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Easter, 1916 -- William Butler Yeats

       
(Poem #1011) 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 winged 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, vain-glorious 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 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
 Where 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.
-- William Butler Yeats
[Historical Note]

"[This poem] celebrates the Easter Rising of 1916, in which a group of Irish
insurgents captured the General Post Office in Dublin and held out for
several days before surrendering. Sixteen of them, including the two
leaders, Pearse and Connolly, were executed. Yeats was clearly fascinated
and at the same time troubled by this heroic and yet in some ways pointless
sacrifice. He later returned to the theme in poem after poem."
        -- George MacBeth, "Poetry 1900 to 1975"

[Commentary]

Great Poets (tm) have (indeed, are defined by) an ability to find the
universal in the specific, to seize upon particular incidents and use them
to explore and illuminate the human condition. So what sets Yeats apart? And
what explains the lasting power of such highly topical poems as "Easter
1916", which one might expect to contain little or no relevance to modern
readers?

The answer, gentle reader, lies not in the specifics, nor even in the
universalizations drawn therefrom, but in the language used to handle both
of these. Yeats has, and has always had, a majestic command of form, a
subtle yet powerful control of word and phrase that seems effortless because
it is so absolute. Michael Schmidt, in his magisterial study 'he Lives of
the Poets' puts it thus: "This is not the huge competence of Auden, at play
in the toy shop of poetic form, but _mastery_, the possession of a unique
rhetoric for use on a real but limited range of themes".

"Real but limited" is a fair assessment of Yeats' poetic materiel, but
that's not necessarily a criticism. Here's George MacBeth again: "Irish
politics and Irish history came alive to Yeats through the doings of people
he know and loved. His best work is a commentary on the history of a whole
country at the establishment of its freedom, a period of agonising crisis
sees through the eyes of a particularly sensitive and involved member of it.
Ireland  was still small enough in the early twentieth century for one man
to feel its problems personally and would great peotry out of them. No
English poet has been able during the last fifty or sixty years to do this
for more than one particular region. This more than anything else
establishes Yeats' pre-eminence".

thomas.

[Links]

William Butler Yeats on the Minstrels:
Poem #1, The Song of Wandering Aengus
Poem #21, Sailing to Byzantium
Poem #32, An Irish Airman Foresees His Death
Poem #60, Byzantium
Poem #79, Red Hanrahan's Song About Ireland
Poem #160, The Realists
Poem #237, The Ballad of Father Gilligan
Poem #289, The Second Coming
Poem #309, The Lake Isle of Innisfree
Poem #324, Three Movements
Poem #407, Solomon and the Witch
Poem #436, When You Are Old
Poem #451, Leda and the Swan
Poem #511, Beautiful Lofty Things
Poem #577, The Cat and the Moon
Poem #597, He wishes for the Cloths of Heaven
Poem #641, The Road at My Door
Poem #655, No Second Troy
Poem #918, John Kinsella's Lament for Mrs Mary Moore

Poems from and about Ireland:
Poem #41, Ireland, Ireland  -- Sir Henry Newbolt
Poem #109, The Viking Terror  -- Anon. (Irish, 9th century)
Poem #167, Pangur Ban  -- Anon. (Irish, 8th century)
Poem #185, A Glass of Beer  -- David O'Bruadair
Poem #372, Icham of Irlaunde  -- Anon. (14th century)

Here's a nice article on today's poem:
http://www.theatlantic.com/unbound/poetry/soundings/yeats.htm

32 comments: ( or Leave a comment )

Suresh Ramasubramanian said...

+++ Abraham Thomas [07/03/02 04:47 +0900]:
> A terrible beauty is born.
[...]
> A terrible beauty is born.

Sums it all up.

What I liked in this poem was the "snapshot" quality - distilling the entire
troubled history of the Irish freedom struggle into the few minutes it takes
for the prisoner to be led from jail to scaffold.

They do say that a man's life flashes in front of him when he dies. Here, I
see the entire history of a nation flash past in an instant.

Did the man die - or did the nation?

--srs

Frank O'Shea said...

I have been away and found this poem only today. It is one of my
favourites. Yeats was effectively apologising for his attitude to the
dreamers and fools (their own description of themselves) who took the blood
sacrifice route.

Some notes that may help in the reading.
"That woman ..." was Constance Gore-Booth. She married the impoverished
Polish Count Casimir Markievicz and was always known to the poor of Dublin
as The Countess. She was part of the small but well trained socialist
element in the Rising and became extremely irate when the English would not
execute her because she was a woman. She is the one referred to in the
other Yeats poem which starts "The light of evening, Lisadell / Great
windows opening to the south. / Two girls in silk kimonos / Both beautiful,
one a gazelle." (That's from memory, so it may not be completely correct.)
As a young man, Yeats was smitten by the younger sister Eva, also a poet,
but could not press his suit because he was an impoverished poet, she the
daughter of a big house. By the way, Countess Markievicz was the first
woman to be elected to the House of Commons, but because her Party (Sinn
Fein) refused to take their seats, the honour of being the first to sit
there goes to Lady Astor.

"This man" was Pearse; "this other" was Thomas MacDonagh. Both were fine
poets, much better than they are given credit for.

The "drunken vainglorious lout" was Major (from the Boer side in the Boer
War) John MacBride (father of later Nobel Peace Prize winner Sean
MacBride). He married Maud Gonne, the great and unrequited love of Yeats's
life. He was said to beat his wife, but that is not now so readily accepted
- she knew how to milk a situation to her advantage.

I could talk about this poem for hours. Please read it again. It is a
glorious masterpiece - thanks for including it.

