Poetry February 1998

Easter 1916

with readings by poets Peter Davison, Philip Levine, and Richard Wilbur
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Soundings Audio:
Listen to three American poets read Yeats's "Easter 1916":

Philip Levine

Peter Davison

Richard Wilbur


Return to the Soundings: "Easter 1916" introduction by David Barber.


From The Atlantic's archives:

"All Ireland's Bard," by Seamus Heaney (November, 1997)
"Tied by birth to unionism, memorialist of the executed Nationalist rebels of 1916, W. B. Yeats mirrored Ireland's divisions in his self-divisions -- yet saw the island as a single cultural entity sprung from common roots in common myths."

"William Butler Yeats," by Louise Bogan (May, 1938)
"Yeats has advanced into age with his art strengthened by a long battle which had as its object a literature written by Irishmen fit to take its place among the noble literatures of the world. The spectacle of a poet's work invigorated by his lifelong struggle against the artistic inertia of his nation is one that would shed strong light into any era."

I

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.

II

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, vain-glorious 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.

III

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 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
Where long-legged moor-hens dive
And hens to moor-cocks call.
Minute by minute they live:
The stone's in the midst of all.

IV

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.


Read by:
Peter Davison is the poetry editor of The Atlantic Monthly. His books include The Fading Smile: Poets in Boston(1994) and The Poems of Peter Davison 1957-1995, published in paperback last year.

Philip Levine is the author of many books, including The Simple Truth (1994), which received the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1995.

Richard Wilbur was poet laureate of the United States in 1987. He won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1957 for Things of This World and in 1989 for New and Collected Poems.


"Easter 1916," by William Butler Yeats. As published in The Dial, Volume LXIX, No. 25 (New York, November 1920).

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