Patrick Crotty, ‘W. B. Yeats’s “Easter 1916” and the Critics’ (2004)

‘Easter 1916’ is often referred to as the twentieth century’s most famous political poem in English. It is sometimes compared to Marvell’s ‘Horatian Ode upon Cromwell’s Return from Ireland’, with which it shares the sort of gnomic ambiguity so valued by William Empson, Cleanth Brooks and the other champions of close reading who held dominance in the academy before the rise of postmodernism. The Marvell and Yeats texts have served as templates for other poets wishing to comment on public events - Robert Lowell’s ‘Waking Early Sunday Morning’, for example, is formally indebted to the ‘Horatian Ode’ in its meditation on the ills of the Johnson era in the United States, while W.H. Auden’s ‘September 1, 1939’ and Seamus Heaney’s ‘Casualty’ - of both of which I shall have more to say later - draw deeply on the procedures of ‘Easter 1916’. Yeats’s poem differs from the others I have mentioned in that it not merely reflects upon politics but ‘has been transformed in its turn’, so to speak, into an element of political reality. While the impact of the poem upon events in Ireland in the decades since its publication in 1920 is insusceptible to precise measurement, and has sometimes been exaggerated, few would question its reality. That impact adds a dimension to the history of the poem’s reception which has few parallels in modern literature. In The Armies of the Night Norman Mailer has memorably described Lowell’s public reading of ‘Waking Early Sunday Morning’ during the march on the Pentagon in 1968, in what can be seen as an attempt to get the tame beast of poetry to mate with the wild beast of politics. The cultural as opposed to literary invisibility of Lowell’s poem three decades later is a measure of the status of Yeats’s text as an intervention in the public sphere. Forty six years after the publication of ‘Easter 1916’, on the fiftieth anniversary of the Rising, a Dublin Sunday newspaper gave its readers a free commemorative 1916 poster featuring a colour photograph of the burned out General Post Office under the banner headline, ‘A Terrible Beauty Is Born’, a poster which I can recall seeing framed on the kitchen wall of more than one house in north County Cork. For better, or - as Conor Cruise O’Brien has argued - for worse, Yeats’s poem has become so thoroughly part of the cultural inheritance of generations of Irish people that it has coloured and in some cases perhaps even determined perceptions not only of the Rebellion but of subsequent attempted heroics.

I do not propose to get into the unresolvable argument as to whether or not this poem sent out certain men the English - or the Irish, for that matter - shot. I am concerned in the main with more critical, less emotionally driven, responses to the text. And with only a selection of these: the history of the poem’s reception is too large a topic for forty five minutes’ traffic on the stage of the Hawk’s Well Theatre. I wish to do no more than to comment on some of the more vivid literary and critical responses to the poem, with particular but not exclusive reference to the last couple of decades. It will become apparent that I consider that many of these responses have involved a degree misreading - of under-reading or over-reading either of the text itself or of its political context - and I should like to state at the outset that I am more concerned to present a corrective account of these than to offer a new interpretation of the poem.

To begin with, the circumstances of the poem’s composition and belated publication must be rehearsed, familiar though these no doubt are to a large fraction of my audience. The genesis of ‘Easter 1916’ is usually traced to a couple of phrases used by Maud Gonne in a letter to the poet written from France in response to news of the rebellion. Yeats had sent her newspaper accounts of the events in Dublin from Gloucestershire, where he was staying at the time. Even before hearing of the execution of the leaders, her estranged husband John MacBride among them, she declared herself ‘overwhelmed by the tragedy and greatness’ of what the rebels had done: ‘They have raised the Irish cause again to tragic dignity.’ On May 12, 1916, just as the series of executions was coming to an end, Yeats wrote from London to Lady Gregory:

Cosgrave whom I saw a few months ago in connection with the Municipal Gallery project and found our best supporter, has got many years imprisonment and today I see that an old friend Henry Dixon - unless there are two of the same name - who began with me the whole work of the literary movement, has been shot in a barrack yard without trial of any kind. I have little doubt that there have been many miscarriages of justice. The wife of the Belgian Minister of War told me a few days ago that three British officers had told her that the command of the British Army in France should be made over to French generals, and the French generals have told her that they await with great anxiety the result of the coming German attack on the English lines because of the incompetence of the English Higher Command as a whole. Haig, however, they believed in. He was recommended by the French for the post. I see therefore no reason to believe that justice is being worked with precision in Dublin. I am trying to write a poem on the men executed ‘terrible beauty has been born again’. If the English Conservative Party had made a declaration that they did not intend to rescind the Home Rule Bill there would have been no rebellion. I had no idea that any public event could so deeply move me and I am very despondent about the future. At the moment I feel that all the work of years has been overturned, all the freeing of Irish literature and criticism from politics. Maud Gonne reminds me that she saw the ruined houses about O’Connell Street, and the wounded and dying lying about the streets in the first few days of the war. I perfectly remember the vision and my making light of it and saying that if a true vision at all it could only have a symbolical meaning. This is the only letter I have had from her since she knew of the Rebellion. I have sent her the papers every day. I do not yet know what she feels about her husband’s death. Her letter was written before she heard of it. Her main thought seems to be ‘Tragic dignity is restored to Ireland.’ She had been told by two of the Irish party that ‘Home Rule was betrayed.’ She now thinks the sacrifice has made it safe. . . .

