Easter 1916

 

I

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

With 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.

[. . .]

III

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 bird that range

From cloud to tumbling cloud,

Minute by minute 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

Where long-legged moor-hens dive

And hens to moor-cocks call

Minute by minute they live;

The stone’s in the midst of all.

 

IV

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.

 

W B Yeats, from “Easter 1916”

 

 

The best Easter poems are not satisfied with being about Easter. Poets use them to pursue other issues and concerns, or delve so deeply into complex meanings that the poems are merely stimulated by the season and are not even in celebration of it.

There are famous examples of this. Perhaps the best known ‘Easter poem’ in West Indian literature is Mervyn Morris’s dramatic suite “On Holy Week,” which the poet once said during one of his famous readings of it, that he originally started to write it because he had begun to discover that people generally misunderstood and did not do justice to Pontius Pilate. But Pilate’s monologue is only one of several in the collection, and individual pieces taken from it have often been published by themselves as independent poems. “Malefactor (Left)” and “Malefactor (Right)” have quite a life of their own, and have been anthologised together because of the way they complement each other dramatically as if they were parts One and Two of one poem.

al creightonAfter that original idea by Morris, the poem(s) went well beyond Pilate to include a dramatis personae of almost all the leading protagonists in the Bible story of the crucifixion. But Morris was not even satisfied to tell or dramatise that passion play, and the themes, issues and poetic concerns are several and varied, using the crucifixion as a base. The “Prologue by the Maker” is a pun on the poet and God himself, as it explains that he intends to “revise Holy Writ;” that “the gospel story triggers // the maker’s thinking.” His intention is to stray – and “if, occasionally, faith intrudes: // don’t blame the maker.” The poet asks leave to employ “invention.” Another important pun is in the title, which suggests “Unholy Week.”

That much is similar to the work, centuries ago, of William Blake whose poem titled “Holy Thursday” does not conform to any thought of the Easter Week as holy. He uses the title ironically to address most unholy situations dramatised by the poet among Christians in the city of London. Blake is therefore among those who do not celebrate Easter, but uses it as a reference point to criticise social injustice and the abuse of children in his time. The so-called holiness is called upon by the poet to highlight the lack of it in the practices of the church.

“Easter 1916” is among the most celebrated of these Easter poems. “Easter 1916” is remembered for its restoration of faith in the Irish Republican cause; the death of the poet’s previous poetic preoccupations, his dislike of revolutionary violence and the rising of a more committed verse and approach to poetry. The death of the rebels led to a resurrection of faith in the revolution, in action and results.

W B Yeats
W B Yeats

The poem by W B Yeats is about the ‘Easter rising’ in Dublin, Ireland on Easter Monday, April 24, 1916. This was a turning point in the war waged by the Irish against British rule in their long struggle for independence. In a sudden and unexpected move in the insurrection, a small group of rebels led by a schoolteacher, Pearson, occupied public buildings in Dublin in a declaration of Irish secession from the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. It was a violent revolt doomed to failure because the revolutionaries were by far unequal to the British in numbers and strength. It was put down in six days and some 15 leaders executed by Britain.

They became heroes/martyrs and deepened the struggle for independence in an increased line of agitation that had some results in 1921.

Yeats was very much moved by these events. He supported the war for independence but despised the use of violence. Some of his friends and acquaintances were involved and some of those who were executed included people whom he knew, who he had met and whose portraits he sketched in the poem. They were promoted from being people who he “passed with a nod of the head / With polite meaningless words” to persons he remembered forever. He says, “I write it out in a verse” – the sacrifice they made which changed not only his feelings for them, but the fight against England itself and the meaning of the revolution to the poet and the people.

This verse expresses it as “All changed; changed utterly; / A terrible beauty is born.” Yeats was against violent revolt, so he remains horrified at it, and moreso at the brutal executions carried out by England. But he is perhaps more moved by the sacrifice for a cause and the fillip it gave to the drawn-out war – the terror and the beauty of it.

The great poem, then, is linked to Easter merely by the timing of an event. But there is symbolic depth in the executions at Easter 1916 and the resurrection that they caused in the poet’s and the Irish people’s faith in the revolution.

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