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The Beast and the Lion
Issues of transcendence in the poetry of Yeats and Iqbal
by Khurram Ali Shafique
About what do they ask one another?
About the awesome tiding
On which they disagree.
Nay, but in time they will come to understand.
And once again: Nay, but in time they will come to understand!
The Quran
Chapter 78, ‘The Tiding’, Lines 1—5
I can fulfill the need of all of you, with one and the same piece of money. If you honestly give me your trust, your one coin will become as four; and four at odds will become as one united.
Rumi (1207—1273)
1. Things As They Are
2. Principles
3. Potentials
4. Contrasts
5. Resurrection
1. Things As They Are
How should we respond to the fact that the rough beast slouching towards Bethlehem, as described by W. B. Yeats in ‘The Second Coming’ was also sighted by Iqbal a dozen years ago and described in an equally apocalyptic poem?
Yeats’ description of the beast was:
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
This poem was first published in 1919 and anthologized in 1921. Iqbal, in his poem ‘March 1907’, had written twelve years ago:
The lion which leapt out of the desert and overturned the Great Roman Empire
Will be reawakened, or so have I heard from angels.
Contemporary poets can consciously or unconsciously deal with common images without knowing each other, and it would be best if such images are not interpreted in isolation. As such, it need not concern us whether Yeats was familiar with Iqbal’s vision or not. Yet, for the sake of curiosity if nothing else, the questions seems to be unavoidable.
While we cannot be sure that Yeats had heard about Iqbal’s poem, the possibility need not sound as far-fetched as it does. In 1912, the Irish writer wrote preface to the first English translation of the most notable contemporary from Iqbal’s homeland, Rabindranath Tagore. Among the Bloomsbury, E. M. Forster was familiar with the poetry of Iqbal at least since 1916 when he probably also met the poet in India (and developed a close relationship with Sir Ross Masud whom Iqbal would later nominate as a trustee for his own children).
Around the time when Yeats was writing ‘The Second Coming’, Iqbal’s Persian poem ‘Asrar-i-Khudi’ was being translated at Cambridge by the renowned scholar R. A. Nicholson (already famous for translating selections from Rumi). The translation would be published as The Secrets of the Self soon after the first printing of Yeats’ poem, and would be reviewed by Forster, E. G. Browne, Nicholson himself and Lowes Dickinson.
All of these personalities were well-known in the literary circles of England, and all except Forster had known Iqbal from more than a decade ago when he used to study in Cambridge (and there he may also have met Thomas Hardy, who happened to be a good friend of Iqbal’s supervisor McTaggart, while McTaggart himself being one of the ‘Apostles’ of Cambridge may have had some most unexpected inroads of his own into the literary circles).
Moreover, in the reviews of The Secret of the Self, we find at least one allusion to Yeats’ poem. It is from Lowes Dickinson who seemed to be identifying the “beast” of Yeats’ nightmare with the appearance of Iqbal. He mentioned “some wistful Westerners, hopeless of their own countrymen” who were turning once more “to look for a star in the East.” Not only is this statement ringing with allusion to Yeats’ poem ‘The Second Coming’ but even the rest of the paragraph is almost certainly an allusion to that poem:
And what do they find? Not the star of Bethlehem, but this blood-red planet. If this book [Iqbal’s Secrets of the Self] be prophetic, the last hope seems taken away. The East, if it arms, may indeed end by conquering the West. But if so, it will conquer no salvation for mankind. The old bloody duel will swing backwards and forwards across the distracted and tortured world. And that is all. Is this really Mr. Iqbal’s last word?
Yeats may have been influenced by some ground realities closer to his own country (Ireland was going through turbulent times those days), but that need not deter us from seeking a wider interpretation and application of Yeats’ vision. It is quite safe to presume that at least in the minds of some Western readers, such as Dickinson, the two poets must have appeared to be talking about the same thing but from opposite perspectives.
Both poets were evoking the same imagery: a lion with human attributes, the backdrop of the desert, a threat for the dominant world civilization, a reawakening of some sort, and a supernatural source of information (angels in the case of Iqbal and Spiritus Mundi in the case of Yeats). However, while the omen was bad for Yeats, it was good for Iqbal.
