The Easter Rising of 1916 catalyzed the final phase of the Irish struggle for independence and forced Yeats to recant the stinging assessment of “September 1913” that “Romantic Ireland’s dead and gone, / It’s with O’Leary in the grave.” In the wake of the Easter Rising, Yeats decided that “September 1913” had come to sound “old-fashioned” (VP 820). “Easter 1916” is dated September 25, 1916, but a May 11 letter to Lady Gregory, written 18 days after the rising began, contains its germ: “I am trying to write a poem on the men executed—‘terrible beauty has been born again’” (Letters 613). Yeats writes in the same letter, “I had no idea that any public event could so deeply move me,” and yet he remained ambivalent about the rising, as reflected in “Easter 1916,” his principal public statement on the event. The poem’s famous refrain may have been inspired by Maud Gonne’s remark in a May letter that the rebels “have raised the Irish cause again to a position of tragic dignity” (GY 372). Writing to Lady Gregory on May 11, Yeats credits Gonne with the comment that “tragic dignity has returned to Ireland” (613), which artistically elevates Gonne’s actual comment and anticipates the language of his refrain.
The poem’s opening lines—lines of “nerveless syntax onto which the great refrain will drop its iron portcullis,” as Hugh Kenner puts it—have a penitential honesty (Colder Eye 228). Yeats confesses to just the kind of mockery he disparages in section five of “Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen.” He recalls occasionally bumping into the future martyrs of the rising as they came from “counter or desk” at the end of the workday. Even as he exchanged “polite meaningless words”—a phrase twice repeated, indicating the innocuous interchangeability of these encounters—Yeats nursed a “mocking tale or a gibe” to recount around the fire at his club. He may refer to the Arts Club, Upper Merrion Street, Dublin, a venue for dinner and discussion that was not, in Joseph Hone’s estimate, “bookish or particularly intellectual” (W. B. Yeats 233–234; for Yeats at the Arts Club see I&R, I, 51–53). He may alternatively refer to the Stephen’s Green Club (New Biography 215). The reference to “counter or desk” associates the prospective martyrs with the till-keeping middle class (the “nationalist petite bourgeoisie” in R. F. Foster’s phrase) that Yeats had excoriated in “September 1913” and “Paudeen”: hence his condescension (AP 59). Their emergence from “eighteenth-century houses” and their “vivid faces,” however, hint at an unguessed spiritual continuity with the generation of Robert Emmet (1778–1803), Edward Fitzgerald (1763–98), and Wolfe Tone (1763–98). Yeats had been convinced that Dublin was a place “where motley is worn,” but the rising exposed the magnitude of his misunderstanding: “All changed, changed utterly: / A terrible beauty is born.”
The second stanza namelessly alludes to the leaders of the rising whom Yeats best knew, emphasizing the commonplace humanity out of which, by some miraculous alchemy, came the “terrible beauty” of the poem’s refrain. As Kenner writes, Yeats “silhouettes anonymities, ‘this woman,’ ‘this man,’ ‘this other’ in part 2, against the sunburst of part 4, where names start forth and the poet-mage takes charge” (Colder Eye 229). The roster of the anonymous includes Constance Markiewicz (1868– 1927) whose fall from youthful feminine grace into the shrillness of politics is recounted in “In Memory of Eva Gore-Booth and Con Markiewicz” and “On a Political Prisoner.” She was condemned to death for her part in the rising but her sentence was commuted to life imprisonment, and she was released from jail in 1917. There is Patrick Pearse (1879–1916), who founded the St. Enda’s School for Boys in Dublin and proclaimed the birth of the Irish Republic from the steps of the General Post Office. Pearse rode “our wingèd horse”—Pegasus—in the sense that he couched the struggle for Irish independence in mythic and romantic terms. In a letter of May 1, 1916, to his sister Lolly, Yeats called Pearse a “man made dangerous by the Vertigo of Self Sacrifice,” while Ezra Pound reported to John Quinn Yeats’s opinion that Pearse was “half-cracked” and suffering from “Emmet mania, same as some other lunatics think they are Napoleon or God” and that Pearse “wouldn’t be happy until he was hanged” (AP 46). There is Thomas MacDonagh (1878–1916), a poet and playwright whom Yeats described in his 1909 diary as a “man with some literary faculty which will probably come to nothing through lack of culture and encouragement.” He continues in terms that anticipate the critique of “Easter 1916”: “In England this man would have become remarkable in some way, here he is being crushed by the mechanical logic and commonplace eloquence which give power to the most empty mind, because, being ‘something other than human life’, they have no use for distinguished feeling or individual thought. I mean that within his own mind this mechanical thought is crushing as with an iron roller all that is organic” (Autobiographies. 360; Memoirs. 177–178; see also The Collected Letters of W. B. Yeats 760, 782– 784). Finally there is John MacBride (1865–1916), Maud Gonne’s estranged husband. Though a “drunken vainglorious lout,” MacBride is likewise “transformed utterly,” a generous acknowledgment considering Yeats’s hostility to the bluff military man who had bested him briefly but decisively in Gonne’s affections. Pearse, MacDonagh, and MacBride were among 15 leaders of the rising executed by the British: Pearse and MacDonagh were shot on May 3, MacBride on May 5.
