by Nathan Suhr-Sytsma
On Easter Monday, April 24, 1916, members of the Irish Volunteers and the Irish Citizen Army occupied Dublin’s General Post Office, and from its steps, Patrick Pearse read a proclamation of the Irish Republic. The British military responded with force, and the Easter Rising, as it became known, came to an end with the rebels’ surrender on April 29. In England at the time, W. B. Yeats learned about the Rising mostly through newspapers and through letters from his friend and patroness, Lady Gregory. As the British forces imposed martial law and, in early May, executed fifteen of the Rising’s leaders, some of whom Yeats knew personally, the events in Ireland moved Yeats to begin writing the poem which became “Easter, 1916.”
On May 11, Yeats wrote to Lady Gregory that he had received a letter from his long-time muse Maud Gonne, who had written from France with the belief that the revolutionaries had “raised the Irish cause again to a position of tragic dignity” (White 372). He went on to relate his own attempts to interpret recent events: “I am trying to write a poem on the men executed—‘terrible beauty has been born again.’” (Wade 613). The phrase “terrible beauty,” with its initial “t” and final “ty,” seems to echo Gonne’s “tragic dignity,” though the negatively charged “terrible” strains against “beauty,” making Yeats’s phrase more ambivalent than Gonne’s. Yeats may not have used the word “tragic,” but a sense of tragedy pervades “Easter, 1916.” Recalling life before the Rising in the poem’s opening stanza, the speaker confesses that he had imagined Dublin worthy only of comedy or farce, a place in which he concocted “a mocking tale or a gibe” since he “But lived where motley”—the costume of a jester—“is worn.” Likewise, the poet has imagined Gonne’s estranged husband, Major John MacBride (the “drunken, vainglorious lout” of the poem’s second stanza) capable only of a part “In the casual comedy.” The poem implies, however, that MacBride and the other leaders have been changed by the Rising, more specifically, by being executed for their participation in it, from comic actors into tragic martyrs. The “terrible beauty” of revolutionary violence and its ongoing repercussions have launched these men into a serious role in history.
MacBride’s death left Maud Gonne unmarried, and after visiting Ireland in early June to witness the aftermath of the Rising, Yeats spent the summer with Gonne in Normandy, France. The fact that he worked on “Easter, 1916” while trying to woo her creates audible erotic resonances in the poem. On the one hand, the poem’s incantatory commemoration of the rebel leaders must have appealed to Gonne’s passionately nationalist politics. On the other hand, the third and fourth stanzas of the poem appeal to those like her, “Hearts with one purpose alone,” not to let those hearts become “a stone,” insensitive to the peace and flux of nature. In the natural world, “The long-legged moor-hens dive, / And hens to moor-cocks call,” acting out an erotic give-and-take, but in the political realm, “Too long a sacrifice / Can make a stone of the heart. / O when may it suffice?” The poem seems to express Yeats’s anxiety that Gonne, like the leaders of the Easter Rising, might choose to sacrifice the erotic to the political. Back in Ireland with Lady Gregory, Yeats finally finished a draft of “Easter, 1916” on September 25, but Gonne was not taken with it. Her letter to Yeats begins, “My dear Willie, No I don’t like your poem” (White 384). She was not willing, perhaps, to grant the ambivalent value that the poem attributes to sacrifice in general and to that of the Rising’s leaders in particular.
Yeats chose not to publish “Easter, 1916” in a periodical or in his next book, The Wild Swans at Coole, likely because the poem would have been seen in England as unpatriotic and thus endangered his friendships, literary contacts, and perhaps even his government pension. His situation was especially delicate since he and Lady Gregory hoped to persuade England’s National Gallery to return Hugh Lane’s collection of paintings to Dublin (Foster 64). He waited to publish “Easter, 1916” until the fall of 1920, when the Anglo-Irish war was at its height and Terence MacSwiney, the Sinn Féin mayor of Cork, was on a hunger strike in prison. Willing now to make a political gesture on behalf of Ireland, Yeats gave the poem to the New Statesman, which had been sympathetic to MacSwiney, where it appeared on Oct. 23, 1920 before being included in his 1921 volume, Michael Robartes and the Dancer.
Given the historic events behind it, “Easter, 1916” not only meditates on time and history, but also subtly embodies a tension between day-to-day life and the seemingly higher time of history; it puts forward what Terence Brown calls “two orders of time” (233). On the one hand, the poem dramatizes the ordinary passage of time, in which Dubliners wander home from work “at close of day” and Constance Markievicz spends her “days” and “nights.” On the other hand, it registers a sense that participants in the Rising—and perhaps, by implication, all of Ireland—have been caught up into a new time, one in which “A terrible beauty is born” in the eternal present. Moreover, as the poem consists of four alternating stanzas of sixteen and twenty-four lines, suggesting the 24th day in the 4th month (April) of 1916, it encodes the date of the Easter Rising in its very structure. By reenacting this date whenever it is read, the poem implies that both the Rising and Yeats’s commemoration of it belong to a higher time marked by quasi-liturgical return. Having translated the Rising’s leaders into a tragic mode and registered his ambivalence toward their nationalist sacrifice, Yeats ends “Easter, 1916” with an overt gesture toward his own role in establishing mythic history:
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.
- ↑ Helen Vendler reports that her student Nathan Rose pointed this out to her. See Helen Vendler, “Technique in the Earlier Poems of Yeats,” Yeats Annual 8 (1991): 20. For a more extended reading of the poem, see Helen Vendler, Our Secret Discipline: Yeats and Lyric Form (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007) 16-26.
Brown, Terence. The Life of W. B. Yeats: A Critical Biography. Dublin: Gill & Macmillan, 1999.
Foster, R. F. W. B. Yeats: A Life. Vol. II. The Arch-Poet. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003.
Wade, Allen, ed. The Letters of W. B. Yeats. London: Rubert Hart-Davis, 1954.
White, Anna MacBride and A. N. Jeffares, ed. Always Your Friend:The Gonne-Yeats Letters, 1893-1938. London: Hutchison, 1992.