Reprisals – W.B. Yeats


Some nineteen German planes, they say,
You had brought down before you died.
We called it a good death. Today
Can ghost or man be satisfied?
Although your last exciting year
Outweighed all other years, you said,
Though battle joy may be so dear
A memory, even to the dead,
It chases other thought away,
Yet rise from your Italian tomb,
Flit to Kiltartan cross and stay
Till certain second thoughts have come
Upon the cause you served, that we
Imagined such a fine affair:
Half-drunk or whole-mad soldiery
Are murdering your tenants there.
Men that revere your father yet
Are shot at on the open plain.
Where may new-married women sit
And suckle children now? Armed men
May murder them in passing by
Nor law nor parliament take heed.
Then close your ears with dust and lie
Among the other cheated dead.


This highly political poem is addressed to Major Robert Gregory, but instead of eulogizing the man as earlier poems did it describes the British atrocities— reprisals— that have taken place in Ireland since his death. The poem protests that Gregory is not alive to defend the Irish people, who are now subject to tyranny. 

Reprisals: The title references the reprisals that the British government sanctioned against Irish Nationalist revolutionaries in Ireland in 1920. After the First World War, the British government set up militia units to combat Irish republican fighters who, fighting for Irish independence, were attacking members of the Royal Irish Constabulary. These units, made up of demobilised British soldiers, became known as the Black and Tans, and their purpose was to stave off the revolution that had begun in Ireland. They— and other paramilitary units— soon became known for their indiscriminate violence and were responsible for a number of atrocities and murders. The British government followed a policy of reprisals— retaliation, seeking to punish IRA attacks with equal force— against IRA members, their families and communities. These were publicly condemned by the government but privately approved. At this time Hugh Gascoigne-Cecil, a conservative MP, commented: “there is no such thing as reprisals, but they are having a good effect”. In fact the violence of the militias, and British and Irish repulsion towards them, is today held to be one of the key factors in the gaining of Irish independence. It was in this bloody and polarized state of armed rebellion and political repression that Yeats writes this political poem.

It should also be noted that there is an interesting and relevant wordplay here too: to ‘reprise’ means to repeat or, in music, return to a theme. This is the fourth of four poems Yeats wrote about Robert Gregory. It went unpublished; Yeats was loathe to upset neither Gregory’s mother, who did not like the poem, nor Gregory’s wife, who did not share Yeats’ nationalist sympathies.

“Some nineteen planes, they say, / You had brought down…”: Gregory shot down nineteen  planes over the Italian front as a fighter ace. He was widely held an Irish hero, and received the Military Cross and the Legion d’Honneur from France: ‘An Irish Airman Foresees His Death’ celebrates this. Note that Gregory is addressed directly in this poem.

“We called it a good death.”: The first hint of a reconsideration of opinion regarding Gregory’s death. Yeats uses the word “We”: he is not only speaking for himself here, but assumes the voice of the people. Note the short, terse statement here. This terseness is a feature of the poem.

“Today / Can ghost or man be satisfied?”: a rhetorical question, in the face of contemporary political and social unrest. The suggestion of Gregory’s spiritual unrest— his unsatisfied “ghost”— is disturbing.

“Your last exciting year / Outweighed all other years, you said…”: here, Yeats addresses Gregory, rather than giving Gregory voice, as in “An Irish Airman Foresees His Death”. There, Yeats depicted Gregory as a flyer who followed “a lonely impulse of delight” and who “balanced all” before choosing death in flight. The metaphor of weighing things (and so setting them in the balance) continues here, but Yeats’ tone has changed. Perhaps it is the first person address, but the voice in this poem seems more impersonal and judgemental than in ‘An Irish Airman Foresees His Death’: an “impulse of delight” becomes a more banal “exciting year”, while “you said” sounds, perhaps, more accusatory.

“Battle joy may be so dear a memory”: by suggesting that “battle joy” was “so dear” to Gregory, Yeats recalls the classical ideal of the happy warrior, suggesting that this “chases other thought away”. There is an element of regret, perhaps even disapproval here from Yeats, given the British actions in Ireland that are outlined later on in the poem. In a sense, Gregory has come to represent all those Irishmen who made the choice to fight for Britain in the First World War.

“…chases other thought away…”: Those interested in applying the works of Sigmund Freud to literature may spot a symbolic act of repression here. Repression means to turn away from trauma so effectively that a person completely forgets about the thing that first troubled him or her. This poem, in bringing about Gregory’s ghostly return to Ireland, is in a sense all about exposing the deep an ongoing trauma of the unresolved conflict between Ireland and Britain.