In its third stanza, “Easter 1916” contrasts the stoniness of hearts “with one purpose alone”—the stoniness of the single-minded political fanatic— with the “living stream”: the supple, changing beauty of nature, the subtle shadings that make for poetry. More than this, such hearts “trouble” the living stream, which is to say, awaken the kind of inhuman destructive zeal exemplified by the Easter Rising. As R. F. Foster observes, these lines are implicitly addressed to Gonne and reiterate the plea, mooted six years earlier in the essay “J. M. Synge and the Ireland of his Time,” against “the morbid persistence of minds unsettled by some fixed idea” and all that “kills intellectual innocence; that delight in what is unforeseen, and in the mere spectacle of the world, the mere drifting hither and thither that must come before all true thought and emotion,” against all that turns the “mind to stone” (W. B. Yeats: A Life, II: The ArchPoet 61–62; Essays and Introductions 313–314). Yeats worked on the poem while staying at Les Mouettes, the Gonnes’ home in Colleville-sur-Mer, on the Normandy shore, during the summer of 1916, and he unsuccessfully proposed to Gonne on July 1 (YC 186). In September 1916, Yeats read her the poem and implored her, in terms that echo his poem, “to forget the stone and its inner fire for the flashing, changing joy of life” (AP 62; Scattering Branches 32). This was a political and spiritual plea, but also a romantic plea, as Yeats knew he could succeed in his suit only by reconciling Gonne to the apolitical “flashing, changing joy of life.”
In the final stanza, Yeats comes to the central spiritual and philosophical question of the poem. Is the sacrifice of the living heart ever justified? Or rather, as John O’Leary held, are there “things which a man should not do, perhaps even to save a nation” (Aut. 101, 178; E&I 247; Uncollected Prose by W. B. Yeats. Vol. 2 36). As in “On being asked for a War Poem,” Yeats skirts the controversy of an answer by invoking the proper bounds of the poet’s role, declaring it his part merely to “murmur name upon name, / As a mother names her child / When sleep at last has come / On limbs that had run wild.” Yeats toys with the further metaphorization of death as nightfall, but not liking the romantic varnish of this—perhaps resisting something of the romantic varnish that had quickly come to surround the rising and especially its martyrs—Yeats reverts to the unvarnished reality of “death” and the matter-offact possibility that, after all, England might have kept its pledge to grant Ireland home rule as soon as the world war had come to an end. “And what if excess of love”—for Ireland—“Bewildered them till they died?” Yeats asks, but again retreats from the critical implication of his own question, and ends with a solemn martyrology that comported with popular sentiment. MacDonagh, MacBride, Pearse, and James Connolly (1870–1916) will be forever remembered wherever the green of Ireland is worn. The transition from motley to green epitomizes the poem’s refrain: “All changed, changed utterly: / A terrible beauty is born.”
Predictably, “Easter 1916” elicited a sharp rebuke from Gonne. “No I don’t like your poem,” she wrote on November 8, 1916, “it isn’t worthy of you & above all it isn’t worthy of the subject— Though it reflects your present state of mind perhaps, it isn’t quite sincere enough for you who have studied philosophy & know something of history know quite well that sacrifice has never yet turned a heart to stone though it has immortalised many & through it alone mankind can rise to God. You recognise this in the line which was the original inspiration of your poem ‘A terrible Beauty is born’ but you let your present mood mar & confuse it till even some of the verses become unintelligible to many.” Gonne also rejected the imputation that MacDonagh, Pearse, Connolly were “sterile fixed minds,” insisting that “each served Ireland, which was their share of the world, the part they were in contact with, with varied faculties and vivid energy! those three were men of genius, with large comprehensive & speculative & active brains [. . .]. As for my husband he has entered Eternity by the great door of sacrifice which Christ opened & has therefore atoned for all [. . .].” She allows that the poem contains beautiful language but finds that it fails to be a “living thing which our race would treasure & repeat, such as a poet like you might have given to your nation & which would have avenged our material failure by its spiritual beauty” (GY 384– 385). Harold Bloom perspicuously observes that the poem is highly uncharacteristic, as the visionary element (“A terrible beauty is born”) is “not the strength of the poem, which excels in sober coloring of accurate moral description, a quality normally lacking in Yeats. Easter 1916 is a model of sanity and proportion, and is genuinely Yeats’s eighteenth-century poem [. . .]” (Yeats 314).
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