“September 1913” and “Easter, 1916”
“September 1913” and “Easter, 1916”
THE LITERARY WORK
Two poems set in Dublin, Ireland, in 1913 and 1916 respectively; “September 1913” first published as “Romance in Ireland” in 1913, later published in Responsibilities in 1914; ‘Easter, 1916” privately published for Yeats’s friends in 1916, publicly published in Michael Robartes and the Dancer in 1921.
In “September 1913,” the poet mocks the acquisitive mentality of the Catholic middle classes, portraying them as incapable of rising to revolutionary heroism, in contrast to the nationalist martyrs of the past. In “Easter, 1916s),” he retracts the 1913 satire.
Often considered the foremost poet of the twentieth century, William Butler Yeats was born in 1865 in Sandymount, Ireland, a district on the outskirts of Dublin. Yeats’s childhood was spent between London and Dublin—the cities in which his father sought to earn a living as an artist—and the Irish countryside of Sligo, where he spent vacations with his extended family, soaking in the folklore and legends that would permeate much of his early poetry. While enrolled in Dublin’s Metropolitan School of Art, Yeats met the budding mystic, George Russell, and the Irish nationalist, John O’Leary, who became his much-admired mentor. Through O’Leary’s introduction in 1889, Yeats met and fell in love with Maud Gonne, a fiery Irish nationalist and feminist, who became the muse that would inspire and haunt much of his poetry. He offered her countless proposals of marriage throughout his life, but she continually turned him down, claiming that they would always have a “spiritual marriage” rather than a bodily one. Embracing this emphasis on spiritual concerns, Yeats developed an interest in occult practices, became involved in Madame Blavatsky’s circle of psychics, and was initiated into London’s Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, a Rosicrucian, mystical cult. Torn between the contemplative life of mysticism and the active life of politics, he continually oscillated between extremes. With the help of his patron, Lady Augusta Gregory, Yeats played a prominent role in advocating the cultural nationalism of the Irish Literary Revival, which sought to elevate the distinct folklore, legends, and traditions of a golden Gaelic past. His play The Countess Cath-leen (1892) helped launch the Irish National Theatre in 1899—later called the Abbey Theatre—while his early poems, in collections such as The Rose (1893) and The Wind Among the Reeds (1899), sought to awaken an interest in Celtic legendary material. By 1913, Yeats had turned his poetic attention towards the arena of political action. Various disputes related to the revival, along with the 1913 labor strike, increased his sense of alienation and removed him from Irish politics for a time. Not until the Easter Rising of 1916 would Yeats fully re-enter Irish politics, acknowledging that the same generation he had thought incapable of heroic sacrifice had indeed risen to the revolutionary challenge.
Throughout his life, Yeats claimed to be a “nationalist of the school of John O’Leary,” whom he had met in 1885 after O’Leary returned from imprisonment and exile for his activities in the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB). Founded in 1858 by James Stephens, the IRB was an oath-bound secret society that sought to lay the groundwork for the overthrow of English rule in Ireland, and its participants in both America and Ireland came to be known as “Fenians.” While many nationalists advocated the use of violence to attain their revolutionary ends, O’Leary instead condemned terrorism, discouraged agrarian agitation, and withheld endorsement of parliamentary action at Westminster, England, where the British and Irish lawmakers met. As the leader of the Dublin Fenians in the 1880s, O’Leary sought to keep the organization intact and prevent terrorist acts until the time when a general rising became a viable possibility. Because he was a landlord dependent on rents, he remained suspicious of Charles Stewart Parnell’s vision of Home Rule, or self-government, for Ireland, especially following the Land War of 1879-82, which helped transfer power from the Protestant ascendancy to former tenant farmers.
Yet Parnell’s popularity soared in the 1870s and 1880s, as he proved to be a powerful and astute political leader, capable of combining pressure at Westminster with the threat of agrarian agitation in the Irish countryside. Disrupting parliamentary procedure with “obstruction” tactics by speaking for hours at a time, Parnell and other members of the Irish Parliamentary Party forced the English-dominated Parliament at Westminster to pay attention to Irish grievances and to take the idea of Home Rule seriously. During the agrarian crisis of 1877-79, when the potato crops were flooded, landlords continued to demand rent and to evict tenants. In an effort to halt these evictions and lower rents, Pamell and Michael Davitt founded the Land League in 1879, well aware of the benefits of linking Home Rule politics with agitation for land reform. In the same year, agrarian protest erupted, resulting in the Land War of 1879-82. The violence in the Irish countryside forced the British government to take coercive action and arrest members of the Land League, including Parnell. Upon Parnell’s release, William Gladstone, the leader of the British Liberal party, urged Parnell to use his influence to curb rural unrest and to give the 1881 Land Act a chance to operate, which would provide fair rent and fixed tenure for tenants. By 1882 the worst effects of the depression had passed, and Parnell turned his attention to advancing the cause of Home Rule.
