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Troubling the living stream

Posted by Richard on UTC 2015-10-19 07:11.

It's coming; brace yourselves.

Maybe on Easter Monday, 28 March 2016 or possibly on Monday, 24 April 2016 (the calendar centenary), or more probably both dates and all days in between, we shall have the pleasure of hearing the louder Irish voices singing and the wider Irish eyes smiling at the memory of the 'Easter Rising' that started in Dublin on Easter Monday, 24 April 1916.

The rebellion

It was a brief and extremely ill-advised rebellion. Britain was in the middle of waging the First World War on multiple fronts, the trench warfare on the Western Front was becoming more unspeakable by the month and the losses were beginning to be felt in every town, village and hamlet throughout Britain. In the brutalisation that the Great War brought with it, putting down a few Irish malcontents was never going to be a gentle affair. Worst of all, the malcontents had received support and arms from the Germans, thus effectively becoming the Irish branch of the Kaiser's army.

Calling the event a 'rising' is an overstatement that smacks of propaganda. Only a relatively few people started it, only a relatively few people joined them, the action was confined to Dublin, most of the rest of the country stayed passive and the whole rebellion lasted less than a week.

The theoreticians of the Russian Revolution that took place a year later had pondered long over the revolutionary task and knew better: the key to an uprising was organization, synchronization and mass. In contrast, the seizure of some locations around Dublin by 200 or so Fenians could only ever be a provocation and a first step to martyrdom; sensible sympathisers in the rest of the country did what sensible sympathisers do in every revolt: wait and see what happens. No one 'rose up'.

Martyrdom there was: within two weeks of the end of the revolt fourteen Irish martyrs had been created by firing squad. A fifteenth, Casement, the go-between with Germany, was hanged in London about three months later. About 60 of the revolutionaries had been killed in the battles, the British lost nearly twice as many combatents and around 250 civilians died as collateral damage. This rebelling turned out to be a serious business, even in a country 'where motley is worn'. [1]

We can state without any disrespect to the fallen, that, in the context of the daily losses of the Great War, the losses of the Easter rebellion were tiny. But, despite the General Amnesty a year later, the legacy of the rebellion was lasting bitterness, even to this day. The 'Easter Rising' in its name was a paschal sacrifice. From today's newspaper reports we note that 'dissident Republicans' are still laying explosive devices in Northern Ireland, despite the so-called 'Good Friday Agreement' there. The rebellion was a wound that has never healed, its stigmata still evident.

Did anyone in their right mind think that in 1916, Great Britain, a country under arms fighting for its survival, was going to let Ireland secede to become a satellite of the enemy? Of course not, the idea is absurd. Yeats called the rebels 'bewildered'. [2] Despite the very real bloodletting of the rebellion let us nevertheless be relieved that more Irish did not really 'rise up' – the resulting slaughter would have been much, much worse.

The poet

The Irish poet W. B. Yeats (1865-1939) was in the middle of all this, but not part of it. He was not a pacifist, but saw the enterprise for what it was: a rag-taggle band of pugnacious hotheads and would-be martyrs with a 'dream'. Around five months after the rebellion was put down, he finished his magnificent poem 'Easter 1916'. Twenty-five copies were printed privately, but the poem was only published widely from the end of 1920 onwards. Why the four year delay? Who knows? We simply note here that had he wanted to write a poem of support for the Fenian cause, he had plenty of opportunities to publish it as a freestanding piece, as an anthem for the Irish, in the febrile years immediately following the rebellion. He didn't, nota bene.

Yeats's poem has become part of the Irish Republican canon, even though, to the careful reader, it distances itself from the hotheads of that ill-judged and ill-fated rebellion and contains a magnificent criticism of fanaticism of all forms.

Well, we have to get used to the ability of people, particularly people with strongly held opinions or beliefs, to read into texts whatever they want to. The cognitive dissonance of a poem by a great Irish poet that was not totally supportive of the legend-building of the Fenian fanatics is too much for their minds to cope with. They read the repeated phrase 'a terrible beauty is born' and see only the word 'beauty'. If they even notice 'terrible', they assume it must apply to the hated enemy and what it did to the brave rebels, since Yeats was Irish, after all, wasn't he?

Punctilious Irish readers such as the current Irish Ambassador to Great Britain, Daniel Mulhall, a literary man in his own right, can read Yeats's magnificent, complex poem and savour all its wonderful nuances. [3] Unfortunately, others are less discerning.

The heart of darkness

Let's just look at the core of the poem, verse three. This is single, wonderful, sixteen-line metaphor of the darkness at the heart of all fanaticism, not just the 1916 Irish version. It comes in the middle of the poem and is physically as well as intellectually at its heart. I have added some line spaces to emphasis Yeats's beautiful cadences:

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.

Hearts are turned to stone. The stone is immobile, passive, unmoved, unfeeling in its obsessively static position; life in all its delightful richness and change flows around it without effect. Yeats was a Neoplatonist: there are a number of deep hermetic meanings in the metaphor that we have no space to prise open here. [4]

Can anyone think, by any stretch of the imagination, that the stone is a good thing or a good state in which to be? Is all Yeats's beautiful figuration of the mutating richness of normal life just ornament applied for the sake of some masterly cadences? Clearly not: the hard, unyielding stone is representative of every fanatic. Yeats knew quite a few of them personally – The first and second verses of the poem established that well. He noted how the voice of his former friend Constance Markievicz 'grew shrill' as the years went by and her political obsessions petrified.

