Easter 1916 is often referred to as the twentieth centurys most famous political poem in English. It is sometimes compared to Marvells Horatian Ode upon Cromwells 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 Lowells 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. Audens September 1, 1939 and Seamus Heaneys Casualty - of both of which I shall have more to say later - draw deeply on the procedures of Easter 1916. Yeatss 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 poems reception which has few parallels in modern literature. In The Armies of the Night Norman Mailer has memorably described Lowells 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 Lowells poem three decades later is a measure of the status of Yeatss 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 OBrien has argued - for worse, Yeatss 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 poems reception is too large a topic for forty five minutes traffic on the stage of the Hawks 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 poems 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:
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 Yeatss 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 poems 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 dont like your poem, it isnt worthy of you & above all it isnt 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, Gonnes 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 OBrien 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 MacSwineys 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 Yeatss 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 printers 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. Yeatss 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 Yeatss 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 poets 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 Donoghues 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 Yeatss 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 Yeatss 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 Yeatss temporal minutes - Minute by minute they live - from Blakes spatial minute particulars.
The first critical response I wish to discuss at some length, however, cannot be said to misrepresent the poems context. Tom Paulins Yeatss Hunger Strike Poem offers a brilliant but characteristically overextended argument on the poems meaning in the light of its New Statesman publication. This essay, which appears in Paulins 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 Benjamins The Author as Producer to contend that we can understand Yeatss 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 Paulins 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 poets 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:
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 dont 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 Lennons famous riposte to a reporter who asked him in 1977 how he felt about Presleys 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, Yeatss 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 dont 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 1916s 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 refrain - A terrible beauty is born - is the focus of the second remarkable eccentricity in Vendlers 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 Blakes 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 Gonnes 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 Yeatss strong precursors, and can reasonably be said to provide its ur-text. Easter 1916 sustains an enquiry into the validity of Gonnes 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 Aristotles 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 Gonnes 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 Yeatss 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 Yeatss 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 Hanrahans 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 Gonnes enthusiasm for radical agitation is figured as no less inevitable a corollary of her extraordinary beauty than the destruction of Troy was of Helens. 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, 1923s Leda and the Swan, might accurately be subtitled, A Terrible Beauty Is Conceived, it is less for amusements 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 poems gender politics have been closely scrutinized in recent years. Elizabeth Butler Cullingford offers a searching critique in her book Gender and History in Yeatss Love Poetry (1996), predictably though very reasonably objecting to the circumcscription of female possibility in Stanza Twos suggestion that womens 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).
Kiberds 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 Yeatss 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:
It is difficult to know where to begin in seeking to contain these headstrong accusations. Firstly, we might observe that Kiberds language is extraordinarily loaded and partisan in relation to the Rising itself: the rebels are heroes and include some of Irelands 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
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 Yeatss 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 Kiberds 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 Yeatss 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 Scotlands greatest modern poet, Hugh MacDiarmid. MacDiarmids strange and uncharacteristic foray into the heroic-romantic, Lament for the Great Music (1934), plays a variation on Davids famous outcry over the body of Absalom to bemoan the slumped state of twentieth century Scotland:
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 postmans 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 Kiberds 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.
Kiberds 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 Cullingfords 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 MacDonaghs plays at the Abbey in 1908, and subsequently made the theatre available at specially reduced rate for productions by pupils at Pearses school, St Endas. 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 Orrs 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 (Bonneys) failure to discern the poems 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 Bonneys prose than in Yeatss verse. Easter 1916 has, of course, been the subject of serious theoretical readings also, and I should like to particularly recommend David Lloyds 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 Browns 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 Vendlers students that the day the Rising started - 24th April - and the year in which it occurred are inscribed in the linear numerology of the poems stanzas - sixteen lines, twenty four lines, sixteen lines, twenty four lines - Brown reads Easter 1916 in terms of an elaborate temporal schema:
Of the date appended to the poem Brown writes:
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 Yeatss great political lyric on subsequent literary production both in Ireland and abroad. More than one commentator has observed that Mrs Boyles anguished prayer at the climax of Sean OCaseys 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 Yeatss 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 Wordsworths 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. Yeatss I have met them at close of day is democratized and deflated by Audens
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 Heaneys individual poems on the Northern Irish violence of the 1970s, preserves not only the trimeters but also the rhyme scheme of Yeatss 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 Heaneys 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 poets 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.