In April 1886, Gladstone introduced the first Home Rule Bill, which would have devolved power to a new Irish legislature, but the bill was defeated by a vote of 343-313. Parnell would soon face his own personal defeat, after his love affair with Katherine O’Shea became known to the public and was denounced from the Catholic pulpits. After being voted out of the Irish Parliamentary Party, Pamell returned to Ireland, where he toured the countryside trying to rouse support for Home Rule, but his health began to fail, and he died in 1891, a few months after marrying Katherine. Held in Dublin, his funeral drew 200,000 mourners. The seemingly indefatigable Gladstone introduced a second Home Rule Bill in February 1893, which emphasized British control over a new Irish parliament, but the House of Lords defeated this bill by a vote of 419-41.
During the rest of the 1890s, Home Rule was off the political agenda at Westminster, and the Irish Parliamentary Party found itself engaged in bitter factional fighting. Ireland’s Chief Secretary Gerald Balfour spoke of “killing Home Rule with kindness,” and a 1903 Land Act encouraged landlords to sell their estates to their tenants, with the Treasury providing £12 million in direct cash payments to these landlords. The new policy sought to carry out farm ownership reforms and to finance the development of remote parts of Ireland in the interest of raising the standard of living and thereby dissipating the demand for Home Rule. The strategy resulted in a massive land transfer. Nearly 9 million acres passed from landlords to tenants in approximately 300,000 sales between the years of 1903 to 1920; by the time World War 1 began, nearly 70 percent of former Irish tenants owned their own holdings (Rees, p. 48).
After the fall of Parnell, many Irish citizens became disillusioned with political nationalism and turned instead to the new cultural nationalism espoused by the Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA), the Gaelic League, and the Irish Literary Revival. Founded in 1884, the GAA promoted Irish sports such as hurling, football, and handball, encouraging local patriotism and fueling nationalism in rural areas. While the GAA made headway in the countryside, the Gaelic League fostered interest among the middle-class urban intelligentsia and also enjoyed clerical support. Founded by Douglas Hyde in 1893, the Gaelic League advocated “de-Angli-cization” and the revival of the Irish language as the best protection against English influence, which Hyde saw as having eroded Irish cultural distinctiveness. Hyde led successful campaigns to establish St. Patrick’s Day as a national holiday and to force the post office to accept letters and parcels in the Irish Gaelic language. The League also established new Gaelic journals, published Irish literature and textbooks, sponsored literacy camps, and introduced the Irish language into the national school curriculum.
Along with Hyde, Yeats and Lady Gregory initiated the Irish Literary Revival when they established the Abbey Theatre to develop a national drama, and when they collected and published Irish folktales, reviving centuries-old heroic legends and lore in an effort to prove Ireland the cultural equal of any European nation. Writers of the Irish Literary Revival promoted a backward-looking idealization of a golden Gaelic past as a necessary fiction for the development of a literary and cultural renaissance, something James Joyce would later rebel against as he escaped to the continent and urged a turn towards a broader, cosmopolitan outlook (see Ulysses, also in WLAIT 4: British and Irish Literature and its Times). Irish revivalist writers, such as Yeats, J. M. Synge, and Standish O’Grady, sought to define themselves in opposition to English culture by creating a new literature based on the oral rather than on the written tradition, a literature that opposed the patriarchal, standardizing forces of English literature. Yet Yeats experienced difficulty in popularizing his ideas beyond his elite circle of friends, and he recognized the contradiction inherent in seeking to create a distinct Irish literature that continued to be written in English.
Although Hyde said he wanted to use the Irish “language as a neutral playing field upon which all Irishmen might meet,” regardless of religion, the number of Protestant members in the Gaelic League decreased after 1900, and the Gaelic revival soon drew attention to divisions between Protestants and Catholics (Rees, p. 77). The journalist D. P. Moran clearly articulated these divisions in his newspaper The Leader, where he called for an “Irish Ireland,” identifying true nationalism with Catholicism, taking issue with Yeats and his Anglo-Irish Protestant friends, denouncing Synge’s The Playboy of the Western World (1907; also in WLAIT 4: British and Irish Literature and Its Times) as an immoral and pagan play. As for Yeats, few questioned his nationalism after seeing his play Cathleen ni Houlihan (1902), in which an old woman who symbolizes Ireland calls men into battle against England, promising them eternal glory and the liberation of their country if they sacrifice their lives. Many years after the Easter Rising of 1916 and near the end of his life, Yeats wondered, “Did that play of mine send out/Certain men the English shot?” (Yeats, “The Man and the Echo,” Collected Poems, p. 345).
Labor unrest and gallery disputes
At the turn of the twentieth century, nearly one-third of all Dubliners lived in tenement dwellings—some unfit for habitation—and over two-thirds of these tenement dwellers lived in a single room (Kiberd, p. 219). The death rate, 44 in every thousand, exceeded that of any major European city, and was even worse than in the slums of Calcutta, India (Kiberd, p. 219). When called before the commission that inquired into the causes of Dublin’s 1913 strike and lockout, labor leader Jim Larkin pointed out that the horrible accommodations in Mountjoy Prison were far superior to a residence in the Dublin slums (Kiberd, p. 220).