That woman's days were spent
In ignorant good-will,
Her nights in argument
Until her voice grew shrill. [5]

We all have come to hear of the fanatics of every chop since then: the individuals hearing voices in their heads that drown out the rest of the world; the political fanatics who think their brittle ideology is the only valid one; the religious fanatics who damn all who live outside the rigid framework of their belief. They are petrified, immobile. No argument, no application of reason can work on them. They can neither be moved nor changed. They are stones. To these fanatics their very rigidity – their unbending fanaticism itself – is praiseworthy. The fanatic's life is a life without change. Yeats said this in sixteen short lines. A work of particular genius.

Surprisingly for me, many do seem to find praise for the insurgents in these lines. The people at Wikipedia illustrate the congnitive dissonance problem perfectly. They see the stone as

a metaphor for how the steadfastness of the revolutionaries' purpose contrasts sharply with the shifting transience of popular moods. The singularity of their purpose, leading to their ultimate deaths, cut through the complacency and indifference of everyday Irish society at the time. [6]

Every poem is open to alternative readings, but I find that this reading is not supported by the text. The fanatic stones do indeed trouble the living stream: ask, if you could, the civilians and soldiers who died during the course of the rebellion; you can't, because they are now dead. The stone is the negation of life, not a symbol of permanence and steadfastness.

At the beginning of the next verse, Yeats picks up the stone metaphor again:

Too long a sacrifice
Can make a stone of the heart.

Yeats is being scrupulously fair to those he knew: the repeated political failures to achieve Irish independence can be the understandable cause of such fanaticism. But – typical Yeats – his criticism of fanaticism is understanding and nuanced; these were people he had known well. But here again, the Republicans only pick out the bits they want to read.

And almost at the close of the poem he lays out for us the results of the fanaticism he saw so well in those hotheads, but gently, and with great affection:

We know their dream; enough
To know they dreamed and are dead;
And what if excess of love
Bewildered them till they died?

The Fenian reader sees 'dream' and 'love', but not 'bewildered'. But, as already noted, the martyrs were indeed bewildered – lost in the forest, away from the path – and thus whether by love or whatever, they were truly bewildered.

The bewildered ones have become martyrs to the Republican cause 'wherever green is worn' – but to no one else. This line is there to discount any idea that they are universal martyrs. Yeats was quite accurate in his prediction, he knew his own people, they became martyrs 'wherever green is worn' – but only there.

Now and in time to be,
Wherever green is worn,
Are changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.

So, in the turmoil that will certainly fall about our heads next spring, when the 'indomitable Irishry' [7] recall that ghastly time, let us all try and remain as clear-sighted, as humane and as nuanced as the great man himself undeniably was.

References

  1. ^ That is, in a country where everything is the target of a joke and little is taken seriously.
    Being certain that they and I
    But lived where motley is worn:
    All changed, changed utterly:
    A terrible beauty is born.
    'Easter, 1916', I, ll. 13-16. Michael Robartes and the Dancer in Collected Poems, Macmillan, London, 1965, p. 202.
  2. ^ bewilder –v. 1684. 1. lit. To lose in pathless places (arch.) 1685. 2. fig. To perplex, confound; to cause mental aberration 1684. Oxford Shorter English Dictionary, 1973.
  3. ^ Daniel Mulhall, Irish Ambassador in London. Talk delivered at the Tyneside Irish Festival, Newcastle, 20 October 2014: 'We know their dream': Yeats and 1916.
  4. ^ The stream runs past 'Thoor Ballylee' in Gort, County Galway, a property Yeats had known well since the 1890s and which he purchased in 1917.
    He also described the scene at the stream in 'The Phases of the Moon', a poem that appeared in his collection The Wild Swans at Coole (1918) in Collected Poems, ibid p. 184:
    A rat or water-hen
    Splashed, or an otter slid into the stream.
    We are on the bridge; that shadow is the tower,
    And the light proves that he is reading still.
    He has found, after the manner of his kind,
    Mere images; chosen this place to live in
    Because, it may be, of the candle-light
    From the far tower where Milton's Platonist
    Sat late, or Shelley's visionary prince:
    The lonely light that Samuel Palmer engraved,
    An image of mysterious wisdom won by toil;
    And now he seeks in book or manuscript
    What he shall never find.
  5. ^ She did more than grow 'shrill'. At the start of the Easter rebellion she shot and wounded a policeman. A death sentence was passed on her, but commuted to life imprisonment because of her gender. She was freed in the General Amnesty in July 1917.
  6. ^ Wikipedia: Easter, 1916; Interpretation.
  7. ^ Cast your mind on other days
    That we in coming days may be
    Still the indomitable Irishry.
    'Under Ben Bulben' (1938), Last Poems in Collected Poems, ibid, p. 400.

The tower and stream at Thoor Ballylee today:

Thoor Ballylee website