William Butler Yeats, "When Helen Lived"

“Beauty that we have won / From bitterest hours” threatens to give war a glamour it should not be given.

William Butler Yeats, "When Helen Lived"

Welcome! Thank you for being here

It sounds corny to say "you've got your choice in newsletters," but you really do. However, I feel like the number of newsletters isn't just because of the collapse of journalism or the problems in academia. There really is a tremendous amount to understand about the world, and high-quality reflection and writing is happening and meeting that challenge. Maybe the number of newsletters is necessitated by what we have to know.

I ran into someone recently who claimed he was a "classical liberal" and that Trump was his man without question. Everyone else, according to him, was hysterical. I didn't engage with any hostility because the bubble of misinformation around him was so apparent. That encounter got me thinking about the limits of this golden age of media. Parker Malloy has her own newsletter which perfectly documents and dissects the right-wing rage machine. Take a look at her post on Fox News' amazingly bad faith use of "cancel culture." What she wrote is tailor-made for my Trump-loving interlocutor: she shows how a complicated argument about apologies and obligations is oversimplified and misrepresented in order to create an event in a culture war. Yet I can't imagine he's going to be open to her study of media manipulation any time soon.

Without further ado:

  • Sarah Mesle, "Mare's Hair" (caution—this does spoil the whole show): Outstanding media criticism. The argument, in Mesle's words: "to think about Mare of Easttown means to think about how Mare, a police detective, relates to her own white womanhood, of which blond hair is one of mass culture’s most powerful symbols." Mesle wrestles with whether the show is "copaganda" while demonstrating how deeply embedded its themes are in the structures framing womanhood, feelings of security, and even our ability to tell stories.
  • Ruth Chan on how her young nephews confronted racist behavior (link to facebook): this comic speaks for itself, but what it says is just amazing. I can safely tell you that at my age confronting racist behavior isn't easy.
  • Russell Troxel, "Overboard! Review:" Russell reviews a game that's a neat take on murder mysteries. What if you're the murderer and had to create a convincing story while "investigating?" If you don't play or read about video games, I especially recommend Russell's review so you can see one way in which video game creators are playing around with (and critiquing) genre.

William Butler Yeats, "When Helen Lived"

“Beauty that we have won / From bitterest hours” threatens to give war a glamour it should not be given.

When Helen Lived
William Butler Yeats

We have cried in our despair
That men desert,
For some trivial affair
Or noisy, insolent, sport,
Beauty that we have won
From bitterest hours;
Yet we, had we walked within
Those topless towers
Where Helen walked with her boy,
Had given but as the rest
Of the men and women of Troy,
A word and a jest.

I have two conflicting, terrible views on this. On the one hand, there’s what I’ve just said. With more outline: if we let everyone take for granted that war is necessary and that a great “beauty” can be “won," we’re not truly appreciating how brutal, random, lawless, wasteful, and cruel war is. We’re pretending to understand the violence and injustice involved, but we ultimately resolve that going to war was worth our present comfort.

On the other hand, wars do happen. Sometimes they must be fought. “Beauty… won / [f]rom bitterest hours” can speak less to glorifying war and more to believing in peace itself.

I am prone, nowadays, to think the former. That we do horrible things and sloppily justify them with grand-sounding rhetoric. Yeats’ Homeric recreation—one could and should call it “fanfiction” or “roleplay,” but I want a fancier term—achieves something unusual with that grand tone. For a moment, there’s a hint that nothing in the system works as advertised.


“We have cried in our despair / That men desert, / For some trivial affair / Or noisy, insolent, sport.”

The moral posture of these lines is specific. Someone has made themselves a soldier, fighting for their brothers-in-arms. Helping achieve victory or a chance to fight another day. The reaction to desertion is “despair:” How could someone not want to do this? Not want the loyalty and camaraderie?

Swiss Soldiers standing in Formation
Photo by Simon Infanger / Unsplash

I have to stop myself from saying this soldier is fanatical. They aren’t, necessarily. Yes, they dismiss, for example, wanting to see one’s beloved as “some trivial affair.” Or imply that friendly competition is only “noisy, insolent, sport” compared to, um, getting gassed, beaten with nightsticks, or shot.

Still, I don’t see them as fanatical, not against the backdrop of growing national consciousness. From “Easter 1916:” “Too long a sacrifice / Can make a stone of the heart.” Creating a nation can entail self-governance as a moral matter. Seeking justice and a better life for future generations, then, must be more important than love or play. Many can be drafted into the effort, including those who think themselves wise.


Morality, one could say, makes us soldiers. It is immoral to desert the “Beauty that we have won / From bitterest hours.” Immoral to neglect the virtue inherent in the “bitterest.”

This isn’t fascist propaganda and this is fascist propaganda. It isn’t propaganda because the poem is open about fault. If one cries that others won’t fight for their home with them, but acknowledges giving only “a word and a jest” toward the problem one’s home caused, then there’s a larger problem than desertion. The poem as a whole voices regret: peace should have been treated with the utmost seriousness. Treated more seriously than crying out that others abandon their posts. More seriously than joking around about a proximate cause for war.

Unfortunately, I am writing in the United States in 2021, where if a video game character speaks in the manner of Yeats’ poem, it can become a bunch of memes about lost manliness. The poem has an affect not unlike what we hear about the Lost Cause. Once, there were gentlemen, liberally educated, knowing all the classical views about war and peace and virtue and governance. They dressed impeccably, their families had beautiful manners, and their estates were monumental. And then it all came crashing down because some people had the nerve to assert that a “genocidal slaveocracy” wasn’t really in the spirit of “all men are created equal” (1).

I’m staring at the middle of the poem, the imagined setting of Troy. “Yet we, had we walked within / Those topless towers / Where Helen walked with her boy.” The oft-repeated Internet slogan LET PEOPLE ENJOY THINGS comes to mind, because my mind is filled with whatever garbage Twitter dumps into it. It does seem, though, that freedom doesn’t always understand what’s at stake. That it has to permit overindulgence of beauty both built and natural. All the same, the one speaking as a soldier is only beginning to understand “beauty… won from bitterest hours.” A frivolity/seriousness distinction, perhaps, is not good enough for establishing justice and preserving peace. Justice and peace are their own abode, beyond the myths we use to state our place.


(1) "Genocidal slaveocracy" is from Pat Blanchfield on Twitter. I am using the term to apply to a different object.