Holy Week Poetry 2016, Holy Wednesday: “Easter, 1916” by William Butler Yeats

As we sit in the most heated election season of my memory and on the heels of another terrorist attack this week, the 100th anniversary of another violent political uprising is commemorated this week.

Sackville Street in Dublin after the uprising, April 1916
Sackville Street in Dublin after the uprising, April 1916

In World War I, Ireland was still under British rule, but Irish discontent was mounting. Hoping to keep England occupied in Ireland, Germany agreed to send arms to a group known as the Irish Volunteers to facilitate an uprising in Ireland and distract the British from the continental war front. The shipment of arms was scuttled, however, and so the originally planned attack during the Easter parade in Dublin was canceled. But on April 24, 1916, the Monday after Easter, a smaller number of Irish Volunteers combined with the smaller Irish Citizen Army planned to occupy a number of buildings around Dublin and take control of the city. The resulting conflict was the biggest Irish rebellion since 1798. After a week of fighting with 254 deaths and 2,217 wounded from civilians alone who were caught in the crossfire, the Irish forces surrendered. Sixteen Irish rebel leaders were swiftly executed by firing squad, and 1,800 more suspected of supporting the movement were arrested and sent to England without trial. Martial law remained in force for several more months.

William Butler Yeats (1865-1939)
William Butler Yeats (1865-1939)

Although Irish support of the uprising had not been high, the quick and ruthless British response fueled greater unrest and fed feelings of Irish nationalism. Even Yeats, who had been an Anglo-Irish Protestant supporter of the British for the first several decades of his life, had a mixed response to the Easter Rising. The title of his poem, “Easter, 1916” reflects this ambivalence as he doesn’t try to clarify whether the word “Easter” refers to the renewal of the spring holiday or the devastation of the conflict throughout the week.

Here’s a poem that you really do need to read out loud to fully enjoy. I’ve struggled to know how much to say about it because without explanation, it can be a tough nut to crack, but how long of an explanation are people willing to read? So let me give a basic outline of the overall approach and of each stanza and refer you to Ange Mlinko’s excellent write-up for further commentary.

In his early years Yeats gravitated toward romanticism in his work: emphasizing the natural world, evoking timelessness and myth, reveling in sound and rhythm for aesthetics. As the changes of the modernist movement bore down in the first decades of the twentieth century (such as Eliot’s The Waste Land discussed in yesterday’s post), eventually Yeats worked to incorporate his romantic sensibilities into the modernist experiences and contexts that surrounded him.

You can see the modernist context right in the first stanza as Yeats begins the poem in an urban setting rather than a rural one. But he keeps a more universal feel and broad application by portraying figures rather than specific individuals. By the second stanza he is depicting very specific individuals: “that woman” was nationalist Constance Gore-Booth Markievicz; “this man” was Patrick Pearse, one of the leaders of the rebellion; “his helper and friend” was Thomas MacDonagh; and the “vainglorious lout” was John MacBride. But he still doesn’t name them yet, and, thus evoked, their specific traits remind us that those who died were individuals with various lives but, unnamed, they can stand in for all the others who were killed.

The final two stanzas are where the poem really dives deeply. In the third stanza Yeats folds in more elements of romanticism: it describes the natural world and its mystical power through the enchanting power of a stone. It also employs a rhythmic structure that can’t quite be tagged and identified. Many lines have seven syllables, making them just asymmetrical enough to roll onto the next line or lend a pause momentum. This uneven rhythm is echoed in the mutable portrayal of the natural world. Usually the pastoral context in poetry is set up as kind of static escape, but the natural world here “changes minute by minute”–except for the stone. The rest of nature–the water in the stream, the shadows of the cloud, the horse’s hoof–trip on the unmoving stone. What is the stone? Poetry is rarely about direct answers, but the fourth and final stanza opens: “Too long a sacrifice/ Can make a stone of the heart.” Yeats goes on to question if the lives lost were even worth it, finally naming some of those lost directly as if as in an elegy.

But today I keep returning to the first lines of this final stanza: “Too long a sacrifice/ Can make a stone of the heart.” Our current political climate is roiling with opinions and ideology. I’m not sure how often United States politics are marked by sacrifice, but sacrifice is a key component of radical extremism. I tend to think that anything lasting and worthy deserves and requires sacrifice, but what if the sacrifice is misapplied or, as Yeats fears, unnecessary? Does it make the heart stony, inflexible, unreasonable? Perhaps Yeats’ questions are primarily an expression of grief; he finished the poem in September 1916 when the effects of the conflict and loss of his friends and colleagues was still relatively fresh. But he couches these questions in the context of Easter, the celebration of the supreme Christian sacrifice. It is in this context that he gives the refrain,

All changed, changed utterly.
A terrible beauty is born.

stone in water


Easter, 1916

by William Butler Yeats

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 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 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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