Thursday, April 25, 2013

National Poetry Month— William Butler Yeats "Easter, 1916"

After spending with the alpha and omega of English poetry—Chaucer and the equally bawdy and saucy Geraldine Murfin-Shaw—it’s only fair that we let the Irish have their say.  Especially since today is the anniversary of the Declaration of Martial Law in Dublin after the Irish Volunteers, Irish Citizen’s Army, the 200 women members of Cumann na mBan, and a small force of Hibernian Rifles seized key buildings in Dublin, including the General Post Office and read the Proclamation of the Irish Republic.

In the five bloody days that followed the Royal Navy shelled the city and thousands of troops poured in eventually crushing the rebellion with heavy casualties.  All seven signatories of the Proclamation including Padraig Pearce  and the wounded socialist and radical labor unionist James Connolly and seven others, including men who were not even directly involved, were executed by firing squads.

Over 1,500 rebels were placed in virtual concentration camps where they met in secret and plotted  revolution.  

In 1918 led by American born Eamon DeVallera and Michael Collins Republican veterans formed the Sinn Fein political party which swept elections for the Irish members of the British Parliament. Instead the erstwhile MPs met in Dublin, established the revolutionary parliament, Dáil Éireann and a made a new Declaration of Independence in January 1919.  That set off a bloody revolutionary war.
There is far more to the tragic story than there is space here to tell it.  The sacrifices of the men of the 1916 Rising continue to reverberate to this day on the still divided island of Ireland.
William Butler Yeats, generally listed along with Anglo-American T.S. Eliot  as one of the greatest English Language poets of the 20th Century, witnessed the Rising but did not participate.  In fact at first he was ambivalent at first as were many surprised Dubliners.  But he was moved by the executions of the leaders.  Easter, 1916 is one of his most powerful poems and became a Republican rallying cry.  It is almost always read at annual commemorations of the Rising in Dublin.
Easter, 1916
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 winged 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.
—William Butler Yeats

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