Five years earlier, in 1908, the labor leaders James Connolly and Jim Larkin had organized the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union (ITGWU). The union steadily increased its membership until 1913, when William Martin Murphy, Dublin’s most prominent businessman, vowed to break the union’s power. Murphy was a former anti-Parnellite, the owner of the Irish Independent newspaper, and the chair of the Dublin United Tramway Company. Growing alarmed and combative when Larkin sought to enroll United Tramway workers in the ITGWU, Murphy fired those workers who opted to become union members. On August 26, 1913, 200 tram-drivers went on strike, but on September 3, Murphy retaliated by convincing the leading businessmen of the city to lock out of their offices all members of the ITGWU. Nearly 24,000 men were jobless by the third week of September, and over the next few months, starvation, rioting, and mass demonstrations ensued. When several social workers concocted a plan in October to ship the starving children of Dublin dockworkers to sympathetic families in England, the Catholic hierarchy—at Murphy’s behest—condemned and interfered with the plan, claiming that the children would be drawn away from the Catholic faith by being placed in Protestant homes. By January of 1914, the strikers had been defeated, but not before Connolly had formed the Irish Citizen Army for the protection of the workers, a militia that would prove instrumental during the Easter Rising of 1916. Connolly’s socialist demands soon took a back seat as a third Home Rule Bill made its way through Westminster and as the crisis of World War I loomed on the horizon.
In October 1913, Yeats witnessed crowds attempting to blockade the ports and railway stations to keep workers from sending their children to England. Appalled by the actions of the mob, he sent a letter to Connolly’s newspaper, The Irish Worker, objecting to the police’s failure to protect the rights of citizens and charging the newspapers “with appealing to mob law day after day, with publishing the names of working-men and their wives for purposes of intimidation” (Yeats, Uncollected Prose, p. 406). Yeats also denounced the use of clerical pressure to support Murphy’s economic blockade. Scholars have often puzzled over his reaction, viewing it as an anomaly in the poet’s generally right-wing politics, but Yeats consistently took issue with the acquisitive mentality of the Catholic middle classes and not with the lower, working classes, for whom he could occasionally express sympathy. He decried the rise of a new urbanite middle class that exalted the crassness of the marketplace while it denigrated the traditional aristocratic values of wasteful expenditure and sovereignty of the few. Conor Cruise O’Brien argues that Yeats saw Murphy as a particularly loathsome member of this new middle class, which had risen to power with the Land League and which often used clerical pressure to attain its ends (O’Brien, p. 27). Elizabeth Cullingford claims that Yeats took Larkin’s side in the strike of 1913 because he had been affected by “O’Leary’s praise of artisans, Morris’s championship of the workers, Maud Gonne’s devotion to the poor” (Cullingford in Brown, p. 201).
Yeats and Larkin also shared a common enemy in Murphy, who played a prominent role in opposing Sir Hugh Lane’s proposed art gallery, a project important to Yeats and Lady Gregory. Larkin supported Lane’s gallery—likely to annoy Murphy—and while Murphy’s newspapers declared that the proposal was too expensive and would take money away from the poor, Yeats and Larkin were quick to point out that Murphy had no altruistic tendencies, as evidenced by his war with the trade unionists. Hugh Lane, Lady Gregory’s nephew and a distinguished art collector, had offered a collection of French Impressionist paintings to Dublin, provided that the city would earmark funds for a gallery spanning the River Liffey, designed by the English architect, Sir Edwin Lutyens. Disliking the idea of employing an English architect, the city planners squabbled over his proposal, calling it a “monument at the city’s expense,” and ultimately envisioning it as a condescending act of the Protestant Ascendancy towards Dublin citizens (Brown, p. 201). Lane withdrew his proposal by the autumn of 1913, instead offering the collection of paintings to the National Gallery in London. In an unwitnessed codicil to his will, Lane returned the paintings to Dublin, but he drowned in the sinking of the Lusitânia in 1915, leaving Lady Gregory and Yeats with the task of fighting to return the collection to Dublin. An agreement was ultimately reached whereby Dublin and London would share the collection, which now spends half of each year at the National Gallery in London and half of each year at the Hugh Lane Municipal Gallery of Modern Art in Dublin.
Yeats wrote in his notes to Responsibilities that three public controversies had stirred his imagination during the thirty years in which he had been reading Irish newspapers: the Parnell controversy, the dispute over The Playboy of the Westarn World, and the Lane debacle (Jeffares, p. 105). These three conflicts typified everything Yeats had come to despise about materialistic Ireland and its middle-class pieties, and he rails against this alliance of religion and acquisitiveness in “September 1913,” originally entitled “Romance
In Vale, his 1914 account of the Irish Literary Revival, George Moore parodies Yeats’s actions and rhetoric during the Lane controversy, especially mocking his identification with the aris-tocracy:
We . . . could hardly believe our ears when . he began to thunder like Ben Tillett against the middle classes, stamping his feet, working himself into a great temper, and all because the middle classes did not dip their hands in their pockets and give Lane the money he wanted for his exhibition. When he spoke the words, the middle classes, one would have thought that he was speaking against a personal foe, and we looked round asking each other with our eyes where on earth our Willie Yeats had picked up the strange belief that none but titled and carriage-folk could appreciate pictures. And we asked ourselves why our Willie Yeats should feel himself called upon to denounce his own class; millers and shipowners on one side, and on the other a portrait-painter of distinction. . . . We have sacrificed our lives for Art; but you, what have you done? What sacrifices have you madeć He asked, and everybody began to search his memory for the sacrifices Yeats had made, asking himself in what prison Yeats had languished, what rags he had worn, what broken victuals he had eaten. As far as anybody could remember, he had always lived very comfortably, sitting down invariably to regular meals, and the old green cloak that was in keeping with his profession of romantic poet he had exchanged for the magnificent fur coat which distracted our attention from what he was saying, so opulently did it cover the back of the chair out of which he had risen. But, quite forgetful of the coat behind him, he continuel) to denounce the middle classes, throwing his arms into the air, shouting at us.
