‘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’

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’

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’

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’

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?]