Chapter 3, a summary: Sebastian Barry’s ‘A Long, Long Way’

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Eastward ho! For Willie and co. Now:

Summary

Chapter three begins with Willie and his company manning a trench ironically dubbed Sackville Street (the name of Dublin’s main thoroughfare, later the site of the Post Office where the Easter 1916 rising began, and today named O’Connell Street, after the Irish political leader). Willie does not know where he is but notes the flowered graves that mark a great battle nearby (in fact, Willie appears to be stationed somewhere near Ypres; later, in April, the second battalion of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers would see action north of the city in the small village of St Julien). Noticing the graves and the lingering grief of those on the front, Willie’s former romanticism begins to be replaced by traumatic fear. His hands involuntarily shake with the thought of the deaths of those in the supply party.

Sergeant Major Christy Moran satirically entertains Willie and company in a forward trench. He talks of how he longs to take a girl out on a date at home in Kingstown on Dublin bay, and contrasts the attractions of a woman with the revolting conditions (and revolting men) at the front. Captain Pasley then appears for the first time in the novel: he emerges from a dug out and consults Moran about missing rations. He appears generous and cavalier—he pleases his men by declaring he will ensure double rations the next day, and unselfconsciously alarms them by placing his head above the trench parapet to gaze out on no-man’s land. Pasley speaks admiringly of the beauty of the landscape and night sky, and evidently wins Willie and the company over, with his aristocratic air of confident and sensitive control. Pasley tells the men he will be leading a party out into no-man’s land that night.

Willie goes out that night as part of the wiring party with Pasley, Moran, Clancy and others. Willie carries immense wire cutters as they check four hundred metres of line in no-man’s land, looking for gaps in the barbed wire laid. As they fix the wire Captain Pasley spots a German patrol, and the group taking cover, Willie pisses himself in fear on the ground. Yet, as the Germans pass by, Willie is elated to find his fear has passed too. He grins in ecstacy at the knowledge he has passed this first test; that fear has not debilitated him. Moran and the rest of the crew, relieved, make their way back to the safety of their trench.

Questions

A short chapter, this, but important, and containing a first set-piece description of a common soldier’s task, wiring in no-man’s land. Barbed wire, first invented in the US as a way of penning cattle, was the first line of trench defence for armies on both sides of the Western Front: this Western Front Association article is particularly informative.

“Willie was not thinking of the killed supply party exactly. But his hands were.” (p.30) How does this sentence work? How does it describe Willie’s state of mind at this stage in the novel? How is it suggested that “thinking” works here? Try and answer these questions by breaking down the structure and possible meanings within the sentence; no shortcuts via Freud, please.

This chapter introduces the character of Captain Pasley to the novel. Earlier, Willie’s father is pleased to discover that Pasley would lead his son’s platoon, for “everyone knew the Pasleys and they were highly respected people and had a lovely garden there around their house”: he is sure the young Captain “would be a chip off the old block” (p.22). A number of questions suggest themselves about this figure. What kind of character is introduced to us in this chapter? What behaviour, what interests and observations mark Pasley out? In what way does he seem different to the men he commands? In what ways are these inflected by his class? What aspects of his character seem laudable—and what seem dangerous in this situation? How do the men regard him?

“So they rose up like shadows of the dead from their lair at the bulking of the night, a fierce frieze of stars rampant above” (p.32). A line like this, as the wiring party steps out into no-man’s land, has that remarkable poetic quality that Barry is well known for. Look again at this sentence, and consider how it works. What similes and metaphors does it employ, and what are their effect upon the reader? Where does the colloquial Irish voice emerge? What is the significance of the night sky here? (The sky is a focus again and again in trench literature, and not only because of the threat presented there to men). Barry writes in this lyrical way because, in all likelihood, he can write in no other way: so what does such a narrative voice bring to this First World War narrative? Are there any problems in using this narrative voice when writing about the First World War?

Drawing Links

This chapter’s focus on wiring in this chapter naturally calls to mind two important poems from the Oxford Anthology: Ivor Gurney’s ‘The Silent One’ and Isaac Rosenberg’s ‘Dead Man’s Dump’. Gurney’s poem describes the momentary dilemma a private faces as his commanding officer instructs him to crawl through a gap in the wire in no-man’s land. Gurney’s poem is a beautifully written masterpiece of irony and understatement, telling of a kind of heroic rationalism that is, at one and the same time, anti-heroic. As a poem it’s colloquial yet lyrical, just as Barry’s writing is. Rosenberg’s poem, on the other hand, is one of the most grueling written during the war. It describes a wiring party traversing no-man’s land after a battle. Their carriage, containing wire and stakes, runs over the bodies of the dead as the soldiers, numb, cross the infernal space. It is a horrifying, anguished poem, part documentary, part existential scream. The situation Willie faces in the novel is more akin to that described by Gurney’s protagonist, though Gurney’s speaker (like Rosenberg’s) is far more self-aware than Barry’s creation. Both Gurney and Rosenberg, however, were privates during the war, subject to the commands of their COs and NCOs, and this most important fact influences all their wartime poetry. It also establishes another commonality with Barry’s creation, which through the character of Willie brings a welcome focus on the experience of the private soldier.

On a personal note I found in this a chapter a number of things to like. First, the swan’s feet submerged beneath the elegant body of the text: Barry’s hard graft of research really begins to show here. His easy and unshowy employment of his knowledge of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers’ campaign is impressive. Next, there is the writing itself, which occasionally has that poetic precision you find in a great writer such as Joseph Conrad—a rare pleasure in prose. I also liked the presentation of the character of Captain Pasley, added now to that of the likeably rueful Christie Moran. I think Barry captures an interesting class dynamic in this character’s relationship with his men, something true of the way the war threw members of different classes together (all in their proper order, naturally).

Chapter 2, a summary: Sebastian Barry’s ‘A Long, Long Way’

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Many apologies for the length of time between some of my posts here. For those not in the know, I’m off school at the moment, looking after my wife, who has leukemia. Thankfully this week I’ve found time to get back to the book.

