In 1939 Irish poet W.B. Yeats published Last Poems and deliberately chose his poem Politics to be the final poem in the volume. It was the last lyric poem he ever wrote and has been placed last in all posthumous editions of his works.
HOW can I, that girl standing there,
My attention fix
On Roman or on Russian
Or on Spanish politics?
Yet here’s a travelled man that knows
What he talks about,
And there’s a politician
That has read and thought,
And maybe what they say is true
Of war and war’s alarms,
But O that I were young again
And held her in my arms!
In 1938, when Yeats wrote the poem, the Spanish Civil War was raging. Hitler’s Third Reich was threatening and the political situation in Russia and in Italy was dark. Yeats himself was deeply involved in Irish politics throughout his life. The title of the poem hints at all this political strife, and yet the poem is ultimately a personal one.
It is a poem about opposites – youth and age, war and peace, female and male, intellect and emotion. It is a poem about sexual longing which has not decreased with age. The pull of love and lust is stronger than that of possible war and “war’s alarms”, the demands of one’s private life will always be more urgent than demands from the political world, Yeats tells us. It is a poem of regret, from an educated and thinking man, now just a little jaded, for the passing of his youth and the times when he could take a beautiful girl into his arms and make love to her.
The structure of the poem is simple and effective. There are 12 lines, with no regular rhyme or metre. It was partly inspired by a quote from German novelist Thomas Mann, whose citizenship of Germany had been revoked by the Nazis in 1936. Mann fled to America and said: “In our time the destiny of man presents its meanings in political terms.” The poem’s ‘turn’ in the last two lines refutes Mann’s epigraph and yet, ironically, also reinforces it. For while the poet might hold her in his arms, he is probably ineffectual as a lover and so all that is left to him is political interest. There will be no raising of hope in the dark political world, or raising of anything when it comes to sex, for the would-be but aged lover. It is a poem showing little optimism for the future, one more concerned with nostalgia. It’s a touching poem, perhaps slightly tongue-in-cheek, and ultimately dealing with a human dilemma which all those who grow old must face.