Amos has presented an amazing poem by Yeats in an article on his blog Philosophy KTL (I wonder what the KTL stands for?) He raises some questions about the poem that I will now seek to answer. First, the poem:
Gratitude to the Unknown Instructors
What they undertook to do
They brought to pass;
All things hang like a drop of dew
Upon a blade of grass.
We are in the presence of something magnificent and dark. There is unquestionably an echo of the scaffold with "undertook" and "hang" and "blade." Amos sees in this poem "the cold, unpitying savor of tragic joy." Yeats is never one to ignore the tragic dimension that is (almost) inextricably bound up in human life, but I wonder whether there may not be another dimension to this poem that runs deeper than tragedy. The phrase "bring to pass" has scriptural echoes; aside from its literal usage in the gospels the "pass" brings to mind both Passover and the Passion. With a diamond-like degree of compression Yeats is evoking the profound mystery of death and rebirth that lies at the heart of all human activity. Any "action / is a step to the block;" a reality reflected in the dual meaning of the word "undertake." Despite the distinct possibility (and for most instructors high probability) of their eventual effacement, teaching, like all genuinely humane activity, maintains an inner necessity that is not rendered less compelling or less noble by the possibility of passing into nothingness.
"All things hang like a drop of dew." It is connected to the main sentence by a semicolon. Semicolons are generally used to connect what grammarians call independent clauses. The clauses connected, however, should be related (otherwise a full period or even line break would be appropriate). Therefore we must question the manner in which the hanging upon the blade of grass and the bringing to pass are related. Because of the passion reference I would be inclined to say that Yeats is specifically invoking the image of the dying god hanging upon his tree (albeit in a diminished form: his "tree" is but a "blade of grass"); but here, "all things" are consigned to this fate. The manner of this hanging is like "a drop of dew:" radically contingent and yet utterly necessary. For no doubt the presence of any dewdrop on any blade of grass is a matter of what we call chance; yet that there will be some dewdrops on some blades of grass in an absolute necessity. The unknown instructors have precisely this manner of existence. Their personality is obliterated but what is most proper to their being as instructors is preserved in their instruction, as it must be for their to be any instructors now.
And so, in answer to the question that Amos poses - "can we be grateful for nothing?" - I would answer "yes," so long as we have the humility to recognize that what lies in oblivion is what we owe everything to. Despite the extremes to which Yeats took his quest for otherworldly knowledge, I would like to think he maintained even in his darkest moments a deep piety towards that greatest of the Athenian deities: the unknown god.