They – Siegfried Sassoon

Siegfried Sassoon. 'They' remains in copyright and so cannot be reproduced here.

NOTES

This poem satirically contrasts the moral improvement to British soldiers promised by a Bishop with the physical damage and moral degradation that they actually experience.

STRUCTURE: ‘They’ is comprised of two stanzas of equal length: six lines of iambic pentameter each, with rhyme scheme ABABCC. The second stanza subverts the message of the first. ‘They’ has a clever rhythmical structure, intended to create a particular tone to the poem. Sassoon subtly subverts the Bishop’s strident sermon in the first stanza by his use of colons and semi-colons as caesuras or pauses in the middle of each line. These give the first stanza a deliberately halting rhythm that, along with the rhetorical confidence of the Bishop’s sermon, gives his speech a subtle staginess that suggests an insincere performance. By contrast, the strong rhythm given to the answers of the men in the second stanza reinforces the ugly truth that they tell. The soldiers’ reply tends to pause more ‘naturally’ at the end of lines, ‘end-stopping’ each statement, giving a sense of complete meaning.

Siegfried Sassoon: Siegfried Sassoon is the greatest of the British poets to have survived the war. Born into a wealthy family, Sassoon had a lonely childhood. He took the expected route of his privileged class from public school (Marlborough) and thence up to university (Cambridge), though he quit Cambridge without a degree. At Cambridge, Sassoon fell in love with David Thomas, who later died serving with Sassoon and their friend Robert Graves in the Royal Welch Fusiliers at Fricourt (Graves would write the poem ‘Goliath and David’ in tribute to Thomas; Sassoon ‘The Last Meeting’ and ‘A Letter Home’). Sassoon took Thomas’ death badly and would go out into no-man’s land nightly, “looking for Germans to kill”. Sassoon, in fact, had a reputation for bravery amongst his men (he was known as ‘Mad Jack’) and won the Military Cross for his actions during the Battle of the Somme. Sassoon was shot in 1917 and invalided home, there meeting a number of notable pacifists. Sassoon became convinced that he had to make a statement about the conduct of the war, which he described in a letter (later read to parliament) as “now become a war of aggression and conquest”. His friend Graves, fearing that Sassoon would be harshly punished, testified before the army medical board that Sassoon had shell-shock and Sassoon was sent to Craiglockhart War Hospital, Edinburgh. It was here that Sassoon met Wilfred Owen and fostered his writing ambitions. Sassoon eventually returned to fight on the Western front in 1918, but was again shot in June of that year. He did however survive the war, and published his brilliant autobiographical trilogy, The Memoirs of George Sherston over the next twenty years. He died in 1967.

They: ‘They’ are the idealised British soldiers of whom the bishop speaks. ‘They’ are quite unlike the real soldiers who go to war.

“The Bishop tells us:”: The figure of religious authority in the poem— a Bishop of the Church of England— speaks with confidence about a situation of which he has no knowledge. He represents a brand of religious cant and hypocrisy that was deeply unpopular amongst many men at the front.

“When the boys come back / They will not be the same;”: The meaning of the poem turns on this observation— that the war changes the men who fought in it. Note the easy familiarity, even patronizing tone of the reference to ‘the boys’, and the use of alliteration in this first line, as throughout the poem.

“for they’ll have fought / In a just cause;”: alliteration (‘f’) is again used to give a rhythmic force to the Bishop’s leading statements. The mention of a “just cause” reinforces the sense that the Bishop is dealing in popular platitudes about the justification for war— that it is “just”, or ‘right’.

“their comrades blood has bought…”: the soldiers are explicitly compared to Christ, who ‘bought’ man eternal life by dying for their sins. Sassoon’s earlier poem ‘The Redeemer’ explicitly made this contrast: interestingly, Sassoon now seems to refute this sentimental analogy.

“New right to breed an honourable race,”: what follows from this Christ-like redemption is more unpleasant however. The Bishop uses pseudo-scientific language, popular around the turn of the century. In Social Darwinist terms, the ‘right to breed’ is claimed through the sacrifice of soldiers. This ‘survival of the fittest’ (here, the fittest are the most “honourable”) is an idea that underlay much elitist thinking about society and often had, as here, a racist dimension. Compare and contrast this line with those found in Rupert Brooke’s ‘Peace’ and ‘The Dead’.

“they have challenged Death and dared him face to face”: the Bishop’s heroic and clichéd rhetoric unwittingly recalls the line in Corinthians 13:12, that declares “now we see through a glass, darkly; but then, face to face”. This Biblical line declares that before death we have necessarily imperfect knowledge, only attaining real enlightenment when we meet God. In many ways, the Bishop embodies this cosmic ignorance.