So, without the slightest ado, let’s get to it.

Summary— Chapter Two

Chapter two begins with Willie Dunne reading a newspaper with his father on an evening. The paper that the pair read together runs impressive stories of patriotic commitment: accounts of different peoples from around the world mobilizing to fight on behalf of the British Empire. Willie recalls an Irish Times article recounting a (now famous) speech given by John Redmond that declared his conditional approval for the enlistment of Irish volunteers. Willie’s father notes scornfully that this call for enlistment in the cause of Home Rule is precisely the opposite reason many Ulstermen are volunteering. Willie’s father, as a loyalist, is hostile to both Redmond and nationalism, and instead extols to Willie the virtues of King, Country and Empire. Yet when Willie unexpectedly enlists, his father weeps. Willie’s sisters react excitedly, though his eldest sister Maud is tense.

Willie joins the Royal Dublin Fusiliers and by December is training in Fermoy, County Cork. He writes a letter home about the training there and his new friends, Privates Williams and Clancy. In January the soldiers hear with some ambivalence about Christmas truces with the Germans on the Western front. One of Willie’s particular problems at camp is finding the privacy to masturbate.

The narrative moves swiftly on to the day of the Fusiliers’ departure for Belgium. The regiment arrives at a railway station in Dublin and parades through the city on the way to the docks. The adulation of the crowd excites the marching men. Willie hopes to see Gretta and his sisters on the day, but does not.

The villages of England similarly salute the tired soldiers as they roll through on their troop train. The incongruity of Irishmen being cheered by the English is noted by some of the young men. Willie listens as they joke with one another. While his friends confidently talk, he remains reflective, dimly grasping a broader history and fate that takes men from all over Britain to the front. This confluence of soldiery in a great cause excites a sense of manhood in Willie.

The men arrive in France. They are thrilled to be abroad, taking in the small but significant differences of landscape to home. Willie’s sense of euphoria in his newfound vocation continues, but his overenthusiastic reverie ultimately overtakes him. After imagining a horse charge whilst travelling on a swaying transport, he vomits up his breakfast.

The men finally arrive at the trenches. The artillery bombardment they find is vicious and terrifying and ongoing. Willie feels the fear of war for the first time.

The narrative leaps forward. The platoon are eating together while Sergeant Major Christie Moran spies no-man’s land. Moran, exhausted and splenetic, curses the British Army to the amusement of his comrades. He damns it as the very institution that has repressed the Irish for centuries. Moran is on the edge; as he and his men perform their ablutions before taking the firestep at stand-to, his internal monologue escapes him and he talks ruefully to himself of his misfortune, overheard by the men.

Later, the men learn that the German bombardment of the night previous has destroyed the supply trench behind, killing the men there. There is nothing for the platoon to eat that night.

Questions

Here are some questions that occur when reading chapter two.

As Barry begins the second chapter he manages to convey some of the contemporary excitement in the press at the start of the war (pp. 14-15). How is this presented? How does Willie react to this excitement? In what ways does his father’s reaction to the news reveal tensions in Irish society?

Barry effectively conveys the emotional aftermath of Willie Dunne’s decision to enlist (p.15). How does Barry manage to do this- what relationships does he focus on? How do the reactions of his characters create an emotive impact?

Chapter two is largely preoccupied with Willie Dunne, his experiences, thoughts and feelings. He is presented as an innocent, even naive young man, subject to the desires of youth. What passages does Barry use to reveal important aspects of Willie’s character? Where does Willie seem innocent, where naïve, and where gullible to the reader?

Another feature of Chapter two is the introduction of Willie’s comrades-at-arms. These men are our most profound introduction to Barry’s notion of Ireland and Irishness so far. How does Barry first present Willie’s comrades? What kind of men are they? What kind of language do they use when they speak to each other? What sort of culture do they seem to come from?

It is important that you begin to get to grips with Irish history and the significance of the John Redmond speech referred to in this chapter. Follow the links I have inserted into the first chapter of the summary above. What do you now understand by the term ‘home rule’? Who was John Redmond– and what is his significance in the story of home rule? Why did John Redmond declare nationalist support for the enlistment of the Irish volunteers? By contrast, in ‘A Willie’s father in ‘A Long, Long Way’ is a loyalist and unionist. What do you understand by these terms?

For me, the second chapter of the novel is surprisingly brisk in pace— running from life in the Dunne household, to regimental training, to Willie’s departure from Ireland, journeying through England to Belgium and then finally seeing action on the Western Front in a swift fourteen pages. I thought the movement a little too theatrical for my liking, as if Barry were energetically shooing us to curtains up in Flanders (the use of a letter home to draw the sum of Willie’s training struck me as too economical, for example).

Barry is not afraid of utilising the worn stones of historical cliché in laying the path to his scene. Never such innocence, never before or since, and all that— and just because a saying is much repeated does not make it untrue. Yet Willie so far is an unremarkable character, performing the age-old narrative function of the wide-eyed youth thrust blinking into the fallen world of experience (see Candide, Oliver Twist, William Boot, Ballard’s Jim or any number of genre protagonists).

There’s the Irishness that’s undoubtedly interesting, of course, and the richness of the language that Barry reproduces in the dialogue and narration; but so far, the story rests on a too-easy sentiment that bothers me. But there is a reason why Sebastian Barry is a twice Costa-winning author, and I am just some Joe, teaching English literature in a secondary school in West London.

Opening Lines: Sebastian Barry’s ‘A Long, Long Way’

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Mick Jagger’s inaccurate passport. Note, ‘Dartford’, not ‘crossfire hurricane’.

