(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.
[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