“Yet rise from your Italian tomb…”: There is something frightening about this call for the ghostly hero to return home— to confront what has become of Kilkartan Cross and Ireland in Gregory’s absence.

“Flit from Kilkartan Cross and stay / Till certain second thoughts have come”: Gregory is called back home to Kilkartan Cross (see my notes for ‘An Irish Airman Foresees His Death’). What he finds there will bring “second thoughts” on fighting for Britain, “the cause you served”.

“Half-drunk or whole-mad soldiery / Are murdering your tenants there”: the parallel phrasing (“half-drunk or whole-mad”) at the beginning of these lines, expressed nonetheless in plain-speaking language, brings a gathering emotional intensity to these lines (“half” becomes “whole”, “drunk” becomes “mad”). Yeats spells out what is happening in Ireland: the British militias are lawless and murdering the very Irish peasantry who are the Gregory family’s responsibility.

“Men that revere your father / Are shot on the open plain…”: the killings are brazen, and the reference to Gregory’s father again seems to emphasise the importance of duty— to a family, to a people. This is another terse, angry couplet.

“Where may new married women sit…”: this refers to the death of Eileen Quinn in November 1920. Quinn was a pregnant mother of three, shot by Black and Tan paramilitaries from a passing lorry. The case caused scandal and was brought up in parliament: no action was taken against the killers.

“Yet… Sit”, “Plain…Men”, “Heed… Dead”: An important feature of the poem as it lists British atrocities in Ireland is Yeats’ use of a form of rhyme known as half-rhyme. In half-rhyme, the final consonant of words rhyme: though the sounds prior in each word can be quite different. In the first of the half-rhymes in ‘Reprisals’, “tomb” is rhymed with “come”, an ‘m’ sound ending the word. The half-rhymes that Yeats uses at the end of the poem link and vocalize key ideas present in the poem, about death, return and understanding. More importantly, because the sounds of the words do not wholly rhyme with each other, there is a tune of growing discord in the poem— just as Yeats points out the moral and political disorder in contemporary Ireland.    

“Armed men / May murder… take heed”: the use of enjambment and alliteration helps convey the passionate urgency of these three lines. The alliteration also connects injustice and government, as in “passing by” and “parliament”. These are striking lines of political address and protest.

“Then close your ears with dust and lie / Among the other cheated dead”: Yeats ends with another terse couplet, here suggesting an almost recriminatory tone. The “cheated dead” are those Irishmen like Gregory who were lied to by Britain, only that they might later be killed. Yeats’ ending is ambiguous, seeming both conciliatory— in calling for Gregory’s ghost to rest with his countrymen— and yet grim. The final suggestion seems to be that it is better to be entombed in dust than to live in Ireland as it is.

[ANTHOLOGY NOTE: the last of Yeats’ poems in the anthology, this poem of course bears fascinating comparison with ‘An Irish Airman Foresees His Death’ in its change of attitude and tone. As a powerful political poem that expresses betrayal and anger about the conduct of the British government, this poem naturally links to the poetry of a dissenter like Sassoon; while in a more blackly humorous tone G.K. Chesterton also attacks the failures of parliament to prevent bloodshed.]

23 thoughts on “Reprisals – W.B. Yeats”

  1. Yeats poetry may contain morals and messages which make a poem significant but I still don’t like them because there is soooo much background behind every poem and it’s impossible to understand those poems without studying the background. And it seems impossible to memorize the background! I’m glad we are moving on to Sassoon.

  2. I hear what you’re saying, Monika. For the purposes of studying towards an AS exam in WWI literature, Yeats is demanding in terms of context.

    I must say, though, I’ve enjoyed teaching Yeats this year. I think I’ve said in class before that I think I lack the gene for Yeats: some poets you find yourself in sympathy with and immediately love, and it doesn’t always make sense to yourself why that’s so. I liked Yeats as a Celtic writer in university, and some of his poems were undoubtedly beautiful, but I soon moved on. I’ve never missed him, really, and have generally dreaded teaching him, to be honest.

    This year I made a real effort to re-read him. I must say I don’t like the man or, sometimes, the voice that comes through in his poems. He seems very conservative to me, politically and culturally: but let’s face it, so was TS Eliot, who I love. Perhaps its the bag of symbols that Yeats uses for his poetry. They don’t tend to engage me. No: let’s be honest, I often find them tedious, and his mix of mystical mumbo-jumbo and modernism indefensible.

