A Terrible Beauty is Born – Yeats and “Easter 1916”
In the most famous piece of writing about the Rising, Easter 1916, WB Yeats famously revised his earlier critical opinions of Ireland. But, asks Professor Fran Brearton, was he also responding to Rudyard Kipling's pro-unionist poem, Ulster 1912?
Yeats’s Easter 1916, with its famously ambiguous refrain ‘A terrible beauty is born’, is a poem which is both defined by, and to some extent defines, an understanding of Easter week 1916.
Invoking that terrible beauty, Yeats was also fully conscious of the ways in which the poem revised his earlier indictment of Ireland (‘Romantic Ireland’s dead and gone’) in September 1913. The debased adding of ‘the half pence to the pence’ in September 1913 becomes the heroic numbering of Easter 1916: ‘Yet I number him in the song,’ he says of John MacBride. ‘[O]ur part’ in Easter 1916 is to ‘save’ in a rather different sense – to preserve, to ‘murmur name upon name’: ‘MacDonagh and MacBride / And Connolly and Pearse…’.
Three years later, in Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen, and in the Irish War of Independence, Yeats was to reposition himself again: Easter 1916′s ‘we know their dream / Enough to know they dreamed and are dead’ becomes by 1919 ‘the nightmare’ that ‘Rides upon sleep’ where ‘evil gathers head.’
The association of the dates 1913, 1916 and 1919 with Yeats is powerful, in part because Yeats made it so as he negotiated and renegotiated his response to key events in Ireland. And as Nicholas Grene reminds us, in calling his poem Easter 1916 rather than April 1916 (or one might suggest Dublin 1916), Yeats ‘is very obviously drawing on the associations intended by the rebels in choosing their time for the Rising’. The rhetoric of sacrifice is powerfully associated with the writings of Pearse; the rebellion was intended as a ‘resurrection’, the (re)birth of a nation.
But there may be another subtext to Easter 1916, in as much as it implicitly evokes and repudiates a different sacrificial rhetoric. Yeats dates Easter 1916 at its close ‘September 25, 1916’ – reminding us of the poem’s links with September 1913, but also placing it only a couple of days before the fourth anniversary of September 1912’s ‘Ulster Day’, as well as two years on from the passing into law of the Home Rule bill in September 1914. And behind Easter 1916 may be an awareness of a poet whose career ran parallel to Yeats’s (born as they were in the same year), but whom he never met, and whose work he apparently disliked – Rudyard Kipling.
Rudyard Kipling’s controversial Ulster  was first published in the Morning Post on 9 April 1912, Easter Tuesday. The publication of the poem became a ‘story’ that led to its reprinting, in part or in whole, in a number of the Irish newspapers in the days that followed. It was discussed in the House of Commons, where a Liberal MP asked if Kipling would be prosecuted for producing seditious verse. James Craig suggested he should recite the poem aloud to enable the full understanding of the House on the issue, and Willie Redmond quipped, ‘
Will the right hon. Gentleman bear in mind that in general opinion this doggerel ought not to be called verse at all.
Kipling’s poem invokes the rhetoric of sacrifice (‘What need of further lies? / We are the sacrifice’) speaking for a ‘loyal’ Ulster ‘sold / To every evil power’; and its anti-Catholic sentiment was to prove the most controversial aspect of the poem: ’We know the hells declared / For such as serve not Rome’.
The poem provoked in Ireland an open letter to Kipling by AE [George Russell], accusing Kipling of ‘prejudice and ignorance’. It also inspired a parodic poem by Tom Kettle (later to be killed on the Somme in 1916) widely published in the Irish press in Easter week 1912. In Kettle’s poem, a ‘Lenten’ Ireland is about to come to fruition in the resurrection of her true self, with a ‘red, redeeming dawn / Kindled in Easter skies’, anticipating some of the writings later associated with the 1916 Rising. Kipling’s unionist ‘One Land, one Throne’ becomes, in Tom Kettle’s ‘Fantasia’, ‘one dream, one doom’ – which also anticipates what Yeats in Easter 1916 describes as the rebels’ ‘Hearts with one purpose alone’.
Yeats didn’t enter the fray in the Irish press, at least not concerning Ulster ; but as Roy Foster notes, ‘he put his name to a public letter from 56 Irish Protestants who supported Home Rule…’, published in the Irish Times on 11 April 1912. That letter begins:
As Protestants resident in Dublin…we desire to mark otherwise than by mere words, our disapproval of the statement that Protestants in the Southern parts of Ireland live in fear of their Catholic neighbours.
Yeats’s Easter 1916 also talks back to Easter 1912: Kipling’s relentlessly quoted (in the press) ‘What need of further lies? / We are the sacrifice’ becomes in Yeats ‘Too long a sacrifice / Can make a stone of the heart’ – and it is, incidentally, Yeats’s first use of the word ‘sacrifice’ in his poetry. Kipling’s language of intransigence (we ‘stand’, we ‘cleave’, we ‘guard’, ‘we perish if we yield’) contrasts with Yeats’s evocation of movement and change in ‘the living stream’. The brash confidence and Godlike presumption of Kipling’s ‘What answer from the North? / One Law, one Land, one Throne’ is light years away from a rhythmically echoing but much more profound question and answer in Yeats: ‘O when may it suffice? / That is heaven’s part…’. And ‘England’s act and deed’ in betraying ‘The Faith’ in Ulster  contrasts, ironically enough given the politics involved, with Yeats’s ‘For England may keep faith / For all that is done and said.’
Kipling’s Ulster  is a polemic, as crude in its rhythmical banging of an iambic drum throughout as in its political sentiments: the poem, one might say, does not ‘yield’ either. Yeats’s Easter 1916, by contrast, is rhythmically and politically complex, to a profound degree. As with the ‘Easter’ of its title – the moveable feast that is yet always the same – the poem encapsulates a tension between continuity and change; between the individual and collective response. If Yeats is sceptical about the single-mindedness of ‘Hearts with one purpose alone’, that scepticism extends beyond simply the Easter 1916 rebels, not least because the rhetoric of ‘sacrifice’ the poem evokes is one to which no single political group, either in 1912 or 1916, can lay exclusive claim.