I have quoted this letter at length because it provides a wealth of evidence with regard to the concerns out of which the poem grew, and offers hints which help to resolve some of the cruces in the text which, unreasonably perhaps, continue to confound critics. It suggests that the poet had greater personal contact with the rebels than many commentators have assumed, besides helping unpack the meaning of the refrain about ‘terrible beauty’. It communicates his sense that of a breach of faith on the part of the British in relation to Home Rule was one of the causes of the Rising, and reveals that he viewed the destruction wrought by the fighting in apocalyptic terms, not unconnected to his anxieties over the outcome of the Great War. The passionate uncertainty of Yeats’s response to the Rising, characteristically, was implicated in larger uncertainties. All of these matters are germane to an interpretation of the poem. Indeed, so many details in the text are illuminated by the letter that it is tempting to think that ‘Easter 1916’ was in an advanced state of composition less than a fortnight after the end of the rebellion.

Scholarship tells us only that Yeats worked on his poem intermittently between May and September of 1916. Unusually though not uniquely, and with a significance that Terence Brown has recently highlighted and to which I will return later, the poet affixed a date - September 25, 1916 - to the end of a text which already has a date for its title. The ‘September 25’ postscript is usually taken to indicate the timing of the poem’s completion. We can with more confidence date the first critical response to ‘Easter 1916’ to two months later, and critical it certainly was. Yeats had sent a copy to Maud Gonne, who wrote back in November: ‘No I don’t like your poem, it isn’t worthy of you & above all it isn’t worthy of the subject.’ She took particular exception to the contention that sacrifice can make a stone of the heart. For all its brutal directness, Gonne’s comment has the virtue of alertness to the ambiguities in the text. She cannot be said to have misread the poem, though no doubt it was her zealous insistence that the Rising be comprehensively endorsed which gave her her nose for ambiguity. It is generally supposed that it was due to a fear that the poem would be read unambiguously by the public, as offering just such an endorsement, that Yeats held it back for four years. He included it neither in the 1917 Irish nor the 1919 British edition of The Wild Swans at Coole, though he gave permission for twenty five copies to be printed for circulation among his friends in the former year. The decision to release the poem into the public domain had already been taken when the poet made what Conor Cruise O’Brien has called ‘probably the boldest [political act] of [his] career.’ By October 1920 ‘Easter 1916’ had been sent to the printer for inclusion in Michael Robartes and the Dancer, which would be published, as planned, by the Cuala Press early in 1921. Yeats elected to bring publication of the poem forward, however, and to make an event of it, preferring a widely read British political journal to an Irish ‘slim collection’ as the forum for its unveiling. The Anglo-Irish War was approaching its climax in October 1920, as was the hunger strike in Brixton Prison of the Lord Mayor of Cork, Terence MacSwiney, and Yeats, along with public opinion in Ireland and much liberal opinion in Britain, was deeply disturbed by the Black and Tan atrocities sanctioned as so-called ‘reprisals’ by the British Prime Minister David Lloyd George. On Saturday 23 October, two days before MacSwiney’s death, the left wing New Statesman ran an issue which contained strong editorial and other criticism of the government, and featured the first printing of ‘Easter 1916’. The poem appeared again in Britain the following month, in The Dial, where it was accompanied by nine other lyrics. Three of these concerned the struggle for independence in Ireland, ‘Sixteen Dead Men’, ‘The Rose Tree’ and ‘On a Political Prisoner’, the first two of them dealing with the Rising in terms as unambiguous as Maude Gonne could have desired. Unlike in the private printing of 1917, in The Dial, in Michael Robartes and the Dancer and in all subsequent collections, no date follows the The New Statesman text of ‘Easter 1916’. As Yeats’s New Statesman correspondence did not survive the Blitz of the 1940s, it is impossible to determine whether this was the result of editorial intervention at the periodical, a printer’s oversight or a deliberate decision by the poet. It is tempting to surmise that Yeats himself chose to strip his poem of the date in an attempt to make it more immediately relevant to the events of 1920, in an attempt, in other words, to make it appear as a meditation on the Rising from the perspective of the current war. In the extreme conditions of 1920, when most people were either for or against the British authorities in Ireland in their ruthless counter-insurgency campaign, there could be no doubting now which side Yeats was on, no mistaking the colours he nailed to the mast in deciding to make his 1916 poem so dramatically public. And yet the carefully nurtured hesitancies of the text itself were cancelled by its use as a counter in the propaganda war. Yeats’s own view of ‘Easter 1916’ in October 1920, that is to say, was proleptic of the popular view of the lyric during the fiftieth anniversary celebrations of 1966 as a glorification of the Rising. We might even say that by making the poem available with a view to effecting a particular outcome, i.e., soliciting sympathy in Britain for the separatist cause and increasing the pressure on the authorities to make concessions, by making it available to be contrued as a validation of the Rising, Yeats himself was responsible for the first misreading of ‘Easter 1916’.

