The Shortlist

Scroll down the page for information about the poem, a biography of the poet - and more.

Share on Facebook Share on Twitter Share on Google+ Open Shortlist About the poem Biography Media

The Shortlist

Easter 1916

Easter 1916

by W. B. Yeats

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.

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’.

W. B. Yeats

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.

We welcome your comments and stories. And we'd love videos of Irish people everywhere performing/reading the poems from the shortlist. The best will be published on this site, and may appear on TV or Radio. If you want to upload a comment, video, sound file, story or picture relating to any of the poems, you can do so here.

Visit our "Media" area to watch, listen and discover more: videos, audio, plus public comments and stories.