Birth of a Nation: On Yeats’ Easter 1916

For my students. In my arrogance, I will assert them to be the makers of the coming peace: nothing more, and certainly nothing less.

Easter, 1916

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.


Our observations start with the second and third stanzas, in the midst of things: we want to know why all has “changed, changed utterly,” and what the nature of the “terrible beauty…born” is. Our narrator elaborates formally on those problems beginning with the second stanza.

There, he discusses a woman of “ignorant good-will” who became “shrill” and “rode to harriers.” He then moves to a man who “kept a school” and “rode our winged horse,” the only winged horse perhaps, Pegasus. That man, in turn, had a friend who “might have won fame” – the friend had a “sensitive” nature, “daring and sweet” thought. Finally, there is a gentleman who is a “drunken, vainglorious lout.”

What happens to the four archetypes – the beautiful who is perhaps just, the wise, the magnanimous who is courageous, the sensual who is most certainly intemperate? They seem like they’ve dropped out of the poem entirely after they’re mentioned. In a sense, they have – consider the third stanza. There is a “horse that comes from the road.” It almost seems riderless, except our narrator does mention a “rider,” as well as birds that “range from cloud to tumbling cloud” (see here for the link between those birds, Pegasus, and learning). All seems silent; no “shrill” voice, no “teaching.” Then, a horse that falls and makes a light splash, and hens that call but do not seem to receive a reply.

The horse that comes from the road is riderless – she rode to harriers but never got there. Pegasus’ rider is also dead; he’s up there with Pegasus only in the sense of birds moving away, from cloud to cloud. The noiseless are fatefully linked. The one who dared slipped, and won his fame only in the sound of a light splash. And the lout is probably being referenced in the missing “moor-cock:” he doesn’t merit a horse, apparently. We wonder about noise – a light one that is both a mockery of sensitivity and fame to be had by anyone. We wonder about the nobility of a horse. In Xenophon and Machiavelli, horses are signs of the aristocracy. To be able to dismount a horse and fight alongside one’s men is of the greatest importance in a democracy (cf. Machiavelli’s “condescension,” Lincoln’s “Temperance Speech”).

These are the reminders of those lost because of the failed rebellion of 1916: they were not archetypes, but rather real people Yeats himself knew and whom the British executed. Yet the proper names are not invoked until the very end. And the third stanza is notable not merely for being cryptic, but for being the stanza which introduces natural imagery – the “living stream,” the “stone,” “the shadow of cloud,” and the puddle (or, the horse could be along the beach of a lake or ocean or even the bank of a stream. We don’t know where the horse falls). We are told “the stone’s in the midst of all,” in the midst of “change” and “life.”

What is the relation between the nature invoked in the third stanza and the cityscape of the first? “What is it but nightfall? No, no, not night but death:” the stone brings us back to the “close of day,” but not the “vivid faces” as much as the “grey eighteenth-century houses.” The stone is a tombstone: it links the current rebellion with rebellion past. Because of it, “polite meaningless words” are gone – we will “murmur name upon name,” as if our children have died. For our future was dead as long as we “sacrificed” and made a “stone of the heart.” And it is only the actual, literal death of the future that creates the stone at rest around which life can emerge and fall. The “stone” in the third stanza sits between the “living stream” – life currently – and perhaps two elements of primordial Chaos: darkness and water.

Life is motion; without rest, there is no motion. Once we moved from desks merely to sit around the fire. We were as stone then. Now the fire burns within, and the problem of excess of love emerges: the English and Irish even of this poem are linked far more than first appears. We note the temporal abandonment of piety – Heaven is only to there to tell us when sacrifice is acceptable, and universal peace for the speaker is no longer a goal. This is how it has to be if we are to wear green, the color of hope. A terrible beauty is born, whose consequences will get out of hand (cf. Beyond Good and Evil, Preface – note the “wandering about the earth” by “great things” in “monstrous guises”).

Has all changed, changed utterly? That is the question I leave you with. The speaker’s world has changed. The finality of death has created myth, and blood has renewed the land at the price of “never again.” Why is very clear, and the tasks originally set forth are complete. But Yeats is acutely aware of when an age ends, when communication between falcon and falconer stops because of the very motion the falcon was set on originally. I am not a revolutionary, and neither are any of you. Yet a Presidential candidate noted the other day that the price for signing the Declaration of Independence, should the war fail, was death. Lincoln has noted the price paid merely to make equality and charity serious issues in the American mind. We will begin with Yeats’ contemplation of the problem that divides the Irish and English while simultaneously uniting them – the demands of universal peace and the demands of the justice-loving heart. And we will wonder.


  1. I like the sing-song sound of this and the existence of a story. Hmm, maybe I like this poem. Somebody on Digg mentioned “folk music and ballads” and that’s what I took from it. And calling this political mythology then makes a whole lot of sense to me.

  2. I have never been a fan of poetry, honestly, but I gave this a shot. Sadly, it’s just to far above me, even your analyis, I’m afraid. However, I’m impressed with the depth of your thought and the fact that you get this :)

    BTW, you didn’t leave an email address, so I’m answering your question here: Readers without blogs can participate in giveaways. My Gratitude Giveaway was one such giveaway.

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