I’ve recently been reading Terry Eagleton’s ‘How to Read Literature’. Terry Eagleton was once one of academia’s most interesting and, if you can believe it, entertaining writers on literary theory: a bullish Marxist who put the catholic into Roman Catholic. His most famous book, ‘Literary Theory: An Introduction’ (1983) remains a scalpel sharp critical history of the field, and to its everlasting credit, it makes you laugh too. ‘How to Read Literature’ (2013) is a much more accessible if timid read, intended as a kind of instruction manual for students of close reading, a sensitive account of different ways of reading a text. I mention it because in it Eagleton writes an interesting chapter on the openings of novels. He begins by circling around this opening line from EM Forster’s A Passage to India:

Except for the Marabar Caves— and they are twenty miles off— the city of Chandrapore presents nothing extraordinary.

His analysis of this line—which you’ll have to read the book for—stirs a broader commentary about novelistic beginnings:

As with the opening of a lot of novels, there is something of a setpiece feel to this, as the author clears his throat and formally sets the scene. A writer tends to be on his best behaviour at the beginning of Chapter 1, eager to impress, keen to catch the fickle reader’s eye, and occasionally pulling out all the stops. Even so, he must be beware of overdoing it, not least if he is a civilized middle-class Englishman like EM Forster who values reticence and indirectness…

The poise of the syntax… is elegant in an unshowy kind of way. It is deftly managed and manipulated, but with quiet good manners refuses to rub this in one’s face. There is no suggestion of ‘fine writing’, or of what is sometimes called ‘purple’ (excessively ornate) prose. The author’s eye is too closely on the object for any such self-indulgence.  

Reading this made me reflect on the opening of Barry’s novel. Eagleton, of course, is right about the beginnings of novels. It’s something every GCSE English teacher cynically preaches to his students when asking them to write creatively: make sure that first line is a doozy. Get the reader involved; get them asking questions. And indeed, we see Barry keen to impress in the opening of ‘A Long, Long Way’. Compare the first line of the novel—

He was born in the dying days.

—with the first line of the second chapter.

Willie Dunne was not the only one.

If you want to be kind, you might say that there’s a fair amount to be said about that first line, but heavens to Murgatroyd! There’s very little interesting to be said about the second. The former is crafted, colloquial yet lyrical, ambiguous; the latter is throwaway, formless and vague. So perhaps that opening sentence—

He was born in the dying days.

—is worth dwelling on.

If I were asked for a single word to describe this opening line, the one that I would use is portentious. In any story worth telling, the narrator knows something important that we don’t, of course. The thing that the narrator knows at the start of ‘A Long, Long Time’ seems to be beyond the everyday, however, and gestures towards something of great moment. He was born in the dying days. The line has an obvious tension, between the birth announced at its beginning and the dying days invoked at the end, as if to announce to the reader, this is a story of life and death, no less, of beginnings and endings. While there is no contradiction here—a birth can occur during the last days of a historical period, say, or regime—there is an ominousness about the line. This birth seems out of place, or more correctly, it seems to have occurred at precisely the wrong time—in the dying days. On finishing the line, it is the nature of those fearful days that the reader is poised to wonder about.

The line is composed in such a way as to lead us to this question. It has two parts, pivoting around that word ‘in’. The first half of the sentence reads ‘He was born in’. The text begins, then, with the simple promise found in every realist novel, the creation of character from believable detail. We probably expect something documentary to follow: ‘Dublin’, perhaps, or ‘1896’, if we were particularly wonderful guessers. We don’t get it. The second half of the sentence holds off this satisfaction, for the mysterious man who is the subject of the sentence was born “in the dying days”.

The surprise we might feel when we read this follows on one level the nature of our everyday encounter with language. If we went to Wandsworth town hall, say, and asked a registrar when or where a particular person was born, we would be surprised to receive an answer like “He was born in the ripe fullness of time”. Similarly, if we read a newspaper obituary that read “He was born in a crossfire hurricane” we would suspect either the dead man was Mick Jagger, or the writer was cheerfully describing a very traumatic birth indeed. Our first expectation in many, but by no means all circumstances, is to have a literal and the factual statement follow the words, ‘He was born in’. What in fact follows is metaphorical and idiomatic.

Now, because this is a literary text, this isn’t quite as bizarre as the situation outlined above. We are schooled to expect surprising metaphors and florid language in literary texts, and our use of language, after all, is contingent on circumstance and expectation. And indeed the phrase ‘in the dying days’ is not so strange as to be outlandish. It is an idiom, a figure of speech familiar enough to many English speakers, that means ‘in the last days’ or ‘at the end of’. As a phrase we commonly find it appended with ‘of’ and then, again, a phrase or word more concrete: ‘the Nineteenth Century’, ‘the fin-de-siecle’, ‘British rule in Ireland’, ‘1896’, and so on. In paring back the longer, more precise idiom to the ambiguous metaphor that is its stem, the text cleverly holds off the reader’s satisfaction of meaning for a second time.

It also revives what was previously a dead metaphor— that is, a piece of language so overused as to have lost its original interest and suggestiveness. Once clipped of its withered leaves and knotted wood, the stem phrase left, ‘In the dying days’, now regains a little suggestive life. ‘The dying days’ now begins to darkly hint at apocalypse, at the end of days, rather than being merely some simple verbal colour used for describing historical dates or periods. Even if this were not a novel set during the First World War, we might begin to see the shadow of those coming events in this first line.

Finally, the abbreviation of the phrase also suggests another characteristic of Barry’s writing style. I am not simply referring here to the author’s surprising lyricism, his foregrounding of metaphorical techniques more commonly expected in poetry than prose. Rather, it is the writer’s use of idiom that is interesting. For in writing of ‘the dying days’ there is a sense that Barry is employing colloquial as much as poetic language—that he is using a familiar language about a familiar subject. That familiar language, it seems logical to propose, is the everyday language of the English-speaking Irishman (the name is for the dialect proper is Hiberno-English). And the familiar subject for these Irishmen? Endings, clearly: of the unmourned Nineteenth Century, of British rule, and of those Irishmen subject to the violence of that rule, with its history of immiseration and famine. This opening line tempts us to listen in on, and get closer to this conversation of the Irish, where mention of ‘the dying days’ at any time carries its own irony of history.