Moreover, it cannot be denied that both poets were dealing with a common entity, i.e. Time, and this entity was universal and uniform (perhaps the most universal and uniform). Since both were living in the same period of history, their observations about Time could not have been entirely unrelated, especially when they were focusing on the same function of Time: the birth of new epochs.
Therefore, let’s study the texts of the two poems now and see what they are talking about – and whether it can help us resolve some of the confusions about our age.
The Second Coming
W. B. Yeats, 1919/1921
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 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.
Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?
March 1907
Dr. Sir Muhammad Iqbal, 1907/1924
It is now the Age of Openness; now Beauty will be revealed to all
And the secret concealed by silence will come out.
Bygone are the days, O Saki, when wine was taken secretly;
The whole world will now become a tavern and everyone drinking.
Those who wandered in madness will return to dwellings,
Bare feet like before but new thorns to bleed them.
The silence of Arabia at last delivered message to the awaiting ears:
The compact made with the desert-dwellers will be revived once again;
The lion that leapt out of the desert and overturned the Great Roman Empire
Will be reawakened, or so have I heard from angels.
Ah, when Saki mentioned me to the fellowship of the Tavern,
The sage of the Tavern remarked, “He has a big mouth, he’ll make a fool of himself!”
O peoples of the West! God’s earth is not a marketplace;
That which you reckon as currency will now become counterfeit.
Your civilization will commit suicide with its own dagger:
Nest built on a weak branch cannot be durable.
The caravan of feeble ants will make canoe of a rose petal
And reach across the river, however rough the tide may be.
The tulip is showing its spots to every flower-bud in the garden,
Since it knows that by this pretence it shall be counted among lovers.
O sight! That which was One you showed us as a thousand;
If this is what you do then who will hold you credible?
As I said to the dove one day, “The free here are beholden to the ground”;
The blossoms began to say, “He must be a confidante of our garden!”
Lovers of God are many and they roam around in jungles;
I will be the slave of the one who loves the slaves of God.
O heart! The convention of the finite world forbids even the movement of the eye;
How shall we be respected if you become impatient here?
I will take my weary caravan into the darkness of the night:
My sigh will shed sparks, and my breath will exhale fire.
If your life has no purpose beyond getting noticed,
Like the spark you’ll be extinguished with a single glow.
Do not ask about Iqbal, he is yet in the same state;
He must be sitting somewhere by the road, still awaiting anxiously.
Yeats’ poem can be divided into five segments for the convenience of a thematic study:
(i) Lines 1—3: An age is coming to an end and the widening of the gyre (or movement from the center towards the circumference ) is a sign of corruption and decay
(ii) Lines 4—8: In this age, virtue is withering away and dying out while evil rejuvenates from within and aspires to dominate the world
(iii) Lines 9—10: These are the signs of the Time, since the Second Coming is at hand when a new age shall begin
(iv) Lines 11—17: In a vision of Spiritus Mundi, or the Great Memory, Yeats observes a pitiless man-lion in the act of copulation
(v) Lines 18—22: Yeats now concludes that the upcoming age is going to be dreadful: the Second Coming will not bring back Jesus Christ but a rough beast
Amazingly, Iqbal’s poem, written twelve years ago, had contained parallels to all these in the form of antithesis. He categorized his poem as a ghazal, which means that each couplet (two lines) could be read separately. As such the poem should not be divided into thematic segments but parallels and contrasts with Yeats’s later poem become obvious in the first sixteen lines:
(i) Lines 1—2: Unlike Yeats, Iqbal had interpreted the signs of Time as omens of an age of spiritual elevation. Yeats called his times the widening of the gyre but Iqbal described them as lifting of the veil – “It is now the Age of Openness; now Beauty will be revealed to all / And the secret concealed by silence will come out.”
(ii) Lines 3—6: According to Iqbal, the virtuous were being rejuvenated from within. Unlike Yeats, he welcomed the change – “The whole world will now become a tavern and everyone will be drinking” (the taking of wine in this case was a symbol of spiritual growth). Unlike Yeats, Iqbal sees the “best” as full of conviction and passionate intensity – “Those who wandered in madness will return to dwellings, / Bare feet like before but new thorns to bleed them.”
