Week 281: The Curse of Cromwell, by W.B.Yeats

The Yeatsian rhetoric and Yeatsian rhythms are very seductive, so seductive that it may be some time before one begins to look askance at what is actually being said. This poem is a case in point, expressing the poet’s nostalgia for an unchanging, hierarchical society that comprises an aristocratic elite, a sturdy but deferential peasantry, and a few well-rewarded poets between. ‘His fathers served their fathers before Christ was crucified’. Not, you note, the other way round, and one may reflect that it is much easier to be in favour of an unchanging social order when others are doing the serving and you’re the one being served. And yet, whatever my egalitarian reservations, I find the poem compellingly memorable.

The Curse Of Cromwell

You ask what I have found, and far and wide I go:
Nothing but Cromwell’s house and Cromwell’s murderous crew,
The lovers and the dancers are beaten into the clay,
And the tall men and the swordsmen and the horsemen, where are they?
And there is an old beggar wandering in his pride –
His fathers served their fathers before Christ was crucified.
O what of that, O what of that,
What is there left to say?

All neighbourly content and easy talk are gone,
But there’s no good complaining, for money’s rant is on.
He that’s mounting up must on his neighbour mount,
And we and all the Muses are things of no account.
They have schooling of their own, but I pass their schooling by,
What can they know that we know that know the time to die?
O what of that, O what of that,
What is there left to say?

But there’s another knowledge that my heart destroys,
As the fox in the old fable destroyed the Spartan boy’s
Because it proves that things both can and cannot be;
That the swordsmen and the ladies can still keep company,
Can pay the poet for a verse and hear the fiddle sound,
That I am still their servant though all are underground.
O what of that, O what of that,
What is there left to say?

I came on a great house in the middle of the night,
Its open lighted doorway and its windows all alight,
And all my friends were there and made me welcome too;
But I woke in an old ruin that the winds howled through;
And when I pay attention I must out and walk
Among the dogs and horses that understand my talk.
O what of that, O what of that,
What is there left to say?



3 thoughts on “Week 281: The Curse of Cromwell, by W.B.Yeats

  1. Here’s a few attempts at clarification. The title seems to mean the curse pronounced by Cromwell (on Ireland). In the third verse the knowledge destroys the speaker’s heart, and the fox in the fable destroyed the boy’s heart.

    • I don’t think it’s that Cromwell pronounced a curse on Ireland (though he may well have muttered ‘bloody Ireland’ a few times in his career), as that he was a curse to Ireland: his campaign of 1649-1650, in which his soldiers massacred the Irish at Drogheda and Wexford, was long remembered with great bitterness, and in the wake of it Roman Catholicism was banned, priests were put to death, and land was taken from the native Irish and give to Scots and English settlers. That is what finally destroyed the old social order.

      The fox in the fable, of course, refers to the story in Plutarch of the Spartan boy who stole a fox and when he saw some soldiers coming hid it under his cloak and let it ‘tear out his guts with its teeth and claws’ rather than let on, this being the kind of stoicism expected of him. Possibly the meaning here is that the poet lives at the same time in both past and present, but with no one to share that knowledge (only the dogs and horses understand his talk) he must conceal it and be inwardly consumed by it.

  2. Hi David, thanks for your reply. Your comments are useful. The references to Cromwell early in the poem don’t in fact seem of great importance. The situation could fit any event in history where an old order is swept away, to the regret of some of the survivors? “things both can and cannot be” – the speaker keeps the old order alive in his imagination? But there’s no one human left that he can share this knowledge with.

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