Politics and Poetry: William Butler Yeats

Yeats, by Alice Boughton

In the last year, I’ve been giving a series of lectures titled Politics and Poetry for The Socialist Party USA. This is an excerpt from the Slam Poetry section of that lecture.


Ireland, under the thumb of England, rebelled against English control Easter weekend 1916, during WWI. While both the Irish and English were participating in WWI, England was more heavily engaged and the Irish Republicans used that opportunity to try to form an independent Ireland. The battle lasted six days but England sent thousands of reinforcements as well as artillery and a gunboat. While there was a fierce battle, Ireland ultimately lost and surrendered and the English inflicted heavy casualties on the Irish.

Maude Gonne, by Bain News Service
Maude Gonne, by Bain News Service

William Butler Yeats, native Irishman, nobel prize winning poet, and poet of the Irish Revolution and poet of the Irish Free State, was born in 1865. He was educated in both Ireland and England and fell in love with Maud Gonne, a woman that was engaged in the Irish Nationalist movement.

Yeats proposed to her in 1891 and she rejected him because he wasn’t political enough. Yeats, while agreeing with the sentiments of the Irish Republicans, hesitated to outright join the cause. He proposed yet again in 1899, 1900, and 1901, but was always met with a refusal. In 1903, she married another Irish Nationalist by the name of John MacBride. Heartbroken, Yeats still remained good friends with Gonne and even helped her file for divorce years later against her husband MacBride.

By 1912 and 1913, Yeats supported the idea of an Irish Parliament with control of domestic affairs, but pulled back from his full support of an independent Ireland. Then the Easter Rebellion happened. Yeats wrote a poem titled “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.

Most interpret this poem as Yeats reaffirming his belief in Irish Republicanism and a free Ireland. The last line of the poem, “A terrible beauty is born,” is often considered one of the most famous refrains in English poetry. From 1919 to 1921, Ireland and England once again engaged in a war of Irish independence and this time, the Irish won. By 1922, Yeats became a senator for the Irish Free State. In 1923, he won the Nobel Prize in Literature for “his always inspired poetry, which in a highly artistic form gives expression to the spirit of a whole nation.” In his reply to letters of congratulations sent to him from around the world, Yeats often said “I consider that this honour has come to me less as an individual than as a representative of Irish literature, it is part of Europe’s welcome to the free state.”

By the 1930’s, Yeats had developed a fascination with the authoritarian and anti-democratic national movements in Europe and at home through the Blueshirts of Ireland. Yeats liked the opposition of individualism and political liberalism and felt that fascism provided strong order and a collective national identity. The Blueshirt movement faltered and died out in Ireland rather quickly, and Yeats quickly withdrew himself from his ties with fascism, though he still liked the idea of order and a collective national identity.

Amanda Riggle

Amanda Riggle

Amanda is the Managing Editor at The Poetics Project and of The Socialist, the national magazine of The Socialist Party USA, as well as the Lead Editor of Pomona Valley Review's upcoming 11th issue. She graduated with a BA in English Education and a minor in Political Science. She is currently enrolled in an English MA program with an emphasis in Literature. During her free time, Amanda enjoys writing poetry, reading, traveling, crocheting, watching entire seasons of campy shows on Netflix, and, of course, writing blogs.
Amanda Riggle

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