William Butler Yeats: “Easter, 1916”
One of the most powerful political poems of the 20th century was written by a man who was ambivalent about politics. William Butler Yeats (1865–1939) began his career under the spell of the late Victorian era. Art in that time was generally more romantic than worldly. The word spell is relevant here: in 1887, Yeats became a Theosophist and an acolyte of Russian occultist Madame Blavatsky. He participated in various spiritualist practices—from séances to automatic writing—for the rest of his life. His early poems feature his passion for Celtic mythology and Gaelic sagas—as in the widely known lyric poems “The Lake Isle of Innisfree” and “The Song of Wandering Aengus.” Nationalism was widespread in all its forms in Ireland at that time, but Yeats preferred his romantic literary nationalism to the new insurrectionary nationalism of his great love, the actor and activist Maud Gonne. Her beauty attracted him and her zealotry repelled him in equal measure. For the first 45 years of his life, Yeats focused his nationalistic energies on writing plays and songs and collected folk tales about Ireland’s past but wrote little about its complicated present or uncertain future.
In middle age, Yeats became disillusioned, or perhaps more attuned to certain realities. As Virginia Woolf pointed out, “human character changed” somewhere around 1913, when Ezra Pound published his imagist manifesto and began work as Yeats’s unofficial secretary—the unstoppable artistic revolutions of Modernism goaded Yeats into a crisis that ultimately resolved into a leaner style and a wider scope. He wrote the political and personal poem “September 1913,” commemorating the work and death of nationalist friend John O’Leary, which included the refrain “Romantic Ireland's dead and gone, / It's with O'Leary in the grave.” Three years later, Yeats said the poem “sounds old-fashioned now,” just before he began writing “Easter, 1916.” That poem expanded his political engagement and stood as an artistic breakthrough. Its innovation rested in Yeats’s ability to preserve older techniques that gave his verse its power—incantatory rhythm, rhyme, symbolism, and allegory—while engaging frankly with the interplay of personality, history, and politics of the present. The oxymoronic refrain of the poem, “a terrible beauty is born,” entered the language as Shakespeare’s “to be or not to be” or Pope’s “fools rush in where angels fear to tread” did. In “Easter, 1916,” focused so closely on an unsuccessful struggle in Ireland’s fight for independence, Yeats had timeless and universal things to say about it.
The engagement with the Modernist rather than the idyllic Ireland is evident in the first stanza of the poem:
I have met them at close of day
Coming with vivid faces
From counter or desk among grey
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: …
As in Ezra Pound’s “apparition of these faces in the crowd” in the Paris metro or Eliot’s London “city block … trampled by insistent feet / At four and five and six o’clock,” readers are in the presence of the modern metropolis (for Yeats, it was Dublin). Yeats’s fellow citizens and compatriots (“I have met them …”) emerge from a milieu of buildings and counters and desks to an evening of urban amusement: the clubs where people exchange gossip and repartee, where “motley” means both the entertaining diversions of the city and the court fool’s attire. Yeats allowed readers to entertain a general “them” for only a few lines; as we will see, four distinct persons will emerge from this crowd of convivial Dubliners. The transformation from ordinary citizen to revolutionary is marked by the refrain that will reverberate through the poem: “All changed, changed utterly: / A terrible beauty is born.”
The “change” was the Easter Rising (or Easter Rebellion of 1916) of around a thousand Irish Republicans who wanted to secede from Great Britain and establish an independent Ireland. The insurrection was put down less than a week later, and many of its leaders were swiftly executed by firing squad. Although the original rebellion did not enjoy wide support among the general populace, the ruthlessness of the British response unnerved the Irish and led to the growth of the ultranationalist group Sinn Féin. “I had no idea that any public event could so deeply move me,” Yeats said, months later. In the wake of the courts-martial and executions of May 1916, he wrote to Lady Gregory that he was “trying to write a poem.” His simultaneous awe of and ambivalence toward the event are clearly coded in the both title and refrain. The Easter Rising is a double entendre on the holiday; the “terrible beauty” was “born” during Holy Week, which marks the occasion of Christ’s sacrifice. Hence, the Easter Rising is simultaneously crucifixion and resurrection, reality and archetype.
