The Spirit of A Nation: A Brief Comment on Yeats’ "Easter 1916"

for Rachael, with thanks.

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?

from “Easter 1916,” by William Butler Yeats

We have discussed this issue before – whether an entire nation can lose its spirit and go through life as if life were mere motion. And the issue unnerves us: it evokes notions of Sparta and fascism as the “spirited” alternative to Constitutionalism.

But perhaps we only see such an “alternative” because our hearts are stone, and we can only conceive of strength as being stone.

The cycle is the problem. When our spirit is manifest in making, hoping that Providence will carry our works beyond us, we produce necessarily an “excess of love.” That same “excess of love” can be stared at incomprehensibly by those who only dream. They are not aware of what is in front of them, the very real promise and problems of love.

How is this a cycle? We who are loving chant and remember and pray – they, on the other hand, sleep and dream and are thus disconnected from this world. In order for them to “keep faith,” they would have to invest faith in the fact others do or say things.

You can see the Dionysian/Apollonian distinction at work here, if you wish to use some fancy terms, but the point is simple: these are two sides of a whole being discussed here, but a whole that is falling apart. To pray is to dream, to dream is to pray. People are not so distinctly different they cannot become the other.

One could say that love underlies both, and that love is omnipresent. But that wouldn’t be quite correct. Love underlies everything, and exhausts itself in dreaming and praying. Thus it is possible for one activity to bleed the other dry.

And that is what could happen if the names are not repeated and remembered, if the tombstone is not seen as the only stone there should be. The murmuring of name ties the motion of life (“limbs that had run wild”) to a particular sort of dream – the external utterance stems from whatever formed internally. Some dreams empty life of all content. But if we can dream better, we can love better, and make life for all something more beautiful. Tragedy is the realization of what is at stake, of the fact that life is worth living, and things are worth fighting for.

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