(Moore in Jeffares p. 100)
in Ireland/(On reading much of the correspondence against the Art Gallery).” While the poem was overtly written to deride the middle classes for refusing to give financial support to Hugh Lane’s proposed art gallery, Yeats may also be calling into question the behavior of the middle class towards the working class during the labor strike and lockout of 1913. Disillusioned by the Lane controversy, the labor strike, and the acquisitive mentality of the Catholic middle classes, Yeats turned away from Irish politics and moved to England for a few years, living and working in literary collaboration with the poet Ezra Pound in Sussex.
When the third Home Rule Bill came before Parliament in May 1912, the Ulster Unionists—Protestants who favored maintaining a legislative union with England—increased their opposition to the proposal, organizing local militias and importing guns from Germany without interference from the British. The Irish Volunteers, a militia in the south of Ireland, declared themselves as a countervailing force to the Ulster Unionists, but when they also attempted to smuggle weapons into Ireland at the end of 1913, British troops fired upon an unarmed Dublin crowd, killing three and injuring 38. The Home Rule Bill passed in May 1914, despite these disturbances, with a proviso that allowed counties to opt out of the plan if they so chose. The bill became law in September 1914, but its implementation was suspended for the duration of World War I.
During the first year of the war, many of the Irish who enlisted to fight were drawn from the working class of Dublin, where living conditions remained severely below the British standard. Rural Ireland, however, experienced economic gains because the war heightened the demand for Irish produce, and sons often stayed home to work the land rather than fight in the war. Taking advantage of the situation, the IRB and Sinn Féin—a political party founded by Arthur Griffith in 1905—began to recruit these sons to the nationalist cause and to plan covertly for an insurrection while England’s attention was distracted. Many of these sons had grown up under the influence of the Gaelic League and the Gaelic Revival, which had attracted a whole generation to cultural nationalism. Patrick Pearse, a leader of the Easter 1916 Rising, lauded this generation of cultural revivalists, urging them to win nationhood through bloodshed. He described the sacrifice “as a cleansing and sanctifying thing,” saying that “the nation which regards it as the final horror has lost its manhood. There are many things more horrible than bloodshed; and slavery is one of them” (Pearse in Rees, p. 196-97).
The threat of potential conscription to fight in World War I fueled anti-British sentiment. Meanwhile, the Irish Volunteers drilled with fake guns, scheduling “exercises” for Easter Sunday 1916 that were actually a cover for revolutionary activity, which the Military Council of the IRB had been planning for a year. The Military Council included Patrick Pearse, James Plunkett, Eamonn Ceannt, Thomas Clarke, Sean MacDermott, Thomas MacDonagh, and lastly, James Connolly, who had decided that the goals of socialism and nationalism could not be dissevered. The rebels expected a shipment of German arms, but when the Aud sailed into Tralee Bay with this cargo on April 19, 1916, the ship failed to establish contact with the shore. Intercepted by the British Navy, it was escorted to Queenstown Harbor, Ireland, where the skipper sank the ship with its cargo of 20,000 rifles. Roger Casement, who had visited Germany in an attempt to rouse support for the Irish insurrection, planned to return to Ireland to warn the Military Council against pursuing any revolutionary activities, but when he was smuggled into County Kerry by a German submarine on April 20, he was immediately arrested. Casement’s capture, along with the sinking of the Aud and a notice in the newspapers canceling the Easter Sunday maneuvers, convinced British authorities that they had no need to fear an insurrection, but the Military Council planned to rise on Monday instead. In the absence of any real hope for success, Pearse returned to his doctrine of blood sacrifice, claiming that Ireland could only be redeemed through bloodshed and the creation of martyrs who would give their lives for their land. In choosing Easter for the rising, Pearse intentionally invoked Christian symbolism of sacrificial death and rebirth.
