I. Context & Subject Matter
The poem is written in response to the Uprisings against the British Rule in Ireland during World War I. Irish grievances were many, varied and longstanding; dating from the time of William the Conqueror and most involving brutal oppression and deprivation from the English. Before WWI, England had agreed to Home Rule for the Irish but because of the war England reneged on this promise. Many of the Irish did not support England in the European war. Yeats’ position is ambivalent; his preference is for order and tradition and at first does not identify with the rebels who wanted to overthrow the English. Some of his closest friends were involved in the 1916 uprising and Yeats grudgingly came to accept their cause.
Though successful at first when 1500 men took over Dublin, proclaiming an Irish Republic on the Steps of the General Post Office, the British, despite its commitments of WWI, brutally and ruthlessly put down the insurrection with the loss of over 300 lives. As well eleven leaders were summarily executed within a month.
Much of Yeats’ treatment of life is detached, global and general; however in this poem he reluctantly and somewhat grudgingly delves into a specific event, names individuals and ponders its significance in the scheme of our existence. As is usual he reveals his compassion; yet counters this with his misgivings, his ambivalence – the poem fails to resolve the contrariness of life. He reveals historical events can easily morph into legend and even myth.
Yeats is a notable poet worthy of study, not because he provides objective historical answers we might ask about this period, nor does he provide an accurate detailed account of the historical process, but because of his brilliant yet singular visionary insights in our western culture and because of deep sympathy he expresses for the tragedy and pathos of human life.
II. Sound Effects
Read the poem aloud. Comment on the Sound Effects, verbal music. It’s rhyme. Rhythm and melody. Assonance, alliteration. Onomatopoeia. etc. (Blending repetition patterns. slow/fast movement, harsh, discordant, sibilance, sotto, allegro, Rhapsodic, lyrical, elegiac, upbeat, blue, staccato, dirge, ode, Melody. tone. mood. atmosphere. voice.
The poem begins with close personal observations and the presence of the poet permeates the rest of the poem with the repetition of the first personal pronoun “I” seven times and “we” once. Initially the persona indicates his distance – his disconnection with the cause, however as the events unfold his empathy is induced. His condescending attitude to the masses (horror of the mob – Ochlocracy) has an aristocratic aloofness that is challenged by the supreme sacrifice of his fellow countrymen. His patronising attitude is revealed by his perfunctory greetings, “polite meaningless words”, the dismissive “mocking tales or a gibe…..Around the fire at a club” and the judgemental, misguided “ignorant good will” (a reference to Countess Constance Georgina Markiewicz). Yeats had misgivings of populism of democracy; he preferred the order, authority and restraint of the aristocracy (oligarchy).
Yet this poem concedes a reluctant admiration and develops into a stirring memorably tribute to the people who by giving their lives for the insurrection have been “utterly transformed” into national heroes.
So the tone of the poem modulates from a dismissive critical one to that of esteem and commemoration for acts of supreme sacrifice for a noble cause. Perhaps Yeats has regrets about his lack of conviction and participation? His self-deprecating admission of admiration goes some way to absolving his passivity.
"beauty... born", "force... fame", "casual comedy", "no, no, not night"
"polite meaningless words... polite meaningless words", "changed, changed utterly [twice, and 'changed' occurs elsewhere]", "voice... voice", "a terrible beauty is born [3 times]", "horse... horse-hoof... horse", "cloud... cloud... cloud", "moor-hens... hens to moor-cocks", "stone... stone... stone", "name upon name", "nightfall... not night but death... death", "dream... dreamed", "dead... died".
"shrill", "plashes", "call", "murmur"
III. Themes, Issues, Values, Concerns
All great art originates in the tragedy of history. Thus the art produced in the antiquity of Greece and Rome, Byzantium, and in Renaissance Italy was great because it emanated from a period when tension was high, pain from violence was excruciating but when the history of man was in the making.
Despite the misgivings Yeats had about the insurrection it is the deep sympathy he has for the tragedy and pathos of human life that arouses his ambivalent acceptance of the martyrs to a worthy cause.
"As writers and readers, as sinners and citizens, our realism and our aesthetic sense make us wary of crediting the positive note. The very gunfire braces us and the atrocious confers a worth upon the effort which it calls forth to confront it. We are rightly in awe of the torsions in the poetry of Paul Celan and rightly enamoured of the suspiring voice in Samuel Beckett because these are evidence that art can rise to the occasion and somehow be the corollary of Celan's stricken destiny as Holocaust survivor and Beckett's demure heroism as a member of the French Resistance. Likewise, we are rightly suspicious of that which gives too much consolation in these circumstances; the very extremity of our late twentieth century knowledge puts much of our cultural heritage to an extreme test. Only the very stupid or the very deprived can any longer help knowing that the documents of civilization have been written in blood and tears, blood and tears no less real for being very remote. And when this intellectual predisposition co-exists with the actualities of Ulster and Israel and Bosnia and Rwanda and a host of other wounded spots on the face of the earth, the inclination is not only not to credit human nature with much constructive potential but not to credit anything too positive in the work of art. Seamus Heaney - also an Irish Poet.
Yeats acknowledges that much of history can be transformed into legend or myth.
Structure: linear, circular, episodic, flash backs, climatic. Images: (visual, auditory, olfactory, tactile, ,gustatory) figures of speech: similes, metaphors, personification, analogy, synecdoche, contrast, antithesis, unity, irony, Allusions, etc
The poem is divided into 4 stanzas and like most of his poetry moves from the general to the specific, from his disconnection to his grudging admiration and respect. At first the people are anonymous, but later identified by name, at first they wear “motley” later it is identified as “green”.
Motley could be read in various ways:
- Is it disparate – heterogeneous, varied, non-conformity?
- Multi-coloured as in patchwork or a clown’s suit?
- Non –uniform as in mufti or civilian digs?
- young immature, callow
- Colour of Ireland
Antithesis is also evident in his images, the most prevalent, “the living stream” and three references to “stone”. The “stream” comes to represent the changing situation, while the “stone” has multiple possible meanings.
Stone could have several meanings
- Rock solid, impervious, immovable, unchangeable
- numb, hard-hearted, callous, insensitive
- The blarney stone – mythical symbol of Ireland
- Stones are often found in streams.
Approach: Subjective/Objective, Attitude or Tone, Audience, Style: diction, word play, puns, connotative/denotative, emotive (coloured biased,) /demotive, (technical, dispassionate) clichés, proverbial, idiomatic, expressive, flat, Jargon, euphemisms, pejorative, oxymoron. Gender biases. Register: formal, stiff, dignified or Colloquial; relaxed, conversational, inclusive, friendly or Slang; colourful, intimate, Rhetorical devices; Questions, exclamations, cumulation, crescendo, inversion, bathos, repetition, 3 cornered phrases.
Yeats is mainly revered for his ability to express agony and suffering in elegant resonant language. His ambivalence is conveyed in the ambiguity through multiple meanings of words: both Motley and stone could be read in various ways. A poem’s richness and subtlety is often created by wide possible meanings. This allows the responder to engage with the poem and decipher their own interpretations.
It is the repetition of the Oxymoron “a terrible beauty is born” that demonstrates his reluctant acceptance of their mythic heroism acknowledging that All great art originates in the tragedy of history.
This, together with September 1913, is one of Yeats’ more political poems where he deals with Ireland’s domestic problems. He is basically a conservative who holds ceremony and aristocratic order in high regard, but due to the involvement of many of his friends in the Irish nationalist cause begins to ambivalently accept their sacrifice.
The poem is conflicted and though he concedes admiration for their heroism, his internal conflict remains not fully resolved.
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