Thursday, May 04, 2006

Not a poetic bone in my body....

Being a philosopher, I'm probably supposed to be generally cultured. Well I'm not, mea maxima culpa. Of classical music I have only a desultory knowledge; as for literature, well eclectic is the term that would cover it best. Poetry a fortiori is an almost completely closed book to me, hence I read Sheila's blog rather a lot. Poetry, lots of it, plenty of variety and some solid exegesis on each piece. That lead to me to ask her to exercise her exegetical powers on Yeats, specifically on Easter 1916. She rose to the challenge but then got a bit stumped. That was my fault I'm afraid, because I forgot that without some knowledge of the whole Home Rule - Easter Rising - War of Independence period, this poem is almost meaningless. So here goes: an attempt to make clear what this poem is all about. It may turn out to be complete nonsense, but when a lady asks, what else is one to do?

Easter 1916

by William Butler Yeats

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.

In the first stanza Yeats is talking about the small cultural Nationalist circle in which he moved during the first decade and a half of the 20th Century. Most of the men who actually started the 1916 Rising were clerks or shopkeepers or schoolmasters. Yeats lived in Dublin as they did, and much of the centre of the city is made up of Georgian houses or 18th century Neoclassical state buildings. The centre of Dublin then (and even now) is very small, and the chances of his bumping into a few of the men later executed on an average evening were pretty good. Of course he thought (a bit like Gabriel Syme in The Man who was Thursday) that they didn't really mean it when they promised to raise revolution. They might have claimed to wear patriotic green, but really it was only motley. He was contemptuous of their grandiose talk and lack of action; thus he'd have "a mocking tale or a gibe / To please a companion / Around the fire at the club". The Club is the United Arts Club on Fitzwilliam Square, one of those self-same "eighteenth century houses".

The second stanza starts off about Yeats's old obsession, Maud Gonne. He was in love with her for most of his life but she had chosen politics over passion; she had married though, a man called John McBride. He had fought against the British in the Boer War, and had been a soldier of one kind or another for many years. He was, it seems, rather too fond of drink, and when in his cups could be a less than gentle or kindly husband. The middle section is devoted to Padraig Pearse - the man who had kept a school - and another - I'm not sure but I think he might mean Joseph Mary Plunkett. All these men shared the same fate of course, in front of a firing squad in Kilmainham Jail.

The next stanza baffles me. I'm suddenly reminded of what my aesthetics lecturer told me some years ago about the poetic register of language being one where meaning is layered upon meaning almost to excess. What I can get out of it is that while life moves on and changes from second to second, the hearts enchanted with this dream of freedom are turned, as it were, to stone. They stand still and are unmoved by change all around, and keep faith with their dream.

Yeats refuses to pass judgment on them, even though he says "Too long a sacrifice / Can make a stone of the heart. / O when may it suffice?". Instead he simply tells us to remember them and to mourn them, a little like a mother watching over her sleeping children. Then he remembers that they are not sleeping but dead. He asks whether their death was in vain, whether their aims might not have been achieved without bloodshed? He again refuses to judge but simply honours their sacrifice "We know their dream; enough / To know they dreamed and are dead."

The oft-repeated "lovely line" that Sheila drew attention to "All is changed, changed utterly: / A terrible beauty is born" is a deliberate reference to Yeats's own earlier poem September 1913. The very Dublin middle classes he excoriates in it raised a rebellion only three years later, and some of them went without a backward glance to their own certain deaths. What was "changed, changed utterly" was, above all, Yeats's own cynical and weary refrain that "Romantic Ireland’s dead and gone / It’s with O’Leary in the grave".

Sin a bhfuil! So Sheila, will that do?


Sheila said...

Quite satisfactory! It makes a lot more sense now. I think you explained it more thoroughly than I explain most things. Perhaps you should do it more often. ;)

Patrick said...
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