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WB Yeats: A terrible beauty is born


Bomb damage in Dublin following the Easter Rising in May 1916.

Bomb damage in Dublin following the Easter Rising in May 1916.

Bomb damage in Dublin following the Easter Rising in May 1916.

In the aftermath of the 1916 Rising, William Butler Yeats was shaken by the events in Dublin as the city smouldered in ruins. With a great part of the centre of the city destroyed, he told an acquaintance: "As yet one knows nothing of the future except that it must be very unlike the past."

The poet was staying in England at the time of the Rising, and learnt of developments in sketchy news reports, and in letters from his friends and family.

It was left to the poet to conjure up the phrases that summed up the events, and the mixed feelings felt by the public towards the rebels, who had seized the GPO. As he put it himself, all had "changed, changed utterly".

Revolutionaries, who were initially heaped with opprobrium by a significant section of the populace, were turned into heroes.

Yeats wrote his poem 'Easter 1916' in the months after the rebellion, but he waited for four years to publish it in the magazine The New Statesman. He predicted that the rebels would take their place in history:

I write it out in a verse -

MacDonagh and MacBride

And Connolly and Pearse

Now and in time to be,

Wherever green is worn,

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Are changed, changed utterly:

A terrible beauty is born.

Yeats had been drawn to nationalism from a young age, but at times he was highly critical of some of the revolutionary activists.

In the 1880s he had formed a friendship with the Fenian John O'Leary, who had been imprisoned in England for taking part in an armed uprising against the English.

O'Leary encouraged Yeats to write poetry based on Irish folk tales and he features in the poem 'September 1913', a denunciation of the philistine business class of Dublin who "fumble in a greasy till". At the end of each verse, Yeats pays pays tribute to his Fenian friend with the refrain:

Romantic Ireland's

dead and gone

It's with O'Leary in the grave.

Although he formed friendships with ardent nationalists, his biographer Richard Ellman said he was vague about the best way to achieve an independent state:

"He was certainly less sympathetic to the idea of violence, and seems to have thought… that a concerted wave of opinion, the whole country fully united, would drive England from Ireland as a magician exorcises an evil spirit."

Although he knew many of the activists, who went on to take part in the Rising, he did not have a high regard for some of them.

After the turn of the century he became a supporter of John Redmond's Irish Parliamentary Party. He regarded the Sinn Féin politician Arthur Griffith as "a mischievous personality", and Pádraig Pearse as a mystical school teacher "flirting with the gallows tree".

Pearse was criticised for modelling himself on Robert Emmett, the rebel leader who led an uprising in 1803 and was executed.

According to the poet Ezra Pound, Yeats had said for years that Pearse had Robert Emmett mania and was "half-cracked" - and that he wouldn't be happy until he was hanged.

Even in the immediate aftermath of the Rising, the poet expressed reservations about Pearse, who led the rebels in the GPO. In a letter to his sister Elizabeth, he said:

"Pearse I have long looked upon as a man made dangerous by the vertigo of self-sacrifice. He has modelled himself on Emmett."

The shifting mood in the Yeats circle can be gauged by the response to events from his family. These responses helped to mould his own opinions. His sister Lily wrote to someone else immediately after the Rising: "Did you ever hear or know of such a piece of childish madness?"

As Pearse and the other rebels were rounded up and executed, the attitude of the poet and his friends and family changed. The scholar WK Magee noted the "barbarities of the military and the chivalrous conduct of the insurrectionists".

Lily was appalled by the draconian response of the government: "This whole work here is so horrible… this shooting of foolish idealists."

The love of Yeats for Maud Gonne MacBride, who was married to one of the participants, John MacBride, brought the events close to home.

MacBride, a veteran of the Boer War, took part in the rebellion as second in command of a contingent at the Jacob's factory. After the Rising he was court martialled and shot. Yeats describes him in Easter 1916 as a "drunken, vainglorious lout", but he has heroic status bestowed on him as a result of the Rising:

He, too, has been changed

in his turn,

Transformed utterly:

A terrible beauty is born.