Earlier this week, there was a post in celebration of Casimir Pulaski Day. This post is meant to be a head-start on celebrating St. Patrick’s Day.
The Irish are a prolific people in some ways. There are plenty of jokes about the leporine breeding habits of Irish Catholics, but I am more interested in their prodigious writing. The first reading on this blog was by Oscar Wilde. Subsequent readings included works by Shaw, Oliver Byrne, Lord Dunsany, and Jonathan Swift. American writers of Irish descent have also been featured on this blog; Poe, Twain, Fitzgerald, and James all inherited the Irish way with words.
But it is not just in literature that the Irish excel. So prolific are the Irish in America, that no fewer than half of this nation’s presidents were of Irish descent. It may be unfair to hold that fact against the Irish as a whole, but it is not clear what that fact tells us.
The aspiration to public office in America is often maligned as merely seeking to suckle from the public teat. Or, as H. L. Mencken put it, the politician under democracy “is a sturdy rogue whose principal, and often sole, aim in life is to butter his parsnips.” This is perhaps unfair to the politician; it could be that there is something more noble driving him.
Even if there is a righteous impetus for the politician, he still must suffer for his efforts. Every effort put toward political success in a democracy has its price in the form of effort that cannot be exerted elsewhere. The question of whether one can be a good politician and a good man is still unclear to me. It seems possible that one cannot rise to any reasonably high level in government without compromising everything that makes one noble. For Mencken, of course, the answer was more clear: even if a good man could get elected to high office, he’d soon either turn bad (because of the company he’d be forced to keep) or jump out of the window.
Though many an Irish-American has sought and found political success in this country, perhaps they would have been well to consider the words of fellow son of Ireland, William Butler Yeats:
The Muse is mute when public men
Applaud a modern throne:
Those cheers that can be bought or sold,
That office fools have run,
That waxen seal, that signature.
For things like these what decent man
Would keep his lover waiting,
Keep his lover waiting?
Beer of the week: O’Shea’s Traditional Irish Stout – Surprisingly, I have had relatively few Irish beers, so I was happy to find this one at the store. This stout is very dark brown with a quickly fading tan head. The aroma is slightly sour, of dark bread with hints of vanilla. The body of the beer is surprisingly thin. The finish is pleasantly smokey. This is not my favorite style of beer, but as far as dry stouts go, this one isn’t bad.
Reading for the week: A Model For The Laureate by William Butler Yeats – The first time I read this poem, it was part of an essay denouncing Yeats for his “anti-democratic philosophy.” The poem compares “good and great” kings, strong-armed tyrants, and democratic politicians. The more I read it, the more I am convinced that Yeats considered the last of these three to be the worst.
Question for the week: What is the greatest Irish contribution to our culture?
“No man can know a happy man
From any passing wretch;
If Folly link with Elegance
No man knows which is which,”
William Butler Yeats, The Old Stone Cross
Four and a half years ago, one of these blog posts brought up the age-old question: when can a man be called “happy”? The reading for that week was from Herodotus, who related the story of Solon and Croesus. Solon enraged Croesus by refusing to call him happy. Happiness, Solon claimed, could only be determined after death. Sure, on any given day a man may seem happy. Or even for an extended period of time. But until a man has breathed his last, it is impossible to tell whether his life was happy or not. After all, “to many God shows but a glimpse of happiness and then plucks them up by the roots and overturns them.”
The above-quoted passage from Yeats looks like a similar claim: it is impossible for anybody to tell who is truly happy. But he goes even further; one cannot even tell happiness from wretchedness. He also says that it is impossible to tell folly from elegance. (An outsider’s view of fashion seems to confirm this notion. High-heeled shoes and all sorts of other fashionable attire appear to be equal parts folly and elegance.)
However, Yeats’s lines need more context. Solon apparently believed that it was never possible to say who was happy until after death. Yeats, however, qualified his claim. According to the man under the old stone cross, it is particular to our place and time that happiness cannot be discerned from wretchedness, nor folly from elegance. Such seemingly obvious distinctions cannot be made today “Because this age and the next age — Engender in the ditch”. Unlike Solon, Yeats seems to think that the happy should be easy to sort from the wretched. The reason that we cannot do so is the vulgar origins of our present society.
Beer of the week: Society and Solitude #5 – Alchemist Brewery may have all of the hype, but their neighbors at Hill Farmstead give them a real run for their money. This experimental imperial IPA pours cloudy and pale. The aroma has lots of mango and citrus. The beer is eminently smooth and there is hardly a hint of the high alcohol content. The hops are not overpowering, but they are perfectly balanced with the malt and the fruit notes. This is really a stellar beer.
Reading of the week: The Old Stone Cross by William Butler Yeats – Perhaps the driving factors in the degradation of society are modern politics and what passes for journalism. This poem starts with the statesman “who tells his lies by rote,” and the journalist who “makes up his lies.” This distrust for the political circus and the news media that foster it results in (what I consider) very sound advice from the poet: “stay at home’ and drink your beer — And let the neighbours’ vote”!
Question of the week: What would Solon say about the inability to distinguish folly from elegance?