Nearly 1,600 insurgents, including the Irish Volunteers, the Irish Citizen Army, and numerous women, participated in the Easter Rising, which began April 24, 1916, as the troops occupied Dublin’s key buildings, including the Post Office, Four Courts, St. Stephen’s Green, Jacob’s Biscuit Factory, and Boland Flour Mills, the last under the command of a young Eamon de Valera. As the President of the Provisional Government, Pearse stood on the front steps of the Post Office and read the “Proclamation from the Provisional Government” to a crowd of surprised onlookers, a document that urged Irishmen and Irishwomen to “sacrifice themselves for the common good” and that referred obliquely to the Germans, “our gallant allies in Europe,” ensuring that the British would view this rebellion as an act of serious treason (Rees, p. 207). The insurgents held their positions for a few days as the Dublin poor went on a looting spree and as the British began shelling the rebels’ positions with artillery barrages. Most of Sackville Street was destroyed, the Post Office caught fire, and Connolly was seriously wounded. Sixty-four rebels, more than 100 British troops, and over 200 civilians were killed, while another 2,614 were wounded (Rees, p. 207). To prevent further loss of life, Pearse and Connolly surrendered, and the rising, which lasted only one week, was over. The rebels were arrested, including 60 women who had served as cooks, nurses, and couriers, and who had held up food vans at gunpoint. Approximately 30 more women in the Irish Citizen Army had played a more active role, including Countess Constance Markievicz, an old friend of Yeats and Gonne, who was Michael Mallin’s second-in-command in St. Stephen’s Green. Indeed, according to Russell Rees, the “memory of the flamboyant 48-year-old countess in her military uniform with revolver in hand remains one of the most powerful images of the rising” (Rees, p. 208).
At first, most Dubliners thought the rebellion had been an act of folly and expressed outrage over the loss of lives and property, but their attitudes changed dramatically as the British authorities imposed martial law and ordered large-scale arrests of 3,500 people, two times the number who had participated in the rising. The British shipped most of these prisoners off to detention camps in North Wales, which, ironically, became the training ground for new nationalists and new members of the IRB. Commanding the British, Major-General Sir John Maxwell sought to make examples of the revolutionaries at a time of international crisis and war, but he drastically mishandled a delicate situation, infuriating Dubliners with the secret trials and executions of the 15 ringleaders. Ninety rebels were sentenced to death, including Maud Gonne ‘s husband, John MacBride, while 75 received sentences of penal servitude, including Countess Markievicz, on account of her sex, and Eamon de Valera, who claimed United States citizenship. Various tales of the martyrs’ heroism, humanity, and devotion to the Catholic faith aroused public sympathy. The seriously wounded Connolly had to be strapped to a chair before facing the firing squad. Plunkett was married to Grace Gifford on the night before his execution, but the couple was not allowed to spend any time alone together. Before marching out to join the Rising, Thomas MacDonagh taught his last class, on Jane Austen, the topic revealing that he did not reject English influence, but rather the British imperial system, which denied freedom to its subjects. Almost everyone executed received the last rites.
Another incident that inflamed public opinion was the murder of Francis Sheehy-Skeffington, a popular journalist and eccentric, renowned throughout Dublin for his pacifist, feminist, and socialist soapbox speeches. Along with two other journalists, Sheehy-Skeffington had witnessed Captain J.C. Bowen-Colthurst murder an unarmed Dublin youth during the rising. Bowen-Colthurst took the three journalists into custody,
PROCLAMATION OF THE IRISH REPUBLIC READ BY PATRICK PEARSE ON THE STEPS OF THE POST OFFICE AT THE BEGINNING OF THE EASTER RISING
Poblacht na h-Éireann The Provisional Government of the Irish Republic to the People of Ireland
Irishmen and Irishwomen: In the name of Cod and of the dead generations from which she receives her old tradition of nationhood, Ireland, through us, summons her children to her flag and) strikes for her freedom.
Having organized and trained her manhood through her secret revolutionary organization, the Irish Republican Brother-hood, and through her open military organizations, the Irish Volunteers, and the Irish Citizen Army ., . she now seizes that moment, and supported by her exiled children in America and by gallant allies in Europe, but relying in the first on her own strength, she strikes in full confidence of victory.
We declare the right of the people of Ireland to the ownership of Ireland, and to the unfettered control of Irish destinies, to be sovereign and indefeasible. The long usurpation of that right by a foreign people and government has not extinguished the right, nor can it ever be extinguished except by the destruction of the Irish people. . ., Standing on that fundamental right and again asserting it in arms in the face of the world, we hereby proclaim the Irish republic as a sovereign independent state, and we pledge our lives and the lives of our comrades-in-arms to the cause of its freedom, of its welfare, and of its exaltation among the nations. . . .
Signed on behalf of the provisional government,
THOMAS J. CLARKE, SEAN MACDIARMADA, THOMAS MACDONAGH, P. H. PEARSE, EAMONN CEANNT, JAMES CONNOLLY, JOSEPH PLUNKETT,
The Times, 1 May 1916
(Reiss and Hepburn, vol. 2, pp. 149-50)
murdered them without a trial, and buried their bodies in quicklime inside Portobello Barracks. Bowen-Colthurst was later found guilty, but insane, and his act of brutality profoundly increased anti-British sentiment. In the end, as Terence Brown notes, “it was the British response—swift, surgical, and uncomprehending of the ghosts they were reawakening—which helped to make of a botched rebellion the sacrificial act of national renewal some of the doomed participants had hoped it might be” (Brown, p. 226).