He was born in the dying days: this sentence may have only seven words, but it contains several surprises. All the better, then, for us to read on.

Chapter 1, a summary: Sebastian Barry’s ‘A Long, Long Way’

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So, we begin our reading. This post will hopefully be quite functional. You will need, come exam-time, a way to refresh your minds about the content of the novel. That will be the function of these summaries, and I will tag each of them (look right!) as ‘Chapter Summaries’.

After writing my summary, I’ll ask you a series of questions I want you to consider. You can answer these questions (or offer an opinion on the first chapter) below the line in the comments section.

I’ll write a more detailed response to the first chapter in a subsequent post. But for the moment, here is my summary of the first chapter of Sebastian Barry’s ‘A Long, Long Way’.

Summary— Chapter One

The novel begins in Ireland in 1896. A child, Willie Dunne, is born as a thunderstorm rages outside the Rotunda maternity hospital in Dublin city centre.

One of Willie’s early memories is recounted: the contentious visit of King Edward the Seventh to the city in 1903. Willie’s childish recollection is only that the King was “as big as a bed” and that his father, James Dunne, a policeman, was on duty on a “big white horse” that day.

Willie is brought up with great affection by both his mother and father; but his mother dies in childbirth when Willie is twelve, and Willie is brought up by his father and three sisters. As he grows, Willie deeply feels her loss. Moreover, his father’s hopeful expectations that Willie will follow in his footsteps and become a policeman are frustrated by Willie’s small physical size. Willie feels his inadequacy keenly.

The narrative leaps forward to early 1914, when Willie is just short of seventeen years old and has become a fairly contented apprentice builder. Willie regularly runs an errand for his father to take offerings of food to a Mr Lawlor, a neighbour living in a slum tenement dwelling nearby. There he meets Gretta Lawlor, a thirteen year old girl with whom he falls in love.

Mr Lawlor, a carter and marcher on behalf of trades union recognition, was severely injured in street fighting accompanying the Dublin lockout of 1913, beaten by Dublin Metropolitan Policemen under James Dunne’s command. He scorns Willie’s father’s sympathy for him as a sign of the policeman’s doubt as to the morality of the DMP’s violent strike-breaking. He seems to the young Willie a cussed but principled man.

Like many of the Dublin poor forcibly dismissed after the lockout, Mr Lawlor joins the British Army. His duties mean he is often away from home. At first lustily infatuated with the beautiful Gretta, Willie’s visits as the year progresses lead to a growing intimacy and love. The young couple’s relationship remains secret to their fathers, but even given the Lawlor’s poverty (set against the Dunne’s middle class respectability) Willie is confident that he can gain his father’s permission to marry.

At the outbreak of the war in August, Willie explains to Gretta that he is going to join the British Army. His motivation is hazy: he repeats early propaganda about murderous Germans, but more pertinently perhaps, his wish to please his father. Gretta is unhappy and does not want him to go, but Willie reminds her of his father’s opinion that a man should act according to his own thoughts and beliefs. The chapter closes as Gretta discloses that, ironically, these opinions are taken from the Christian philosopher, St Thomas Aquinas.

Questions

Here are some questions it occurs to me to ask about this technically accomplished first chapter.

The opening of the novel (pp. 1-2) seems concerned with beginnings and endings. What represents this in this early passage? Can you find examples of this tension within the text? Why do you think that Barry begins his novel in this way?

It seems to me that Barry very efficiently and economically manages to describe the life of William Dunne as a child (pp. 4-6). How does Barry manage to do this? What does he focus on to create a sense of depth of character? Why does this work?

Barry engages swiftly with the violent upheaval in Irish society at this time (pp.6-11). Why do you think that James Dunne sends food to Mr. Lawlor after the violent breakup of a union rally? Why does Mr. Lawlor tolerate the young William Dunne as he does? What, perhaps, might Barry be suggesting about conflict in Irish society in 1914?

William and Gretta’s relationship provokes some of the narrator’s most extravagant similes and metaphors in the opening chapter— “He was in love with Gretta like a poor swan was in love with the Liffey and cannot leave it, no matter how often the boys of Dublin stone her nest”, or “she looked like an angel, at least how an angel ought to look” (pp. 11-12). The narrator’s language is often lyrical, though it strikes me here that a note of irony is employed when describing their relationship. What does such language seem to say about Willie’s feelings for Gretta? What differences are there in the way the narrator presents Willie, and how the narrator presents Gretta? How does the lyrical narration affect the tone of the work?

I also wonder what interested you about this first chapter. I thought it a confident and above all controlled opening. This is a mature writer who has learnt that it is economy of detail that is most persuasive in establishing character and setting. I am also, however, somewhat perturbed by the elegiac and lyrical tone of the opening passages— this isn’t necessarily my kind of writing, but I’m keen to read on. Just as well, really.

Thinking Historically: Form, the Historical Novel, and Sebastian Barry’s ‘A Long, Long Way’

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‘Disbanded’, an engraved illustration for Sir Walter Scott’s ‘Waverley’, after a painting by John Pettie. (Wikimedia)

Before we begin reading ‘A Long, Long Way’ we would do well to ask ourselves some basic questions about literature and how we tell stories about history. What kind of story are we going to read? Indeed, what do we already know about ‘A Long Long Way’ by Sebastian Barry?

Barry’s novel, written in 2005, tells the story of a young Dubliner, Willie Dunne, born at the turn of the nineteenth century: turning in pretty quick time from recounting his unremarkable childhood to his ultimately grueling experience as an Irish soldier in the British army during the First World War.

This is about as brief a summary as it is possible to give, what screenwriters call a logline, but it’ll do for now. We’ll avoid spoilers, because we are going to read this story together.

From this summary we already know enough to start locating Barry’s novel within the traditions of literary form. In the following post, I want to focus first on a useful definition of what form in literature actually is; then, I want to examine more closely the type of novel that Barry adopts to tell his story, known as the historical novel.