(iii) Lines 7—8: Just as Yeats thought about the Second Coming, Iqbal had also dwelled upon a compact made with God long ago – “The silence of Arabia at last delivered the message to the awaiting ears: The compact made with the desert-dwellers will be revived once again.”
(iv) Lines 9—10: Yeats got his vision from Spiritus Mundi, and Iqbal also heard his news from angels – “The lion that leapt out of the desert and overturned the Great Roman Empire / Will be reawakened, or so have I heard from angels.”
(v) Lines 11—16: According to Yeats, the worst were full of passionate intensity while Iqbal himself was full of it so unmistakably – “Ah, when the Saki mentioned me to the fellowship of the Tavern,” Iqbal had said. “The sage of the Tavern remarked, ‘He has a big mouth, he’ll make a fool of himself” While Yeats described his vision as a bad news for the whole world, Iqbal had interpreted the signs as bad omen for the West and a good omen for the East – “O peoples of the West! God’s earth is not a marketplace…” and “The caravan of the feeble ants will make canoe of a rose petal / And reach across the river…”
The parallels are exactly opposed to each other but the most startling factor is the common vision of the man-lion, who was about to be reawakened in 1907 when Iqbal “heard” about it, and was fully awake and rejuvenating by 1919 when Yeats “saw” it.
What Yeats was attempting to describe as a cosmic evil was in fact the same thing which Iqbal, some dozen years earlier, had interpreted as the reawakening of Islam (and by implication a reawakening of the East). Is it too much to conjecture, then, that the beast which scared the Irishman was, therefore, the resurgence of the East?
It is true that Yeats – just like his junior contemporary Eliot – had humanitarian pretensions and therefore the prevalent impression about him has been that he may not have been pro-colonialist. Despite this, some have tried to look for an elitist bias in his mind and works. However, such discussions need not hamper us too much. Suffice it to say that artists are sometimes not completely aware of every plausible interpretation of their vision and literary critics have always claimed the right to be go beyond appearances in their quest for meaning – like Joseph who interpreted “stories and events” in order to foretell destinies of individuals and nations.
3. Principles
Cutting to the core of the two visions, we observe:
? According to ‘March 1907’, the modern times are passing but good and should be accepted
? According to ‘The Second Coming’, the modern times are permanent and bad, and should be rejected
It is interesting to note that neither of these two positions is unique. The first is a typically romantic premise common among people who gain political ascendancy or are about to gain it – a hundred years ago this was the position of Wordsworth, Coleridge, Shelley, Keats and Byron in England (and Goethe, Beethoven and others elsewhere).
The second premise, i.e. the premise of Yeats, has also been common in history. It is the typical attitude of people who have lost political power (especially an empire), or are on the verge of losing it – Muslims after the fall of Baghdad in 1258 or in the last days of the Mughal Empire. That the leading poets of Europe should be entertaining this attitude at the beginning of the twentieth century could be because at least unconsciously they foresaw the impending doom of the world order to which they belong – even as dissidents.
Let’s take three basic questions which everyone needs to answer at some level:
1. Are the modern times passing or permanent?
2. Are they good or bad?
3. Should they be accepted or rejected?
From Iqbal’s perspective, the answer is, “The modern times are passing but good and should be accepted.” The answer from Yeats’ perspective is, “The modern times are permanent and bad, and should be rejected.” However, this isn’t how a typical European might be thinking a hundred years earlier, since unprecedented changes were happening around that time and many more were expected. Hence, a hundred years before Yeats, four conclusions were possible:
(a) The modern times are passing but good and should be accepted
(b) They are passing but bad and should be rejected
(c) They are passing and good, and yet they should be rejected
(d) They are passing and bad, and yet they should be accepted
Those who took the first position were Romantics (such as the ones mentioned above), while the second position was upheld by conservatives (such as William Blake) and later by Marxists. The third and fourth positions were logically impossible.
