Yeats and the occasional poem: "Easter 1916".
Stanford University, Emerita
"What have contemporary poets, as distinct from literary critics and historians, learned from Yeats's poetry? In the view of W. H. Auden, "His main legacies to us are two. First he transformed a certain kind of poem, the occasional poem, from being either an official performance of impersonal virtuosity or a trivial vers de societe into a serious reflective poem of at once personal and public interest.... Secondly, Yeats released regular stanzaic poetry, whether reflective or lyrical, from iambic monotony; the Elizabethans did this originally for dramatic verse, but not for lyric or elegiac." (1)
Of these two legacies, it is the first which is my subject, although the second is not entirely irrelevant. Auden's praise for Yeats's occasional poems has been echoed by other poets; recently Charles Tomlinson has observed that "Yeats revivifies for us the language of courtesy that we know from the seventeenth century." He "has found a poetic style for domesticity, one that never descends to the banal and one that bestows on its human subject the kind of more-than-individual importance which Jonson gives to his figure of the lady in 'To Penshurst'." (2)
A number of critics have speculated that it is the "poems of civilization" as Yeats himself called them, the occasional poems such as "Easter 1916," "A Prayer for my Daughter," "Coole Park, 1929," and "Parnell's Funeral," that, rather than the more overly philosophical poems, constitute Yeats's central achievement and are the cause of his continuing popularity. (3) But it remains to define Yeats's real contribution to the form: how does he transform the occasional poem into "something new and important in the history of English poetry" (Auden 313)?
According to the definition of Samuel Holt Monk, an occasional poem is one which celebrates "particular events of a public character--a coronation, a military victory, a death, a political crisis. Such poems are social and ceremonial, and they demand of the writer tact as well as talent. They are public and formal, blending poetry with rhetoric and oratory, and their tone is that of the forum, not of the intimate conversation or private meditation." (4) Beginning with this definition, which Monk applies to such poems as Dryden's "Annus Mirabilis," one can see immediately that a poem like Yeats's "Easter 1916" is "occasional" with a difference. It does celebrate a particular event of a public character--in this case, a political crisis--but its tone is not that of the forum but, on the contrary, that of private meditation. Again, "A Prayer for my Daughter," which Donald Davie calls "classic" and "Jonsonian" in its stress on tradition and ceremony, its domestication of classical mythology, and its use of such "hackneyed" literary properties as the cornucopia and laurel tree, has been described by other readers as "Romantic" and "subjective"; I clearly recalls Coleridge's "Frost at Midnight," in that the speaker's personal meditation is occasioned by the presence of his sleeping infant and turns upon the question of that child's future in the light of his father's past. (5) The Yeatsian occasional poem is, in fact, a fusion of these two modes: the Jonsonian verse epistle and the Coleridgean conversation poem. It is the interaction of public event and private experience, rather than its symbolic dimension or its political philosophy, that distinguishes a poem like "Easter 1916." The fusion is, moreover, one that Yeats very nearly invented.
In The Poetry of Experience, Rover Langbaum defines the new poetic mode that came into being in the Romantic period because of the "inherited split between object and value" that characterized the post-Enlightenment age. "Objectivity," Langbaum argues, "presented no problem to an age of faith like the Middle Ages, which considered the object and its value as equally given. Nor did it present a problem to a critical and rationalist age like the Enlightenment, the whole point of which was to undermine the established order of values by driving a wedge between the object and its value." (6) The Romantics, in their desire to give their subjective experience objective validity, created a new kind of poetry, the poetry of experience, whose essential idea is that "the imaginative apprehension gained through immediate experience is primary and certain, whereas the analytic reflection that follows is secondary and problematical" (35). Its roots are found in the topographical poetry of the Neoclassic age, in which a landscape furnishes the occasion of lengthy meditation, but there is a wide disparity between the Romantic lyric and a "local poem" such as Denham's "Coopers Hill." In the latter, the poet observes the course of the Thames and intermittently introduces memories and ideas that have little real connection with the river observed. In a poem like "Tintern Abbey," on the other hand, the observer is located firmly in a particular landscape at a particular time and his feelings are intimately related to the outer scene. His "extraordinary perspective is a sign that the experience is really taking place, that the object is seen" (43).
In the poem of experience, the meaning "is in all that has accrued since the original vision, in the gain in perception. But the gain is rather in the intensity of understanding than in what is understood" (46). In "Frost at Midnight," for example, the poet is moved by the unnatural silence of his cottage to become aware of the silent workings of the frost outside, and, in trying to understand its "secret ministry," he remembers his lonely boyhood in the city. The memory in turn leads to the realization that the child sleeping by his side will grow up in far different surroundings and will be educated through a harmonious union with nature. Thus, when the poet once again becomes aware of the frost, its "secret ministry" has taken on a new meaning: it refers to the "beneficent and numinous quality of the natural process." Finally, the mystery of process reveals to the poet the "still profounder mystery of permanence"; he experiences a sudden and momentary perception, an epiphany. In this "shock of recognition," he merges imaginatively with the external world (46). The romantic lyric is therefore "both subjective and objective. The poet talks about himself by talking about an object; and he talks about an object by talking about himself' (53). (7)
In this new lyric genre, the autobiographical connection between speaker and poet becomes the plot--a "plot about the self-development of an individual" (52). The autobiographical convention does not mean, of course, that the poem records what happened to the poet in real life; it simply means that the dramatic quality of the poem depends upon its authenticity: the reader must believe that the experience is really taking place. It is the dramatic nature of the romantic lyric which distinguishes it from the "traditional lyric in which the poet sets forth his already formulated idea either epigrammatically or logically." In the new dramatic lyric, "the poet discovers his idea through a dialectical interchange with the external world" (53).