    So it was a pleasurable surprise for me to read his poems this time. I was impressed by his technical brilliance, which sounds moronic. ‘YEATS IS GREAT POET SHOCK’: this is not news. But it’s the formal stuff that excited me: the playing with balanced constructions at the end of ‘An Irish Airman…’, the use of half-rhyme in ‘Reprisals’.

    I must say, I’ve also liked reading the forceful political engagement of ‘Reprisals’ this year- it seems to me a very powerful poem. It also reminds me of a favourite Pablo Neruda poem written about the Spanish Civil War, ‘Let me explain a few things’, which ends: ‘Come and see the blood in the streets. / Come and see / The blood in the streets. / Come and see the blood / In the streets!”

    Any thoughts about reading Yeats from anyone else?

    (In preparation for an answer: I ended up reading a controversial posting about ‘Reprisals’ and ‘An Irish Airman Foresees His Death’ on the Guardian poetry blog, here. Have a look. The author loves Yeats and doesn’t think much of Sassoon and Owen, and many of her posters agree– but some violently disagree.)

  3. It’s unbelievable that some people still agree with Yeats that “passive suffering is not a theme for poetry”. Owen published the truth and opened many people eyes who hadn’t had the chance to experience the front. I personally think that Yeats may have been jealous of Owens poetry.I believe it’s immoral how Yeats criticized Owen just because his beliefs were different. I think Owens poetry is very strong in terms of showing the real picture of war. The whole point of history is that people don’t make the same mistakes again. And I think Owens poetry could shake someone who’s turning his direction towards patriotism.

    1. I wouldn’t say Yeats was jealous of Owen– Yeats was considered one of the greatest poets of his day. And immoral is a strong word for Yeats’ dislike of Owen!

      But I think you’re right to point out that Owen’s poetry is a powerful condemnation of war. Moreover, I think that this moral or political-historical element is a crucial part of all poetry and can’t be ignored, no matter if some critics- and Yeats himself, perhaps- would prefer at times to ignore it.

  4. I agree with Monika, everyone should have the freedom of speech. The fact that so many different poems are written is what makes every poem unique. Every poem is unique in its own way which enables everyone to broaden their knowledge on what others believe. And it’s unacceptable to criticize someone because you don’t agree with him.

    1. “Unacceptable to criticise someone because you don’t agree with them”. Hmm. Don’t you think that sometimes you might have a responsibility to criticise another if you don’t agree with them?

        1. Hmm. If you mean to criticise a man personally for his inoffensive poetry, I agree. But perhaps Yeats thought Owen’s poetry a manifestation of political ideas that he found offensive– left-wing or ‘revolutionary’ or anti-authoritarian ideas (though, incidentally, it seems to have been fine for Yeats to express revolutionary thoughts in poetry in support of Irish independence). If a person expresses political opinions that you deem offensive, perhaps sometimes personal criticism could be warranted?

  5. I agree with the mysterious Monika. Yeats poems contain a lot of background information so the poem is impossible to understand and get into an in-depth analysis about the poem. I find his poems also repeat a lot of the same points and can sometimes be a bit boring compared to a poet like Wilfred owen; his poems are engaging and captivating throughout.

    1. ‘Impossible’ to understand, Toni? Oh dear… I’m not teaching them very well then…! But seriously- you say that Yeats tends to repeat himself. What do you mean by that?

  6. Yeats’ poetry can be difficult to understand. The background knowledge behind his poems are not so much the issue for me. For me the issue his that he disagrees with himself at times and I think he is very stubborn. I say this because he is very emotional in a sense. He praises the “Airman”, but then he contradicts himself by writing negatively about the same man. Therefore I believe he is very confused in a way; by taking that praise away that he gave to the Airman, he disagrees with his own poems.

    Coming back to the background knowledge, I think every poem has its own history behind it and thats the reason why it becomes so essential to study in order to understand what happened in WW1 and see how people really felt.

    1. I absolutely agree with you about the importance of knowing about history when reading poetry: it deepens meaning, and we begin to understand poetry as a part of the world, rather than simply as a refined and today slightly esoteric practice.

      Your point about Yeats’ consistency might seem a little unfair though. Isn’t a man allowed to change his mind?

      1. Certainly is allowed to. But by changing his mind, he makes his previous work (where he praised the airman) a bit silly; as he contradicts to it. I think this makes his poem harder to understand because of his personal issues and no one apart from him knows what happened because of the fact it was personal.

