by W. B. Yeats
I have met them at close of day
Coming with vivid faces
From counter or desk among grey
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,
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.
25 September 1916
From Michael Robartes and the Dancer (1921) Macmillan.
About the poem
Here, Yeats responds to a momentous event in Irish history. The poem is remarkable for many reasons, not least because it shows that Yeats was not afraid to admit that he was wrong about the revolutionaries. Three years earlier, he had angrily denounced the Irish middle-classes for their cautious selfishness and lack of vision, claiming then that ‘Romantic Ireland’s dead and gone’.
In May 1916 Yeats began writing this poem, in which he recognised the courage of men and women who fought for Irish freedom. The tone is honest and direct. In a letter to Lady Gregory he spoke of how he ‘had no idea that any public event could so deeply move me’. The phrase ‘vivid faces’, in the opening lines, captures their passion, but Yeats, at first, ‘being certain that they and I/ But lived where motley is worn’ admits that he had thought them foolish, clownish, and enjoyed thinking about how he would mock them when he got to his club. The deliberate repetition of ‘polite meaningless words’ captures Yeats’s initial dismissive stance. He even refers to the run-up to the Rising as a ‘casual comedy’.
The portraits he paints of the individuals in the second stanza – Countess Markievicz, Patrick Pearse, Thomas MacDonagh, John MacBride – are vivid; the powerful phrase ‘terrible beauty’ highlights the complexity of what has happened.
The setting is Dublin, its streets, its people; but in the poem’s third section, Yeats describes the natural world of cloud and stream and horse and moor-hens, moor-cocks. This is an image of life’s flux and flow - the stone ‘in the midst of all’ symbolises resistance, persistence and the fanatical heart.
The final section begins with a statement: ‘Too long a sacrifice/ Can make a stone of the heart’, a reference to Maud Gonne’s commitment to revolutionary ideals. The men and women of 1916 died for Ireland. It was an exhausting struggle and one which Yeats questioned: ‘Was it needless death after all?’ The Home Rule Bill gave Ireland some independence in 1913 but the Bill was suspended at the outbreak of World War I.
‘Easter 1916’ acknowledges ‘their dream’, how ‘they dreamed and are dead’ and how their legacy will always live on. But he also wonders, ‘what if excess of love/ Bewildered them till they died?’ which is an unsettling question. Maud Gonne told Yeats: ‘I don’t like your poem, it isn’t worthy of you & above all it isn’t worthy of the subject’.
‘Easter 1916’ is not only memorable for what Yeats says but also for the way he says it. He is a master craftsman. For example, the date itself - Easter Monday, 1916 - is enshrined within the very shape of the poem on the page: the poem’s four stanzas contain either sixteen or twenty-four lines – 24.4.16.
Yeats, the eldest of six children, was born on Sandymount Avenue in Dublin on 13 June 1865 and spent his childhood in London and Sligo. At seven he did not know the alphabet and throughout his life his spelling was inconsistent and inaccurate.
At Godolphin School in Hammersmith he was mocked for being Irish. His school report in 1877 placed him twenty-first in a class of thirty-one. The family returned to Dublin when Yeats was sixteen and he attended the Erasmus Smith High School. Interested in science [the other pupils called him ‘the insect collector’] he also began to write poetry. Academically he was too weak to attend Trinity College and enrolled at art college but dropped out. In March 1885 he published two poems and, urged by John O’Leary, he joined the Young Ireland Society that same year. When he was twenty-one he published his first volume.
Back in London Yeats worked as a reviewer, wrote his most famous poem ‘The Lake Isle of Innisfree’ and at twenty-three met and fell in love with English-born, Irish nationalist Maud Gonne, an event he describes as ‘the troubling of my life’. He first proposed to her in 1891 and was refused.
In 1896 Yeats met Lady Gregory who became an enormous influence and, together with Edward Martyn, they founded the Abbey Theatre, which opened on 27 December 1904. Coole Park, Lady Gregory’s home, also became hugely important. For over thirty years Yeats spent his summers there.
Maud Gonne’s husband John MacBride was executed in 1916. Yeats proposed to Maud Gonne again. Later he proposed to Iseult, Maud Gonne’s daughter with a French journalist, who also declined to marry him. On being refused, the fifty-two year old Yeats asked twenty-four year old English woman Georgie Hyde Lees to marry him. They had met in 1911, were married in London in 1917, had two children, lived in Oxford and London, and later moved to Dublin and Thoor Ballylee, a Norman Tower, near Gort.
In 1922 Yeats was appointed to the Irish Senate of the Free State Government and in 1923 was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature which he described as an honour ‘not given to me as an individual but as a representative of a literary movement and of a nation and I am glad to have it so’.
In old age Yeats and his family spent time in Rapallo in Italy. He gave a lecture tour in America to raise money for an Irish Academy of Letters, and underwent, at sixty-nine, a Steinach rejuvenation operation which supposedly restored sexual potency. It certainly liberated his imagination and his late poems are among his best work. He died in 1939, aged seventy-three, in Roquebrune in the south of France. Yeats was buried there, but in 1948 his remains were exhumed and brought to Sligo. He was buried at Drumcliff church where a great-grandfather had been a clergyman. On his gravestone he commanded that ‘these words are cut’:
Cast a cold eye
On life, on death.
Horseman, pass by!