Yeats heard about the Rising from England, where he had moved in self-imposed exile after his alienating experiences with the middle classes in 1913. Shocked and saddened by the recent turn of events, Yeats wrote to Lady Gregory of the emotions inspired in him by the Dublin tragedy:
I am trying to write a poem on the men executed—’terrible beauty has been born again’. . I am very despondent about the future. At the moment I feel that all the work of years has been overturned, all the bringing together of the classes, all the freeing of Irish literature and criticism from politics.
(Yeats in Wade, p.612).
“September 1913.” Yeats opens the ballad with a stanza that mocks the avariciousness of the middle classes, who “fumble in a greasy till/And add the halfpence to the pence/And prayer to shivering prayer”; preoccupied with hoarding their money and saving their souls, they believe that “men were born to pray and save” (Yeats, Collected Poems, “September 1913,” lines 2-4). In the refrain that closes each stanza, Yeats contrasts this new materialism with the heady idealism of the past, declaring that “Romantic Ireland’s dead and gone,/It’s with O’Leary in the grave” (“September 1913,” lines 7-8). For Yeats, the 1908 death of nationalist John O’Leary was a watershed moment, when the noble and generous values of one generation gave way to the self-serving values of the next.
In the second stanza, Yeats contrasts the present greed of the middle classes with the self-sacrificial mentality of heroes of the past, whose names “stilled” his “childish play,” and who “have gone about the world like wind,” an image of energetic and wasteful expenditure that contrasts sharply with the pinched, sterile asceticism of the middle classes (“September 1913,” lines 10-11). Yeats notes that the nationalist heroes had little time to pray since the hangman’s rope was waiting to cut short their lives.
The third stanza asks if the sacrificial martyrs of the past died in vain, only to support an Ireland enslaved to greed, an Ireland unable to appreciate aesthetic beauty or offer aid to the poor: “Was it for this the wild geese spread/The grey wing upon every tide;/For this that all that blood was shed. . . ?” (“September 1913,” lines 17-19). The “wild geese” were Irishmen who served in the armies of France, Spain, and Austria, due to the Penal Laws, or anti-Catholic measures, passed after 1691. Nearly 120,000 “wild geese” left Ireland between 1690 and 1730. In France, England’s longtime rival, they formed the Irish Brigade, which fought on the side of the French until the 1789 Revolution (Jeffares, p. 110). Yeats next invokes the names that “stilled his childish play,” including Edward Fitzgerald (1763-98), a romantic nationalist who served in America and later joined the United Irishmen, the group that brought a French force to Ireland in 1798. Wolfe Tone (1763-98) founded the United Irishmen and petitioned the French for military support; Robert Emmet (1778-1803) led a thwarted revolt in 1803 and was hung for high treason.
In the final stanza, Yeats wonders what would happen if the years could be turned back and the exiles recalled, but he realizes that the middle classes would neither understand the nationalists’ love of their land nor the call of Cathleen ni Houlihan, who urges men to sacrifice their lives for their country: “You’d cry, ‘Some woman’s yellow hair/Has maddened every mother’s son’” (“September 1913,” line 29). He underscores the generosity of the martyrs, who “weighed so lightly what they gave,” whereas the middle classes weigh and save each “pence” and “prayer” (“September 1913,” lines 3-4). At the end, Yeats relinquishes his rhetorical questions and throws up his hands in despair, acknowledging that the heroic ghosts should not be reawakened: “let them be, they’re dead and gone,/They’re with O’Leary in the grave” (“September 1913,” lines 31-32).
“Easter, 1916.” After the Easter Rising, Yeats observed that his poem “September 1913” sounded old-fashioned and that no matter how one might question the wisdom of the Dublin Rising, it was undeniably heroic. The generation that Yeats thought incapable of self-sacrifice had indeed risen to the revolutionary challenge in the Easter Rebellion. His “Easter 1916” is a palinode, a poetic retraction, in which Yeats rescinds the criticism of “September 1913” and performs his bardic duty of memorializing and naming the fallen heroes.
In the first stanza, Yeats recalls encounters with casual acquaintances on the streets of Dublin, whom he would pass “with a nod of the head/Or polite meaningless words,” never suspecting that these ordinary people would later be transformed into the martyrs of the Easter Rising (Yeats, “Easter, 1916,” Collected Poems, lines 5-6). Even as he lingered briefly for meaningless conversations with these acquaintances, his attention would already be distracted by the thought of a joke or tale to tell other friends “around the fire at the club,” since he remained “certain that they and I/But lived where motley is worn” (“Easter, 1916,” lines 12-14). Referring to the jester’s multi-colored costume, Yeats reveals his earlier belief that Ireland would always play the fool at the courts of the British, but now he realizes how wrong he was. His refrain invokes the oxymoron of “terrible beauty”: “All changed, changed utterly: A terrible beauty is born” (“Easter, 1916,” lines 15-16).
