“I have met them at close of day coming with vivid faces from counter or desk…”

Not a comment on today so much as in point of deference to one Ireland’s (and Sligo’s) greatest ever poets, WB 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.

First published in the New Statesman, 23 October 1920.

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  • Ernekid

    Personally I think 1916 Revisionism has gone too far. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rZIxQyhgqqk&feature=youtu.be

  • Korhomme

    Yeats concealed the date of the Rising, 24 April 1916, in the structure of the poem.

    There are 4 stanzas; two of them have 16 lines, the other two have 24 lines.

  • Granni Trixie

    Though I feel little emotional connection to Easter 1916, Yeats 1916 poem has long been a favourite of mine so many,many thanks for the link to LN reading it (and given the day that’s in it too).

    For me the poem is perfection! Everything works together to create a satisfying experience:ambiguity of meaning, rhyme, sound and you can understand it at different levels – knowing or not knowing the context and references.

  • Brian Walker

    The poem is of course full of ambiguity, doubt and some political confusion. Yeats feels remorse at writing off the conspirators as all talk before the Rising, just as later a generation was to raise the taunt of “bar room republicans.” Later comes..;

    Too long a sacrifice

    Can make a stone of the heart

    This may speak to us more of the long war of the Troubles than less than a full week in Easter 1916 – or even two and half years of the war of independence..

    In spite of memorably characterising the “terrible beauty,” you can see why on the politics, angry Sinn Feiners believed Yeats the old home ruler just didn’t get it.

    Was it needless death after all?

    For England may keep faith

    They had long ago passed beyond caring about England keeping faith and granting home rule; they were about trying to seize something bigger

    And what if excess of love

    Bewildered them till they died?

    An over-weaning patriotism perhaps that lured only to death? Was Yeats in two minds or did he come finally down in favour of the terrible beauty?

    From Yeats’ biographer Roy Foster


    By 1912 and 1913, Yeats was, despite his Fenian past, a “home ruler who had long agreed to disagree with some of his own revolutionary comrades, like Maude Gonne,” Foster said.

    In addition, Yeats had by this time fallen out bitterly with Arthur Griffith, a radical nationalist who helped to found the political movement Sinn Fein.

    “Yeats was surprisingly ready to concede that Ulster Protestants had a case for fearing Catholic intolerance in an autonomous Ireland, but he also argued that it was in their own interest, as well as in all Ireland’s interest, to accept home rule,” Foster said.

    In a speech he gave in favor of home rule, Yeats compared Irish society to a stagnant pond filled with junk, including the two old boots of Catholic bigotry and Protestant bigotry. Yeats believed that home rule could undam this pond, Foster said.

    “Of course, this wasn’t going to happen. The pond wouldn’t be gently undammed by a constitutional act. It would be dynamited by a revolution,” he said.

    And Yeats adapted his public persona so that he emerged in 1922 as the founding father of a new nation, Foster said.

    For most of the Revolution, however, Yeats avoided taking a political stance in public. He was nevertheless astonished by the uprising of Easter 1916, during which Irish nationalists armed themselves and rebelled against British rule.

    Yeats wrote “Easter 1916” between May and September of that year and read it to a relatively small group of people. But he did not have it published. And despite the fact that the poem would be widely read as an endorsement of the revolution, it is an ambiguous poem.

    “It emphasized not only the bewildered and delusional state of the rebels, but it moves on to a plea for the flashing, changing joy of life rather than the harsh stone of fanatical opinion fixed in the effluvial stream,” Foster said.

    When the Revolution descended into guerrilla warfare in 1919, Yeats “kept his counsel,” Foster said, and even considered moving to Japan or Italy to get away from the conflict. “He was considered to have lost touch with public affairs,” Foster said.

  • Bill Slim

    It was a secret?

  • Jag

    Speaking as someone into whom WBY was drummed during their secondary school years, I can’t recall that little nugget.

    And since yesterday went so swimmingly north and south, I wonder will there be further commemorations on 24th?

  • Granni Trixie

    Years works are not uniformly great – probably poems such as Lake Isle of Innisfree is what was drummed into you in school and though it seems to have popular appeal to me it is not as it is too sentimental and cliched. Then there is the fact that in some poems he tried to graft on ideas which rarely works in poetry ( what do those gyres mean?).

    Anyway,he hit the jackpot in Easter 1916 in my view.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Thank you, Brian, for a first rate summation of Roy’s opinions on Yeats! While I tend to qualify much of what is said in the two (signed) volumes of Roy’s Yeats biography, referencing the “nine foot of Yeats scholarship” on my own library shelves, I am in entire agreement with you on pretty much everything you’ve quoted here. My own researches into Joseph Campbell and other northern born “Irish Irelanders” have disclosed something about the shock and puzzlement of many of these people, some of whom were far closer to the people engaged in the Rising than ever Yeats was. Again, such research discloses that enormous gap between Cultural “Nationalism” and actual political nationalism, something I fear that Roy’s writings all too frequently seem blind to.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Korhomme, I’d never have taken you for a Kabbalist, with an interest in numerology! Of course, Yeats himself was.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Hi Granni, Gyres, think “Gyroscope”, it is meant to describe something that turns, as the year or the day turns.

    “The Primum Mobile that has fashioned us
    has made the very owls in circles move”

    Yeats believed that events are a mixture of the growth and unwinding of energies, what he describes in “A Vision” as “the cones of history”. There are quite a few explanations of this out there but this might help:


  • Korhomme


  • SeaanUiNeill

    I’d agree with you about what I take to be your identification of intentionality of this on Yeats part.

  • Gingray

    Very good, never seen that before

  • Korhomme

    Yeats referred to ‘gyres’ in the Second Coming. It seems to have been an idea of an historical cycle of about 2000 years.