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Easter, 1916

by W.B. Yeats

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, vain-glorious 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 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
Where 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.

  • Professor Doggett's thoughts about the poem
  • Professor Paku's thoughts about the poem
  • Professor Woidat's thoughts about the poem
  • Professor Schacht's thoughts about the poem

    What's here
    Each of the links above will take you to a page where the text of William Butler Yeats's poem "Easter, 1916" is accompanied by some brief audio commentary from one of us teaching Engl 170 this semester. The commentaries are informal, partial, and tentative; they're not put forward as polished or rigorous interpretations. We hope they'll give you a feel for the kinds of questions that a poem like this typically raises in the mind of a critic.
    What we'd like you to see
    We'd like you to see that four practicing critics can look at the same poem and find different things in it. But we'd like you to see more than that. We'd also like you to see that the differences in what we find don't just boil down to personality differences. Sure, we bring our personalities to the poem; no reader can avoid doing so. But if you listen to what we say, you'll notice that most of the differences you hear emerge from the fact that we're approaching the poem from different intellectual angles — from our respective interests in language, history, politics, etc.

    Moreover, we'd like you to see that despite our differences, all four of us are doing certain things in common, and that these are the kinds of things that define criticism as a practice. We begin from details that we notice in the poem. We try to relate these details to each other and to an emergent sense of what the poem might mean — that is, how it might be understood. We care about understanding the poem. The poem may make us feel a certain way, but we're not done talking about it when we've identified some of these feelings. We want to connect our feelings, too, to an understanding of the poem. In practicing criticism, we regard both the details of the poem and our reaction to them — along with such other matters as Irish history, Yeats's life, the politics of rebellion, and the etymology of words — as evidence in support of our reading.

    Finally, we'd like you to see that the point of all this isn't to arrive at the "correct" reading of the poem. It's not that we don't believe that the poem can be read both rightly and wrongly. We wouldn't bother to support our readings with evidence if we thought that all readings were equally valid. It's just that we're not committed in advance to the idea that the various valid readings of the poem can be synthesized, at the end of the day, into a single, comprehensive reading that organizes and reconciles all their differences in perspective and emphasis.

    For us as critics, these differences, together with the disciplined kind of conversation they generate — that is, conversation disciplined by the requirement to support interpretation with evidence — are what make the practice of criticism so interesting.
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