Whatever about the political response to the poem, it elicited no significant literary reaction in Yeats’s lifetime. The publication of the Michael Robartes volume, as A.N. Jeffares points out in the Introduction to W.B. Yeats: The Critical Heritage, ‘appears to have gone virtually unnoticed’, while the few reviews of Later Poems (1922), in which ‘Easter 1916’ was reprinted, make no reference to it. Indeed, many of the most serious general studies in the vast literature that grew in the decades after the poet’s death are strangely silent on this work. T.R. Henn, in The Lonely Tower (1950), does no more than to observe that it was included in Michael Robartes and the Dancer, while Denis Donoghue’s shorter but magisterial Yeats (1971) fails to mention it. Many able critics can appear unnerved before the poem, as if thrown out of their depth by its historical particularity and discommoded by the tension between the bareness of its idiom and the richness of its symbolism. For example in Out of Ireland: A reading of Yeats’s Poetry (1975), an otherwise useful study of individual poems, Dudley Young makes heavy weather alike of the text and context of ‘Easter 1916’. We are told for instance that Yeats was disturbed by the fact that the rebels were ‘disreputably extreme, Catholic, and petty bourgeois’ - terms which Young adduces almost as synonyms, at some expense alike to political nuance and to the complexity of Yeats’s response to the Rising. Young confuses subject matter with procedure when he describes the summative fourth stanza as ‘rambling and uncertain’, while his acccount of Stanza Three is led astray by a long and wholly unconvincing argument about the derivation of Yeats’s temporal ‘minutes’ - ‘Minute by minute they live’ - from Blake’s spatial ‘minute particulars’.

The first critical response I wish to discuss at some length, however, cannot be said to misrepresent the poem’s context. Tom Paulin’s ‘Yeats’s Hunger Strike Poem’ offers a brilliant but characteristically overextended argument on the poem’s meaning in the light of its New Statesman publication. This essay, which appears in Paulin’s influential collection, Minotaur: Poetry and the Nation State (1992), was first delivered as a lecture to the Yeats International Summer School in 1985. Paulin draws on the ideas elaborated in Walter Benjamin’s ‘The Author as Producer’ to contend that we can understand Yeats’s poem only if we ‘insert [it] into [its] living social context’. For Paulin the text was ‘produced’ when it rolled off the presses in London rather than when Yeats laboured over the manuscript. ‘It seems certain’, he concludes - and he is not the first critic to seek to bolster an unstable argument by an invocation of certainty - ‘that the poem is as much “about” the events of the summer and autumn of 1920 as it is about the events of Easter 1916. It is not a poem with a fixed and descriptive historical reference, but one which embodies certain particular and eternal dangers as well as those “eternal charms” about which I have been unable to speak.” A poem with a date for its title, which mentions by name four people who were executed in May 1916 for actions they undertook the previous month, three of whom, along with a colleague, are the subjects of brief but incisive character sketches in the second stanza, and the wisdom of whose sacrifice is pondered in the third and fourth stanzas, is not, I venture to assert, a poem lacking a fixed and descriptive historical reference. That is not to deny that the semiotics of its initial publication gave the poem a significance in 1920 it did not have in 1916 and does not have today, but the poem itself is “about” 1916, and not “about” events which took place four years after its composition. That reference to the “eternal charms” of the text of which our critic has been “unable to speak” is Paulin’s temporarily charming way of admitting that he has had nothing at all to say about the poem itself. Though he has written elsewhere with flair and acuity about the verbal textures and stylistic innovations of poems by writers as diverse as Hopkins, Larkin and John Clare, his Yeats essay is representative of a tendency in contemporary criticism which elevates issues of context, politics and history over textuality.

