A Terrible Beauty Is Born: Making Sense of W.B. Yeats

 “Amhran na bhFiann”, or “A Soldier’s Song”

Brandy Anderson

(Crude, early essay written years ago during my first days of critical analysis, so do excuse the mistakes)

The colors orange and gold seem to be easily distinguishable. The hues are distinct, the

spectrum quite different, but not everybody sees it as black and white. In Belfast, it is inevitable to

gather opposing positions on which of these colors are found in the modern Irish flag. The Protestants

will argue that orange is the proud band on the right side of the flag; the Catholics will yell that gold is

the shade on the end. To the outsider, it may seem an irrelevant conflict, but there is a deep tension in

the underbelly of the disagreement that many outside of Eire do not understand. In simplistic terms,

orange is the sign of the English sympathizers, of the Protestants; gold is the mark of the Irish

republicans, of the Catholics. Sides are drawn, and positions must be clear to avoid being caught in the

middle. It has been this way for many years, and it remains so today. On the surface things have quieted

down, but ask any Irishman or Irishwoman, and you will hear the same answer – there will never be

true peace between the loyalists and the rebels – never. Small hurdles have been conquered, but there

are still many mountains to overcome – too many. This on-going plight is the heart of William Butler

Yeats’ poem, “Easter, 1916”. He chronicles the leaders of the ill-fated revolt, and repeats the cry of, “A

terrible beauty is born”. Yeats tells us the story of how ordinary men and women paved the road to Irish

independence, and how their dreams outlived them, but so did their bloody legacy.

Yeats opens his story with a water-colored account of the ill-fated lads’ eager faces as they

walked beneath the gray Dublin twilight. He describes the way that he often passed them with “a nod

of the head” and “polite meaningless words”, before he would gather with his friends later, and regale

them with “a mocking tale or gibe”. He felt no connection or affection for them, other than the simple

fact that they are countrymen, or live “where motley is worn”. There is a certain bitterness underlining

that comment, implying that perhaps he was not as concerned with national identity as some of his

counterparts. He was more involved in the trivial, everyday events, such as meeting friends in the pub

for a pint, rather than worrying about the state of the nation. These sentiments of disassociation

drastically change as the poem proceeds, and he recognizes the weighted contributions made by these

men.

W.B. Yeats is not new to me, nor is the 1916 Rebellion. I spent a summer in Ireland years ago,

and I will never forget the stories that I learned about the leaders of the Easter Uprising. I can vividly

remember the names and faces, the buildings and parks that the IRB, Irish Republican Brotherhood ,

took over as their headquarters during the fray. Pádraic Pearse served as the leader to the fearless few,

as he walked bravely up the steps of the General Post Office, and read “The Irish Proclamation” that

the IRB recently had printed. An unusual facet of that document is that it included women in the call

for support, so rare in the times of the pre-suffragette world. Easter Sunday was the chosen day of the

attack, but ill planning had pushed the upcoming onslaught a day further, to Easter Monday, 24 April,

1916. The sudden onslaught caught the British occupation off guard. According to the History

Learning Site, a little over one thousand men were on the side of the IRB (The Easter Uprising). They

were against tens of thousands of British troops by the end of the stand-off, which had amazingly lasted

for six days. The IRB managed to take over six key points around the city of Dublin. The first was the

General Post Office, on what used to be known as Sackville Street, but is now O’Connell Street. The

grand building was half destroyed during the battle. The original outside pillars remain, which to this

day, are still littered with holes from the British gun-fire. I will never forget sticking my fingers in these

indentations, thinking of the rebels standing tall in that very spot. It is almost certain that Yeats would

have walked between those very pillars, and I can imagine the shadowy thoughts that he must have

entertained. The old building has long since been repaired now, bearing only a few scars, but in Yeats’

day, it remained a battle scorched ruin for some years. Perhaps he had walked there on 25 September of

1916, the day that he penned “Easter, 1916”. Many names of the fighters may have echoed in his mind,

though he only pays witness to a few.

He speaks of Constance Markievicz, whose “days were spent in ignorant good-will”. She is a

famous figurehead of the 1916 uprising. She was the only woman on record to have beared

ammunitions right alongside the men. Where most of the women involved in the rebellion served as

nurses and runners, she served as an important military head at St. Stephen’s Green in Dublin, one of

the spots that was taken over by the rebels. She was second-in-command to Michael Mallin. Today, a

tall statue stands in one corner of St. Stephen’s Green in tribute to Markievicz and Mallin, and other

leaders of the rebellion; however, there was not much affection shown during that week. Much of the

Irish public did not support the cause during the uprising, and jeered and booed those behind it. Yeats

refers to the disdain and apathy of the general public to their cause when he says, “Her nights [were

spent] in argument until her voice grew shrill.” Yeats also had a personal connection with Markievicz.

