‘Sixteen Dead Men’

O but we talked at large before
The sixteen men were shot,
But who can talk of give and take,
What should be and what not
While those dead men are loitering there
To stir the boiling pot?

You say that we should still the land
Till Germany’s overcome;
But who is there to argue that
Now Pearse is deaf and dumb?
And is their logic to outweigh
MacDonagh’s bony thumb?

How could you dream they’d listen
That have an ear alone
For those new comrades they have found,
Lord Edward and Wolfe Tone,
Or meddle with our give and take
That converse bone to bone?

NOTES

This is an angry poem that addresses those who call for peace in Ireland, until the end of the First World War. Yeats dismisses those who call for dialogue, pointing to the ‘sixteen dead men’ executed by Britain as an example of British brutality and intransigence.

Sixteen Dead Men: After the nationalist uprising of Easter 1916 was suppressed, the British executed sixteen of those involved in the insurrection.

“O but we talked at large before / The sixteen men were shot,”: This begins in an exclamatory way, as if we have stumbled into an argument or speech. It has the conversational Irish tone that Yeats mastered. The words found in this poem are often plain, monosyllabic.

“But who can talk of give and take…”: ‘Give and take’, a colloquialism for an exchange of views with a view to compromise, is an important phrase in this poem, which points out that British actions have made ‘give and take’ impossible— by taking the sixteen men’s lives.

“While those dead men are loitering there / To stir the boiling pot?”: the imagery is unmistakably Shakespearian, and is taken from Macbeth. The men are like the witches by their cauldron, of course, but they also stand ghost-like in condemnation of the British, much as Banquo’s ghost condemns Macbeth by his own actions. Macbeth, remember, is a play that dramatizes unjust rule, just as the execution of the sixteen dramatizes the unjust rule of the British in Ireland.

“You say we should still the land…”: The second stanza begins with a direct address to those who say that those nationalists wanting self-determination for Ireland should not fight for it during the war.

“But who… now Pearse is deaf and dumb?”: Yeats points out that the British have killed the credible leaders with whom they could hold dialogue. Patrick Pearse, mentioned in ‘Easter 1916’ was a poet and schoolmaster.

“…is their logic to outweigh / MacDonagh’s bony thumb?”: How, Yeats asks, can reason be listened to when the death of one such as Thomas MacDonagh moves the Irish so passionately? The mention of the “bony thumb” is a striking image of death. Yeats particularly admired MacDonagh, a poet, pronouncing “he might have won fame”. Yeats’ admiration is turned into anger in this poem; the “bone” he mentions becomes a visual symbol of the destruction wrought by the British state.

“How could you dream they’d listen”: the poem gains in intensity in the final verse. Here the tone is incredulous, scornful at the foolishness of those British apologists who insist on dialogue.

“…Those that have an ear alone…Lord Edward and Wolfe Tone”: the actions of the British have reminded the Irish of the history of rebellions against British rule, going back centuries. Lord Edward Fitzgerald and Wolfe Tone were Irish revolutionaries who died in 1798. The line recalls that in ‘Easter 1916’, which talks of “hearts with one purpose”: the Irish will not now listen to or trust the British state.

“Or meddle with our give and take / That converse bone to bone?”: the final lines bring us back to the question of dialogue opened up at the beginning of the poem. The dialogue that now dominates Ireland, Yeats suggests, is not one between Irish nationalism and the British state, but the dialogue between Irishmen and the failed revolutionaries of the past. The Irish conversation is not rational now, but more basic, fundamental. It is captured in the ambiguous image of a conversation between bones; the bones of the dead, and the bones of the living.

[ANTHOLOGY NOTE: ‘Sixteen Dead Men’ continues to document Yeats’ intellectual inquiry into and emotional response to the events and aftermath of Easter 1916. An angry rebuttal of British demands upon the Irish nation during the First World War, it nonetheless retains some of the same ambivalence about the members of the Irish Republican Brotherhood that was a feature of ‘Easter 1916’.]

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