Form

You’ll recognise the term ‘form’, of course. You’ll have been taught about form, structure and language in English lessons since way back when. This doesn’t mean, however, that the term ‘form’ is necessarily easy to understand, as I can testify from a decade of teaching. In fact, of the three terms mentioned, I would say that form as a concept is often the most difficult to fully grasp. This is because it’s often intuitively simple to recognise form- to see that that some texts are similarly shaped, while others are recognisably different. Yet it is far more difficult to understand or explain why certain forms are as they are, and what categorical details make them similar or different to others. If you’re doing the AQA English Literature exam, recognising and understanding form is important: Assessment Objective 2 demands that students “analyse ways in which meanings are shaped in literary texts, with particular focus on the structures of texts as a form of shaping.”

So what is form? Briefly described, form is the organisation, shape or framework for any literary composition, and these forms of literature develop historically. Writers tend to work within the framework of form that they have inherited from previous writers. Form helps shape a writer’s work, supplying an already-evolved framework for him or her to work within and adapt. The expectations we have of form also of course shape an audience’s expectations.

Whilst there are many forms in literature, the three major forms tend to be identified as poetry, plays and novels. These forms have historical roots in the particular societies out of which they grew. Poetry is the oldest literary form, the product of oral prehistoric cultures: a spoken, rhetorical form that developed out of religious and social rituals such as commemorating the heroes and the dead of a community in battle, or celebrating patron gods and goddesses. Drama develops later, first in Europe in classical Greece: there, drama grew out of an extension of public religious rituals and festivals, becoming in democratic Athens a focus for the acting out of ethical and social dilemmas before the public. The modern novel is, by comparison, a very recent invention, emerging in the eighteenth century as a form explicitly concerned with the individual and his or her interior life. While there is a broad debate about what impelled the invention of this remarkable new form, critical opinion generally holds that it developed out of a new emphasis on the individual that ran in parallel with the development of bourgeois Capitalism in the West. The novel, in this sense, can be understood to be an active part of the invention of the individual and individualism in the modern age.

Form, then, is historically derived and grows out of a particular social content: the lives of specific peoples, in specific societies, at different stages of development. These forms remain available for subsequent generations to adopt and adapt.

The Historical Novel

Even the three major forms contain many other forms and subgenres, and these again are historically derived. Let us consider two novel genres: the Gothic novel and the historical novel. In 1814 Sir Walter Scott wrote ‘Waverley’, the novel that is generally accepted to be the first true historical novel. By contrast, Horace Walpole’s ‘The Castle of Otranto’, similarly generally accepted to be the first Gothic novel, is a fiction set in medieval times and was written before Scott’s novel, in 1764. Despite the fact that ‘The Castle of Otranto’ is set some time between the eleventh and thirteenth centuries, it is not read as a historical novel. Why?

The answer is that Walpole’s novel does not seek to realistically evoke the medieval period; the medieval setting is in fact secondary to Walpole’s interest in creating an appropriately fantastical and beguiling time and location for a supernatural tale of haunted castles and talking skeletons. ‘Waverley’, on the other hand, romantically recreates the lost world of the Scottish highlands at the time of the last Jacobite rebellion, describing in detail the social tumult that accompanied the death of the clan system and the birth of Enlightenment Scotland. It is not that the adventures of Edward Waverley are particularly plausible in ‘Waverley’ that makes this latter a historical novel; it is, rather, the fact these adventures (however unlikely though they be) are rooted in a particular material narrative of Scottish history, without which the story of Edward Waverley could not in any meaningful sense be written.

How might the invention of this genre be said to be historically derived, then? Marxist literary critics such as Georg Lukacs argue that the historical novel is invented at the beginning of the nineteenth century precisely because the French revolution and the triumph of bourgeois society across Europe led to a new consciousness of history as a dynamic narrative, as a story in which there is social rupture and radical political change— a narrative that could be written. The same critics would argue that the Gothic novel stems rather from an earlier secularisation of the West, caused by advancing industrial Capitalism. This secularisation led to English writers expressing a growing fascination with the Catholic ‘Old World’ of Europe as exotic, mysterious, enchanted and grotesque. Indeed, in the more fully industrialised and secularised eras of the Victorian age and beyond, the Gothic has grown increasingly popular as a genre; just as the popularity of the historical novel has continued to grow in the ever-more forward-facing and rootless societies of the industrial West.

Engaging with History

Clearly, ‘A Long, Long Way’ is a historical novel. The book tells a story set over a hundred years before. Moreover, the story is set at the time of two great historical fractures; one in the history of Europe and the world, the other in the history (or rather, histories) of Great Britain and Ireland. The first, of course, is what contemporaries called the Great War; the second, the period of political upheaval during the 1910s and 20s known as the Irish Revolutionary Period. Many critics would argue that the degree to which the novel engages with this history of state violence and revolution will, to some degree or other, determine whether in literary terms it is a successful historical novel.

Yet it may be that Barry has no interest in wars or revolutions at all. It may be that he has chosen, as in fact many historical novelists do, to a present a particular age as a picturesque or interesting backdrop, to create a fascinating setting that adds romance and spice to a tale. One contemporary definition of the historical novel is indeed simply a novel set in the past, after all. Such texts can be fun— the film industry alone makes a lot of money out of them. And indeed, even historical novels that play with historical setting or adapt historical detail to contemporary expectation are not always naïve: it is possible to explore history as one adaptable form of storytelling among others, as a kind of narrative itself (the term for this kind of narrative about other narratives is metanarrative). This can certainly be one kind of engagement with history; though such gaming with narrative will often willfully cleave the reader from a sense of particular time and place within the text. Another name for this state of being cleaved from history, of rootless character and an immersion in a seductive but empty world of objects is Postmodernity, the age in which all of us live, but contemplating that is for another post entirely.