The Romantic dramatic lyric, as Langbaum defines it, is the basic form of most of Yeats's poems. What Yeats does, however, is to enhance the authenticity both of the "I" and of the external world to which the "I" reacts; the autobiographical illusion is heightened and the roll-call of persons, places, and events becomes a major thematic strain. The Romantics themselves were not noteworthy as occasional poets, even though Goethe insisted that all poems must be "occasional" (Gelegenheitsgedichte): "reality must give both impulse and material for their production. A particular case becomes universal and poetic by the very circumstance that it is treated by a poet." (8) By "occasional," Goethe means that the poet must have a "lively feeling of situation," a sense of the immediate, the concrete, the particular. In the successful Romantic lyric, in other words, the speaker's experience is occasioned by something seen (e.g., Wordsworth's "I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud," Goethe's "Ilmenau Am 3 September 1783," Keats's "Ode to Autumn"); by something heard (Wordsworth's "Solitary Reaper," Keats's "Ode to a Nightingale," Goethe's "Wandrers Nachtlied"); by something seen and heard (Coleridge's "Frost at Midnight"); or by some other sensory perception (Shelley's "Ode to the West Wind" and Coleridge's "The Eolian Harp," in both of which the meditation is prompted by the speaker's reaction to the motion of the wind). When the immediate stimulus is a person, the relationship is almost always a private one: the poet is lover (Goethe's "Warum Gabst Du Uns Die Tiefen Blicke"), friend (Wordsworth's "Two April Mornings"), or a sympathetic chance acquaintance ("Resolution and Independence"); it is not a relationship of symbolic public significance.
When the Romantic poet does write about his reaction to public events as in Coleridge's "France: An Ode," Shelley's "Mask ofAnarchy," or Wordsworth's political sonnets, a curious phenomenon occurs. Coleridge's "France" was certainly "occasioned" by a particular historical event--the French invasion of Switzerland in the spring of 1798--but the ode is not in any sense a "poem of experience." Using what Max Schulz calls his "prophetic voice," Coleridge writes an impassioned poem expressing the doctrine that liberty is to be sought in the contemplation of nature rather than in the affairs of men. (9) "France: An Ode" is a poem of analytic reflection rather than of imaginative apprehension gained through immediate experience; the argument moves forward logically: (1) the speaker announces his love of liberty as exemplified by the forces of nature--clouds, woods, and waves; (2) the French Revolution originally signified that very liberty and hence he favoured it; (3) but the revolutionaries used the call to freedom to mask their real lust for power and tyrannic control, and (4) therefore the poet can no longer espouse the French cause. Again, "The Mask of Anarchy," which was occasioned by the Manchester Massacre of 1819, uses allegorical structure as a vehicle for direct moral exhortation to the "men of England," urging them to resist tyranny. Shelley begins with an idea that is already formulated; he does not discover his idea in the course of the poem. It is particularly interesting to compare one of Wordsworth's political sonnets, for example "London, 1802," to one of his "personal" sonnets like "Surprised by Joy." The latter is a perfect example of a poem of experience--the speaker has known all along that his beloved is dead but he does not really understand that she is dead until he has lived through the experience that the sonnet records: "Surprised by joy," he involuntarily turns to his sweetheart so that she may share his "transport," and only then does he realize that they can never share anything again. By contrast, "London, 1802" is didactic, impassioned, and rhetorical rather than dramatic; the theme "England hath need of thee" is stated immediately and the rest of the sonnet is amplification rather than drama.
One gathers from this cursory survey that the Romantics did not quite know how to absorb their political and public interests into their poems of experience. For dramatic lyrics that are also "occasional" one must look to later poets. But here Langbaum's account is not helpful, for his interest is not in the evolution of the dramatic lyric from the Romantic period to the present, but in the transformation of the dramatic lyric into the dramatic monologue of Browning and his followers. The dramatic monologue is, in Langbaum's view, the logical outgrowth of the dramatic lyric; Hopkins, for example, may be said to write a dramatic lyric when "he reads himself into the windhover," but when he "reads himself into a character like Harry Ploughman, the poem is what we might call a mute dramatic monologue.... As an informed object, Harry gives back the meaning pictorially. If he gave it back through an utterance ... the poem would be a dramatic monologue" (71). The dramatic monologue is, in other words, simply a poem of experience in which the speaker is designated as being not the poet himself.
While it is true that Yeats wrote a number of dramatic monologues, most notably the CrazyJane series and the Supernatural Songs, in which the speaker is the Irish Christian Ribh, in his most characteristic poems the voice is that of the poet himself. It does not seem to be particularly helpful to classify the speakers of Yeats's lyrics as does Thomas Parkinson, who distinguishes between Yeats the private individual ("The Municipal Gallery Revisited"), Yeats the spokesman for his civilization ("Coole Park, 1929"), and Yeats the prophet ("The Second Coming"). (10) For one thing, Yeats is likely to switch his tone at any moment within a given poem in simulation of the actual speaking voice. Moreover, to say that the speaker of "The Second Coming" is Yeats the prophet does not go very far in helping us to understand the "dramatic" nature of the poem. Peter Ure is much closer to the mark when he writes of the mature poetry:
The centre of gravity is the "I" created and dramatised by the poet. He now has properties, surrounds himself with emblems and locates himself in a personal landscape having a certain imaginative order.... It is a landscape which is granted its own solid identity--it is not ridiculous to go on pilgrimages there, if only to see how closely Yeats's descriptions correspond to the facts--but at the same time we see the poet's mind constantly at work upon it transforming it into emblem.... In many of his poems, Yeats was now able to transform his contemporaries and friends into constituent parts of his own drama. (Yeats, 61, 63)
The Yeatsian occasional poem is, then, not a dramatic monologue spoken by lover, Irish statesman, devoted father, propagandist, or aging seer; it is a poem of experience, a dramatic lyric in which actual persons and places from the poet's own life and from the public life of the Ireland that he knew become constituent parts of his drama. The link between the Romantic lyric and the Yeatsian occasional poem is to be found, neither in the monologues of Browning and Tennyson on the one hand nor, on the other, in the pictorial lyrics of the pre-Raphaelites and the Yellow Book poets, who strenuously rejected all reference to political and public affairs. Rather, the Victorian poet who serves as Yeats's model is Matthew Arnold. In poems such as "Rugby Chapel, November 1857," "Heine's Grave," and "Haworth Churchyard," Arnold celebrates particular events of a public character, but his tone is not the public and formal one of Coleridge's "France: An Ode" or of Wordsworth's "London, 1802"; it is that of private meditation. "Haworth Churchyard" may, in fact, be said to contain the seeds of one of Yeats's finest occasional poems--"Easter 1916." A comparison of the two poems will therefore be rewarding.