In the second stanza, Yeats deliberately postpones naming the heroes and instead refers obliquely to them, first describing Constance Markievicz, his old friend from Sligo, whose “sweet” aristocratic voice had turned “shrill” from nights spent in heated political argument. Yeats then describes the poet and idealist Patrick Pearse, the man who “had kept a school/And rode our winged horse,” a reference to Pegasus, the horse of the Muses (“Easter, 1916,” lines 24-25). Pearse had opened the bilingual St. Enda’s school in 1908, promoting the study of Irish language, history, and legends, and attracting pupils from the most prominent families in the Gaelic revival. His “helper and friend” was Thomas Mac-Donagh, an assistant lecturer in English at University College, Dublin, who “might have won fame in the end” with his “sensitive nature” and his “daring” and “sweet” thought (“Easter, 1916,” lines 26, 28-30). In describing Maud Gonne’s ex-husband John MacBride, Yeats writes, “This other man I had dreamed/A drunken, vainglorious lout./He had done most bitter wrong/to some who are near my heart” (“Easter, 1916,” lines 31-34). Yet even this lout has been transformed into a martyr, and Yeats will not neglect to “number him in the song” (“Easter, 1916,” lines 35-37).
The third stanza marks a shift in tone and content, as Yeats reveals his uncertainty and ambivalence towards the martyr’s unflinching obsession with a cause, contrasting images from nature that exist in perpetual motion with the stony rigidity of the martyrs’ hearts. As he describes horses splashing in the stream and “birds that range/From cloud to tumbling cloud,” Yeats depicts nature as a restorative force because it changes “minute by minute” and does not offer the transcendent stasis that the sacrificed martyrs embody (“Easter, 1916,” lines 46-48). Indeed, the poem opposes the continual motion of nature to the rigid “hearts with one purpose alone” that have become “enchanted to a stone/To trouble the living stream” (“Easter, 1916,” lines 41, 43-44).
“Too long a sacrifice/Can make a stone of the heart,” Yeats claims in the final stanza, lamenting the fixation on a single cause that has hardened the hearts of the martyrs (“Easter, 1916,” lines 57-58). Yeats wonders when their sacrifices will suffice, but he leaves that question up to Heaven; instead, the poet’s part is “to murmur name upon name,/As a mother names her child/When sleep at last has come/On limbs that had run wild” (“Easter, 1916,” lines 60-64). Yet Yeats still postpones the moment of naming, remaining ambivalent towards the martyrs’ sacrifice, wondering if “England may keep faith/For all that is done and said (“Easter, 1916,” line 68-69). And “what if excess of love bewildered them till they died?” Yeats asks, drawing the phrase “excess of love” from Pearse’s writings and drawing upon the dual definitions of “bewilder,” one denoting confusion, the other denoting the loss of a path—appropriate for those who have wandered away from the natural flux of life (“Easter, 1916,” lines 72-73).
When Yeats finally performs his bardic duty and names the martyrs, he blatantly uses an active, present verb tense—a rare occurrence in this poem—and ensures that he receives the credit for memorializing the passive heroes, for transforming them into household names, baptized and reborn into the immortality of art: “I write it out in 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” (“Easter, 1916,” lines 74-80, italics added).
Aristocrats and feminists
In many of his poems, Yeats laments the loss of the Irish aristocracy, showing himself to be nostalgic for the “custom and ceremony” of a leisurely, gracious life, where one can avoid the crass utilitarianism of the marketplace and find time to delight in aesthetic pursuits. As he bemoans the disappearance of the aristocracy, Yeats also deplores the fate of Maud Gonne and Countess Markievicz, two beautiful women who turned away from their aristocratic heritage to join the ugly world of politics, a world where Yeats believed women did not belong.
In “Easter, 1916,” he contrasts the shrillness of Countess Markievicz’s political voice with the sweetness of her voice during her aristocratic youth, when she was engaged in leisurely, pastoral pursuits in County Sligo. When Constance Markievicz, née Gore-Booth (1868-1927) was presented at the court of Queen Victoria in 1887 and pronounced “the new Irish beauty,” her fate as an ornamental socialite appeared incontrovertible. Though she married the Polish Count Markievicz in 1900, she would refuse to remain a passive member of the nobility, instead becoming involved in feminist, socialist, and nationalist politics, joining Maud Gonne’s feminist group Inghinidhe na h-Éereann (The Daughters of Ireland), supporting the labor strike of 1913, and participating as Michael Mallin’s second-in-command during the Easter Rising. She told the court martial at her trial, “I did what was right and I stand by it” (Gar Media). When the British refused to execute her on account of her being a woman, Markievicz was dismayed and reportedly said, “I do wish your lot had the decency to shoot me” (Gar Media).
Sources and literary context
With their emphasis on mysticism and otherworldly lore, Yeats’s early poems stand in stark contrast to “September 1913” and “Easter, 1916.” The latter titles eschew the dreamy mists of legend for the arena of political action, as do other poems of Yeats’s middle age. In Responsibilities, the volume in which “September 1913” appeared, Yeats included a series of poems that launch a satirical assault on the philistinism of the middle classes, including “Paudeen,” “To a wealthy man who promised a second subscription to the Dublin Municipal Gallery,” and “To a friend whose work has come to nothing.” In “Paudeen,” for example, Yeats mocks the middle classes, contrasting their avariciousness with the sacrificial generosity of Parnell.
