Easter Rising

1916: A terrible beauty – Yeats versus Kipling

In the most famous piece of writing about the Rising, Easter 1916 WB Yeats famously revised his earlier critical opinions of Ireland. But was he also responding to Rudyard Kipling's pro-unionist poem Ulster [1912], asks Fran Brearton

WB Yeats – behind Easter 1916 may be an awareness of a Rudyard Kipling's pro-unionist Ulster [1912]
Fran Brearton

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.

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 dates of the titles reflect how Yeats negotiated and renegotiated his response to key events in Ireland. And by calling his poem Easter 1916 he was clearly drawing on the associations intended by the rebels: 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.

Rudyard Kipling’s controversial Ulster [1912] was first published in the Morning Post on April 9 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 honourable 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".

Yeats didn’t enter the fray in the Irish press, at least not concerning Ulster [1912]; 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 April 11 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."

Although the two poets were born in the same year, Yeats never met Kipling but apparently disliked his work.

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 [1912] 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 [1912] is a polemic, as crude in its rhythmical banging of an iambic drum throughout as in its political sentiments. Yeats’s Easter 1916, by contrast, is rhythmically and politically complex, to a profound degree.

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.

  • Professor Fran Brearton is professor of Modern Poetry at Queen’s University Belfast and assistant director of the Seamus Heaney Centre.

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