Helen Vendler represents the opposite tendency, to say the very least. An heir to T.S. Eliot and Harold Bloom in what might be called the High Cultural line in twentieth century criticism, she characteristically views literature as a sort of great echo chamber, and takes it for granted that poems are deeply concerned with their own canonicity, and are best understood in relation to their antecedents in the Great Tradition. Poems do indeed engage in dialogue with their predecessors but not, as I will argue, in a manner as radically disengaged from the existential conditions of their production as Vendler suggests in her comments on ‘Easter 1916’. These comments appear in her essay ‘Four Elegies’, first given as a paper at this School in 1980. (As I say these words I imagine a chiel amang ye taking notes to use in evidence against me at the Summer School of 2020.) Vendler classifies the poem along with ‘In Memory of Eva Gore- Booth and Con Markiewicz’, ‘Beautiful Lofty Things’ and ‘The Municipal Gallery Revisited’ as a ‘group elegy’. Her argument about its generic identity is invulnerable to the extent that she sees anything non-elegiac in this and the other named poems as evidence of a great poet’s mandatory re-invention of every traditional form ‘he’ touches. The essay includes a number of instances of the sensitivity to verbal nuance for which Vendler is celebrated, but its studied disregard for contextual evidence leads to alarming distortions. I will cite two of these, both of them exemplary of the way unquestioning fidelity to a particular critical method can lead one out of rather than into a text. Of the third stanza of the poem Vendler writes:

In every elegy a moment comes in which the deadness of the corpse has to be confronted and exposed to the full: this moment comes, in ‘Easter 1916’, in the picture of the stone; and to draw the immobility and lifelessness even more firmly, Yeats does something entirely traditional in elegy, which is to place the corpse in a setting brilliant with natural life. In Lycidas, the surmised bier is imagined covered with all the flowers of the spring; here, the stone is placed obdurately in the midst of all the active life over, around, beside, and in the living stream.

Perhaps what is most alarming about this is that Vendler displays less grasp of the significance of the stone and living stream symbol than Maud Gonne did. The ‘picture of the stone’, as I don’t need to remind you, offers an ingeniously indirect critique of how the rebels wasted their lives in the years leading up to their final sacrifice rather than a depiction of their state in the ‘now’ of the poem, the aftermath of their execution. With my students I sometimes call this the Elvis stanza, with deference to John Lennon’s famous riposte to a reporter who asked him in 1977 how he felt about Presley’s death: ‘Elvis died when he went in the army’. Stanza Three offers a portrait of the inappropriate ‘immobility’ of those who turn their backs on life in the midst of life; hence the plangent, wonderfully tactful implication of sexual denial in the image of the long-legged waterbirds: it has nothing to say about corpses other than to imply that the literally dead were symbolically dead years before they faced the firing squad.

The reason the poem has nothing to say about corpses, of course, is because it is not an elegy, though it undoubtedly has a threnodic dimension. The change that comes over the protagonists could scarcely be further from the unwelcome transformation endured by the subjects of classic elegies such as Lycidas (‘But Oh! the heavy change now thou art gone’). It is a change twice hailed by Yeats, and then questioned - but never mourned. Indeed ‘Easter 1916’ is explicitly concerned not with death but with birth, as the closing words of its declamatory refrain - ‘A terrible beauty is born’ - make clear.

When I challenged Helen Vendler two years ago here in Sligo on her reading of the poem as elegy she replied - graciously but insistently - that it unmistakably belonged to that genre by virtue of the way its trimeters imitated the drum taps of a military funeral. This seems to me not only to impute a dubious militarism to the poet but to overlook the relationship of ‘Easter 1916’ to two of its genuine canonical forebears, Yeats’s own ‘Friends’ and ‘The Fisherman’. Yeats is unusual among modern poets in his liking for trimeters, a liking displayed in ‘The Stolen Child’, ‘The Happy Townland’ and in many of the ballads and shorter lyrics of the earlier part of his career. By the nineteen tens he had developed a distinctive meditative mode, at once reflective and rhetorical, by sustaining syntactically complex, alternately rhymed trimeters over verse paragraphs of varying length. Slight dissonances in the rhyming words check the onward momentum of two exercises in this mode, ‘Friends’ and ‘The Fisherman’, curbing any tendency to emotional excess. ‘Friends’ is concerned with the nature of femininity, and ‘The Fisherman’ with developments in the public life of Ireland, two central themes of ‘Easter 1916’. In syntax, tenor, rhythm and muted rhyme ‘Easter 1916’ exactly recalls the procedures of these poems. Neither is an elegy, having been composed in January 1911 and June 1914 respectively, long before violent death once more became a political reality in Ireland, and I don’t think even Professor Vendler would link their characteristic rhythms to the drum taps of a funeral march. Of the two, ‘The Fisherman’ seems the more crucially important to an understanding of the later poem, in which it is at least as intertextually active as ‘September 1913’, the poem frequently described as ‘Easter 1916’s’ companion piece. Both ‘The Fisherman’ and the poem on the Rising measure the distance between the ideal and the actual where the emerging Irish middle classes are concerned, and the later poem echoes the tonalities of the earlier one to highlight how emphatically, if disturbingly, the gap between them has been narrowed by the actions of the rebels. Against all the expectations, ‘beauty’ has been born out of the despised ‘reality’ elaborated in the opening verse paragraph of ‘The Fisherman’:

The living men that I hate,
The dead man that I loved,
The craven man in his seat,
The insolent unreproved,
And no knave brought to book
Who has won a drunken cheer,
The witty man and his joke
Aimed at the commonest ear,
The clever man who cries
The catch-cries of the clown,
The beating down of the wise
And great Art beaten down.