Ironically, European imperialism could only be propagated by distributing the fruits of Enlightenment but since Enlightenment was essentially anti-imperialist, it meant that colonialism itself would come to an end through it. This paradox became evident to various people at various stages. The French learnt it at Waterloo in 1814 while the British had to wait till the birth of the Indian National Congress in 1885.
In the East, the awareness of this paradox popularized the Romantic stance – Sir Syed Ahmad Khan and his school of thought cooperated with the British on the basis of the Quranic suggestion that the rise and fall of nations was an ongoing process and therefore no imperialism could last forever.
With the reawakening of the East, it could be considered possible and desirable for the European elite to presume that changes brought about by the Enlightenment were permanent (such a presumption had the added advantage of giving a much-needed booster to ego). However, there was an inherent pessimism about perceiving any age as permanent, since even good things tend to become overbearing if one doesn’t have the freedom to alter them. Hence all propositions about modern times derived from an assumption of its permanence were pessimistic:
(e) The modern times are permanent and good, and should be accepted.
(f) They are permanent and bad, and should be rejected.
(g) They are permanent and bad, but must be accepted.
(h) They are permanent and good, but must be rejected.
The first of these was the position of such imperialist writers as Rudyard Kipling – the modern times were permanent and good and should be accepted. Although chauvinistic, it still held some semblance of benevolence and goodwill towards humanity, even if expressed in dubious analogies likes “the white man’s burden”. With the movement of the West to the second position, which happened in different European nations at different times, even that semblance was gone: modern times are permanent and bad, and should be rejected.
The second position was different from that of the old-fashioned conservatives, such as William Blake. They had also opposed the modern times as a passing phase in history, hoping that it would be soon over. The new conservatives were hopeless about the future and believed the “evils” of their age to be permanent. Regardless of what one considers to be “evil”, the logical outcome of this position is suicide (and if decadent European artists of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries could be regarded as suicide attackers on the frontiers of human thought, then the militants of today would turn out to be their practical corollaries and our world will start making sense again)!
In the late nineteenth century the idea that modern times were bad but permanent may have held the greatest appeal for the elite in those European nations which had failed to have a pie in the cake of imperialism, or who had lost empires (could it be just a coincidence that the flagships of pessimism were led by the intellectual elite of Sweden, Norway, Ireland, France and Holland?). In any case, writers from these “left behind nations” of Europe practically invented the famous “Decadence” – based on the premise that the modern times are bad and permanent.
Yeats might have been destiny’s own choice for transforming decadence from an elitist fad into a philosophy of life (The attempt by some European critics, beginning with Yeats himself, to include Yeats among Romantics is based on a failure to understand what Romanticism is all about (and quite appropriately, these critics often begin by confessing their ignorance, such as the editors of The Oxford Anthology of English Literature: “Romanticism resists its definers, who can fix neither its characteristics nor its dates,” p. 3).
Either through some influence of his environment or from his own bent of mind, Yeats developed at an early stage in his career the strange notion of the “death of Time,” which he attributed to Shelley (but his interpretation of Shelley, like his interpretation of some others including Shakespeare, could be merely a reflection of his own fantasy). Hence in his essay ‘The Philosophy of Shelley’s Poetry’ (1900), Yeats found solace in the idea, found in Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound, of “at last Time being borne ‘to his tomb in eternity.’”
If the future is not a possibility then culture can only be sought in the past. Hence in his foundational essay ‘The Irish National Literary Society’ (1892), Yeats suggested that the Irish history was “full of incidents well worthy of drama, story and song” and “if we can but put those tumultuous centuries into tale or drama, the whole world will listen to us and sit at our feet like children who hear a new story.” It is significant that the “new story” he wanted his people to tell the world was a re-statement of the past and the world ought to listen to it “like children”—rather than helping the world to grow up and mature through the literature of Ireland, he desired to bring it down to a level where it may not ask whether the storyteller took enough pains to reinterpret the material with relevance to the present or the future:
And if history and the living present fail us, do there not lie hid among those spear heads and golden collars over the way in the New Museum, suggestions of that age before history when the art legends and wild mythology of earliest Ireland rose out of the void?”
