heart’s grown brutal

It’s hard to believe, isn’t it. Right now, today, we have about twenty thousand National Guard troops in Washington, DC to protect our government from our president. We have been forced to mobilize a military force larger than the military response we have stationed in Afghanistan or Iraq in order to insure that the insurrectionist followers of Donald Trump won’t disrupt the inauguration of the legitimately elected President of the United States.

That is completely fucking insane–and yet here we are. We’ve arrived at this unnerving moment of history because Trump, supported by sycophantic Republicans in Congress and in coordination with a nexus of unhinged right-wing anti-government cranks and conspiracy theorists (fueled in part by Russian social media disinformation trolls), refuses to acknowledge he lost the 2020 election. Even though Trump has apparently abandoned the demented fantasy that he might somehow, magically, still be declared the winner, he hasn’t yet abandoned his lies about the election being ‘stolen’. That lie hangs in the air, fouling any hope for reconciliation.

We had fed the heart on fantasies,
The heart’s grown brutal from the fare

Billy B. Yeats wrote that in 1922. Ireland, after a couple of years of open warfare against British troops, had signed a treaty with the United Kingdom, granting independence to all but six of Ireland’s counties. The failure to establish full independence sparked the Irish Civil War, between those who insisted on full independence and those who were willing to accept partition in the hope that it would someday lead to a united Ireland. It led to Irish people fighting against “Irish soldiers of an Irish government set up by Irishmen.”

The poem is called The Stare’s Nest by My Window. Apparently in the west of Ireland ‘stare’ was the local term for a starling. I’d read the poem a number of times and loved the language of it, but it wasn’t until I was living in DC and had the chance to hear the poet Seamus Heaney read it aloud, that it actually made sense to me.

William Butler Yeats

When he wrote the poem, Yeats was living in a 16th century tower called Thoor Ballylee. Outside his window, honeybees were building a comb in the crevices of the crumbling masonry near an abandoned starling’s nest. Yeats uses all that as a metaphor for the Irish Civil War. The old tower is falling apart, the nest where mother starlings brought “grubs and flies” to feed the nestlings is empty, but bees are still at work creating a home filled with the sweetness of honey.

My wall is loosening; honey-bees,
Come build in the empty house of the stare.

Outside his tower, in the real world, Irishmen were killing Irishmen. Yeats acknowledges that violence in the poem — “somewhere / A man is killed, or a house burned.” “Last night they trundled down the road / That dead young soldier in his blood.” He pleads for peace and rebuilding, for restoring the masonry of civil society, in a repeated refrain. “O honey-bees / Come build in the empty house of the stare.”

This is where we find ourselves now, here in the United States. We’re badly divided, but unlike the Irish in 1922, we’re not divided by competing notions of independence; we’re divided by willfully ugly lies, deliberately ugly rhetoric, and ugly conspiratorial fantasies created, spread, and often repeated by prominent Republicans.

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 masonry holding our society together has been eroded, often intentionally, by those who want to create uncertainty and fear in order to stay in power. Our hearts have grown brutal; our hate seems stronger than our love. We desperately want/need it to be repaired. I believe–I want to believe–it’s possible to repair the damage. I see all those troops camped out in the ornate halls of our government, and the possibility of Americans fighting Americans fills me with dread and sorrow. Like Yeats, I feel we are “closed in, and the key is turned / On our uncertainty.”

I have no clear idea what will happen over the coming months. I have hopes; I have fears. I take some small comfort in knowing that countless others throughout history have felt similar hopes and fears. The fact that we’re able to read their writing today is proof that folks generally muddle through somehow.

Here’s the entire poem, probably in violation of some copyright somewhere.

The Stare’s Nest by My Window (1922)

The bees build in the crevices
Of loosening masonry, and there
The mother birds bring grubs and flies.
My wall is loosening; honey-bees,
Come build in the empty house of the stare.