“‘We’re none of us the same!’ the boys reply”: The anguished agreement echoes— along with the use of the phrase “the boys” – the first line, only to subvert the Bishop’s prediction.

“For George lost both his legs…”: A grim litany of injuries follows, spelling out the true consequences of war for “the boys”. Note that the soldiers are named, rather than idealized and anonymous in the Bishop’s sermon. The description is explicit and pitiful: “Poor Jim’s shot through the lungs and like to die”.

“‘And Bert’s gone syphilitic:”: Bert has contracted syphilis, a sexually transmitted disease. Soldiers on leave would commonly visit prostitutes in the local towns and villages; brothels were even graded in some areas for use by officers (signed by blue lamps) and privates (red lamps). Venereal infection was endemic, as prostitutes could sleep with over a hundred men a day. Note the deeply ironic contrast, then, between this and the Bishop’s claim that “their comrades blood has bought / New right to breed an honourable race”.

“…that hasn’t found some change.”: the irony of this statement illustrates Sassoon’s satirical point, that a massive change has indeed come to the men, but quite different to that which the Bishop predicts.

“And the Bishop said; ‘the ways of God are strange!”: The Bishop resorts to idiotic cliché to explain the real change witnessed, essentially pronouncing that ‘God works in mysterious ways’.

[ANTHOLOGY NOTE: This poem is in some ways representative of the selections that Stallworthy makes from Sassoon’s poetry in the OBOWP. Stallworthy describes Sassoon’s later war poems as “launched at the reader like a hand grenade” (p.68), and this, written in 1916, fits the same billing. It is a cutting attack on the hypocrisy of authority and the kind of rhetoric used to encourage others to go abroad and fight. As such it stands special comparison with Sassoon’s own attack on the military leadership, ‘The General’ (p.177), but also G.K. Chesterton’s acerbic attack on the political class, ‘Elegy in a Country Churchyard’ (p.212).]

Advertisements

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.]

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.]

On Being Asked For a War Poem – W.B. Yeats

‘On Being Asked For a War Poem’

I think it better that in times like these
A poet’s mouth be silent, for in truth
We have no gift to set a statesman right;
He has had enough of meddling who can please
A young girl in the indolence of her youth,
Or an old man upon a winter’s night.

 

NOTES

There is something of a contradiction to this poem: in a war poetry collection, it is a poem that refuses to speak about war. The poem says that it is not the place of a poet to write about politics, but that the poet instead should limit his interference in the world to pleasing his companions.

STRUCTURE NOTE: This poem is a sextet, with a rhyme scheme ABC, ABC. The first three lines refer to the poet’s attitude to writing about war; the next three lines write on the self-imposed limits of the poet’s interventions in the world.

W.B. Yeats: Yeats is one of the giants of Twentieth century poetry, and this accounts for the number of poems by him featured in the anthology. He was a modernist poet and proud Irish Republican at a time when Irish Nationalism was at its height in Ireland. A Protestant Christian, he was also a mystic and spiritualist. Like many of the modernists he was artistically radical but politically conservative, believing that politics, art and war did not easily mix. Yeats disliked Owen’s poetry, for example, saying “I consider [him] unworthy of the poets’ corner of a country newspaper… [he was] a revered sandwich-board Man of the revolution … He is all blood, dirt & sucked sugar stick” (for the reasoning behind this startling opinion, see a previous entry, on Rupert Brooke). Nonetheless, Yeats wrote a number of poems concerned with the rebellion in Ireland during the First World War– he was a committed Irish nationalist.

‘On Being Asked For a War Poem’: This poem was written after Yeats was asked to write a war poem. It is a meditation on whether poets can write war poetry. It also considers an old question: what is the role of the poet in society, and what is the function of poetry? Shelley, a great Romantic poet, once called poets “the unacknowledged legislators of the world” (meaning that poets create a culture or spirit of an age that molds its thinkers and even politicians, an “influence that moves not, but moves”: you can read a contemporary poet’s take on the role of poetry in the Guardian, here). An ancient philosopher, Plato, even thought that poetry should be banned as corrupting to society. Yeats here enters this long-standing argument in the modern age.

“I think it better…a poet’s mouth be silent”: The opening statement is forthright and conversational about “times like these”, or times of war- the enjambment, or running over the end of line, mimics everyday speech. When the poet writes of “a poet’s mouth” being silent, he is using a technique called metonymy. Like metaphor, metonymy substitutes one thing for another. Metaphor does this by contrasting different things (“He was an animal”) but in metonymy, something closely related to something else is substituted. For example: “the crown” may refer to the Queen or royalty, or “the press” may to refer to the newspapers. Both are closely connected. Here, the “poet’s mouth” represents (because it speaks) his poetry.

