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 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.

Notes:
September 25, 1916
Source: The Collected Poems of W. B. Yeats (1989)

Writing Ideas

  1. Yeats’s poem is a response to the Easter Uprising in Ireland, a rebellion that eventually led to the Irish War for Independence and the Irish Civil War. Think about how the poem commemorates, fails to celebrate, and/or eulogizes the event. Compare it to other poems that treat specific historical moments, such as W.H. Auden’s “September 1, 1939” or Shelley’s “England in 1819.”
  2. Choose a moment in history to write about and, like Yeats, attempt to invoke the event and its consequences without directly addressing its specifics.What is powerful about the final list of names Yeats includes in the poem’s last stanza? Think about the use of proper names in poems generally: what effect does the appearance of a proper name have on you as a reader? Consult other proper-name poems such as Frank O’Hara’s “A Step Away from Them” which also concludes with a list of names. Try writing a poem that likewise includes or features proper names.
  3. In her poem guide, Ange Mlinko notes Yeats’s “trance-inducing metric.” Read the poem aloud a few times to see if you agree. Then, write a poem that induces a state of trance. Think about how rhyme, rhythm, and repetition can create, in to use Yeats’s own words, atmospheres of “alluring monotony” while managing to “hold us waking by variety.” 

Discussion Questions

  1. Part of the poem’s “vagueness,” as critic Ange Mlinko notes, stems from Yeats’s use of formal techniques—rhyme and rhythm—as well as symbolism and allegory. Isolate the poem’s symbols and tease out some of the many registers and meanings at work in them. Some key words and symbols to consider include: stone, stream, rider, dream.
  2. The refrain to this poem is one of the most famous in English language poetry. Note each time the refrain appears; how does its circulation through the poem adjust what has come before it and what comes after?
  3. What work does the paradox of a “terrible beauty” do in the poem? What are some of the “utterly transformed” or “utterly changed” people, ideas, or states that Yeats depicts? As Mlinko tells us, Yeats was reluctantly political; how does this poem create a sense of vacillation or uncertainty about the revolution it is addressing?

Teaching Tips

  1. Yeats is one of the 20th century’s most famous poets. Ask students to think about what they already know (or think they know) about Yeats. This can even be basic information about his country of origin, any famous poems, or lines of poetry they think they’ve encountered. Ask them to consider what contexts they’ve seen his name in and what kinds of ideas and images are associated with him and his poetry: have them treat Yeats as a cultural icon whose meanings often circulate far beyond reference to any individual poem. Ask students to conduct an online scavenger hunt for Yeats-abilia. Can they find five non-poetry websites that use Yeats in some way: either a quote from a poem, an image of Yeats, or reference to his life and work? What kinds of cultural currency does Yeats have now? Where is his “work” appearing and in what contexts? Ask students to think about the use of poetry in popular culture more generally: when are poems used in movies, TV shows, advertising, and music, and to what effect?
  2. Have students read the opening paragraphs of Mlinko’s poem guide. For Mlinko, and many Yeats scholars, “Easter, 1916” is a turning point in Yeats’s work, as he engages with “the Modernist rather than the idyllic Ireland.” Talk about the lifespan of Yeats: what changes were happening in the world between 1865-1939? What might Woolf’s quote mean, and do your students see an equivalent in 20th or 21st century events? (You might ask them to talk about how poets, themselves included, respond to the economic, social, and cultural shifts of our own era.) Have them predict some of the characteristics of “early” and “late” poetry by Yeats. Then break the class into two sides, one for early (pre-1913) and one for late (post-1913) Yeats. Have each side consult the Poetry Foundation archive, anthologies, or other websites to track how Yeats’s poetry changed through his life. Have students take note of content as well as formal techniques such as rhyme, rhythm, prosody, and use of verse or popular forms (ballads, sonnets, etc.)
More Poems by William Butler Yeats