The Terrible Beauty of Political Fanatics

Walter Paget, "Birth of the Irish Republic"

Walter Paget, “Birth of the Irish Republic”


It’s not everyday that we see a television personality quoting a Yeats poem at length, but that’s what Chris Matthews of MSNBC did Wednesday night. The poem was  “Easter, 1916,” and the occasion was the hundredth anniversary of Ireland’s Easter week uprising.

Many regard the Easter uprising and the subsequent execution of its leaders as a glorious defeat that paved the way to Irish independence. Yeats, however, had mixed feelings. Romantic though he was, he was uncertain what to make of a flashy martyrdom that turned mediocre men into mythic heroes and that may have been unnecessary.

I wrote about “Easter, 1916” four years ago, applying it to the Egyptian protesters who attacked the American embassy in Cairo in the aftermath of the Arab Spring, and that post is no less relevant today. It’s hard to read the poem without thinking of ISIS terrorists.

To be sure, it will seem heretical to Irish nationalists to compare Irish freedom fighters to these terrorists, and Pearse and company did not target innocent civilians as ISIS does. But the Irish Republican Army that came afterward would do so, and there’s a slippery slope that leads from one to the other. The poem provides insight into how people are drawn to the deadly romanticism of political martyrs. Why do so many young people choose to blow themselves up for a cause?

Yeats is both appalled by and attracted to the martyrs. We, of course, are in the position of the British to Yeats’s Irish—we simply see ISIS as simply terrorists, not as heroes. But we forget that the suicide bombers are people as well.

Why is this important? Well, if we really want to deal effectively with ISIS, we must understand the enemy. Yeats helps us see some of what is going through their minds.

The Easter 1916 Irish uprising, which occurred while England fought in World War I, was supposed to have been supported by German-supplied armaments. Although the shipment was intercepted, the uprising went ahead anyway and was doomed from the start. In the end, thousands were imprisoned (not all of them guilty) and 15 were executed by firing squad. Yeats, though not in favor of violent uprisings, was stunned by the executions and wrote, “A terrible beauty has been born.”

What puzzles him is that the terrible beauty has grown out of unpromising material. Three of the victims he knew—two he liked but didn’t find extraordinary and the third, John MacBride, he despised for marrying and then abusing Maud Gonne, Yeats’s muse—and he is amazed at how all of them, including MacBride, have gone on to achieve heroic status. (The woman he mentions, Constance Markiewicz, was sentenced to death but later released.)

Yeats compares the rebels to a stone disturbing the natural running of a stream, and that’s a good way to describe political rebels and fanatics. On the one hand, one can admire them for their steadfast sense of purpose and devotion to a cause. They interrupt the humdrum running of life. But at the same time, Yeats points out that “too long a sacrifice can make a stone of the heart.” Activists can become inhuman in this way. Later he is more sympathetic but still somewhat critical: “What if excess of love bewildered them till they died.” After all, their sacrifice may have been in vain given that England might well keep its promise of Irish home rule after the war.

In the end, Yeats isn’t sure where to come down. He commemorates the executed rebels—he ascribes to their dream of a free Ireland and is willing to put the martyrs’ names into verse and pass it along to children—but at the same time he acknowledges that the sacrifice is not an unmixed blessing. To quote from his most famous poem, “the worst are filled with passionate intensity,” and these passionately intense men and women may have unleashed a rough beast. The “terrible” in “terrible beauty” should give pause to all those who are prepared to condone political fanaticism, even for a cause they believe in.

If we see ISIS is an unadulterated horror, we should not be prepared to give the Easter uprising a complete pass.

Easter, 1916

By William Butler 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 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. 

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