        1. Hmm. I can see something of what you mean, Jarry. I guess I always feel a little outraged on behalf of Gregory that Yeats should seemingly change his tone about him so brazenly (from describing Gregory’s “impulse of delight” to an offhand reference to “your last exciting year”– the tone of the one is transcendental, the other a sports journalist writing up a Wayne Rooney biography). If Yeats is filled with a righteous anger about the British reprisals, it seems churlish to find fault in Gregory when he exulted in his death before.

          Ultimately the question of whether to join the British military or not was a tortuous and conflicted one for many Irishmen, even amongst committed Irish republicans like the poet Francis Edward Ledwidge. Yeats, it strikes me, did not take the risky choice, but I accept that may be an opinion borne of ignorance.

  7. I think that Yeats’ poetry can be difficult to understand if you don’t know the background knowledge especially on Easter 1916. I quite like the factual, serious tone through the poem. And I quite like the fact as well as its not just for the Irish soldiers. It can be for all of them. But I don’t like the fact that he gives the message that they died for the wrong reasons.

  8. I think that In Yeats’ poems you have to focus on the context and not the literal meaning. I agree with Jarry and think that you really do need an understanding of history to understand W.B. Yeats’ poems. I disagree with monkia and Toni because you just need to know the extra details and background information to understand his poems.

  9. I agree with Abdul. I think that not every poem will be based and targetted for a larger audience- some may be based on a event or a person and be very specific. I think once the background information is collected, it becomes easy to understand the poem and it becomes more personal. However, I think that this poem is quite hypocritical of Yeats as he writes a really positive eulogy to Robert Gregory in his ‘An Irish Airman Foresees His Death’ and criticises him in the next. Yet I think that as the poem is written later and time has passed on, Yeats has acknowledged more information about the war and its nature which forces him to change his views.

  10. I agree with Akansha and believe that poetry is more engaging and interesting if it is based on real events. The death of Robert may have affected Yeats as he was a brave and admired airman who had provided his country with safety and triumph. However his death implies the anger he has in his later poem as he did not want him to pass away and leave his country in this state.

  11. I agree with Aakansha; what I was trying to say was that once you know the background information, the poem is easy to understand- but if you were to read the poem without knowing any background information, then the poem would not make any sense. It wouldn’t give you the same meaning that it would when knowing the meaning and purpose behind the poem…

  12. This, by the way, is WB Yeats’ justification for leaving writers like Owen out of his Oxford Book of Modern Verse:

    “I have a distaste for certain poems written in the midst of the great war; they are in all anthologies, but I have substituted Herbert Read’s ‘End of a War’ written long after. The writers of these poems were invariably officers of exceptional courage and capacity, one a man constantly selected for dangerous work, all, I think, had the Military Cross; their letters are vivid and humorous, they were not without joy — for all skill is joyful — but felt bound, in the words of the best known, to plead the suffering of their men. In poems that had for a time considerable fame, written in the first person, they made that suffering their own. I have rejected these poems for the same reason that made Arnold withdraw his ‘Empedocles on Etna’ from circulation; passive suffering is not a theme for poetry. In all the great tragedies, tragedy is a joy to the man who dies; in Greece the tragic chorus danced. When man has withdrawn into quicksilver at the back of the mirror no great event becomes luminous in his mind; it is no longer possible to write ‘The Persians’, ‘Agincourt’, ‘Chevy Chase’: some blunderer has driven his car on to the wrong side of the road — that is all.

    If war is necessary, or necessary in our time and place, it is best to forget its suffering as we do the discomfort of fever, remembering our comfort at midnight when our temperature fell, or as we forget the worst moments of more painful disease.”

    It’s an interesting observation to set alongside ‘On Being Asked for A War Poem’, isn’t it?

    Personally, even given the long view of war literature, I think he spectacularly misses the point: “it is no longer possible to write ‘The Persians’, ‘Agincourt’, ‘Chevy Chase'”, Yeats mourns. Indeed, modern warfare does make these kind of poems impossible: the First World War did indeed more resemble a car crash than the death of Achilles. Yet to shade human experience and historical truth for “luminous” heroic poetry is ultimately- to my mind- contemptible.

  13. In both Airman and Reprisals Yeats is questioning war and its directions going to political views. In Airman he fights only for Kiltartan Cross his village family, friends neighbors not for the British cause.. In Reprisals he lashes out again against the use politicians and their causes have in going into war.
    He is of course speaking more fondly in Airman and more anquished about the waste of war.

  14. Can anyone tell me where this was originally published? I can’t seem to find it in any Yeats anthologies and I’m dying for a physical copy.

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