"Haworth Churchyard" was written in April 1855 as an elegy for Charlotte Bronte, who had died in March of that year at the age of forty, and for Harriet Martineau, the celebrated political reformer, free-thinker, and novelist, who was, by all accounts, on her deathbed. (11) The latter, however, survived her illness and lived to the age of seventy-four. Her survival, according to C. B. Tinker and H. F. Lowry, "perhaps embarrassed the poet, for he could not very well reprint his verses with their consolatory reflections on her approaching demise, after her recovery." (12) The poem therefore had to be revised, and in its final form, completed a year after Harriet Martineau's death, the 1877 version is a curious blend of elegy and eulogy: first both women's accomplishments are praised, then the untimely death not only of Charlotte but of all the young Brontes is mourned, and finally, in a kind of afterhought, Arnold presents the consolation that "In the never idle workshop of nature. / In the eternal movent, / Ye shall find yourselves again!"
Arnold's attitude toward the writings of Charlotte Bronte and Harriet Martineau was thoroughly ambivalent. The meeting of the two women, which is described at the beginning of the poem, actually took place on December 21, 1850. That evening, Arnold wrote to his mother:
At seven came Miss Martineau and Miss Bronte (Jane Eyre): talked to Miss Martineau (who blasphemes frightfully) about the prospects of the Church of England, and, wretched man that I am, promise to go and see her cowkeeping miracles to-morrow--I, who hardly know a cow from a sheep. I talked to Miss Bronte (past thirty and plain, with expressive gray eyes, though) of her curates, of French novels, and her education in a school at Brussels, and sent the lions roaring to their dens at half-past nine, and came to talk to you. (Tinker and Lowry, 229)
When Villette appeared in 1853, Arnold confided his dislike of the book to his sister: "Why is Villette disagreeable? Because the writer's mind contains nothing but hunger, rebellion, and rage, and therefore that is all she can, in fact, put into her book. No fine writing can hide this thoroughly, and it will be fatal to her in the long run" (Tinker and Lowry, 230). As for Harriet Martineau, Arnold admired her lack of philistinism and her courage but had no sympathy for her views:
The want of independence of mind, the shutting their eyes and professing to believe what they do not, the running blindly together in hers, for fear of some obscure danger and horror if they go alone, is so eminently a vice of the English, I think, of the last hundred years ... that I cannot but praise a person whose one effort seems to have been to deal perfectly honestly and sincerely with herself, although for the speculations into which this effort has led her I have not the slightest sympathy. I shall never be found to identify myself with her and her people, but neither shall I join, nor have I the least community of feeling with, her attackers. (Tinker and Lowry, 228)
This is the background of the poem. Arnold has particularly rich material to work with since his attitude toward both Charlotte Bronte and Harriet Martineau is so complicated. "Haworth Churchyard" begins in the tradition of the Romantic poem of experience by presenting the poet in a landscape:
Where, under Loughrigg, the stream Of Rotha sparkles through fields Vested for ever with green, Four years since, in the house Of a gentle spirit, now dead-- Wordsworth's son-in-law, friend-- I saw the meeting of two Gifted women.
The observer is located in a particular place: the house of Edward Quillinan, Wordsworth's son-in-law and a minor poet himself, who lived in the Lake District in the shadow of Loughrigg. (13) The time is "Four years since," and the speaker is Arnold himself in his role of men of letters meeting his famous contemporaries. The accomplishments of both women are described in general terms in lines 9-17, and in the next stanza the reader as it were witnesses the scene in which they inscribe their names "In a book which of world-famous souls / Kept the memorial," a reference to Rotha Quillinan's literary album which already included, among other great names, Arnold's own. (14) Up to line 25, then, "Haworth Churchyard" promises to be an occasional poem in which the experience is to be dramatically rendered; the mountain landscape and the memory of Wordsworth give the scene an aura of importance, and the reader expects to hear of some momentous interchange between the poet and the two women.
Arnold's problem, however, is to "keep the poem located"; like the topographical poets of the eighteenth century, he does not know how "to keep the dramatic situation from turning into a rhetorical device" (Langbaum, 47). In line 26, the meeting itself evaporates and Arnold now begins to address the reader directly, commenting on the distressing gap between promise and fulfillment, and paying "Mournful homage" to the "living" Harriet Martineau and to the "dead" Charlotte Bronte. The extravagant and rather hollow praise of the former in lines 37-46 is particularly odd in view of Arnold's real feeling toward her radicalism. Evidently, he felt it improper to cast the slightest aspersion on Harriet Martineau in an occasional poem that was, after all, written to commemorate her; the decorum of such a poem, Arnold must have believed, called for such phrases as "Hail to the steadfast soul" and "Hail to the spirit who dared / Trust its own thoughts."
