Sunday, March 27, 2016

Easter 1916: A Century Later

"Easter 1916" is a fabulous poem.  William Butler Yeats wrote it in the months after a violent Irish republican uprising was quickly defeated in Dublin on Easter Monday in 1916.

Ireland was still under the thumb of England at that point, and centuries of resentment had grown only deeper in the decades after England's non-response to the Irish Potato Famine of the mid 19th century.  The opposition, mostly Catholic in a majority Catholic country, had plotted with Germany, England's enemy in the middle of World War I, for the Germans to send weapons to the Irish rebels.

England knew of the weapons shipments and of the rebels' plans to stage an armed insurrection -- and the rebels knew that the English knew these things.  The Irish attacked anyway, seizing public buildings and paying a great cost as their doomed mutiny came to its defeat. Of the 1,500 Irish fighters, 300 were killed and another 200 jailed, many of them tortured.

Yeats, a prominent Irish poet and playwright (and Anglican to boot), had counseled against the republican violence though he supported their cause.  Over the coming months, he reflected on the Easter uprising and its effect. This poem is the result.

Its first stanza Yeats talks of the status quo ante -- "polite meaningless words."  In the second he describes republican patriots:  an Irish noblewoman enraged "until her voice grew shrill," a gentle teacher drawn into battle, even "a drunken vainglorious lout" whom Yeats detested.  All were "transformed utterly" by the events of that Easter Monday.  The men died fighting.  In a recurring theme, Yeats says, "A terrible beauty is born."

The third stanza compares the adamant stoicism of republican opposition to a stone in a stream, implacable and and unchanging, as life continues around it.

The fourth stanza knits it all up.  Its first lines -- "Too long a sacrifice can make a stone of the heart" -- recalls the Irish grievance and the stone in the previous verse.  Yeats memorializes the dead leaders and concludes that their bold defiance had had its effect.

The essential phrases from this poem, encountered in college, lodged themselves in my brain.  They come to me again and again and challenge me to return to the source, not just because Yeats could fashion a powerful phrase but because his vision resonates in the strange world he witnessed aborning.

"Too long a sacrifice can make a stone of the heart."

"A terrible beauty is born."   

Yeats did not publish the poem until 1920.  Two years later, in 1922, Ireland became a free state and in 1949, a republic.

Easter 1916

by W. B. Yeats

September 25, 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, vainglorious lout.
He had done most bitter wrong
To some who are near to 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 it 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.

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