Yeats concluded, “There alone is enough of the stuff that dreams are made on to keep us busy a thousand years.” Hence, if “history and the living present” failed him, he would turn, not to the future, but to “that age before history”.
In ‘The Symbolism of Poetry’ (1900) he wrote, “If one begins the reverie with any beautiful lines that one can remember, one finds they are like those by Burns…” and the lines he quoted there included the phrase, “And Time is setting with me, O!” Working from the idea that Time is dead, Yeats sought death in general as his concept of beauty: practically all other examples of “beautiful lines” from Blake, Nash and Shakespeare in that essay deal with only one theme: death.
“I see in the arts of every country those faint lights and faint colors and faint outlines and faint energies which many call ‘the decadence’,” he wrote in his literary manifesto, ‘The Autumn of the Body’ (1898). “Which I, because I believe that the arts lie dreaming of things to come, prefer to call the autumn of the body.” These dreams “of things to come” were not of fresh possibilities, since in his mind Time was dead. “Man has wooed and won the world,” he wrote. “And has fallen weary, and not, I think, for a time, but with a weariness that will not end until the last autumn, when the stars shall be blown away like withered leaves.” Ultimately, he defined his ideal as poetry of “essences”, which he hoped to rise from decadent literature and replace the poetry of “things” which he saw as a fallacy perpetuated by the likes of Homer, Shakespeare, Goethe, Wordsworth and Browning.
With the possible exception of Homer, all the rest were role models and ideals for Iqbal. Therefore it should not surprise us to see that what Yeats would call “the poetry of essences”, Iqbal would denounce as a conspiracy against life, and condemn not only these poets but also their metaphysical godfather – about Plato he wrote in ‘The Secrets of the Self’ (1915):
His Pegasus went astray in the darkness of idealism, and dropped its shoe amidst the rocks of actuality.
He was so fascinated by the invisible that he made hand, eye, and ear of no account.
“To die,” said he, “is the secret of Life: the candle is glorified by being put out.”
Likewise, Yeats fits Iqbal’s description of poets who must be shunned:
Woe to a people that resigns itself to death and whose poet turns away from the joy of living!
His mirror shows beauty as ugliness, his honey leaves a hundred stings in the heart.
His kiss robs the rose of freshness; he takes away from the nightingale's heart the joy of flying.
The sinews are relaxed by his opium; you pay for his song with the life.
He bereaves the cypress of delight in its beauty; his cold breath makes a pheasant of the male falcon.
He is a fish and from the breast upward a man – like the Sirens in the ocean.
With his song he enchants the pilot and casts the ship to the bottom of the sea.
His melodies steal firmness from your heart; his magic persuades you that death is life.
He takes from your soul the desire of existence; he extracts from your mine the blushing ruby.
He dresses gain in the garb of loss, he makes everything praiseworthy blameful,
He plunges you in a sea of thought and makes you a stranger to action.
He is sick, and by his words our sickness is increased; the more his cup goes round, the more sick are they that quaff it.
There are no lightning rains in his April; his garden is a mirage of colour and perfume.
His beauty hath no dealings with Truth, there are none but flawed pearls in his sea.
Slumber he deemed sweeter than waking: Our fire was quenched by his breath.
By the chant of his nightingale the heart was poisoned: under his heap of roses lurked a snake.
Beware of his decanter and cup! Beware of his sparkling wine!

3. Potential
It seems that Iqbal’s premise led him to envisage new possibilities: there are no images of violence in ‘March 1907’. The only exception is the prophecy about Western imperialism committing suicide but even there the East does not hold the dagger nor plunges it into the heart of the West. The West itself, moved by its own impulses, is bent upon taking its own life (which is understandable in the light of its decadent literature).
Also, the action of the “lion” is not depicted as devouring or slaying but simply an overturning, as if the graceful cat with its mighty paw was tipping over a great empire. In the light of the opening lines of the poem, which are also its central theme, this tipping over could be an act of bringing out an inner reality: the overturning of imperialism may bring out whatever good was hidden in the soul of Europe but was stifled by the dehumanizing impulses of gold hunt: “It is now the Age of Openness; now Beauty will be revealed to all/ And the secret concealed by silence will come out.”
