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William Butler Yeats' "Easter, 1916"

Poetry became my passion after I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class circa 1962.

William Butler Yeats

Introduction and Text of "Easter, 1916"

On April 24, 1916, a group of Irish rebels seized the General Post Office in Dublin and held it for several days. After they surrendered, sixteen of them were executed, and others were imprisoned.

Although William Butler Yeats served as a senator from 1922 to 1928 in the first Irish senate, his attitude toward politics in general is best summarized by the lines from his little poem, "Politics," with the epigraph by Thomas Mann: "In our time the destiny of man presents its meanings in political terms":

Politics

How can I, that girl standing there,
My attention fix
On Roman or on Russian
Or on Spanish politics,
Yet here's a travelled man that knows
What he talks about,
And there's a politician
That has both read and thought,
And maybe what they say is true
Of war and war's alarms,
But O that I were young again
And held her in my arms.

As even a cursory perusal of Yeats' "Easter, 1916" will reveal, the poet remained more interested in the personal than the political. Instead of asserting a deeply held belief about any political stance, he would make vague dramas out of political issues, even something as profound as the independence of his native land. In "Easter 1916," the speaker delivers six stanzas of these mild dramas that swirl around the Easter Rising event and the players who took part, some of whom Yeats had known personally.

Easter, 1916

I have met them at close of day
Coming with vivid faces
From counter or desk among grey
Eighteenth-century houses.
I have passed with a nod of the head
Or polite meaningless words,
Or have lingered awhile and said
Polite meaningless words,
And thought before I had done
Of a mocking tale or a gibe
To please a companion
Around the fire at the club,
Being certain that they and I
But lived where motley is worn:
All changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.

That woman's days were spent
In ignorant good-will,
Her nights in argument
Until her voice grew shrill.
What voice more sweet than hers
When, young and beautiful,
She rode to harriers?
This man had kept a school
And rode our wingèd horse;
This other his helper and friend
Was coming into his force;
He might have won fame in the end,
So sensitive his nature seemed,
So daring and sweet his thought.
This other man I had dreamed
A drunken, vainglorious lout.
He had done most bitter wrong
To some who are near my heart,
Yet I number him in the song;
He, too, has resigned his part
In the casual comedy;
He, too, has been changed in his turn,
Transformed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.

Hearts with one purpose alone
Through summer and winter seem
Enchanted to a stone
To trouble the living stream.
The horse that comes from the road,
The rider, the birds that range
From cloud to tumbling cloud,
Minute by minute they change;
A shadow of cloud on the stream
Changes minute by minute;
A horse-hoof slides on the brim,
And a horse plashes within it;
The long-legged moor-hens dive,
And hens to moor-cocks call;
Minute by minute they live:
The stone's in the midst of all.

Too long a sacrifice
Can make a stone of the heart.
O when may it suffice?
That is Heaven's part, our part
To murmur name upon name,
As a mother names her child
When sleep at last has come
On limbs that had run wild.
What is it but nightfall?
No, no, not night but death;
Was it needless death after all?
For England may keep faith
For all that is done and said.
We know their dream; enough
To know they dreamed and are dead;
And what if excess of love
Bewildered them till they died?
I write it out in a verse—
MacDonagh and MacBride
And Connolly and Pearse
Now and in time to be,
Wherever green is worn,
Are changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.

Liam Neeson recites Yeats' "Easter, 1916."

Commentary

William Butler Yeats' poem, "Easter, 1916," dramatizes the Yeatsian musing regarding the Irish uprising labeled the Easter Rising. That act happened one week following the Easter of 1916 in Dublin, Ireland.

First Movement: Political Posturing

I have met them at close of day
Coming with vivid faces
From counter or desk among grey
Eighteenth-century houses.
I have passed with a nod of the head
Or polite meaningless words,
Or have lingered awhile and said
Polite meaningless words,
And thought before I had done
Of a mocking tale or a gibe
To please a companion
Around the fire at the club,
Being certain that they and I
But lived where motley is worn:
All changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.

In the first movement of "Easter, 1916," the speaker begins by claiming he had seen his fellow countrymen coming home from work, and "I have passed with a nod of the head / Or polite meaningless words." The speaker's small talk with his fellows demonstrates apathy that changed after the Easter event because at the end of the first stanza the speaker introduces what becomes a refrain: "All changed, changed utterly: / A terrible beauty is born."