With the awkward transition "Turn we next to the dead" in line 48, Harriet Martineau disappears from the scene completely; the remainder of the poem is an elegy for the young Brontes. The description of Haworth Churchyard and the Yorkshire moors in lines 51-65 serves, like the opening description of the Lake District, to place the observer in a particular locale:
Where, behind Keighley, the road Up to the heart of the moors Between heath-clad showery hills Runs, and colliers' carts Poach the deep ways of coming down, And a rough, grimed race have their homes-- There on its slope is built The moorland town. But the church Stands on the crest of the hill Lonely and bleak; at its side The parsonage-house and the graves.
One has the impression that Arnold is making a second attempt at dramatizing his experience; he wants to convince the reader of its authenticity, of the "extraordinary perspective" from which the "I" views character and event. But this time the effort simply fails, not because Arnold mixes up his facts--Charlotte, Emily, and Branwell Bronte are buried in a vault inside the church, and no grass can possibly blow between their graves (l. 88), while Anne Bronte is buried at Scarborough, not at Haworth (ll. 90-92) (15)--but because the poet himself does not participate in any sense in the events described. There is no interaction between the "I" and the persons and places mentioned, no dramatic situation. The poet becomes the detached mourner, and the remainder of "Haworth Churchyard" is a formal, generalized lament for the gifted young and a hope that they will sleep peacefully beneath the Yorkshire moors. The epilogue, with its consolation that life's energies will continue in the hereafter, does not really follow from what has gone before: as W. S. Johnson says, "When Arnold is so nobly positive, his voice is likely ... to sound hollow, his rhetoric exclaims, his diction becomes grandly vague." (16)
"Haworth Churchyard" thus presents an extremely interesting case. The poet has an abundance of material: the occasion of his meeting with two celebrated women writers of the day, the occasion of the death of one of them, the political, philosophical, and the literary implications of their work, and, finally, the relationship between the two women and himself. Arnold clearly wants to write a poem that uses autobiography for dramatic purposes, but he is just as clearly afraid to express in an occasional poem the ambivalence that he actually felt. Therefore the "I" escapes, the dramatic situation is dissolved, and the historic meeting "under Loughrigg" is related neither to the speeches of praise and lament that follow nor to the description of the graveyard at Haworth. How to turn an actual public occasion of the sort memorialized in "Haworth Churchyard" into the experience of a dramatized speaker--this is the problem Yeats solves in "Easter 1916."
There are striking if superficial resemblances between "Easter 1916" and "Haworth Churchyard." For one thing, both poems are written in almost the same verse form. Arnold himself applied the term pindaric to his poems that are, like "Haworth Churchyard," unrhymed lyrics made up of any number of verse paragraphs, each paragraph having an unfixed number of lines, and in which each line contains three stresses, the number of syllables varying between six and nine. (17) In "Easter 1916," each of the four verse paragraphs is similarly written in trimeter: every line contains three primary stresses and again the syllable count ranges between six (l. 11) and nine (l. 5). Unlike "Haworth Churchyard," however, "Easter 1916" has a regular rhyme scheme, ababcdcd ..., but the rhymes are generally unobtrusive because so many of them are approximate (e.g., "faces" / "houses").
The mastery of the three-stress line, which Yeats first used in Responsibilities (1914) in "Friends" and "That The Night Come," and was to use throughout his career in such famous poems as "The Fisherman," "The Tower" (Part III), and "An Acre of Grass," is notjust a matter of repeated variation from the iambic norm; it is not enough to substitute a trochee for the first iamb of the line as Arnold often does (e.g., "Story of passionate life"). Because the three-stress line is so short, so abrupt, the stresses are particularly noticeable and should fall on important words. The relative slackness of Arnold's meter as compared to Yeats's can be seen by comparing two passages whose phrasing is strikingly similar:
The one, Brilliant with recent renown, Young, unpracticed, had told With a master's accent her feigned Story of passionate life; This other, maturer in fame Earning, she too, had since Widened her sweep, and surveyed History, politics, mind. ("Haworth Churchyard," ll. 8-17) 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.... ("Easter 1916," ll. 26-37)
In both cases, the observer points to the leading characters in the drama without naming them directly (they are referred to in such locutions as "The one" and "This other"); in both cases the emphasis is on the characters' accomplishments rather than on their physical appearance. Yeats's line "This other his helper and friend" echoes Arnold's "The other, mature in fame," and "He, too, has resigned his part" echoes "Earning, she too, her praise." But Arnold does not exploit the potentialities of the three-stress line with anything like Yeats's resourcefulness. In the eighth line of the passage from "Haworth Churchyard" cited above, for example, the third stress falls on the unimportant adverbial connective "since," a word that is furthermore placed in emphatic final position in the line. The same pattern recurs in the next line where the heavily stressed second syllable of "surveyed" calls attention to a word that adds very little to the meaning of the poem. Again in the last line, the third primary stress falls on the rather nebulous word "mind." By contrast, Yeats's primary stresses emphasize key words, while secondary stressing and the use of qualitative sound patterns intensify their meanings. The line "A drunken, vainglorious lout," for example, is important semantically in that it sums up the speaker's impression of the Major MacBride. The three words "drunken, vainglorious lout" receive four stresses--three primary and one secondary--and are further heightened by the long vowels in "drwnken" and "glorious," the dipthongs in "vain and "lowt," the alliteration of ns, r's, and l's, and the final harsh stop t. Furthermore, "drunken" is related to "dreamed" in the preceding line by the alliteration of dr, and "lout" rhymes with "thought" in the fifth line. The complex sound patterning of the passage is an index to the relative complexity of the larger structure of "Easter 1916" as compared to that of "Haworth Churchyard."
