Tag Archives: WWI

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.