Yeats traced the movement of hard-nosed realism to mythography through the poem. The second stanza elegizes the rebels whom Yeats intimately knew: “that woman” refers to the nationalist politician Constance Gore-Booth Markievicz; “this man” was the poet Patrick Pearse, a leader of the uprising; “his helper and friend” was the poet Thomas MacDonagh; the “drunken, vainglorious lout” was John MacBride, Maud Gonne’s abusive former husband. They were not depicted heroically: Yeats chastised Markievicz for her shrillness and described MacBride as loathsome; the two poets, he observed, might have been better off remaining educators and writers. But in the first stanza, Yeats reluctantly recognized that each “resigned his part / In the casual comedy” of everyday life. The freedom to pursue individual liberty and happiness—the “casual comedy” of the modern city, in which one pursues love and leisure uninterrupted by political calamity—was rejected to promote collective liberty and happiness. At this point, Yeats shifted into the mythologizing third stanza, comparing the hearts of the revolutionaries to immovable rock:
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.
With its lyrical nature images, this stanza evokes a centuries-old pastoral tradition. The pastoral is meant to convey, above all, the peacefulness of the natural world. But there’s a twist: instead of a landscape of changeless peace, we perceive a landscape in which the natural order encompasses movement and transformation. The unnaturally fixed stone causes violence; it “troubles” the flow of water. It is soulless, that is, “inanimate”; the root of animation—the state of being “full of life”—is in the classical Latin word for soul, anima. So revolutionaries, in Yeats’s view, seem soulless when they have “one purpose alone”: one ideology, one principle, one goal.
Yeats’s stanza enacts a terrible swiftness. The poem’s rhythm is magical and defies classification: I have seen it referred to as free verse, as iambic trimeter, and with its many seven-syllable lines, a trimeter with an unfulfilled tetrameter lurking behind it. He prized poetry that enchants with “metrical forms that seemed old enough to have been sung by men half-asleep or riding upon a journey.” In his essay “The Symbolism of Poetry” (1900), Yeats explained:
The purpose of rhythm, it has always seemed to me, is to prolong the moment of contemplation, the moment when we are both asleep and awake, which is the one moment of creation, by hushing us with an alluring monotony, while it holds us waking by variety, to keep us in that state of perhaps real trance, in which the mind liberated from the pressure of the will is unfolded in symbols.
Our inability to pin down his trance-inducing metric is a symptom of its archaic power. The poem seems to have written itself: the original manuscript shows few revisions until the fourth stanza. It also shows that Yeats first wrote that the shadow of the cloud on the stream is “changed.” By revising it into active voice, Yeats underscores the agency of individual actors in a whole in which “are changed, changed utterly” (italics mine). The parts may be active, but the whole is produced, passively, by this interplay. In a poem about historical destiny, this is significant; it implies that all citizens participate in the production of their destiny, but the outcome is unpredictable.
If, as the manuscript shows, Yeats had the most trouble writing the final stanza, it must be because its summary argument is difficult to articulate and even more difficult to digest. It is a lament for the dead. He asks his final, desperate question in three ways:
O when may it suffice?
Was it needless death after all?
And what if excess of love
Bewildered them till they died?
Yeats is not convinced the sacrifice is worthwhile. There is no definitive end to sacrifices that may be made because change is constant, peace cannot ever be a steady state, and more sacrifice is always a possibility. This particular sacrifice may have been needless; Great Britain at this moment in 1916 may well have been ready for a long-term diplomatic solution to the Republican conflict. It had suspended Ireland’s bill for Home Rule in 1914 while promising to restore it after the conflicts subsided. Finally, the most horrible question the poet asked was whether “excess of love” for country can hound one to one’s death, reducing honor and glory to mere bewilderment.