Michael Robartes and the Dancer, the volume in which “Easter, 1916” appeared, features other poems about the Easter Rising, including “The Rose Tree,” which explores the sacrificial imagery of the Rising, “On a Political Prisoner,” which describes Countess Markievicz in prison, and “Sixteen Dead Men.” When Yeats names and immortalizes the fallen martyrs in “Easter, 1916,” he draws upon a long tradition of Irish poetic tributes, including ballads such as John Kells Ingram’s “The Memory of the Dead,” Dion Bouci-cault’s “The Wearing of the Green,” Caroli Mal-one’s “The Croppy Boy,” and Eileen O’Connell’s “Lament for Art O’Leary.”
In drama, Sean O’Casey takes a jaundiced look at the Easter Rising in his play The Plough and the Stars (1926), which satirizes the “boyscoutish vanity” of the rebel leaders with their swords and kilts and Celtic jewelry (Kiberd, p. 225). Unlike Yeats, who raises the fallen heroes into the immortality of art, O’Casey questions the motives of the rebels and their rhetoric of blood sacrifice.
Yeats’s own drama had an influential effect on his poetry. When he wonders, “Did that play of mine send out/Certain men the English shot?” he refers to his play, Cathleen ni Houlihan (1902), which drew upon the image of the motherland as symbolized by the Poor Old Woman or “Shan van Vocht” (sean bhean bhocht) of ancient Celtic legend, who is transformed into a beautiful queen. As presented in Yeats’s play Cathleen ni Houlihan, the Poor Old Woman calls Irishmen to sacrifice their lives for their country and to regain the “four beautiful green fields” of Ireland (Cathleen ni Houlihan, p. 10-11). Yeats’s play, in which Maud Gonne starred in the leading role, did indeed arouse the fanatical devotion that caused Yeats to question his own culpability in the Easter Rising. For P. S. O’Hegarty, a republican rebel, the drama became a “sort of sacrament,” and to Countess Markievicz, it became a “kind of gospel” (Kiberd, p. 200).
Publication and reception
Perhaps wary of further inflaming public opinion, Yeats did not formally publish “Easter, 1916” until 1921 and instead privately circulated 25 copies among friends in 1916. According to Terence Brown, Yeats’s social successes in England made him think he could “influence affairs of state in private conversation,” and he withheld a very partisan poem in order to keep such channels open and to allow diplomatic negotiations about the Lane bequest to continue, a project he and Lady Gregory were pursuing in 1916-17 (Brown, p. 235).
When Yeats circulated copies of “Easter, 1916” among his friends, Maud Gonne told him in no uncertain terms that she disliked the poem and resented the idea that “England may keep faith.” In a letter to Yeats, she wrote, “No I don’t like your poem, it isn’t worthy of you & above all it isn’t worthy of the subject” (Gonne in Brown, p. 234). That “Easter, 1916” has since been more highly lauded than “September 1913” indicates that posterity disagreed.
“September 1913” received indirect praise as part of the volume Responsibilities (1914). The American poet Ezra Pound gave it a favorable review, stating that the collection as a whole represented a shift in Yeats’s style away from his early Celtic romantic “glamour” and towards a “greater hardness of outline” (Pound, p. 188). On the other hand, it maintained a successful effect of Yeats’s earlier verse:
Perhaps the highest function of art [is] that it should fill the mind with a noble profusion of sounds and images, that it should furnish the life of the mind with such accompaniment and surrounding. At any rate Mr. Yeats’s work has done this in the past and still continues to do so.
(Pound, p. 189)
Brown, Terence. The Life of W. B. Yeats. Dublin: Gill& Macmillan, 1999.
Caufield, Max. The Easter Rebellion. Dublin: Gill & Macmillan, 1995.
GAR Media. “Constance Markievicz: The Countess of Irish Freedom.” The Wild Geese Today-Erin’s Far Flung Exiles. 1997. http://www.Thewildgeese.com/pages/ireland.html (30 Dec. 2000).
Jeffares, A. Norman. A New Commentary on the Poems of W. B. Yeats. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1984.
Kiberd, Declan. Inventing Ireland. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1995.
O’Brien, Conor Cruise. “Passion and Cunning: An Essay on the Politics of W. B. Yeats.” In Passion and Cunning and Other Essays. London: George Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1988.
Pound, Ezra. “Ezra Pound on Yeats’s Change of Manner.” In W. B. Yeats: The Critical Heritage. Ed. A. Norman Jeffares. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1977.
Rees, R., and A.C Hepburn, eds. Ireland: 1905-1925: Text and Historiography. 2 vok. Newtonards: Colourpoint Books, 1998.
Yeats, W. B. Uncollected Prose. Ed. John P. Frayne and Colton Johnson. Vol. 2. London: Macmillan, 1975.
_____. The Collected Poems of W. B. Yeats. Ed. Richard J. Finneran. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1996.
_____. Cathleen ni Houlihan. London: A. H. Bullen, “September 1913” 1909.
Wade, Allan, ed. The Letters of W. B. Yeats. London: Rupert Hart-Davis, 1954.
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