To a friend whose work has come to nothing

I like this poem for its terse testament to the futility of prevailing against fundamentally dishonest people. It speaks to the cost of honesty, of submission to rules laid down by higher principle, and of the frustration and despair that can result when coming up against enemies who don’t. I’d say it’s an anthem for our times, but the poem is a hundred years old, and Boethius among many others already said it anyway, so really it is an anthem to the permanence of the human condition.

To a friend whose work has come to nothing

Now all the truth is out
Be secret and take defeat
From any brazen throat
For how can you compete—
Being honor bred—with one
Who, were it proved he lies,
Were neither shamed in his own,
Or in his neighbor’s eyes?
Bred to a harder thing than
Triumph, turn away, and
Like a laughing string,
Whereupon mad fingers play
Amid a place of stone,
Be secret and exult,
Because of all things known,
That is most difficult.
— W.B. Yeats

There is also the note about the consolation of private virtue (“be secret and exult”), which is true but can also lead to a kind of preening that undermines it. But the more interesting piece of this is the brief line about “breeding”. Yeats could have written “Holding” or “Given” or any number of words, but went with “Bred”. It reminds me of C.S. Lewis’ comment in The Abolition of Man (in a longer discussion about objective value and the role of education):

…no justification of virtue will enable a man to be virtuous. Without the aid of trained emotions the intellect is powerless against the animal organism. I had sooner play cards against a man who was quite sceptical about ethics, but bred to believe that ‘a gentleman does not cheat’, than against an irreproachable moral philosopher who had been brought up among sharpers.

Virtues like honesty and courage are muscles that have to be taught, cultivated, and trained. I don’t know whether Yeats meant to invoke this idea, or whether he simply chose it unconsciously, but it’s significant.


©2020 Matt Post