The refrain - ‘A terrible beauty is born - is the focus of the second remarkable eccentricity in Vendler’s account of ‘Easter 1916’, a matter of detail, small in itself, which keeps her interpretation firmly on the wrong track. Both ears cocked to the canonical echo-chamber, she picks up Blakean resonances in the phrase ‘terrible beauty’, which she boldly asserts was ‘borrowed’ from ‘fearful symmetry’ in ‘The Tyger’. This claim is doubly unconvincing, firstly because ‘terrible beauty’ is different in cadence from as well as more intensely oxymoronic than Blake’s phrase, and secondly because insistence on the eighteenth century origins of the refrain obscures the central conceit of the poem. The crucial textual determinant of ‘Easter 1916’ is not a literary one. Maud Gonne’s letter, expressing her ‘main thought’ about the Rising in terms of ‘tragedy’ and ‘tragic dignity’, has a more vigorous presence in the poem than any work of those Harold Bloom would describe as Yeats’s ‘strong precursors’, and can reasonably be said to provide its ur-text. ‘Easter 1916’ sustains an enquiry into the validity of Gonne’s claim over the full stretch of its four stanzas, identifying the change that the rebels have wrought in Ireland as a transformation of the politico-cultural ambience from comic to tragic status. It is a truism to observe that terminology appropriate to comic drama - ‘motley is worn’, ‘resigned his part/In the casual comedy’ and even ‘changed in his turn’ - defines the reiterated ‘changed utterly’ as a transition to the condition of tragedy. The point is driven home by the refrain, which adapts Aristotle’s famous identification of Pity and Terror as the emotions appropriate to tragedy. Yeats writes of terror and beauty rather than terror and pity, but I think it can be argued that, in his usage at least, the adjectival form - terrible - can embrace pity. The leaders of the 1916 Rising were criticized at the time, as they have been again in the last twenty five years, for being too little concerned for the non-combatant victims of the Rising, who in fact outnumbered the casualties on either side. Yeats, also, can appear in his poem somewhat blasé about the human cost of the rebellion, exercised by issues of morality only in the narrow psychological sphere, as if troubled by what the rebels’ single-mindedness has done to their sensibilities rather than by what their actions have unleashed on the broader population. Yet the reference in the letter to Lady Gregory to the fulfilment in the Rising of Gonne’s 1914 dream of carnage in the streets of Dublin suggests that the ferment of emotion out of which the poem grew included an element of appalled concern for the suffering of Easter Week. It does not seem overly fanciful, therefore, to see Yeats’s epithet ‘terrible’ as being capacious enough to embrace the emotion of pity along with terror. Tragedy is not easy, and the refrain incorporates an awareness of its price as well as its grandeur.

Of the noun which follows ‘terrible’ we might say that not only here but in many other instances throughout his work Yeats has won distinction as the only twentieth century poet to succeed in employing the term ‘beauty’ without risking absurdity. He has managed to do this mainly by a sort of dualism whereby he finds embodiments for his philosphical abstractions in the human sphere, and links his evocations of the erotic and the bodily to intellectual ideals. ‘Easter 1916’ had its genesis in a couple of comments by Maud Gonne, the subject of almost all Yeats’s love poems, who was now in a widowed and perhaps even marriageable state as a consequence of the execution of John MacBride. In 1894, in ‘Red Hanrahan’s Song about Ireland’, the poet had reactivated the old Jacobite feminizations of his country to compose a lyric that can be read as an act of dedication simultaneously to his intensely patriotic beloved and to the ideal nation she wished to serve. The eroticization of politics is in fact a characteristic Yeatsian procedure, seen at work again in ‘No Second Troy’ (1908), where Gonne’s enthusiasm for radical agitation is figured as no less inevitable a corollary of her extraordinary beauty than the destruction of Troy was of Helen’s. Yeats employs the Trojan myth again and again to ponder the interactions between the public sphere proper to politics and the private sphere proper to love. If I say that one of his most notable treatments of the theme, 1923’s ‘Leda and the Swan’, might accurately be subtitled, ‘A Terrible Beauty Is Conceived’, it is less for amusement’s sake than to highlight how deeply implicated with a major seam of Yeatsian rhetoric from the decades before and after 1916 the refrain of his Easter Rising poem is.