This prediction can only be understood if future is perceived as capable of bringing out good things that haven’t been here before. Unfortunately, that was an option which the European intellectual didn’t seem to be willing to consider and Iqbal was quick to point it out. Replying to Low Dickinson through Nicholson, Iqbal wrote on January 26, 1921:
I am afraid the old European idea of a blood-thirsty Islam is still lingering in the mind of Mr. Dickinson. All men and not Muslims alone are meant for the kingdom of God on earth, provided they say good-bye to their idols of race and nationality, and treat one another as personalities.
With a subtlety befitting his literary stature, Iqbal’s statement seemed to be pointing out four problems that faced Europe at that time:
(a) inability to perceive fresh possibilities in future
(b) worshipping the idol of race
(c) worshipping the idol of nationality
(d) failing to treat others as personalities
The first of these is directly related to the limited potential of the decadent school of thought. Just like Yeats, Iqbal had also started with an aspiration for cultural revival but while Yeats looked back to “suggestions of that age before history”, Iqbal looked forward – he concluded his first monograph ‘The Doctrine of Absolute Unity as Expounded by Abdul Karim al-Jilani’ (1900) with the following note about the fourteenth-century Sufi:
In the garb of mysticism he has dropped remarks which might be developed so as to result in a philosophical system but it is a matter for regret that this sort of Idealistic Speculation did not find much favor with later Islamic thinkers.
This search for discovering a deeper reality in the living past took him to Europe where he submitted his thesis on The Development of Metaphysics in Persia to Cambridge University in March 1907 and wrote, apparently in the same month, the poem which bore that title. Modern literature does not know of a poem in which the future is glorified more than here.
In the Age of Openness even the surface reality of things may change. Secrets that lay buried deep may be floating on the surface now: laws of Nature which took a lifetime of hard work for a genius like Sir Isaac Newton are now learnt by children at school, and books which were once rare or forbidden may now be downloaded from the Internet. The steam engine made it possible to do away with slavery and democracy became a norm but these appearances may not yield their hidden meaning as long as one accepts contradictions. An effort needs to be made in order to recognize the spiritual counterpart of the law of non-contradiction, i.e. the Oneness of God.
4. Contrasts
Iqbal might have been crusading for Muslim culture but he also ended up vindicating the spirit of modern times and defending those best elements of Western civilization which Yeats and his contemporaries were bent upon discarding – the sacred treasures of Shakespeare, Goethe, Wordsworth and Browning.
This last point could be illustrated through an unsuspected harmony between John Keats (1795 – 1821) and Iqbal. As an Englishman, Keats should be closer to the spirit of Yeats than of Iqbal, but this is not the case.
Since Keats belonged to the first wave Romanticism of Europe, his basic premise about history in his own times was the same as that of Iqbal, i.e. the modern times are passing but good and should be accepted. On this principle, when he came face to face with an object of immense beauty created by the people of an age long bygone, his response to the unbearable immensity was, in ‘An Ode on a Grecian Urn’:
Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard
Are sweeter; therefore, ye soft pipes, play on;
Not to the sensual ear, but, more endeared,
Pipe to the spirit deities of no tone:
Fair youth, beneath the trees, thou canst not leave
Thy song, nor ever can those trees be bare;
Bold Lover, never, never canst thou kiss,
Though winning near the goal—yet, do not grieve;
She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss,
Forever wilt thou love, and she be fair!
An artifact of immense beauty from a bygone age brings us face to face with the question of immortality. Since Keats believed his own times to be good, he withstood the pull of the past and assuming the gesture of polite nobility, said, “ye soft pipes, play on.” But he knew his own age to be passing too – and hence the inevitability of other times when other spectators would observe the same urn. Without claiming knowledge of the future, Keats could still know what fellow poets after him would feel upon beholding that urn. They would feel the same, and therefore:
‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.’
