Monday 22 April 2019

Rising Poems: 'Easter, 1916' by WB Yeats

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
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.

An Assessment of 'Easter, 1916' by Dr Lucy Collins

YEATS was absent from Dublin for the Rising but his response to it was intense: “I had no idea that any public event could so deeply move me,” he wrote to Lady Gregory, “and I am very despondent about the future”.

This iconic poem, which disappointed Maud Gonne when she read it, is a formal masterpiece, as well as a work that charts Yeats’s uncertain feelings towards the events of 1916.

It begins with an image of the revolutionaries going about their everyday lives; only their “vivid faces” indicate the power of their inner feeling and their potential for heroic action.

Yeats’s disengagement from these men is highlighted by the repetition of the phrase “polite meaningless words” and by the fact that his most vigorous response in language is to make fun of them to his friends.

His contemplation of these figures as individuals begins with Constance Markievicz, whom Yeats had known for more than 20 years. His view of her is nostalgic; he contrasts her youthful beauty and gentleness to her ‘shrill’ revolutionary persona.

Of the men, first Patrick Pearse and then Thomas MacDonagh, Yeats is more tolerant: as poets, educators and leaders, their potential for greatness is acknowledged.

Even Gonne’s husband, John MacBride, immortalised here as a “drunken vainglorious lout”, deserves a measure of praise. Sweetness is set against bitterness in this poem, as pure idealism is contrasted with violence and political struggle.

Yet the transformation that the rebels — and ultimately Ireland — will undergo is seen as both redemptive and destructive.

Here are the seeds of the “terrible beauty” that has remained so resonant for modern readers. Tragedy and comedy are interwoven in the poem. Twice — in the reference to motley and to the “casual comedy” — Yeats allows the ideals of the rebels to be viewed lightly, before their full implications may be recognised.

Likewise, the flux of the world is set against the determination of the revolutionaries, their steadfast commitment to independence: these “hearts with one purpose alone” defy the endless fluctuations of the natural world, where animal life pursues its own unthinking goals.

Yeats distinguishes between the larger philosophical questions that are raised by the actions of the rebels and our need to honour their idealism. This focus on the good faith of these men and women ensures their immortality, both in Yeats’s own poem and in Irish cultural and political history.

Dr Lucy Collins is a lecturer in English at University College Dublin (UCD). She is the curator of 'Reading 1916', a forthcoming exhibition at UCD Special Collections.

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