The author’s engagement with history in ‘A Long, Long Way’ could be manifested in any number of ways in the book. The inflection that the narrator gives to this encounter with history will be determined by any number of choices. What is the author interested in exploring? Romantic love? Comradeship? Perhaps a sense of nation or familial belonging? Hatred and betrayal? Trade Union agitation in early Twentieth century Dublin? The violence inherent in European imperialism? The author is not limited to pursuing one of these ideas. Will the story follow the soldier Willie Dunne throughout? Will his character be stationed in Ireland? On the Western Front? In Turkey or Iraq? The story the author wants to tell will engineer and encourage certain encounters with history and exclude others. Will his story reproduce the content of other tales of the First World War? What political or moral lessons will it wittingly or unwittingly propagate?

As readers we need to be sensitive to the presentation of history that we find in ‘A Long Long Way’, and react to it critically. In writing a historical novel, an author makes decisions about a period and the people who live in it, some of which may be conscious, others unexamined. We need to recognise that what we read is the product of certain choices the author has made: it is a construct. Characters, setting, the plotting of events, all are authorial constructions, and to attend to them as such is to refuse an innocent response to the book and to seriously engage with literature as literature. By the same reasoning, as readers, we also need to be self-reflexive in approaching the text, willing to be challenged on our own assumptions about history and what literature should be.

My next post will summarise Chapter One and ask for some first responses to the novel.

And now for something completely different.

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As my last post noted, the AQA English Literature A exam has changed. The  poems from Jon Stallworthy’s Oxford Book of War Poetry are still examined, of course, and I hope my notes for those poems will continue to be useful for you in revising for their exams. The links to wider reading that you find here will continue to be relevant to your studies. But in the new exam, these poems will be read in tandem with another text– a novel or drama. Clearly, then, for this site to remain fully relevant to the exam, we need to engage with the new element, a post-2000 novel or drama, and find the ways in which Stallworthy’s selection of poems might be found to be relevant to such a text.

Here, then, is the beginning of what I hope will be a study project that allows us to explore some of the key texts in the 2016 AQA English Literature A-level examination.

Over the next few months my students and I will be reading and writing about Sebastian Barry’s novel, ‘A Long Long Way’. This is the text we have chosen at Southfields Academy to study in combination with the Oxford Book of War Poetry.

For revision purposes I will post onto the blog at the end of every chapter a brief summary of the events that occurred in that chapter, and pose some of the questions that I feel that the chapter opens up for the reader. My students will respond, giving their own commentaries on the text, and supplying resources to the project for their peers to read and consider.

You can respond to those commentaries, answer those questions and proffer an opinion on points of interest on the Barry’s novel as we go. Join us as we read, and help us to broaden our understanding of this newly examined text.

Moreover, because ‘A Long Long Way’ is examined by comparing what we find in the novel to what we find in the poems in Stallworthy’s anthology, we will consider exactly what poems from that anthology engage with or influence the text.

As we go, I will also offer links, resources and analysis for you to explore crucial parts of the text. What kind of novel is ‘A Long Long Way’? What social or historical contexts inform the text? What have been other readers’ responses to the text? These questions and others will allow us to take a critical stance on the text, and allow us to participate in ongoing literary debates.

Do read along with us.

Reprisals – W.B. Yeats

‘Reprisals’

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.

NOTES

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.]

An Irish Airman Foresees His Death – W.B. Yeats

‘An Irish Airman Foresees His Death’

I know that I shall meet my fate
Somewhere among the clouds above;
Those that I fight I do not hate,
Those that I guard I do not love;
My country is Kiltartan Cross,
My countrymen Kiltartan’s poor,
No likely end could bring them loss
Or leave them happier than before.
Nor law, nor duty bade me fight,
Nor public men, nor cheering crowds,
A lonely impulse of delight
Drove to this tumult in the clouds;
I balanced all, brought all to mind,
The years to come seemed waste of breath,
A waste of breath the years behind
In balance with this life, this death.

NOTES

This poem is a eulogy to Major Robert Gregory, a man whom Yeats greatly admired. In it, the dead man (who was killed in action with the Royal Flying Corps over Italy) is given voice by Yeats. The airman’s joy in flight, it is found, transcends all other claims on him and provides his sole motivation and justification for going to war.

An Irish Airman foresees his Death: Yeats wrote four poems in total about Robert Gregory, two of which feature in the anthology (the other being the later, sourer ‘Reprisals’). Gregory’s mother, Lady Augusta Gregory of Coole, was a much admired friend of Yeats. She was an important figure in the Irish literary revival, a dramatist whose interest in the Irish language and Irish mythology helped convert her to cultural nationalism (which would in turn inform Yeats’ own outlook). Robert Gregory in his turn was admired by Yeats as a “painter, classical scholar, scholar in painting and modern literature, boxer, horseman, airman”. Yeats declared that “his very accomplishments hid from many his genius”. This poem is a eulogy to the dead man. The title contains a remnant of Yeats’ early mysticism— Gregory “foresees” his own death (Yeats had been fascinated by the occult as a young man). The notion of Gregory foreseeing his fate and choosing it nonetheless allows this poem to reflect on death, service and an Irishman’s sense of purpose in the British military.

“I know that I shall meet my fate / Somewhere among the clouds above”: A surprisingly romantic beginning to the poem, perhaps. The “clouds above” carry traditional associations of dreaming and sublime transcendence in the skies above: the sense that, in flying, we move into a realm beyond earth, and beyond material things.

“Those that I fight I do not hate, / Those that I guard I do not love;”: A renunciation of patriotic or xenophobic motivations for war. Gregory does not hate Germans, but neither does he love those he guards— the British, Italians, or even Irish people? The sentiment can be interestingly compared with Edward Thomas’ feelings for England in ‘This is no Case of Petty Right or Wrong’ (“I hate not Germans, not grow hot / With love of Englishmen, to please newspapers”). In Yeats’ work– as in Thomas’– there is a strong sense of rhetoric in the parallel phrasing used.