Previously, he poeticized about how the two played together as children in Sligo, though it is unclear if

they spent much time together as adults. The way that he refers to her in this poem leads me to believe

that a passage of time had passed since they had last been acquainted. He talks highly of her when he

remembers, “What voice more sweet than hers. . .young and beautiful”. It’s a stark contrast to the

common image of the Countess Markievicz that now circulates, with a pistol poised and a ready eye.

The next in the line-up is Pádraic Pearse. Yeats had writing in common with Pearse, who was an

author and poet himself. Pearse also was head of a school, that defiantly taught the Irish language of

Gaeilge despite English protests. There was a time when any Irishman or Irishwoman was arrested for

speaking or writing any words in their peoples’ native tongue. Pádraic Pearse is the man that “rode our

winged horse” as he declared that Ireland be a republic, which initiated the uprising. Yeats goes on to

mention Thomas MacDonagh, “This other his helper and friend”. MacDonagh taught at the same

school as Pearse, and it is commonly thought that Pearse was pivotal in MacDonagh’s involvement

with the IRB. He was not involved in the planning of the uprising in the early stages, in fact, it is

widely thought that he was not in talks with the rest of the leaders until a few weeks before the attack.

There is debate over how he came to play such a keen role in the affair. The “Tutor Gig Encyclopedia”

states, “Still a relative newcomer to the IRB, men such as Clarke may have been hesitant to elevate him

to such a high position too soon, which raises the question as to why he should be admitted at all. His

close ties to Pearse and Plunkett may have been the cause, as well as his position as commandant of the

Dublin Brigade (though his position as such would later be superseded by James Connolly as

commandant-general of the Dublin division)” (“Thomas MacDonagh”). Yeats continues on to mention

James Connolly, the man who “might have won fame in the end”, had he not been executed by the

British. Yeats focuses on the everyday humility of three of the men behind the Proclamation, citing

them as intelligent and sensitive.

His next pictorial is not nearly as affectionate. He refers to MacBride as “a drunken,

vainglorious lout./ He had done most bitter wrong/ to some who are near my heart”. He refers to the

abuse that he believed MacBride subjected upon his wife, Maud Gonne. Yeats’ unrequited love for

Gonne has long been immortalized through many poems that he wrote about her, and letters that he had

sent to her. He goes on to say:

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.

Yeats pushes aside his own disdain for the man, and recognizes his contribution to the uprising.

He also plays upon the two ending lines of the first paragraph, “all changed, changed utterly: A terrible

beauty is born.”

The focus of the next stanza shifts from the individuals, to a lofty nature analogy. He contrasts

the steadfast determination of the rebels to the constantly changing rhythm of nature. The scene is set to

imagine the ever-flowing stream, the horse in motion, the birds in flight, and the clouds passing

through time – time that always ticks. There is one never changing constant – the stone. He states that

“the stone’s in the midst of all.” The stone represents the nationalists’ love and military ideology. Soon,

the stone fills the heart, when the sacrifice becomes too much. Yeats says that humans are not the

keepers of such a heavy thought, but rather that it is our duty to pay tribute to our fallen comrades:

To murmur name upon name,

As a mother names her child

When sleep at last has come

On limbs that had run wild.

That image provokes the most striking emotional response. It makes the reader fully realize that

these people he immortalizes, these dead soldiers, could be anyone. Each man had a mother, and a

father, and friends. It brings the thought home that he could be eulogizing your brother, or sister. When

he talks of the mother weeping over her child, it conjures a vulnerability that exemplifies his cry of “a

terrible beauty is born”. He questions if their deaths truly changed anything, if it “was needless death

after all?” The 1916 Easter Rebellion jolted the Irish and English alike, but England still held supreme

power, at the time of this poem. They executed most of the leaders, without trial or fuss. He laments:

We know their dream; enough

to know they dreamed and are dead;

And what if excess of love

Bewildered them till they died?

He then proceeds to murmur name upon name, and to offer a morose, but accurate, view of

things to come:

I write it out in verse–

MacDonagh and MacBride

And Connolly and Pearse

Now in time to be,

Wherever green is worn,

Are changed, changed utterly:

A terrible beauty is born.

Yeats predicted that the “Troubles” would continue in Ireland. Ninety-three years have passed

since he penned this lament, and not much has changed. William Butler Yeats painted an understanding

of how beauty may be squeezed out of such saddened events. He tells of the beauty of freedom, and

mourns the too often accompaniment of blood. The IRB of 1916 no longer exists. It was replaced by

a more savage, and crueler form of resistance known as the IRA, Irish Republican Army. Though, at

the time of this essay, the Provisional IRA has called a cease-fire and laid down arms, dozens of

splinter groups remain. They continue their guerrilla warfare in hopes to free the Northern Ireland

territories from British rule, and to be united with The Republic of Ireland. Yeats was right in

foreseeing that “wherever green is worn. . . A terrible beauty is born.”

Works Cited:

“Thomas MacDonagh”. Tutor Gig Encyclopedia. 2008-2009. 21 March 2009.
“The Easter Uprising”. History Learning Site. 2000-2009. 12 April 2009
Yeats, William Butler. Easter 1916. Poem.

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