‘Easter 1916’, though explicitly and deeply concerned with the meaning of a public event, concentrates to a remarkable extent upon matters of sexuality and gender identity. Constance Marciewicz is accused of betraying her femininity, while Thomas MacDonagh is praised for tempering masculinity with the sensitivity of his nature and the sweetness of his thought. Hens call to moorcocks, and the male poet compares his commemoration of the dead to the murmuring of a mother over her sleeping child. All of this takes place under the shadow of a ‘beauty’ both terrible and feminine. It is no surprise, given the rise of feminist criticism, that the poem’s gender politics have been closely scrutinized in recent years. Elizabeth Butler Cullingford offers a searching critique in her book Gender and History in Yeats’s Love Poetry (1996), predictably though very reasonably objecting to the circumcscription of female possibility in Stanza Two’s suggestion that women’s responsibilities are mainly a matter of being beautiful and keeping their voices down. I should like to comment here on only one of the gender related details of the poem, the image of the mother in Stanza Four, as treated by Declan Kiberd in Inventing Ireland (1995).

Kiberd’s book, a staple text on Irish Studies courses everywhere, has the virtues of copiousness, good cheer and delight in ideas - indeed it might be described as a Yeatsian fountain which rains down life the more it spills. It rains down a lot of other things too, however, and is sometimes provocative where it should be suggestive, and reckless where it should be judicious. Thus while it is gratifying to have Kiberd acknowledge the very real presence of Maude Gonne in Yeats’s poem, it is rather less so to hear him declare that ‘Easter 1916’ is a love poem. I wish to examine a passage from one of his three separate and less than mutually consistent discussions of the poem, a passage which follows his highly tendentious claim that ‘Easter 1916’ comprises ‘a rewritten version’ of the themes of ‘The Stolen Child’. Kiberd quotes the lines:

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

and continues:

That reference takes us back to the child stolen by fairies from its rightful human mother, a child who departed ‘solemn-eyed’, like Pearse and MacDonagh. It can hardly be a coincidence that both lyrics chronicle the loss of young life and the distress of mourners left to carry on. In the intervening thirty years, Yeats’s view of dreaming has not changed. The man who dreamed of fairyland found no comfort in the grave: and here in ‘Easter 1916’ the poet stands appalled at what Ireland has lost, some of its most gifted thinkers. For him, the dead heroes were all stolen children.
  However, in dignifying them at the close with that beautiful image, the poet may have unwittingly trivialized their gesture and have done this in a time-honoured colonialist way. The rebels, being children, were not full moral agents, he seems to say, and so, even when they have done wrong, they can be forgiven. ‘Be nothing said’, he wrote elsewhere, ‘that would be hard for children who have strayed’. Like the black man in the slave-holding American south, they can be judged to be beyond the purview of the moral law. The colony can forgive the rebellion of the colonized; the mother can soothe her child with the incantations of a poet. ‘Easter 1916’ is, in truth, the foundational poem of the emerging Irish nation-state, but it is also, in a perhaps inevitable sub-text, an imperialist’s elegy for a headstrong but contained foe. In it, the Irishman is still a child.

It is difficult to know where to begin in seeking to contain these headstrong accusations. Firstly, we might observe that Kiberd’s language is extraordinarily loaded and partisan in relation to the Rising itself: the rebels are ‘heroes’ and include some of Ireland’s ‘most gifted thinkers’. (Elsewhere he repeatedly refers to them as ‘warriors’.) Secondly, the poem is directly misrepresented: there is no textual justification whatever for claiming that it is the loss of gifted thinkers which appals the speaker. Thirdly, Kiberd fails to notice that Yeats disallows himself his beautiful metaphor as soon as he has uttered it: the quoted lines are immediately followed in the poem by

What is it but nightfall?
No, no, not night but death

Fourthly, he misses the presence in the metaphor of what by 1916 had become a standard nationalist typification of Ireland as feminine. The mother naming her child is a version of Mother Ireland or Kathleen Ni Houlihan, and Yeats’s brief comparison of himself and other poets to her (‘Our part’ note, rather than ‘my part’) records both his temptation and his refusal to be take on the mantle of national bard. Fifthly, there is a very nasty subtext in Kiberd’s remarks, a genuinely sectarian implication to put beside the spuriously imperialistic he detects in the quoted lines. The identification of Yeats with the colony and the characteization of him as an unconscious imperialist is really only another way of saying that Yeats is a Protestant and can therefore never fully belong to the national formation which embraces such gifted thinkers as Pearse, MacDonagh and Declan Kiberd. It seems to me purely by virtue of Yeats’s denominational background that Kiberd imputes unconscious imperialism to him. This matter may perhaps be clarified by reference to an analogous moment in the work of Scotland’s greatest modern poet, Hugh MacDiarmid. MacDiarmid’s strange and uncharacteristic foray into the heroic-romantic, ‘Lament for the Great Music’ (1934), plays a variation on David’s famous outcry over the body of Absalom to bemoan the slumped state of twentieth century Scotland:

But I am companioned by an irrecoverable past,
By a mystical sense of such a destiny foregone . .
Time out of mind . . . Oh, Alba, my son, my son!