Beauty can be truth only if the onlooker is invested with a power to see through appearances. As a conservative, Blake could only describe as exuberance, and that premise was accepted by Yeats at an early age. Consequently, when he felt the same pull towards the past which Keats had survived, he succumbed. Being allured by the past to the extent of committing treason against one’s own times is suicide, and Yeats attempted it in ‘Sailing to Byzantium’:
Once out of nature I shall never take
My bodily form from any natural thing,
But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make
Of hammered gold and gold enamelling
To keep a drowsy Emperor awake;
Or set upon a golden bough to sing
To lords and ladies of Byzantium
Of what is past, or passing, or to come.
Such is the nature of life and death that those who desire death are the most terrified by it while those who love life are less afraid of death. Keats could be amused by the prospect of an age when he would be no more, but Yeats answered the fear of death by wishing that he had never been born in the first place. He wanted to escape his “human abstract” and be converted into an object crafted, not by Nature, but by the hand of some other human artist.
Keats didn’t wish that he were the Grecian urn – he gazed at it and was thankful to the hand which created such beauty. Yeats wished to become that which he admired – which was less than human, and not even the handiwork of God but of another human being long dead. In other words, Keats was envious of the artist but Yeats was envious of the object itself – since his basic premise was that the modern times were permanent and bad, and should be rejected, therefore his conclusion was, “No Future”. This applies to inanimate objects, which are futureless while things with souls have a life even beyond their bodies.
‘Sailing to Byzantium’ was written in 1926 and anthologized in 1928. It was comparable, as an antithesis, to Iqbal’s poem ‘Sicily’ written twenty years ago but Iqbal’s greatest poem on this theme was the one he was about to write in 1933:
O Shrine of Cordoba! You owe your existence to Love;
Love is permanence entire, in which there is no past.
Be it color, brick or stone, be it string, word or voice,
The miracle of art springs from lifeblood itself.
A drop of blood transforms a piece of rock into a heart,
Forever the source of desire, pleasure and music!
Your air illumines hearts; my voice makes them throb;
You draw hearts to a vision, I untie their knots.
The human breast is no less exalted than the Exalted Throne,
Despite the limit of azure skies set upon a handful of dust.
What if the beings of light have the privilege of prostrating,
They don’t know the verve and warmth of prostrations!
I am an Indian infidel, but look at my fervor and ardor:
Blessings and peace upon the Prophet, says my heart, and my lips.
Aspiration is my tune, aspiration is its instrument;
The song of Allah hoo! resonates in every fiber of my being.
Keats and Iqbal had little in common except the basic Romantic premise: The modern times are passing but good and should be accepted. This much affinity was sufficient to make ‘The Mosque of Cordoba’ an antithesis of Yeats and a magnificent belated installment to the legacy of the Romantics.
Like Keats, and unlike Yeats, Iqbal too feels proud of his human faculties—“What if the beings of light have the privilege of prostrating,/ They don’t know the verve and warmth of prostrations!” However, while Keats glorifies Beauty and hence lays an emphasis on the artifact itself, Iqbal emphasizes Love and draws our attention to the human source of the artifact – while Divine Beauty in a thing of Nature is the handiwork of God, its reflection in a human artifact betrays that love which the artisan must have felt.
Hence, the premise of Iqbal called for readjustments to changes. He stated his understanding of these changes, what they held for the East and the West, and on what terms both could benefit. The perspective of “No Future” may have been attractive for the European elite at that time because it meant that even if East became free, it would still not get any better because the modern times were permanent and bad. In any case this approach nurtured that decadence which we find in the work of Yeats.
By the beginning of the twentieth century, the very word “modern” had come to mean “Western”, and some in the West may have wanted it to stay that way. If modern times were passing then soon the word “modern” would come to mean “Eastern”: election of an Indian prime minister by independent voters could be called “modern” while the British voters electing a prime minister may appear “traditional”. The age of European Enlightenment itself may become outdated as compared to the age of “Eastern” Enlightenment! Was Yeats unconsciously trying to paint the reawakening of the East in such colors that it should horrify the East itself? Was Euro-centric literary criticism adopting the creed of “speak globally, think locally”?
