A certain national narrative has taken shape around the events of the last decade in Afghanistan. The sentiments surrounding this narrative are expressed in familiar phrases in conversations by taxi drivers, day laborers, civil servants and civil society activists. These sentiments are about the Afghan sense of self and the delights and disappointments that Afghans have experienced over the last decade of statehood.
Living a full century in the past and half a world away, Yeats was surrounded by similar sentiments. He was an Irish nationalist and served two terms as an Irish senator. Among his poems – both political and non-political – one can find snippets that are apt commentary on Afghanistan today.
This is not least because, much like Afghanistan, his country, Ireland, also plunged into civil war right after gaining independence from British rule – and his people, the Irish, have a tough, warlike reputation, much like Afghans. This, and the two nations’ long and shared experience of violence, makes his poetry strikingly relevant to contemporary Afghanistan…and the seemingly timeless nature of his writings is a reminder that the literature of hope and despair and violence and war are more or less universal and timeless.
I am not a scholar of literature, but in this admittedly crude study, I list an expression of Afghan sentiment and then post an excerpt from Yeats’s poetry or prose that seems to address that sentiment.
Enjoy (and feel free to make your own contributions or corrections in the comments).
2014: the worst-case scenario
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
-‘The Second Coming’ was written right after World War I but still describes the sense of impending doom in Afghanistan.
…many that have been free to walk the hills and the bogs and the rushes will be sent to walk hard streets in far countries; many a good plan will be broken; many that have gathered money will not stay to spend it…
-‘Cathleen Ni Houlihan,’ the play from 1922 about the bloody Irish rebellion of 1798 against British rule. This passage could describe the displacement (internal and external) of Afghans due to violence, capital flight before 2014, and the government’s seemingly ill-fated plans to fix things.
The educated but indifferent younger generation crowded out by the older set of leaders who have questionable pasts
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
–The Second Coming
On the essence of the Afghan sense of self
Being Irish, he had an abiding sense of tragedy, which sustained him through temporary periods of joy.
-Quote frequently attributed to Yeats, but I couldn’t find the parent work that it is part of.
Out of Ireland have we come.
Great hatred, little room,
Maimed us at the start.
I carry from my mother’s womb
A fanatic heart.
-‘Remorse for Intemperate Speech,’ a poem which, according to this book on Yeats’s poetry, “ascribes the ‘fanatic heart’ to the peculiarities of Ireland…[taking] account of Ireland’s furious politics and perennial land agitation” – two phenomenon not unknown in Afghanistan.
There was a man whom Sorrow named his Friend,
And he, of his high comrade Sorrow dreaming,
Went walking with slow steps along the gleaming
And humming Sands, where windy surges wend:
And he called loudly to the stars to bend…
-‘The Sad Shepherd,’ describing the essential sadness of the Afghan heart, beset by tragedies and sorrows of generational violence.
Having inherited a vigorous mind
From my old fathers, I must nourish dreams
And leave a woman and a man behind
As vigorous of mind, and yet it seems
Life scarce can cast a fragrance on the wind,
-‘My Descendants,’ the fourth meditation in ‘Meditations in Times of Civil War,’ speaks to the Afghan sense of inherited vigor and martial prowess…which can sometimes get lost between generations, effecting a generation of loose conviction and weak attachment to country and honor.
On the security industry: the policemen, soldiers, private guards and other gunmen that proliferate a poor nation at war:
I know that I shall meet my fate
Somewhere among the clouds above;
Those that I fight I do not hate
Those that I guard I do not love;
My country is Kiltartan Cross,
My countrymen Kiltartan’s poor,
No likely end could bring them loss
Or leave them happier than before.
Nor law, nor duty bade me fight,
Nor public man, nor cheering crowds
-‘An Irish Airman Foresees His Death,’ written in 1919 about his friend who was an aviator fighting on the side of the British even as the Irish were fighting a war of independence against them. Kiltartan Cross may well be Kabul City, and his friend may well be an Afghan policeman who joined the force not out of conviction to protect or avenge but of the obligation to put food on the table for his family.
On Afghans being fed up with war and violence, and longing for peace and normalcy
Too long a sacrifice
Can make a stone of the heart.
O when may it suffice?
That is Heaven’s part, our part
To murmur name upon name,
As a mother names her child
When sleep at last has come
On limbs that had run wild.
What is it but nightfall?
No, no, not night but death;
Was it needless death after all?
-‘Easter, 1916’ is a poem describing Yeats’s sentiments about the failed Irish uprising that took place that day against British rule. It speaks to the common Afghan sentiment about the toll and futility of continued violence.
On the human toll of Afghanistan being the ‘graveyard of empires’
We had fed the heart on fantasies,
The heart’s grown brutal from the fare;
More Substance in our enmities
Than in our love; …
-‘The Stare’s Nest by My Window’ is the sixth meditation in ‘Meditations in Time of Civil War’ and describes the Irish civil war that broke out right after Ireland became independent from British rule. This poem speaks to the Afghan sentiment that the narrative of Afghans being a martial and fiercely independent race has been too costly to them.