Sunday, March 15, 2009

“Easter 1916”

Here’s the promised well-known poem by the very well known Irish poet: W.B. Yeats’ “Easter 1916.” Yeats’ poem eulogizes the leaders the 1916 Easter Rising, or Éirí Amach na Cásca in Gaelic. From Easter Monday 1916 thru the following Sunday (& amidst fierce fighting), a confederation of rebels established an Irish Republic in Dublin. Although the rebellion was defeated & its leaders executed (these are the men named in the poem, tho there were others as well), it laid the groundwork for establishing the Irish Republic in 1919.

Yeats didn’t support armed rebellion, & in many ways his critical stance adds interest to the poem, which is a meditation on the transformation that surrounds such action; of course change & permanence are two of the most prominent themes in Yeats’ work. The leaders of the rebellion have become “permanent”—have become symbols, taken from the stream of life—both literally because of their deaths, but also because they had been transformed to “stone” as a reaction to Ireland’s suffering: “Too long a sacrifice/ Can make a stone of the heart.” Also, while Yeats’ speculates that, “England may keep faith/ For all that is done and said,” suggesting that the rebellion may have been unnecessary (Yeats’ position was disproved by subsequent events), this poem always brings to my mind some lines from Yeats much later “Under Ben Bulben”:

Even the wisest man grows tense
With some sort of violence
Before he can accomplish fate,
Know his work or choose his mate.

So is the fact that the rebels troubled “the living stream” some sort of affront? No: Yeats recognizes this as a transformation in history (he was right in this); the famous refrain states, “A terrible beauty is born.” It’s a classic oxymoron, an apparent contradiction that weds opposites. It states the truth that transformative historical events typically don’t occur without a price; loss of life, loss of the banal comfort of living “where motley is worn,” motley being of course the fool’s garment.

I do hope you enjoy this masterful poem.

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 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 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 terribly 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 plashed 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.

W.B. Yeats
1916; published 1921


  1. John, Thanks for such a great post. The first four lines of the second verse always strike me - being female and having been in the company of such women - my dad's oldest sister, Mary, for one. That line about voices growing shrill - dead on!
    The poem itself is a terrible beauty, is it not?

    Have you seen these films: Bloody Sunday (dir. by Greengrass) and Four Days in July (dir. by Mike Leigh)? You really should.


  2. Thanks to you as well, Kat; yes, that's true about the poem.

    Unfortunately, I haven't seen those films, tho I'm aware of them & would like to.

    Thanks again.

  3. Dang! I guessed 'The lake isle of Innisfree' right poet, wrong poem.Close but no cigar!

  4. Total F: Sorry it took me so long to respond-- as you may have seen I've been away in a strange land with no computers. Actually, the two poems I considered besides "Easter 1916" were "Fergus & the Druid" & "The Lake Isle of Innisfree"-- so you were even closer than you thought. I was close to choosing "The Lake Isle" because there's a recording of Yeats reading it which I'm sure must be on the 'net somewhere.

  5. I just wandered on in, looking to see what people thought of Easter, 1916, and was really impressed by your astute comments on change/permanence and violence(stream)/stone. I think you're exactly right in emphasizing the thoughtfulness of the poem.

    I written a commentary on Easter 1916 if you're interested, but the conciseness of your thoughts is to be envied..

  6. Thanks Ashok:

    I did read your essay, & liked what you were doing there in terms of political realities. Glad you enjoyed this.


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