The occasions commemorated by the two poems are similar. Like Arnold, Yeats is recording his admiration for his courageous but misguided acquaintances who defy the old order. Constance Markiewicz, the "woman" of lines 18-23, is destroying her femininity in her absorption in revolutionary politics, just as Harriet Martineau, Arnold implies in his letters if not in the poem itself, is unpleasantly unfeminine. Both poets, moreover, describe political movements in which they themselves did not participate; both are outsiders looking in. But the similarity in subject matter and in verse form only serves to emphasize the great difference in the structure of the two poems. I turn now to "Easter 1916."
Yeats was staying with friends in Gloucestershire when the Easter Rising of 1916 broke out, and, according to his biographers, the news took him with the same surprise as it took the general public in Ireland. (18) The Rising was chiefly promoted by the extreme Nationalists of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, a group of Nationalists of whom Yeats really knew very little because they had come into prominence since the days when he and Maud Gonne were actively engaged in the Gaelic movement. But one of the leaders, Thomas MacDonagh, whose book on Gaelic influences on English prosody Yeats admired, was an old friend, as was Constance Markiewicz, in whose home Yeats had frequently stayed when she was still a Gore-Booth of Lisadell. He was also acquainted with Pearse, Joseph Plunkett, and James Connolly; the latter had worked with Yeats on the '98 Memorial Committee for Wolfe Tone. His English friends noticed that at last Yeats seemed to be moved by a public event. He spoke to them of innocent and patriotic theorists carried away by the belief that they must sacrifice themselves to an abstraction. They would fail and pay the penalty for their failure.
On May 11, Yeats wrote to Lady Gregory that the Dublin tragedy had been a great sorrow and anxiety. "I am trying to write a poem on the men executed--'terrible beauty has been born again.' If the English Conservative party had made a declaration they did not intend to rescind the Home Rule Bill there would have been no Rebellion. I had no idea that any public event could so deeply move me--and I am very despondent about the future.... I do not yet know what she [Maud Gonne] feels about her husband's death. Her letter was written before she heard of it. Her main thought seems to be 'tragic dignity has returned to Ireland.'" (19) And on May 23, he wrote to John Quinn, "This Irish business has been a great grief. We have lost the ablest and most fine-natured of our young men. A world seems to have been swept away. I keep going over the past in my mind and wondering if I could have done anything to turn those young men in some other direction" (Wade, 614).
It is no coincidence that the first word of "Easter 1916" is "I" and that the pronoun recurs three times in the first stanza. Yeats is immediately present in the poem, "meeting" other men, "passing," "nodding," "lingering," and "mocking." The political event that is the occasion for this poem is not viewed from the outside as it is in, say, Marvell's Cromwell Ode; the center is rather the "I" who must come to terms with the public event. And the important thing to notice is that the speaker does not really understand the Rising until the end of the poem, which charts, to paraphrase Langbaum, the evolution of an observer through his evolving vision of the Irish scene.
Like "Haworth Churchyard," "Easter 1916" begins with a remembered locale: the place is Dublin with its "grey / Eighteenth-century houses," the time the "close of day," the speaker Yeats himself meeting the clerks and shopkeepers, who were to form the hard core of the Irish Republican Army, as they leave their places of business at closing time. The casual reference to "them" in the first line--a reference made before one knows who "they" are--immediately implicates the reader in the speaker's drama; it implies that he shares the speaker's frame of reference, that he knows these persons and places. As the poet recalls his random streetcorner meetings with the future patriots, he is puzzled by the triviality and inconsequence of their former existence. In the days before the Rising, he remembers with a measure of self-reproach, he had paid little attention to these amateur soldiers, exchanging a few "Polite meaningless words" with them and joking about their activities with the Dublin clubmen with whom he dined, "Being certain that they and I / But lived where motely is worn." But the trivial and slightly ridiculous pre-Rising Ireland, of which Yeats himself, as the "and I" testifies, was a part, has been completely transformed: "All changed, changed utterly: / A terrible beauty is born." In the first instance of the refrain, the word "terrible" seems to be used chiefly as an intensive: it means "very great" or "excessive." (20) The observer's initial reaction is one of sympathy and respect for the action that could "change" such aimlessness into something tragic and powerful. Even the image of the opening lines has this implication: the "vivid" faces of the working men are contrasted both to the darkness of the "close of day" and to the greyness of the office buildings from which they emerge.