Typically of MacDiarmid, this achieves its effect through a species of verbal play, exploiting the aural similarities between ‘Absalom’ and ‘Alba’ (‘Alba’ is the Gaelic word for Scotland). The pose of tender if reproving concern for the children of the nation - or more accurately, the child-nation - may owe something to ‘Easter 1916’, though it should be noted that, if this is true, MacDiarmid regenders the parent. No-one, however, would think of accusing MacDiarmid, a postman’s son from Dumfriesshire and a life-long campaigner for Scottish separatism, of being of the anti-Scottish party without knowing it just because he has had recourse to a parent-child metaphor in the context of national politics.

The sixth and last point I wish to make is one which I think comprehensively destroys Kiberd’s argument. The comparison of nationalist activists to children was not invented by Yeats. It was a stock figure in nationalist rhetoric which had been very powerfully rearticulated a few weeks before Yeats began drafting the poem. On the morning of 24 April 1916 Patrick Pearse stepped out of the newly commandeered General Post Office to read the Proclamation of the Republic. The Proclamation abounds with references to children, announcing for example that the newly declared republic will ‘cherish all the children of the nation equally’. In describing the Rising itself, it says that Ireland, through the rebel leadership ‘summons her children to her flag and strikes for her freedom.’ The Mother and Child imagery of ‘Easter 1916’, therefore, is directly continuous with, if also subtly questioning of, the figurative strategies of the very rebels the poem commemorates.

Kiberd’s comments follow those of many other critics in overstating the importance of the class and religious divisions between Yeats and the participants of the Rising. They are misled partly by the first stanza of the text, where, in order to set up the rhetorical antinomies of his poem, the poet gives the impression that he had only casual acquaintance with the leaders. Yeats, Ireland and Fascism (1981), Elizabeth Cullingford’s first book on the poet, establishes that he knew both Pearse and MacDonagh quite well, and found much to admire in the educational and some of the cultural policies of the former, as well as in the poetry of the latter. He had produced one of MacDonagh’s plays at the Abbey in 1908, and subsequently made the theatre available at specially reduced rate for productions by pupils at Pearse’s school, St Enda’s. In 1914 he had even shared a public platform at a turbulent anti-recruitment meeting with Pearse, who would have been as surprised as anybody else at the accusation that his fellow-rider of the winged horse was an imperialist .

I should perhaps at this point say something of the fate of ‘Easter 1916’ in the light of the rise of critical theory. Alas, the poem - like many another - has in the past two decades become a post for passing poststructuralists to defile. I have chosen William Bonney to represent the semi-literate polysyllablists who mounted a putsch in the academy in the 1980s rather more successful than the one attempted by Pearse and his friends in Dublin in 1916, and who in the view of many traditional humanists are more deserving of the fate that overtook the Irish rebels. In his essay ‘He “Liked the Way his Finger Smelt”’, in Leonard Orr’s Yeats and Postmodernism (1991), Bonney objects to what he calls the ‘vaguery’ (V-A-G-U-E-R-Y, presumably cognate with the English ‘vagueness’) of the title, ‘Easter 1916’, and roundly abuses Yeats for his (Bonney’s) failure to discern the poem’s argument. He describes the poem in terms of its ‘tropological instabilities’, ‘cognitive murk’ and ‘schizophrenic stutter’, qualities rather more vividly manifested, I think it fair to observe, in Bonney’s prose than in Yeats’s verse. ‘Easter 1916’ has, of course, been the subject of serious theoretical readings also, and I should like to particularly recommend David Lloyd’s austere postcolonialist treatment of it in his book Anomalous States (199?).

In the period since my agreeing to lecture on the present topic there has appeared the most illuminating account of ‘Easter 1916’ I have come across, a reading which strikes a perfect balance between sensitivity to textual nuance on the one hand, and informed alertness to the personal, social and political force field out of which the poem emerged, on the other. You will have the privilege next week of being addressed on the subject of The Tower by Terence Brown, whose The Life of W. B. Yeats: A Critical Biography was published last winter. Much of the eleventh chapter of Brown’s book is taken up with a discussion of ‘Easter 1916’ which pays attention to an element of the poem - the magical - I have not addressed in this paper. Taking his cue from the discovery by some of Helen Vendler’s students that the day the Rising started - 24th April - and the year in which it occurred are inscribed in the linear numerology of the poem’s stanzas - sixteen lines, twenty four lines, sixteen lines, twenty four lines - Brown reads ‘Easter 1916’ in terms of an elaborate temporal schema:

