My favourite WB Yeats poem: Paula Meehan on 'Easter, 1916'

To mark the 150th birthday of WB Yeats, Ireland professor of poetry Paula Meehan discusses her favourite of his poems, 'Easter, 1916'

 
Why Paula Meehan chose this poem
 
Miss Shannon’s class, Central Model girls’ school, Gardiner Street, 1966. The 50th anniversary of the Easter Rising. She beats out the metre with her stick. “Who does the poet meet at close of day, girls?” “Who knows what ‘motley’ means?” “Who can tell me what ‘vainglorious’ means? Hands up!” I am 11 years of age. I live on a street named for one of the dead heroes. I want to grow up and die for Ireland myself. They go in deep, these early poems. And this poem goes in deepest of all. Mesmeric and mysterious: 

“what if excess of love
Bewildered them till they died?”
 
Paula Meehan is Ireland professor of poetry 2013-16. She will read in Sligo on June 13th at a gala poetry event to mark the 150th birthday of WB 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 wingèd 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. 
 

 

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