“My country is Kilkartan Cross… Kilkartan Poor”: Kilkartan was a small town, part of the Gregory’s barony, and home to the Gregory family in Ireland. Two readings suggest themselves here: that the reference to Kilkartan is specific, and that Gregory feels he belongs not to a nation but a specific locality, Kilkartan; next, that Kilkartan stands for the whole of an ideal Ireland (in literary terms this would be an example of synecdoche, where part of something stands for the whole). The voice given to Gregory declares solidarity with the poor of this area. Yeats seems to be suggesting that the Gregory family’s relationship with the peasantry of the district is sympathetic and friendly (we are entitled to ask, however, how far this imagined solidarity really extended between landlord and peasantry. Is this a false note?).

“No likely end could bring them loss / Or leave them happier than before”: the poor are so poor, the voice seems to declare, that they could lose nothing of material value; yet their fortitude in bearing their poverty is such that they cannot be made miserable. These lines suggest a number of things: that Yeats understood the peasants’ lives in the same fatalistic terms he conceives Gregory’s fate; that the poor in fact understood their lives in just the same way, fatalistically; and that despite poverty, the poor were happy. That this is an ideological rather than a realistic point of view seems likely, given the tendency of people the world over since money was invented to choose not to be poor— one presumes because it is not a particularly joyous state to be in. Again, there seems a romantic tone to Yeats’ eulogy.

“Nor law, nor duty bade me fight, / Nor public men, nor cheering crowds”: The voice given to Gregory declares that neither conscription nor social obligation was a motivation to fight— nor ephemeral patriotism. The “public men” are politicians. There’s a hint of contempt here, perhaps, like Edward Thomas’ “hate for one fat patriot”.

“A lonely impulse of delight / Drove to this tumult in the clouds”: Here we find expressed the true motivation for Gregory joining the Flying Corps, as ascribed by Yeats: “A lonely impulse of delight”. There is an almost instinctive personal need to experience the pleasure of flying. “Delight” emphasises some of the high, giddy joy of flying, an intoxicating pleasure in the new sensation (and it is interesting that the pleasure Yeats ascribes as a motivation to Gregory is, in a sense, the pleasure of the modernist artist— an aesthetic motivation, rather than simply martial or pragmatic).

“I balanced all…”: Here is a justification for ‘choosing’ death in the skies— Gregory weighs up his choice, accounting for his decision. Note the ‘balance’ is reflected in the line; the alliterative ‘b’ sounds and the repetition of ‘all’ establishes a formal balance that Yeats uses until the end of the poem.

“The years to come seemed waste of breath / A waste of breath the years behind”: The formal balance continues here with the use of a technique known as chiasmus. On your book, draw a line in the poem from “the years” to “the years”; then from “waste of breath” to “waste of breath”. Between the two lines you’ll notice that you’ve just drawn a cross. Now, ‘chi’ (pron. ‘Kai’) is what the ancient Greeks used to call the letter ‘X’. Chiasmus creates this ‘crossing’ structure, where the beginning of the first part of a line is repeated or rephrased at the end of the second; while the end of the first line is found repeated at the start of the second (you can find this structure in a well known phrase like “nice to see you, to see you, nice!”). Here, the effect Yeats creates is a balancing of the claims of the future with the past in Gregory’s mind: neither seem worthwhile, compared to the moment between the two.

“In balance with this life, this death”: The careful formal balance of the end of this poem (the word ‘balance’ is even repeated here) is retained until the end. “This life” is counterpoised with “this death”. The poem ends with this graceful and calm poise— reminiscent, perhaps, of a fearless man in a plane in flight who has chosen his fate.

[ANTHOLOGY NOTE: This is an interesting poem: the ending in particular shows off Yeats’ massive formal and technical skill. It particularly bears comparison with poems that examine soldiers’ motivation for fighting. From outside the anthology, Edward Thomas’ ‘This is no Case of Petty Right or Wrong’ bears comparison; within, poems like Asquith’s ‘The Volunteer’ and Brooke’s ‘The Dead’.]

Sixteen Dead Men – W.B. Yeats

‘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’.]

Easter 1916 – W.B. Yeats

‘Easter 1916’

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.

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, vainglorious 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.

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

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.

NOTES

Easter 1916 was written in response to the failed uprising of Irish Nationalists against the British government in the week of Easter Sunday 1916. Members of the Irish Republican Brotherhood attempted to take a number of important government buildings in Dublin, trying to start a revolution against a weakened, wartime Britain that would conclude in the foundation of an Irish Free State. The British army defeated the rebels who barricaded the Post Office buildings, and executed the leaders in May 1916. Hundreds were killed during the uprising, and sixteen men were executed after the rebellion, including the four named in the poem. ‘Easter 1916’ was written in September 1916, in response to these huge events.

STRUCTURE: The poem is written in four long stanzas with a simple regular rhyme scheme of ABAB, suitable for an extended narrative poem like this. You’ll note that because this is such a long and complicated poem, I will be analyzing it here stanza by stanza.

W.B. Yeats: Yeats was a proud Irish Republican. While he had qualms about violent rebellion against Britain, he was angered at the execution of the Irish leaders, who he believed had sacrificed themselves for Ireland.

Easter 1916: refers to the date of the rebellion.

Stanza One: This stanza relates the everyday encounters that the poet had with the rebels before the Easter rebellion. It paints a rather dull and disappointing city, and conveys the poet’s casual disregard for those who would become rebels.

“I have met them at the close of day…”: The poem begins by referring to the people Yeats knew or socialized with who were involved in the rebellion. He remembers them walking home from work, “from counter or desk”.

“Polite meaningless words” Those killed were only acquaintances of Yeats, and he did not get on well with all of them. Note the repetition of this line: as if to emphasise the everyday nature of their exchanges.

“a mocking tale or a gibe”: Yeats remembers that he often thought of his encounters with the nationalists only as an opportunity to scorn them to closer friends.