“We have no gift to set a statesman right;” A statesman is a political leader. Here, it is asserted that poets have no “gift”, or ability, to tell statesman how they should make decisions. This seems to say that poetry has no place in intervening in politics, and the poet no role in making big statements about wars and what causes them. Note the semi-colon: this opening statement about the world in the macrocosm ends here.

“meddling”: Another word for interfering. This key word in the poem gives us a hint of the poet’s attitude to those who try and write activist or political poems: they are ‘meddlers’, troublesome interferers. The tone is obviously negative. “Meddling” in the lives of old men and young girls carries a lighter and happier tone however- a sense of play.

“He… can please a young girl in the indolence of her youth”: A quick change in imagery and reference point, from the macrocosm to the microcosm, from the world of politics to the world of intimate acquaintances. The new scene is lazy (“indolence”), relaxed, one of beauty (“youth”) and innocence.

“an old man on a winter’s night”: this completes the scope of the poet’s influence. Does this mean that poetry is suited to everyday lessons and life? That the poet’s role is to appeal to beauty and wisdom, youth and age? These certainly seem narrower limits to the role of poetry than ‘setting statesmen right’. Yeats, however, would surely argue that poetry’s concerns are higher than political contingency.

[ANTHOLOGY NOTE: The first of the last of the poems written from poets in this group who are, or identify themselves as other than British. Yeats’ poetry provides a view of the war which is Irish and Republican, and outside of the mainstream of British responses to the war. This poem is interesting in terms of the whole anthology because it declares that poets cannot write about war in activist or political terms. This can be strongly contrasted with a poem like Owen’s ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’ or Sassoon’s ‘The General’. It also supplies a fascinating point of discussion on an absolutely fundamental question, rarely touched on: why write poetry at all?]

Another Epitaph on an Army of Mercenaries – Hugh MacDiarmid

‘Another Epitaph on an Army of Mercenaries’

It is a God-damned lie to say that these
Saved, or knew, anything worth any man’s pride.
They were professional murderers and they took
Their blood money and their impious risks and died.
In spite of all their kind some elements of worth
With difficulty persist here and there on earth.

NOTES

This is a reply to Hausman’s poem previous. It maintains that the BEF were “professional murderers”. It is a political poem that takes an uncompromising communist stance on the events of 1914.

Hugh MacDiarmid: The pen name of Christopher Murray Grieve. MacDiarmid was a Scots communist who was disgusted by British participation in the First World War, which he saw as driven by nationalism and imperialism. He wrote this poem many years after the end of the war, in 1935.

Another Epitaph on an Army of Mercenaries: This is plainly a counter-argument to Housman’s poem concerning the BEF.

“It is a God-damned lie…”: This poem is defined by its sense of anger, towards the ‘mercenaries’ of the BEF.

“…knew, anything worth any man’s pride.”: MacDiarmid’s point of view is black-and-white, morally absolutist. He sees those who take money to fight as mercenaries (even though the B.E.F., whom this poem attacks, was the British army in 1914), and is utterly dismissive of the kind of men who served before the war. As a communist, he believed that to willingly fight for the capitalist state was to enslave yourself.

“professional murderers”: an extreme and troubling remark. MacDiarmid proposes that those who joined up willingly before the war were ‘professional murderers”. As Professor Tim Kendall asks on his excellent website, is this any better than being an ‘amateur murderer’, like the conscripts who came later? MacDiarmid seems to be making a distinction between the ‘principled’ fighter and the unprincipled soldier. This distinction is politically made: to MacDiarmid, the soldiers of the B.E.F. would have been willing policemen of the British Imperial State, and therefore worthy of contempt. It is a swingeing, absolutist view, and he does not mourn those who took “impious [unholy] risks and died”.

“some elements of worth / With difficulty persist here and there on Earth”: A grim view of Western civilization. MacDiarmid argues that these “elements of worth” are few and far between, and seems to be referring favourably those who share his political outlook. The creation of the Soviet Union in 1917 precipitated Russia’s exit from the war. MacDiarmid, a Stalinist, allies himself with communism and the communist state against “their kind”: the ‘Old Contemptibles’ of the pre-war British Army.

[ANTHOLOGY NOTE: An interesting balancing point to Housman’s poem, Stallworthy seems to be ensuring that a radical critique of British culpability for the First World War is included in his anthology. Unusually for this collection, this poem looks back on the events of the First World War from some years after. It has the flavour of thirties political poetry- the kind of explicitly political poetry later written by the likes of John Cornford, though its bitter, angry tone about events decades past sets it apart even from much of this kind of political verse. This was when the world was being polarised by the competing ideologies of Nazism, Communism and Western Democracy. A year after this poem was written, the Spanish Civil War began and the battle between Fascism and its opponents began in earnest.]