February 4, 1998
By common consent, William Butler Yeats's "Easter 1916" belongs on the short list of the century's essential poems in the English language. It is a work that looms like a monolith even among the company of other perennial anthology pieces, yet in many respects its indestructible stature belies just what an improbable achievement it is. It should have aged rather badly: few commemorative poems that look to place their stamp on social and political unrest retain their urgency once the heat of the moment fades, and even the most shrewdly measured public elegy usually comes down to us embalmed in the amber of its period.
Perhaps the most unfathomable thing about Yeats's tour de force, however, is that it ever came to be written at all. Could the author of this spacious paean to heroic martyrdom be the same Yeats who only shortly before had coolly exempted himself, in the terse lines of "On Being Asked for a War Poem," from any ordained duty to reckon with civil strife? Urged to muster a timely verse on the Great War then raging on the Continent, Yeats had this to say:
I think it better that in times like these
A poet's mouth be silent, for in truth
We have no gift to set a statesman right:
He has had enough of meddling who can please
A young girl in the indolence of her youth,
Or an old man upon a winter's night.
A suave credo, but it was to provide no cover for him once the tumult of the state erupted on his doorstep. "I had no idea," Yeats wrote to his confidante Lady Gregory a few weeks after the Easter uprising in Dublin, "that any public event could so deeply move me." This abrupt change of heart plays no small part in the complex drama of the poem he would complete later that year.
Go to "Easter 1916," with readings by Peter Davison, Philip Levine, and Richard Wilbur recorded specially for Atlantic Unbound (1998).
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."
Although Yeats had long held strong and decided feelings concerning the plight of the Irish nation, they had generally been expressed on a far loftier plane, cloaked in oracular intimations and couched in bardic utterances. But the thwarted insurrection at the Dublin post office—an ill-timed and misconceived Nationalist siege that resulted in the loss of several hundred lives and the summary execution of the rebel leaders—seems to have come as a shock to his system. In "Easter 1916" we hear the fine-tuned reverberations of that shock, a stirring public anthem that gathers much of its visceral intensity from its acutely introspective tenor. If there is something paradoxical about this, then there is a transfiguring power in the paradox: over the course of the poem's eighty lines, a platform for ceremonious lamentation turns into a staging ground for ritualistic incantation, an occasion the poet seizes on to grapple tooth and nail with historical furies and personal demons alike.
None of this quite explains why such a poem can still matter, or matter quite so much. An insular political tragedy in another time, a poet bent on atoning for his past silences, a eulogy rife with regional and generational allusions—why should "Easter 1916" have any vital claim on us, now so far removed from its griefs and its grievances? The most persuasive answer, I'd contend, is auditory.
Listening to the poem as recited here by three eminent American poets confirms that its authority has less to do with how it enlists our sympathies than with how it infiltrates our nervous system, an effect that calls to mind Keats's axiom that great poetry "proves itself upon the pulses." Crews of scholars have girdled the poem with a bristling scaffolding of annotation, diligently demonstrating how the structural integrity of its expressive design holds up brick by brick. Yet one of the durable marvels of "Easter 1916" is that all this critical armature is not imperative; the general reader can immediately appreciate the architecture of its orchestration with little or no grounding in Yeatsian arcana or the "Irish question." Its command lies not in its attitudes so much as in its acoustics: the quietly throbbing insistence of the poem's three-beat measure, the unobtrusively interlacing pattern of a-b-a-b rhymes, the tug and surge of colloquial syntax winding with sinuous fluency over the sharply enjambed lines, the ringing and increasingly disquieting refrain that tolls like a summons, as if from a desolate parish steeple or some moss-shrouded stone tower. The momentousness of the poem as a meditation on vain hopes and unvanquished ideals is all there in the rhythmic momentum—a stately tempo of articulate anguish that in the same breath carries a murmurous undertow of prophetic admonition. Few modern poems can be said to sustain such a pitch, or hazard such a reach. To hear these recorded renditions—three voices, three tones, three sets of inflections—is to hear that energy assert itself like a force of nature, incalculable and inexhaustible.
— David Barber
Go to "Easter 1916," with readings by Peter Davison, Philip Levine, and Richard Wilbur recorded specially for Atlantic Unbound.
David Barber is The Atlantic Monthly's assistant poetry editor. He has written for the magazine on Stanley Kunitz and for Atlantic Unbound on Wislawa Szymborska. His first book of poems, The Spirit Level (1995), won the Terrence Des Pres prize for poetry.
Copyright © 1998 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.