Frank O'Shea

cbondar said...

Question. How does Yeats' exhibit both the public and private dimenisions of his encounterment of the historical event in the peom?

David Brooks said...

Our area has enjoyed (or suffered from) an influx of pseudo-Irish pubs of late. Recently, a friend from my long-ago Marine Corps days came for a visit, and we tried out one of the local spots. Our particular booth was surrounded by both a photograph and a hand drawing of James Joyce, which was "a bit over the top" as we would say in Ulster. We found that our waitress didn't know who he was, and, further, didn't know who was "The Greatest of All the Greats". I found myself reciting the last verse of this poem to her as an example of Yeats. I love it for its texture, and for its universal insight into the human condition. "Too long a sacrifice can make a stone of the heart" applies to marriages, jobs, and family relationships (as well as to the subservience of one country to another). Yeats' economy of words to hit directly at the nature of circumstances leading to the rebellion is perfect. He is truly a wonderful poet.

Vidya Venkat said...

This poem by Yeats may have been written as a reaction to the Irish
insurgence in 1916, but to me this holds relevance even today. Somewhere
deep inside, every man has a tendency to become violent. Inspite of the
sophistication of man, his animal tendencies remain. The Easter 1916 and the
violence it resulted in was one such. The 'cause' of fighting for the
freedom of Ireland was namesake, I feel. The main thing was to give vent to
the violent forces gathering within. No wonder, intellectuals like Yeats had
not joined this "mad" group, with all its claims for fighting for a cause!
"Hearts with one purpose alone
Through summer and winter seem
Enchanted to a stone
To trouble the living stream."
I could somehow relate the above lines to the terrorist activities taking
place the world over today. Like the Iirish insurgents some of these
terrorists are very intelligent young people who can be better human beings
and do better things in life, very much like MmacDonagh, MmacBride and the
others that Yeats talk about but one cannot understand why they end up
committing acts of violence and become a STONE to trouble the ordinary
course of life. Let's not forget that even our terrorists fight for a cause
only, but whether it serves a purpose or not is a point in question...

"The stone's in the midst of all." This stone is nothing but the evil forces
to which many become a prey- violence, bloodshed, suicidal tendencies,
etc... But since we cannot dismiss our beloved men as unworthy we have to
forgive their acts, like a mother who is full of love for the child who
otherwise is very wild. "That is heaven's part, our part/To murmur name upon
name". We can only murmur the names and what must ultimately happen to these
people is in the hands of God only.
"Was it needless death after all?" This is the questioning feeling aroused
every time a Jehadi happily enters the jaws of death. When the September 11
incident took place more people the worldover were awestruck by Osama and
his men's bravery than regretting the death of innocent people. The reason
being the arrogance of America being answered back in the most unimaginable
fashion. So it is as if to brush away the seriousness of the crime committed
by the terrorists. The ones who wish to seek revenge or claim "justice"
without bothering about the means are proved right only when they receive
support. And it is only when THIS happens that
"A terrible beauty is born."
The terrible violence, is considered beautiful by those who support
it....So such acts would continue to flourish as long as people continue to
believe that 'everything is fair in war' and one may go to any extent to
fight in the name of a personal cause or a religious cause or a national
cause...
By Vidya Venkat.

Vidya said...

This poem by Yeats may have been written as a reaction to the Irish
insurgence in 1916, but to me this holds relevance even today. Somewhere
deep inside, every man has a tendency to become violent. In spite of the
sophistication of man, his animal tendencies remain. The Easter 1916 and
the violence it resulted in was one such. The 'cause' of fighting for
the freedom of Ireland was namesake, I feel. The main thing was to give
vent to the violent forces gathering within. No wonder, intellectuals
like Yeats had not joined this "mad" group, with all its claims for
fighting for a cause!

"Hearts with one purpose alone
through summer and winter seem
Enchanted to a stone
to trouble the living stream."

I could somehow relate the above lines to the terrorist activities
taking place the world over today. Like the Irish insurgents some of
these terrorists are very intelligent young people who can be better
human beings and do better things in life, very much like Mac Donagh,
Mac Bride and the others that Yeats talk about but one cannot understand
why they end up committing acts of violence and become a STONE to
trouble the ordinary course of life. Let's not forget that even our
terrorists fight for a cause only, but whether it serves a purpose or
not is a point in question... Its repercussions are seen only in the
long run, good or bad.

"The stone's in the midst of all." This stone is nothing but the evil
forces to which many become prey- violence, bloodshed, suicidal
tendencies, etc... But since we cannot dismiss our beloved men as
unworthy we have to forgive their acts, like a mother who is full of
love for the child who otherwise is very wild. "That is heaven's part,
our part/ To murmur name upon name". We can only murmur the names and
what must ultimately happen to these people is in the hands of God only.

"Was it needless death after all?" This is the questioning feeling
aroused every time a Jehadi happily enters the jaws of death. When the
September 11 incident took place more people the world over were
awestruck by Osama and his men's bravery than regretting the death of
innocent people;the reason being the arrogance of America being answered
back in the most unimaginable fashion. So it is as if to brush away the
seriousness of the crime committed by the terrorists. The ones who wish
to seek revenge or claim "justice" without bothering about the means are
proved right only when they receive support. And it is only when THIS
happens that

"A terrible beauty is born."

The terrible violence, is considered beautiful by those who support
it....So such acts would continue to flourish as long as people continue
to believe that 'everything is fair in war' and one may go to any extent
to fight in the name of a personal cause or a religious cause or a
national cause...

By Vidya Venkat.

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