His speaker notes that the mood of Ireland after the Rising is that people are stirred up and ready to fight for independence from England, but he also demonstrates that he is not as excited about the possibility as they are. While strong-willed patriots would find independence of their homeland a profoundly beautiful thing, this speaker portrays it as a terrible beauty, about which he remains ambivalent.

Second Movement: Yeats More Interested in Art than Politics

That woman's days were spent
In ignorant good-will,
Her nights in argument
Until her voice grew shrill.
What voice more sweet than hers
When, young and beautiful,
She rode to harriers?
This man had kept a school
And rode our wingèd horse;
This other his helper and friend
Was coming into his force;
He might have won fame in the end,
So sensitive his nature seemed,
So daring and sweet his thought.
This other man I had dreamed
A drunken, vainglorious lout.
He had done most bitter wrong
To some who are near my heart,
Yet I number him in the song;
He, too, has resigned his part
In the casual comedy;
He, too, has been changed in his turn,
Transformed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.

Hearts with one purpose alone
Through summer and winter seem
Enchanted to a stone
To trouble the living stream.
The horse that comes from the road,
The rider, the birds that range
From cloud to tumbling cloud,
Minute by minute they change;
A shadow of cloud on the stream
Changes minute by minute;
A horse-hoof slides on the brim,
And a horse plashes within it;
The long-legged moor-hens dive,
And hens to moor-cocks call;
Minute by minute they live:
The stone's in the midst of all.

The people referenced in the second movement are thought to be Constance Markievicz, "the woman whose days were spent / In ignorant good-will" and who "argued politics so vehemently at night that her voice grew shrill," and yet the speaker remembers when her voice was sweet, "When, young and beautiful, / She rode to harriers?" The others include Patrick Pearse and Thomas MacDonagh—the former founded a school and along with the latter who assisted in the school.

But the speaker of this poem is more interested in their possibilities as writers and artists. About Pearse, "he rode our wingèd horse," an allusion to Pegasus, the winged horse of poetry. About MacDonagh, he claims, "He might have won fame in the end, / So sensitive his nature seemed, / So daring and sweet his thought." In the second movement, the speaker muses about the usefulness of all that passion that sparked the rebels to make such a bold move. But the speaker emphasizes the fact that many folks and the entire atmosphere have been transformed, even the "drunken, vainglorious lout," whom he hated has been altered.

Subequently, the Yeatsian speaker then repeats "A terrible beauty is born." Also in the second movement, the speaker focuses his musing philosophically on the hardening of the heart by two roads: one dedicated to the cause, the other just having sacrificed too much for too long a time. The speaker then poses an important, even vitally important question: "Was it needless death after all?" The speaker remains somewhat uncertain how to think about and feel for his fellow countrymen, who became rebellious, storming government edifices and resisting authority.

Third Movement: The Yeatsian Drama of Musings

Too long a sacrifice
Can make a stone of the heart.
O when may it suffice?
That is Heaven's part, our part
To murmur name upon name,
As a mother names her child
When sleep at last has come
On limbs that had run wild.
What is it but nightfall?
No, no, not night but death;
Was it needless death after all?
For England may keep faith
For all that is done and said.
We know their dream; enough
To know they dreamed and are dead;
And what if excess of love
Bewildered them till they died?
I write it out in a verse—
MacDonagh and MacBride
And Connolly and Pearse
Now and in time to be,
Wherever green is worn,
Are changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.

The final movement finds the speaker reporting that it is possible that England will, in fact, grant Ireland its independence. Will those who died in the struggle then have died in vain, however, if the goal is reached too quickly? Would that not indicate that a much easier, less deadly route could have been taken?

The speaker suggests that whatever happens no one can deny that those rebels will have died for their dreams. This speaker still cannot completely commit to those dreams. All he can admit is that everything has changed and "A terrible beauty is born." The Yeatsian musing of drama ultimately finds only that things have changed. The speaker cannot say if they have changed for better for worse. He and his generation will have to wait to see how that "terrible beauty" matures.

© 2017 Linda Sue Grimes

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