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Humanities Libertexts

13.4: Easter, 1916

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    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[2] is worn:
    All changed, changed utterly:
    A terrible beauty is born.

    That woman’s[3] 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[4] had kept a school
    And rode our winged horse[5];
    This other his helper and friend[6]
    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[7].
    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[8]
    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[9] and Pearse
    Now and in time to be,
    Wherever green is worn,
    Are changed, changed utterly:
    A terrible beauty is born.



    1. On Easter Monday, April 24, 1916, a paramilitary group of Irish republicans occupied central Dublin and proclaimed Ireland independent of Great Britain. The British government regained control within the week, and, ultimately charged the republican leaders with treason. They were tried quickly and executed, compounding rather than solving the problem, in that many moderate republicans were outraged and radicalized. Yeats was among them. His bewildered new perspective is expressed in the poem’s famous refrain, “A terrible beauty is born.” He knew many of the revolutionary leaders, including Maud Gonne’s estranged husband whom he despised, as “A drunken vainglorious lout,” but whom he nevertheless acknowledges in this poem. ↵
    2. Colourful, often ragged clothing worn by a court jester. ↵
    3. Constance Gore-Booth (1868-1927), the only woman among the revolutionary and the only one spared execution, sentenced instead to a long prison sentence, later commuted. ↵
    4. Padraic Pearse (1879-1916), a teacher and a poet. ↵
    5. Pegasus, the winged horse, upon whom rode the poets’ muse. ↵
    6. Thomas MacDonagh (1878-1916), Yeats's fellow poet and dramatist. ↵
    7. John MacBride, Irish Republican Army major, whom Yeats despised because he had married and abused Maud before she left him. ↵
    8. That is, may grant independence to Ireland, as Britain finally did in 1921. ↵
    9. James Connolly (1870-1916), prominent trade unionist, one of the rebellion’s paramilitary commanders. ↵
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