplomacy in some ways is another way of waging war, another way of capturing that “beauty” men seek. It is a miracle that at war’s end the means of diplomacy or the fact of total conquest can be used to preserve something that was never really sought – a moderated struggle, the end of war. It is a miracle that struggle can bring forth the reconception of beauty as peace.

The last 6 lines, where the speaker considers himself to be the same as Trojans were before the war, force us reflect on our misunderstanding of beauty. “Helen” is emphasized at the expense of Paris; it is as if we are all like Paris. We would make “insolent sport” of our power so as to pursue a “trivial affair,” but since we are not Paris himself, we snicker in envy. We make jokes based on our morals, our morals stemming from our pride and pride only. Peace, the absence of shared struggle, allows us to indulge our pride. We do not do what should be done, which is observe the law of God and man, and return Helen to her homeland.

I wonder if the title, “When Helen Lived,” is supposed to give us the view of the conquering Greeks. They, while destroying the Trojans for great plunder, saw many men desert. They also saw their cause change from robbery to something far deeper as the war went on, as they each lost friends in the enterprise. It was war that taught them what true beauty is, and it was what they saw of themselves, during war, that taught them it is impossible to preserve.

1 Comment

  1. I enjoyed your commentary on this poem. I’m not very good with history, but your post was enlightnening.

    Thanks for your comment. I visited your friend Shannon’s site, and I like her work. I particularly liked the blue room with the green curtains, but couldn’t figure out how to leave her a comment telling her so. Maybe you could pass it on :]

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