An Irish Nationalist uprising had been planned for Easter Sunday 1916, and although the German ship that was bringing munitions had been intercepted by the British, attempts to postpone the uprising failed; it began in Dublin on Easter Monday..Fifteen hundred men seized key points and an Irish republic was proclaimed from the General Post Office. After the initial surprise prompt British military action was taken, and when over 300 lives had been lost the insurgents were forced to surrender on 29 April.... The seven signatories of the republican proclamation, including [Padraic] Pearse and [James] Connolly, and nine others were shot after court martial between 3 and 12 May; 75 were reprieved and over 2000 held prisoners" [From "Ireland: History," by D. B. Quinn, in Chambers's Encyclopedia].Click on the picture icon to see a photograph of central Dublin after the Easter Rising, looking toward General Post Office.
Easter 1916 (1916)
I have met them at close of day Coming with vivid faces From counter or desk among grey Eighteenth-century houses. 5 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 10 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: 15 All changed, changed utterly: A terrible beauty is born.
That woman's days were spent In ignorant good will, Her nights in argument 20 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 25 And rode our winged horse; This other his helper and friend Was coming into his force; So sensitive his nature seemed, 30 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, 35 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: 40 A terrible beauty is born.
Hearts with one purpose alone Through summer and winter seem Enchanted to a stone To trouble the living stream. 45 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 50 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; 55 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? 60 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. 65 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. 70 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- 75 MacDonagh and MacBride And Connolly and Pearse Now and in time to be, Wherever green is worn, Are changed, changed utterly. 80 A terrible beauty is born.
Writing a poem about an important historical event is not the same thing as writing a news story about it. Yeats could have simply described what happened in Dublin during Easter week of 1916, but he didn't do that. To make his poem, Yeats had to select. He needed to give his poem a location, to let his readers hear a voice speaking from a particular point of view. He needed to leave a great deal out, and focus instead on just a few details. But those details had to show why all the rest of it mattered.
For Yeats, the Easter Rising was a surprise. It caused him to rethink a great many things, including what he thought about some of those men and women who participated in the Rising. Many of them were his friends, but he'd always seen them as pretty typical of the times in which they lived, and he didn't think much of those times. He thought of his society as grey and materialistic, incapable of heroic action. So when these people suddenly did act, he was forced to change his mind, and that's what he wrote his poem about. He is involved in the events of Easter 1916 because they remain a kind of reproach to him. He needs to understand them, because he needs to understand himself.
And the reality of the Rising, its terrible cost for those involved, causes him to rethink not just his opinions about these old friends and acquaintances, but also his earlier views about revolution. Some of those views (in his poem "September 1913," for example) seem a bit too easy now, too romantic. He guessed what the twentieth century would certainly come to know: that hearts with one purpose alone can turn to stone.
So in the end, "Easter 1916" is a very serious meditation about the ambiguities of history, but it gets to that end by being something much more modest: a poem about a man changing his mind.
Click here to see a manuscript draft by Yeats of part of "Easter 1916."
The Easter Rising of 1916 had virtually no chance of immediately freeing Ireland from British rule, but it was a powerful symbolic gesture, and the subsequent execution of its leaders quickly turned them into martyrs for the cause of Irish nationalism. The years of guerrilla warfare which followed led ultimately to the emergence in 1922 of the Irish Free State, comprised of twenty-six of Ireland's thirty-two counties.
Click here to see the Proclamation of the Irish Republic, which Padraic Pearse, mentioned in Yeats's poem, read from the steps of the General Post Office to announce the Easter Rising, 1916.
James Connolly, also mentioned by Yeats, was the leader of the Irish Citizens Army, an organization founded during a major labor dispute of 1913 to protect workers from attacks by the police. The Irish Citizens Army joined with the Irish Volunteers in carrying out the Easter Rising.
Click here to see a photograph of the Irish Citizens Army in front of Liberty Hall, their headquarters.
British military force, including artillery and a gunboat that shelled Liberty Hall from the Liffey River, was overwhelming, and the Irish were forced to surrender after six days of fighting.
Click here to see Irish prisoners being marched along a Dublin quay under British guard.
The Poet´s Life and Work
The Poet's Craft
- Seamus Deane, "Yeats and the Idea of Revolution."
- Douglas Archibald, from Yeats.
- George Bornstein, "Romancing the (Native) Stone: Yeats, Stevens, and the Anglocentric Canon."
- Lucy McDiarmid, "The Treason of the Clerks."