William Butler Yeats: the soul of the warrior

I recall once hearing in a lecture that the Easter Rising rebels were influenced by the poetry of William Butler Yeats, and that they perhaps even read his work amongst themselves during the seven days they occupied Dublin’s General Post Office in April 1916. I can’t find a source to verify that they were reading Yeats while awaiting slaughter, but he was certainly a major player in the renaissance of Irish culture in the years leading up to the rebellion. He was also a prominent national figure after the Rising, being appointed to the new republic’s Senate just six years later.

It’s not clear, though, that Yeats ever dreamed of being a “sixty-year-old smiling public man” of an overtly political cast. In fact, Yeats the politician looks longingly back on the day when he was Yeats the romantic:


HOW can I, that girl standing there,
My attention fix
On Roman or on Russian
Or on Spanish politics?
Yet here’s a travelled man that knows
What he talks about,
And there’s a politician
That has read and thought,
And maybe what they say is true
Of war and war’s alarms,
But O that I were young again
And held her in my arms!

Yeats didn’t go looking for war, but as has been the case with so many of history’s greatest heroes, conflict and the necessity of a public life came looking for him, and he answered the challenge as best he could. Perhaps he lamented that he wasn’t in the Post Office himself, that instead of being a hero of the revolution his task was merely to chronicle it (“our part / To murmur name upon name”). Perhaps he thought that if he’d been a “true” warrior the woman he loved, Maud Gonne, would have married him instead of John MacBride, the “drunken, vainglorious lout” who was one of the Rising’s martyrs.

Maybe these kinds of insecurities are fated to plague artists and intellectuals until the end of time. The truth, though, is that without Yeats there may never have been an Easter Rising, and without his chronicle the course of Irish independence might have been set back indefinitely. He was the muse of the renaissance, the man who set before the people a vision of their lost greatness and who helped them hope that one day they might escape the oppression of Imperial Britain.

Maybe the lesson is that the soul of the warrior hero is not defined by the enthusiasm with which he seeks out battle, but instead by the courage with which he answers the unbearable challenges set before him and those he loves.

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.

Scholars & Rogues are proud to honor the legacy of our latest Scrogue, Nobel Prize winner William Butler Yeats, perhaps the greatest poet in the English language and a man who changed the course of Irish history…with a pen.

4 replies »

  1. Probably the greatest poet in ANY language. I think he heard English the same way Brahms understood music – with all the inner resonances. And, like Brahms, a finder, not just a seeker.

    Loreena McKennitt has set The Stolen Child and The Two Trees to beautiful music that enhances rather than stultifies Yeats’ meaning. Three cheers.

    – Jerry Wechsler