In the second stanza, four "vivid" faces emerge from the crowd of Stanza I, and the poet characterizes them, one at a time, with a few swift strokes. The choice of characters is extremely odd. Of the seven men who actually signed the Proclamation of the Republic--Padraic Pearse, Thomas MacDonagh, James Connolly, Eamonn Ceannt, Joseph Mary Plunkett, Sean MacDermott, and Thomas Clarke--only Pearse and MacDonagh play a part in "Easter 1916," although Connolly is briefly mentioned in the roll-call of the last stanza. Thomas Clarke, usually considered the "chief moving force behind the Rising," is never named. (21) The point, of course, is that Yeats is not trying to be an objective reporter; he includes only those whose transformation will be relevant to his theme. Thus he begins by pondering the tragic evolution of the beautiful Constance Gore-Booth of Lissadell, the aristocratic horsewoman whom he admired as a young man, into the Con Markiewicz of revolutionary politics, the "shrill" demagogue whose marvelous energy is dissipated in "ignorant good will." (22) The potential of Padraic Pearse, the man who "kept a school / And rode our winged horse," and of Thomas MacDonagh, "his helper and friend," has similarly been dissipated by the Rising. Both men had considerable literary and intellectual gifts which might have done much for the Irish cultural revival. Pearse, the Gaelic enthusiast and timid poet, who, according to Timothy Coogan, could hardly bring himself to handle a knife to cut a loaf (11), is strangely transformed into the General of the Irish Republican forces, who preaches violence and bloodshed. The transformation of "sweet" and "sensitive" MacDonagh may be glossed by a passage in Yeats's Autobiography: "Met MacDonagh yesterday--a man with some literary faculty which will probably come to nothing through lack of culture and encouragement.... In England this man would have become remarkable in some way, here he is being crushed by the mechanical logic and commonplace eloquence which game power to the most empty mind, because, being 'something other than human life,' they have no use for distinguished feeling or individual thought." (23)
But why is MacBride, that "drunken, vainglorious lout," included in the poem and placed in the climactic position at the end of the second stanza? Neither a major figure in the Rising, nor, like Con Markiewicz, Pearse, and MacDonagh, a symbol of tragically wasted potential, MacBride has a significance for Yeats that is purely personal: he was Maud Gonne's estranged husband, the man who "had done most bitter wrong" to the woman Yeats adored. His transformation, in contrast to that of the other leaders mentioned, is one for the better; courage and suffering have given him a brief moment of nobility and grandeur: "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." In this context, "terrible beauty" continues to have positive connotations for the poet. Although great gifts were sacrificed by the Countess Markiewicz, by Pearse and MacDonagh, their sacrifice is awe-inspiring: is it a sacrifice that can make even the despicable life of MacBride meaningful. In line 35, "Yet I number him in the song," the speaker displays his personal generosity: he can praise even the enemy when praise is deserved.
But the mood of sympathetic admiration is rapidly dissipated. With the imagery of stone and stream in the third stanza, attitudes that are only implicit in the first two stanzas in such references as "Until her voice grew shrill," come into the foreground:
Hearts with one purpose alone Through summer and winter seem Enchanted to a stone To trouble the living stream.
It is sometimes argued that the "stone" here symbolizes the firmness of purpose and strength of mind of the patriots, a strength that "troubles" or rouses the average man from his daily round of blind, aimless living. But such a reading ignores the positive connotations of the "living stream." In the world of nature, "change"--the key word recurs here in a radically altered context--is a steady but gradual process; it is not the radical, abrupt, and overwhelming transformation ("All changed, changed utterly") of the patriots. In the natural world, birds, horses, clouds, and water are in perpetual free movement; there is constant sliding, plashing, and mating: "hens to moorcocks call." But the "Hearts with one purpose alone" of the 1916 leaders have been "enchanted to a stone"--a spell that has been cast upon them by their total absorption in a Utopian vision until they become rigid, inflexible, petrified--ultimately beyond change. (24) By the end of the stanza, "The stone's in the midst of all": the joy and spontaneity of natural life have been cramped by the stonelike hardness and rigidity of the rebels. Their inflexible purpose absorbs everything into a system. Here, then, Yeats as dramatized speaker dissociates himself from the political movement. The third stanza is the only one that ends without the refrain "A terrible beauty is born."
Readers often feel that the sudden introduction of stone and stream imagery in Stanza III is arbitrary and unmotivated: how does one jump from the concrete characterizations of Stanza II to the symbolic image of the third stanza? True, the symbols are marshalled rather abruptly, but the very abruptness is telling. The sharp break after line 40 suggests that the speaker has suddenly been struck by the thought that, contrary to Maud Gonne's view that "tragic dignity has returned to Ireland," he himself could never participate in or condone such a rebellion; it is repugnant to him. Instead of giving elaborate reasons for this outlook, Yeats simply presents the image of the stone troubling the stream as it now strikes the speaker. The poem, in other words, imitates the structure of the observer's experience; he "discovers his idea through a dialectical interchange with the external world" (Langbaum, 53).
This discovery is brought to a climax in the opening lines of Stanza IV:
Too long a sacrifice Can make a stone of the heart.
It is easy to mistake this assertive statement for the theme of the poem; in fact, however, the speaker passes beyond it to his final perception or epiphany. His first step is to realize that disparagement of the rebels is not better than excessive admiration. Perhaps impartiality is the answer. It is, after all, "Heaven's part" to judge the rebels, while "our part," the poet bravely declares, is "To murmur name upon name, / As a mother names her child / When sleep at last has come / On limbs that had run wild." But the nightfall of the rebels is not that of the peacefully sleeping child. "No, no, not night but death," the speaker suddenly realizes, and with that thought he finds it impossible to remain aloof and impartial. The crucial question must finally be asked: "Was it needless death after all? / For England may keep faith / For all that is done and said."