Yeats banished these terrible considerations with the invocation of a mother uttering her child’s name in the dark. If there is any consolation, it can be only in commemoration. “Our part” reinvokes the comparison of life to drama: various roles, motley costumes, and the “casual comedy” turned tragedy:
To murmur name upon name,
As a mother names her child
I write it out in a verse—
MacDonagh and MacBride
And Connolly and Pearse
In his Autobiography, Yeats writes about where these lines come from:
One day, some old Irish member of Parliament made perhaps his only appearance at a gathering of members. He recited with great emotion a ballad of his own composition in the manner of Young Ireland, repeating over his sacred names, Wolfe Tone, Emmet, and Owen Roe, and mourning that new poets and new movements should have taken something of their sacredness away. The ballad had no literary merit, but I went home with a troubled conscience; and for a dozen years perhaps, till I began to see the result of our work in a deepened perception of all those things that strengthen race, that trouble remained. I had in mind that old politician as I wrote but the other day—
To murmur name upon name
As a mother names her child.
In the poet’s telling, a ceremonial naming of the martyrs stamps them in the collective memory. It is also calculated, coming at the very end, to give the poem a definitive crest or climax because the first and second stanzas only sketch the personalities without naming them. The chanting of concrete names finalizes a magical act by a poet who has gathered power from the touchstones of nature in the third stanza. The spell is completed by the repetition of “changed, changed utterly: / A terrible beauty is born” (which went missing from the previous stanza). Repetition, circularity, and closure are as important to spells as they are to lullabies or nursery rhymes. In The Virtues of Poetry, James Longenbach points out that repetition is essential as therapy, where trauma must be psychologically processed: “The line must be said again, and then again, the past dragged into the present so that the trauma of the Easter Rebellion, difficult to process at the historical moment of its happening, might truly be experienced.”
Yeats finished the poem on September 25, 1916, and it was printed privately in an edition of 25 copies but did not circulate widely until its publication in both London’s Labour journal The New Statesman and New York’s The Dial in the autumn of 1920 and then in Yeats’s next book of poetry, Michael Robartes and the Dancer, in 1921. One wonders whether the four-year lapse between writing and publishing made the poem seem less tied to a particular event and more embedded in the historical long view. Its desperate questions regarding a solution to the fight were still unresolved. It certainly helps that the verb tenses of the poem begin with a quasi-mythic “I have met them … I have passed …” and segue abruptly to a present-tense “A terrible beauty is born” and “I number him in the song ... I write it out in a verse.” As Longenbach again asserts, we could either read this scenario allegorically or literally; the effect is almost bifocal, the events both foreground and background as the poet completes his commemoration in an eternal present tense.
It’s worth noting that Yeats waited to collect the poem for aesthetic reasons:he composed his books as books and cared greatly about the ordering of poems: he did not want just loose collections of poems. “Easter, 1916” reverberates with other famous single poems in the book: “The Second Coming” and “A Prayer for My Daughter,” both of which juxtapose birth and apocalypse, mythical order and historical bloodshed, and it appears directly before Yeats’s other poems about the Rebellion: “Sixteen Dead Men,” “The Rose Tree,” and “On a Political Prisoner.” Donald Davie argued that the full import of “Easter, 1916” could be understood only in the context of the book. Such was Yeats’s artistry that reading one poem inexorably leads to reading another and another without sacrificing the formal integrity of each individual poem.
Yeats once famously declared, “We make out of the quarrel with others, rhetoric, but of the quarrel with ourselves, poetry.” This sentiment is borne out in “Easter, 1916”: as shy as he was of revolutionary action, he wrestles with these doubts while lamenting his bolder confederates. In the tradition of such elegies as “Lycidas” or “England in 1819,” Yeats calls upon the act of writing to preserve collective memory. He makes full use of the Easter myth given to him by the historical contingency and ritualizes the martyrs, and their names, not only with rhetorical means but also song—meter and rhyme. While the experiments of the imagists and vorticists and surrealists were creating aesthetic rebellions, Yeats engaged world events with old magic and Modernist ambivalence. Time is deep, he seems to say: take the long view. A true poem, like life itself, is not a political cause—even a just one. To make it so is to be “enchanted to a stone” and fix it in one moment. In the end, “Easter, 1916” is less of a political poem than an elegy. We read it because it is, in the strange way poems are, alive. And by naming, it animates the dead in turn.
Ange Mlinko was born in Philadelphia and earned her BA from St. John's College and MFA from Brown University. She is the author of five books of poetry: Distant Mandate (2017); Marvelous Things Overheard (2013), which was selected by both the New Yorker and the Boston Globe as a best book of...