“Being certain that they and I / But lived where motley is worn”: ‘motley’ is the quarter-coloured dress of jesters or fools. Yeats plainly had a low opinion of the seriousness of his Irish contemporaries.

“All changed, changed utterly / A terrible beauty is born”: the poem’s famous and dramatic refrain, like an epitaph for the dead rebels, and the Ireland that once was. The words promise a painful birth for the new Ireland because of the rebels’ actions.

Stanza Two: This stanza writes of those actually involved in the rebellion, and Yeat’s own memories and opinions of the dead.

That women’s days were spent in ignorant good will…”: referring to Countess Georgina Markiewicz, an upper class socialite and nationalist, later a cabinet minister in the Irish Free State (1922). Yeats clearly thought her superficial (“ignorant good will”) and loudly argumentative (“shrill”). She was however once, he remembers, beautiful. Is this a sexist judgement? Markiewicz escaped execution by the British, unlike the three men mentioned following.

“This man”: this refers to Patrick Pearse, a central figure in the Easter rebellion and in Irish nationalism generally. Pearse founded a school, St. Edna’s: hence he “kept a school”.

“This other his helper”: this is Thomas MacDonagh, who was Pearse’s assistant headmaster at St. Edna’s. McDonagh was a promising poet and playwright who Yeats plainly admired: “He might have won fame in the end”.

“This other man… vainglorious lout”: John MacBride, who married Maud Gonne, a woman whom Yeats was inspired and obsessed by. MacBride beat Gonne during their marriage and ultimately left her, hence the mention of “most bitter wrong / To some… near my heart”. Nonetheless, Yeats must name or “number him” in the poem. It is a mark of the power of the transformation that Easter 1916 has caused, Yeats seems to suggest that “He, too” (twice repeated) “has been changed in his turn”, or the part he played in the rebellion.

Stanza Three: This stanza is more abstract than the other more literal stanzas. It introduces the symbol of a stone in an ever-moving stream. The symbol of the stone in this stanza can be interpreted in a number of ways. Symbols are not allegorical figures to which we can point and say, ‘This means exactly this’. It is in the nature of symbols to be ambiguous, multivalent (meaning they invite many interpretations), and rich in meaning. My reading of precisely what the symbol of the stone means must be limited, therefore: governed by my own interpretive limitations and the limited purpose of these study notes.

Hearts with one purpose alone…”: Yeats moves from considering the rebels to a more philosophical consideration of those who determine on one purpose in life. These people, through the changing seasons, Yeats suggests “seem / Enchanted to a stone / To trouble the living stream.” The first interpretation offered here is that this constant stone represents the Nationalist rebels’ steadfastness and determined purpose amidst the rapid change of life. Yet this stone might also conceivably represent the British state too, and hearts that have been turned to stone and “trouble the living stream” of Irish life. However, this stone could also be taken as a broader symbol of determined purpose amidst change. This may have positive connotations, such as toughness, a determined nature, constancy and truth; or negative associations, such as immobility, inflexibility, insensitivity.

“Minute by minute they change…”: A man rides his horse by the stream, while birds fly about, beneath a rapidly moving sky (“cloud to tumbling cloud”); these are all symbols of movement, of change. The detail of the poem here seems to involve a slow consideration of the tiniest detail, that mimics a subjective slowing of the mind, emphasised in the repetition of “minute by minute they live”.

“The stone’s in the midst of all.”: The stanza returns to this mysterious and enigmatic stone, whose persistence seems to speak to the poet. Is it possible that Yeats also associates the stone with Ireland itself, as an immovable nation, unmoved by the actions of those such as Pearse, McDonagh and MacBride?

Stanza Four: The final stanza reflects on the sacrifice of the men; whether it was necessary; and the purpose of writing the poem.

Too long a sacrifice / Can make a stone of the heart.”: This is again an ambiguous phrase, but seems to allude to the long struggle and continuing sacrifice of the Irish, and how it hardens the heart. Yeats, remember, struggles against this callousness himself when considering the dead.

“O when may it suffice?”: or, ‘When will this sacrifice be enough?’— almost a cry to God, or “Heaven’s part”.

“our part / to murmur name on name / As a mother names her child”: the poet speaks of what the duty of the Irish (“our part”) is to the dead men. The act of remembering the dead should be compared to the familiar repetition of a mother repeating the name of a child. The mother bears comparison to Ireland itself, as the refrain “a terrible beauty is born” suggests.

“Was it needless death after all? / For England may keep faith”: the thought strikes the poet that the deaths of the men may have been unnecessary. In 1914 a Home Rule bill had been passed that had made provisions for Irish self-governance in Dublin. This was, nonetheless, the latest of a string of promises of home rule that had been postponed or unkept.

“We know their dream; enough / To know they dreamed and are dead”: Yeats puts aside doubts, asserting that the dream of the Nationalists is known to all the Irish (“We”) and that the men are dead because of these dreams. It does not matter if they acted rashly (“What if…?” means ‘what does it matter if?’).

“Now and in time to be, / Wherever green is worn / Are changed, changed utterly”: in actually invoking the names of “MacDonagh and MacBride / And Connolly and Pearse” the poem assumes an old role, that of the poem of remembrance of glorious death and sacrifice in war. The men will be remembered by the Irish nation for as long as the nation is celebrated and its colours worn.

[ANTHOLOGY NOTE: This poem in fact contrasts with the message of Yeat’s first poem and is thus an interesting juxtaposition: it deals with the acts of “statesmen” and politics, and is an interesting non-British voice in the anthology. This poem by Yeats (and ‘Sixteen Dead Men’) sit uneasily with the rest of the collection, in terms of the AQA AS exam. They are not strictly First World War literature; they are products of an Irish uprising against the British state that took place during the First World War. It is unlikely that either will ever feature in the exam, and if they do, students will be entitled to an insurrection against the AQA Examiners Office on a similar scale to the events of 1916.]