A glaring example may be seen in Yeats’ famous preface to Gitanjali by Rabindranath Tagore, written in 1912. The quotations in that preface turn out to be just the kind of things European imperialists may have been wanting to hear after a decade of terrorist attacks from rowdy Indian nationalists:
They build their houses with sand and they play with empty shells. With withered leaves they weave their boats and smilingly float them on the vast deep. Children have their play on the seashore of worlds. They know not how to swim, they know not how to cast nets. Pearl fishers dive for pearls, merchants sail in their ships, while children gather pebbles and scatter them again. They seek not for hidden treasures, they know not how to cast nets.
This “literary hypocrisy” has lingered on long after the actual demise of imperialism. For instance, in The Oxford Anthology of English Literature (1973) edited by Kermode and Hollander, it is written about ‘The Second Coming’ (p.1700):
In general the poem meets an understanding response not because we accept its peculiar doctrine but because its apocalyptic feeling—the terror and decadence of the last days of an epoch—is widely shared.
The ring of universalism in this passage, highlighted by such phrases as “in general” and “widely shared”, is false and deceptive. Since this book was published in 1973 when, according to one estimate, there were more people speaking English outside Britain than all born in Britain up to that time, “in general” must mean not only in Britain but all over the world where this poem was being taught in universities. Similarly, a “widely shared” feeling should mean a feeling prevalent all over the world, including Asia and Africa, since the poem was also well-known there. Since “the last days of an epoch” were the last days of European imperialism, why should there be terror and decadence “in general”? Indeed, there was joy and regeneration in the majority of the world – in Asia and Africa (and even in America due to any number motives, noble or otherwise). “The centre” that didn’t hold was the seat of European masters, things did not “fall apart” but became independent and they weren’t “things” but nations of the East.
At the beginning of the twentieth century, it may have had been painful for the European elite to foresee the birth of a new epoch occurring in Ankara, Tehran, Cairo or Delhi and it may have thanked Yeats because his rough beast “slouches towards Bethlehem to be born.”
The truth is that the end of European imperialism was not the end of the world. The Second World War was a great tragedy but the world has moved on – or is at least trying to. It is learning its lessons. The United Nations may have many failings but it has proven to be a better and more effective organization than the League of Nations which was founded after the First World War – and incidentally, unlike the League of Nations, the majority of members in the UN is from Asia, Africa and South America.
Yeats may have rung a false alarm. He vilified time and maligned the phenomenon of Christ’s comeback but was it really because he saw a rough beast taking the place of Christ? Or was it actually because of what has to happen on the Second Coming in any case: The meek shall inherit the earth? Rough beast or no beast, the prospect of the meet inheriting the earth could itself have given nightmares to the European elite of the early twentieth century.
We may never be able to know whether the world can become as good as Iqbal foresaw, or whether it is doomed to be as bad as Yeats predicted. Whichever of the two we choose, we should choose with awareness.
Unfortunately that hasn’t been the case far. Even in Pakistan, the country which claims to have been envisioned by Iqbal, ‘The Second Coming’ is taught like a realistic depiction of things to come – and among hundreds of thousands of students, teachers and scholars who have studied English literature since in Pakistan since the birth of that country, it has never occurred to any one to mark the striking similarity in the imagery of Yeats and Iqbal, and to understand the difference between their messages.
For decades, English literature and Iqbal Studies have been taught in isolation – and seldom to the same students. However, an ever greater and more perverse danger is rising now. Some scholars attempting comparative study of Iqbal and modern literature have taken it for granted that Iqbal could not have differed from his Western contemporaries. These apologetics are now trying to show that Iqbal had the same worldview as Yeats, and that the poetry of Iqbal should be studied according to the poetics of Yeats or T. S. Eliot.
This is suicide – and we cannot help asking whether the sudden outpouring of suicide killers from the world of Islam is not a result of intellectual suicide which the best of the minds in the East have been committing for decades?
This paper cannot explore all the connected issues. Its purpose was simply to show that the vision of Iqbal is different from Yeats and what is good for one is bad for the other. What is good for us is something which only we can decide for ourselves but at least we should make an informed choice.

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