  One of the most moving aspects of this powerful, troubled poem. . . is its consciousness of two orders of time. In one, day follows day, winter follows summer, minute by minute things change, ‘close of day’ brings ‘nightfall’, time is wasted in lingering in the street, in ‘nights in argument’, sacrifice can be sustained ‘too long’. In another order of time, the martyrs of 1916 are entered in eschatological reality, in a permanent present tense that suffuses futurity with national meaning. ...
  The numerological structure of the poem enforces a sense that quotidian time has been mastered by a deep structure in history which occasions recurrence. For the basic pattern of the poem, based on the date of the Rising, is rendered twice (16, 24. 16, 24). Yeats’s poem embodies recurrence in the sacral dimension of an eternal present. Yet the cost to individuals caught up by the process, which the poem makes palpable, is also sorrowfully, even agonizingly, acknowledged. For ‘death’ in ‘Easter 1916’ is not some counter in a saga of patriotic grandeur, as it seems to have been for Gonne. It is a cruel, ineluctable and consequently radical interruption of the minute by minute vitality of daily existence and and of the uncertainties of future political possibilties: ‘Was it needless death after all?/ For England may keep faith/ For all that is done and said’. Yet for all that, patriots and poets have dwelt together at an apocalyptic moment, in a transformed order of being. . . .

Of the date appended to the poem Brown writes:

The effect is uncanny, for the precision of the date (25 September 1916) highlights how time has run on in the days and months since that fateful 24 April, to which the poem is a kind of monument, composed for future reading. It collapses back into the daily order of time from a period of five months when time has been experienced on another dimension. The twenty-fifth of September seems the day after 24 April, which has been brooded upon in arrested, sacral time.

I spoke at the beginning of literary and critical responses to ‘Easter 1916’. Poems provide sustenance for writers as well as pickings for critics, and I should like before ending this talk to point very briefly to a few instances of the impact of Yeats’s great political lyric on subsequent literary production both in Ireland and abroad. More than one commentator has observed that Mrs Boyle’s anguished prayer at the climax of Sean O’Casey’s Juno and the Paycock adapts one of its central tropes: ‘Sacred Heart o’ Jesus, take away our hearts o’ stone, and give us hearts o’ flesh’. Some of Yeats’s most gifted successors in his own preferred art have written poems which pay the homage of partial imitation to ‘Easter 1916’, while subtly disassociationg themselves from its Olympian tonalities. Keats wrote of Wordsworth’s egotistical sublime. W.H. Auden implies the existence of a Yeatsian egotistical ridiculous by a sort of anti-echo in the opening line of the Easter Rising poem at the beginning of his own poem about a more globally significant political event, the outbreak of World War Two. ‘September 1 1939’ is written in trimeters but diverges in rhyme scheme from its prototype. Yeats’s ‘I have met them at close of day’ is democratized and deflated by Auden’s

I sit in one of the dives
On Fifty-Second Street
Uncertain and afraid. . .

Here speaker and fellow citizen are unambiguously in a state of fallenness from the beginning, and their status remains sunken and untransformed at the end of the poem. [Joke about ‘I have pased with a nod of the head’ here] ‘Casualty’, perhaps the most searching of Seamus Heaney’s individual poems on the Northern Irish violence of the 1970s, preserves not only the trimeters but also the rhyme scheme of Yeats’s poem, and even, to a degree, its preference for the muted effect of pararhyme. Bloody Sunday in Derry in 1972, when fourteen civilians were shot dead by British paratroopers, was probably the most traumatic single incident in Irish politics since the 1916 Rising, and it seems entirely appropriate that Heaney should look to the earlier poem for a model for his own meditation on the event and its aftermath. The ‘perpendicular pronoun’ of Yeats and Auden is dropped in favour of the third person in Heaney’s opening line: ‘He would drink by himself’, in a further questioning of the oracular confidence of the original. ‘Casualty’ is as much an interrogation of ‘The Fisherman’ as of ‘Easter 1916’ - Heaney writes about a real fisherman who is dead, rather than an imaginary one made poetically alive - but in saying this one is drawing attention to this poet’s sense of the close relationship between ‘The Fisherman’ and ‘Easter 1916’ which I argued for earlier.

To conclude I would like to refer to the incidental comments on ‘Easter 1916’ made by Edna Longley in her essay ‘1916. the Somme and Irish Memory’, which appears in her book The Living Stream: Literature and Revisionism in Ireland, a book which takes its title from the poem. Longley refers to the poem as the first revisionist text. It is not hard to see why. The first and second stanzas offer a depiction of the rebels before the Rising, and proclaim that events have forced the speaker to revise his his opinion of them. Stanzas Three proceeds to implicitly revise that revision, while Stanza Four seeks to find a balalnce between the two revised views of the rebels.

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