It is a question that history, quite apart from the poem, has never satisfactorily answered. Amy Stock observes that "The men who made the rising did so with the clear expectation of defeat. They thought it useless to wait for the consent of England and died deliberately in the belief-justified by the event--that their death would commit the nation to fight on till freedom was won. Their courage could not be questioned: their judgement might, for it was conceivable that after the war the English might have consented to Home Rule. But the rising made that question unanswerable forever." (25)
The ultimate significance of the Easter Rising is similarly ambiguous to the speaker of "Easter 1916." The perception toward which the poem moves is his understanding of its "terrible beauty." It is beautifulbecause of the sublimity of the tragic gesture of the patriots ("We know their dream; enough / To know they dreamed and are dead"), but it is also terrible--the word is now used in the sense of awful or frightening--because the gesture was, in the final analysis, not only misguided but futile: "And what if excess of love / Bewildered them till they died?" (26) The speaker can now "write it out in verse" because he has come to terms with the paradoxical "terrible beauty" of the Rising. For the first time he names the patriots directly: "MacDonagh and MacBride / And Connolly and Pearse." It is not only these tragic figures who are "changed, changed utterly"; the speaker, too, has been "changed in his turn"; from initial puzzlement, he has passed through the extremes of admiration and condemnation to a moment of aloofness, immediately followed by a return to engagement, to an active participation tempered by a new awareness of the "terrible beauty" of human life. "The most impressive thing about the whole poem," writes Donald Davie, is that "the 1916 leaders are mourned most poignantly, and the sublimity of their gesture is celebrated most memorably, not when the poet is abasing himself before them, but when he implies that, all things considered, they were, not just in politic but in human terms, probably wrong" (87).
In "Easter 1916," then, Yeats solves a problem which Arnold attempted but failed to solve in "Haworth Churchyard." Arnold wanted to assimilate the historical and documentary, to absorb the public event into the fabric of the romantic lyric. But the references to persons, places, and events are stated rather than dramatized; the poet himself is not in the poem. In "Easter 1916," on the other hand, the reader adopts the poet's extraordinary perspective and shares his experience, an experience that is not fully understood until the poem is over.
That understanding makes clearer why "Easter 1916" is, in Auden's words, a "reflective poem of at once personal and public interest." It avoids being "an official performance of impersonal virtuosity" in that it presents the Rising only in terms of its impact on a particular observer, the poet Yeats. The autobiographical convention dominates the poem; the persona is not the "prophet," the "spokesman for Irish culture," or any other such abstraction; it is the dramatized "I" of Yeats himself, reacting to an actual historical event involving his own friends and acquaintances When the speaker declares in line 74, "I write it out in verse," the reader feels that he is actually looking over his shoulder; the poem seems utterly spontaneous, immediate. On the other hand, "Easter 1916" rises far above "trivial vers de societe" because its analysis of the particular historical event isolates those qualities that are typical of any major political upheaval: the splendor and terror that are the inseparable and inevitable consequences of change. The particular occasion is endowed with universal significance.
Not only is the occasional mode of "Easter 1916" the basic poetic mode of many of Yeats's own major poems--"Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen," "Coole Park, 1929," and "Parnell's Funeral"--but, in our own time, it is the favorite mode of the poet generally considered to be our greatest contemporary--Robert Lowell--as well as of his followers, W. D. Snodgrass, Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, and the John Berryman of 77 Dream Songs. The title poem of For the Union Dead (1964), for example, is squarely in the Yeats tradition; it is a poem at once public and documentary with its references to the modern Boston scene (the "old South Boston Aquarium," the "orange Puritan-pumpkin girders" that brace "the tingling Statehouse," the anachronistic statue of Colonel Shaw on St. Gaudens' relief), but persons and places only count in so far as they touch the observer, who is presented as being none other than Robert Lowell himself, the poet who still sighs for "the dark downward and vegetating kingdom / of the fish and reptile," the kingdom that he knew only as a child.
Ever since Life Studies appeared in 1959, critics have talked of Lowell's "discovery" of the "confessional mode" as if it were something radically new. (27) In fact, however, Lowell is simply following the example set by Yeats; his poems are dramatic lyrics in the Romantic tradition, in which the experience is occasioned by a public event or figure rather than by a sensory stimulus. The subject is the poet himself, the object the contemporary scene in its most vivid reality, as the new titles Buenos Aires, New York: 1962, and The Mouth of the Hudson indicate. At its worst, the new "confessional" poetry becomes sheer sociological documentation on the one hand, or the raw material for one individual's autobiography on the other. At its best, however, the "confessional" mode, which is quite simply the occasional mode of Yeats in new dress, is no more personal that that of Coleridge's conversation poems, no more documentary than that of Ben Jonson's Epistle Answering to One That Asked to be Sealed of the Tribe of Ben. Possibly it is the fusion of these two modes that Amy Stock has in mind when she calls "Easter 1916" "perhaps the most remarkable poem of our time upon a public event."
(1) "Yeats as an Example," The Permanence of Yeats, ed.James Hall and Martin Steinmann (New York, 1961), p. 313.
(2)"Yeats and the Practicing Poet," An Honoured Guest, ed. Denis Donoghue and J. R. Muylryne (New York, 1966), pp. 2, 6.
(3) In Letters on Poetry from W. B. Yeats to Dorothy Wellesley (London, 1964), p. 134, Yeats uses the term "poems of civilization." Also see Curtis Bradford, Yeats at Work (Carbondale, IL, 1965), p. 47; Edward Engelberg, The Vast Design: Patterns in W B. Yeats's Aesthetic (Toronto, 1964), p. vii; Peter Ure, W B. Yeats (New York, 1963), p. 61; and Ure, "The Plays," in An Honoured Guest, pp. 78-79.
(4)"Introduction to John Dryden," in The Norton Anthology of English Literature, ed. M. H. Abrams (New York, 1962), I, 1179-80. See also the entry on the occasional poem in M. H. Abrams, A Glossary of Literary Terms (New York, 1957), p. 63, and the article by A. J. M. Smith in The Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, ed. Alex Preminger (Princeton, NJ, 1965), p. 584. (5) See Donald Davie, "'Michael Robartes and the Dancer'," An Honoured Guest, pp. 82-84.
(6) The Poetry of Experience (New York, 1957), p. 29; page numbers for quotations will be in parenthesis in the text.
