Monday’s Verse, 3/28/2106

Hmm, if only there were a poem appropriate for the Monday after Easter, 2016. Ohhh… RIGHT. William Butler Yeats’s "Easter, 1916," written in commemoration of the Easter Monday uprising of that year, when a small band of dedicated nationalist revolutionaries raised arms against their British rulers, and were quickly defeated–and the leaders almost as quickly executed. Yeats finished the poem in September of that year and had it published in a private edition of 25 copies. It was not until 1920 that it appeared in journals, and 1921 that it appeared in a book, Michael Robartes and the Dancers.

"Of the quarrels with others we make rhetoric;" Yeats said, "of the quarrels with ourselves, poetry." Here’s an instance of Yeats puzzling out one or two of those quarrels, asking unanswerable questions, and engaging with literary modernism and early 20th century extremist politics. The opening stanza of this poem, for example, is much more in the mold of Eliot or Pound than any of his prior dreamy, celtic verse had been. He didn’t drop his sense of rhyme or music, though, and for that reason I think the refrain is effective.

A brief review of today’s English-language journalism will bring you many commentaries on the continuing meaning of the Easter Rising, for those who want to know more. And those who learn more, should report back here! Have a good week, -ed.

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.


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