I suppose I’ll follow suit and begin this post with a quick introduction. I’m an English major, though I haven’t officially declared it yet. I love poetry, which is a big reason for why I’m in this class. I was raised on trashy sci-fi novels and I’m a big fan of their bad movie equivalents on the scyfy channel. On top of that, I really just like the feeling of a good pen. I want to think a little bit about the sword in “Meditations in Time of Civil War” and Yeats’ portrayal of history, so I’ll preface it with one further point, which is that I love the simple thought of history itself, how we interact with and transform it.
As an emblem for art, the sword seems to be a very deliberate choice. Yeats sets it up as an icon of the heroic past which some Japanese man, despite his “country’s talk/for silken clothes and a stately walk,” had the good sense to preserve during the wave of industrialization that swept through Japan. So is W.B. Yeats some kind of Irish Tom Cruise fighting for the samurai (or the Irish equivalent) and their glorious heritage? What does it mean, after all, that at a time of horrific violence and civil war Yeats chooses an object whose own personal history is steeped in the bloodshed and feudal warfare of medieval Japan? Certainly, such swords are beautiful works of art but at the time of their creation, I would be curious to know how they were understood. Though they may have been prized possessions and family heirlooms, they were also manufactured instruments made with a specific purpose.
unfortunately I don’t have the time or expertise to photoshop Yeats’ head onto this
I’m unsure at this point (and I would welcome anyone else’s thoughts) but it seems that by describing the sword as “changeless” Yeats initially casts it as an immortal artifact, an object that stands outside of time and thus represents the past in its purest form, unmediated by history. After likening it to the moon, however, and pointing out the moon’s transformative cycle—“if no change appears/No moon”—it seems that Yeats is suggesting the sword is in fact just as transitory; “only an aching heart” would conceive of a piece of art as changeless. Similarly the soul only “look[s]” unchanging. If history is not just a study of the past but a way in which the present is transformed into the past, then nothing, not the sword, art, nor the immortal soul, can escape history and hold off change. On one level, the sword, which appears to be a timeless work of art, has already been transformed from a weapon into art.
This could be Yeats reflecting on his own aching heart. He believed in an Irish heritage, large family houses passed down through generations, the preservation of the language, and he was fascinated by Irish folklore and myth. Perhaps in this period of cultural upheaval he knew that heritage could survive unchanged. On the other hand, I think he knew it would endure in some form. Though the moon moves through its cycles it is a constant and familiar presence and has been before there were even people to bother talking about how poetic it was.