(4) "Introduction to John Dryden," in The Norton Anthology of English Literature, ed. M. H. Abrams (New York, 1962), I, 1179-80. See also the entry on the occasional poem in M. H. Abrams, A Glossary of Literary Terms (New York, 1957), p. 63, and the article by A. J. M. Smith in The Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, ed. Alex Preminger (Princeton, NJ, 1965), p. 584.
(7) In his recent essay, "Structure and Style in The Greater Romantic Lyric," From Sensibility to Romanticism, Essays Presented to Frederick A. Pottle, ed. Frederick W. Hilles and Harold Bloom (New York, 1965), pp. 527-57, Meyer Abrams gives a definition of the "greater Romantic lyric" which closely resembles Langbaum's: these lyrics "present a determinate speaker in a particularized, and usually a localized, outdoor setting, whom we overhear as he carries on, in a fluent vernacular which rises easily to a more formal speech, a sustained colloquy, sometimes with himself or with the outer scene, but more frequently with a silent human auditor, present or absent. The speaker begins with a description of the landscape; an aspect or change of aspect in the landscape evokes a varied but integral process of memory, thought, anticipation, and feeling which remains closely intervolved with the outer scene. In the course of this meditation the lyric speaker achieves an insight, faces up to a tragic loss, comes to a moral decision or resolves an emotional problem. Often the poem rounds upon itself to end where it began, at the outer scene, but with an altered mood and deepened understanding which is the result of the intervening meditation" (527-28).
Although Abrams stresses the speaker's "meditation" while Langbaum refers to his "experience," both critics refer to the peculiar relationship of the subject and object that characterizes the Romantic lyric. Abrams writes, "The repeated out-in-out process, in which mind confronts nature and their interplay constitutes the poem, is a remarkable phenomenon in literary history" (p. 528). See also David Perkins, Wordsworth and the Poetry of Sincerity (Cambridge, MA, 1964), Ch. I.
(8) Goethe's Literary Essays, ed. J. E. Spingarn (New York, 1921), p 259.
(9) Max Schulz, The Poetic Voices of Coleridge (Detroit, MI, 1963), pp. 27, 32.
(10) W. B. Yeats: The Later Poetry (Berkeley, CA, 1964), pp. 42-57. In The Poet in the Poem (Berkeley, CA, 1962), George T. Wright makes similar observations about the Yeatsian persona, pp. 88-123.
(11) See Kenneth Allott's headnote to the poem in his edition of The Poems of Matthew Arnold, Longmans Annotated English Poets, ed. F. W. Bateson (New York, 1965), p. 389. All references to "Haworth Churchyard" are to this edition.
(12) The Poetry of Matthew Arnold. A Commentary (London, 1940), pp. 227-28.
(13) See Allott, The Poems of Matthew Arnold, note to lines 5-6, p. 390.
(14) Allott, note to lines 19-20, p. 391.
(15) On this point, see Tinker and Lowry, p. 230; Allott, p. 395.
(16) The Voices of Matthew Arnold (New Haven, CT, 1961), p. 66.
(17) Allott, headnote to "The Youth of Nature," p. 245.
(18) Joseph Hone, W. B. Yeats (London, 1965), pp. 299-300. Norman Jeffares, W B. Yeats: Man and Poet (London, 1962), pp. 186-88. For general accounts of the Easer Rising, two recent titles are Timothy P. Coogan, Ireland Since the Rising (New York, 1966), and Goddard Lieberson, producer, The Irish Uprising, 1916-22, CBS Legacy Book (New York, 1966).
(19) The Letters of W. B. Yeats, ed. Allen Wade (New York, 1954), p. 613.
(20) See meaning 2 of terrible in the NED. Donald Davie writes of the first stanza, "In the refrain 'A terrible beauty is born', 'terrible' must surely point to Aristotle's definition of the tragic emotion as compounded of terror and pity; and so it strikes off against 'the casual comedy'" (p. 86).
(21) See Goddard Liberson, "Prelude," The Irish Uprising, p. x, for Clarke.
(22) For a discussion of Yeats's treatment of Constance Gore-Booth Markiewicz in his other poems, see my article on the "Lissadell poems" in PMLA, LXXXII (Oct., 1967), 444-54.
(23) The Autobiography of William Butler Yeats (New York, 1958), p. 331.
(24) This reading is corroborated by the following comment in Maud Gonne's essay "Yeats and Ireland," Scattering Branches, Tributes to the Memory ofW. B. Yeats, ed. Stephen Gwynn (New York, 1940), pp. 31-32: "Standing by the seashore in Normandy in September 1916 he read me that poem ["Easter 1916"]; he had worked on it all the night before, and he implored me to forget the stone and its inner fire for the flashing, changing joy of life; but when he found my mind dull with the stone of the fixed idea of getting back to Ireland, kind and helpful as ever, he helped me to overcome political and passport difficulties and we travelled as far as London together." See also the reference in Yeats's Autobiography to a politically active woman of his acquaintance as being one who has taken up "an opinion as if it were some terrible stone doll." For such women, Yeats declares, "opinion is so much identified with their nature that it seems a part of their flesh becomes stone and passes out of life" (p. 341).
(25) W B. Yeats: His Poetry and Thought (Cambridge, 1964), p. 170.
(26) See meaning 1 of terrible in the NED.
(27) See, for example, M. L. Rosenthal, "Poetic Theory of Some Contemporary Poets," Salmagundi, I (1966-67), 74; A. R. Jones, "On Necessity and Freedom: The Poetry of Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath, and Anne Sexton," Critical Quarterly, VII (1965), 14.
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|Title Annotation:||W.B. Yeats|
|Publication:||Papers on Language & Literature|
|Date:||Jun 22, 2014|
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