We are closed in, and the key is turned
On our uncertainty; somewhere
A man is killed, or a house burned.
Yet no clear fact to be discerned:
Come build in the empty house of the stare.

A barricade of stone or of wood;
Some fourteen days of civil war:
Last night they trundled down the road
That dead young soldier in his blood:
Come build in the empty house of the stare.

We had fed the heart on fantasies,
The heart’s grown brutal from the fare,
More substance in our enmities
Than in our love; O honey-bees,
Come build in the empty house of the stare.

10 thoughts on “heart’s grown brutal

    • I think the 1/6 insurrection has the potential to be a tipping point, but it’s still too early to tell. It’s critical to keep attention on what actually happened and not let it be just another vector of misinformation/disinformation.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. Thanks Greg a couple of things
    1. You heard Heaney recite Yeats? So jealous. Whilst he taught my uncle at teacher training college before becoming a fully fledged “proper” academic at Queens in Belfast, he’d scarpered to pastures new by the time I’d gained entry to that particular ivory tower. Thus I never got to hear him, read any poetry.

    2. My favourite vignette from a piece written by the now retired Guardian journalist, Henry McDonald, about the mourners at Heaney’s wake or funeral, tells the story of a young couple who had encountered Heaney in a Dublin restaurant, pausing by their table, he asked what it was they were celebrating, “our engagement” came the joyful reply. Heaney smiled bade the good luck and made his way back to his table, only to return some minutes later with a compendium of Irish poetry, a napkin for a bookmark inserte. He placed the tome on the table, smiled again and withdrew. Immediate rush to grab the book to see why it had been bookmarked. Heaney had turned to the book and had picked out one of his own poems, “Scaffolding”. He had also signed the poem and penned some simple but witty advice about maintaing a happy marriage “Even when she’s wrong, she’s always right” or similar. “Scaffloding” was written and reflects upon a troubled time in Heaney’s marriage which he and his spouse Marie, struggled through, partly helped by thoughts of their early lives together – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fNYBwF7lKLA

    3. I’d take slight issue with your “Dublin centric” take on our Civil War which the War of Independence morphed into. Carson the Westminster leader of the Unionists in the six counties felt he too was shafted by the Tories and as part of a long diatribe against them in Westminster “attacked the “Tory intrigues” that had led him on the course that would partition Ireland, an outcome he opposed almost as strongly as Home Rule itself. In the course of the speech Carson said:
    ‘What a fool I was! I was only a puppet, and so was Ulster, and so was Ireland, in the political game that was to get the Conservative Party into Power.'” iki entry but an accurate one
    100 years on the Tores are still pulling the same stroke, and people with a similar mindset as Carson’s are still fools.

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    • Yes, I was lucky to attend a lecture given by Heaney in DC several years ago. He mostly read his own work and explained how and why he’d written a few specific poems. But he spent maybe 15-20 minutes talking about his political poems as part of a tradition. It was a long time ago, but I recall him mentioning Padraic Colum who called the Easter Rising ‘the poet’s revolution’ (or words to that effect).

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    • It’ll take a chunk of time to undo the worst of the damage Trump inflicted on the US — and I’m not sure this country will ever by quite the same. But I DO believe things will get better for most people. Thanks for the good wishes.

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      • No offence meant, Greg, but nothing is ever quite the same. That is not necessarily a bad thing.
        I’m old enough to remember a time before Rush besmirched the honorable term “women’s liberationist”, but even when it was new that title had troubles of its own. When things are new or changing there are many mistakes made. We learn from them or we double down and refuse to learn.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you, as always, for your erudite weaving together of life and art, distress and hope, promise and warning. This is a wonderful poem, and one I might not have encountered except for you.

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    • Life and art, distress and hope, promise and warning — that’s just how the world works, isn’t it? I suspect all of experience each of those things every single day, though they might be experienced on a small scale.

      I’m glad you liked the poem. Heaney is a very accessible poet.

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