Monday 22 April 2019

Rising Poems: 'Sixteen Dead Men' by WB Yeats

Sixteen Dead Men

O but we talked at large before
The sixteen men were shot,
But who can talk of give and take,
What should be and what not
While those dead men are loitering there
To stir the boiling pot?

You say that we should still the land
Till Germany’s overcome;
But who is there to argue that
Now Pearse is deaf and dumb?
And is their logic to outweigh
MacDonagh’s bony thumb?

How could you dream they’d listen
That have an ear alone
For those new comrades they have found,
Lord Edward and Wolfe Tone,
Or meddle with our give and take
That converse bone to bone?

An assessment of 'Sixteen Dead Men' by Dr Lucy Collins

A much simpler poem than the iconic ‘Easter, 1916’, this text contemplates the influence of the revolutionaries on the renewed political life of Ireland.

Yeats’s choice of the ballad form emphasises the power of public events to capture the popular imagination. In the wake of the Rising, talk has been overtaken by action, and the energies of debate and moderation have been dispersed by the compelling sacrifice of the rebel leaders.

The haunting presence of ‘MacDonagh’s bony thumb’ continues to tip the balance towards violent resistance, evoking the image of the weighing scales and its connotations of justice.

The repetition of the word ‘bone’ reinforces the essential nature of rebellion against oppression.

This new political narrative is in dialogue with the legendary revolutionaries of the past – Edward Fitzgerald and Wolfe Tone – and here Yeats recalls his own idealisation of those men in an earlier poem, ‘September 1913’. Irish political life, he suggests, is changed forever by the events of 1916.

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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