Tag Archives: England

“Henry VIII” by William Shakespeare: On Politics and Literature

This was my first time reading this particular play, so I wasn’t sure what to expect. The introduction said that the play is a “pageant to be seen rather than a play to be read,” and the abundance of stage directions confirms this. Still, there are some interesting passages, especially in regard to the politics of that age.

The play essentially takes place as King Henry VIII was getting divorced from Katherine of Aragon so that he could marry Anne Boleyn (spelled Bullen in Shakespeare’s text). Toward the end of the play, Queen Anne gives birth to Elizabeth, the future queen, and this is where the text gets really interesting for me.

At the time that Shakespeare wrote this play, James I had succeeded Queen Elizabeth I and was reigning over England. In the final act, Shakespeare pays homage to the two monarchs that ruled during his time, a move that was politically savvy and ensured that he remained within the good graces of the ruler. He did this by crafting a prophesy, asserting that Elizabeth and James were both divinely ordained to do great things during their lifetimes. It is a long passage, but worth sharing.

Let me speak, sir,
For heaven now bids me; and the words I utter
Let none think flattery, for they’ll find ’em truth.
This royal infant–heaven still move about her!–
Though in her cradle, yet now promises
Upon this land a thousand thousand blessings,
Which time shall bring to ripeness: she shall be–
But few now living can behold that goodness–
A pattern to all princes living with her,
And all that shall succeed: Saba was never
More covetous of wisdom and fair virtue
Than this pure soul shall be: all princely graces,
That mould up such a mighty piece as this is,
With all the virtues that attend the good,
Shall still be doubled on her: truth shall nurse her,
Holy and heavenly thoughts still counsel her:
She shall be loved and fear’d: her own shall bless her;
Her foes shake like a field of beaten corn,
And hang their heads with sorrow: good grows with her:
In her days every man shall eat in safety,
Under his own vine, what he plants; and sing
The merry songs of peace to all his neighbours:
God shall be truly known; and those about her
From her shall read the perfect ways of honour,
And by those claim their greatness, not by blood.
Nor shall this peace sleep with her: but as when
The bird of wonder dies, the maiden phoenix,
Her ashes new create another heir,
As great in admiration as herself;
So shall she leave her blessedness to one,
When heaven shall call her from this cloud of darkness,
Who from the sacred ashes of her honour
Shall star-like rise, as great in fame as she was,
And so stand fix’d: peace, plenty, love, truth, terror,
That were the servants to this chosen infant,
Shall then be his, and like a vine grow to him:
Wherever the bright sun of heaven shall shine,
His honour and the greatness of his name
Shall be, and make new nations: he shall flourish,
And, like a mountain cedar, reach his branches
To all the plains about him: our children’s children
Shall see this, and bless heaven.

(Act V, scene v)

Shakespeare eloquently validates the rule of James I, while evoking the praise of Elizabeth, and at the same time, connects both of them to the idea of “divine rule,” that the King and Queen of England were God’s manifestation of power on the temporal plane.

I hope you found this passage interesting. If you are not a Shakespeare buff, you may want to watch instead of read this one. I also will look for a good version to stream online.

Thanks for stopping by, and try not to let the crazy politics of these times overwhelm you. Cheers!

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“Wuthering Heights” by Emily Bronte: A Polemic Against the Patriarchy

This is one of those books that I had been meaning to read for a long time. I bought a used copy many years ago, and have finally gotten around to reading it.

Emily Bronte published this book in 1847, and it provides a harsh view of patriarchal authority which sadly still resonates today as we continue to grapple with issues of gender inequality and the abuse of women.

After Catherine is forced to wed her cousin, Linton, we are presented with a horrific image of Linton’s plan to seize everything that was once Catherine’s, as well as physical and psychological abuse inflicted upon Catherine by Heathcliff, Linton’s father.

“He’s in the court,” he replied, “talking to Dr. Kenneth; who says uncle is dying, truly, at last. I’m glad, for I shall be master of the Grange after him. Catherine always spoke of it as her house. It isn’t hers! It’s mine: papa says everything she has is mine. All her nice books are mine; she offered to give me them, and her pretty birds, and her pony Minny, if I would get the key of her room, and let her out; but I told her she had nothing to give, they were all mine. And then she cried, and took a little picture from her neck, and said I should not have that; two pictures in a gold case, on one side her mother, and on the other, uncle, when they were young. That was yesterday—I said they were mine, too; and tried to get them from her. The spiteful thing wouldn’t let me: she pushed me off, and hurt me. I shrieked out—that frightens her—she heard papa coming, and she broke the hinges and divided the case, and gave me her mother’s portrait; the other she attempted to hide: but papa asked what was the matter, and I explained it. He took the one I had away, and ordered her to resign hers to me; she refused, and he—he struck her down, and wrenched it off the chain, and crushed it with his foot.”

(pp. 204 – 205)

The physical abuse is clear, but the psychological abuse is presented symbolically through the image of the locket. Heathcliff demands that Catherine give Linton the picture of her father as a symbolic gesture of her giving up all connections to her familial past and essentially becoming the property of her husband. She is not only required to relinquish all tangible property, but she must let go of her soul, of who she is, and thereby become nothing but a piece of human property, which can be done with as her husband chooses. When Catherine attempts to resist, the crushing of the locket represents the domination of patriarchal authority over her, stamping out all connections to her former self.

After Linton dies, Heathcliff takes possession of everything that once belonged to Catherine and her family. At one point, Catherine wants to use a small plot of land to create a garden. Heathcliff’s response demonstrates the patriarchal belief that a woman has no rights to any property.

“You shouldn’t grudge a few yards of earth for me to ornament, when you have taken all my land!”

“Your land, insolent slut! You never had any,” said Heathcliff.

“And my money,” she continued; returning his angry glare, and meantime biting a piece of crust, the remnant of her breakfast.

(p. 234)

While this book shows that we have come a long way, it also reminds us that we still have a ways to go. There is still gross gender inequality, as well as disparity between socio-economic classes. But as long as strong voices such as Emily Bronte’s speak out against inequality, we can continue to move forward as a society.

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Thoughts on “Henry IV, Part 2” by William Shakespeare

In my review of Henry IV, Part 1, I focused on Falstaff. In this second part, Falstaff is still a major character, and delivers some of the wittiest and funniest lines ever, full of sexual innuendo. But rather than rehash what I already covered, I figured I would focus on history, because this is a history, after all.

There is a history in all men’s lives,
Figuring the nature of the times deceased;
The which observed, a man may prophesy,
With a near aim, of the main chance of things
As yet not come to life, which in their seeds
And weak beginnings lie intreasured.
Such things become the hatch and brood of time;
And by the necessary form of this
King Richard might create a perfect guess
That great Northumberland, then false to him,
Would of that seed grow to a greater falseness;
Which should not find a ground to root upon,
Unless on you.

(Act III, scene i)

This passage beautifully expresses why history is so important. When we study the historical trends of individuals, societies, and cultures, we gain an understanding of their backgrounds, of the events that formed them. We can then trace the lineage to where individuals and cultures are in the present day. Using these insights, we can make educated assumptions regarding future trends and possibilities. And yes, there are infinite variables at play which will inevitably influence future events and outcomes, but we can make an educated guess as to likely responses to situations based upon past actions.

Let’s take a hypothetical example. If a country has a history of responding to external threats in an aggressive manner, it would be a reasonable assumption to expect the country to respond in a similar manner to future threats. So while individual leaders will certainly affect whether the retaliation is forceful or tempered, one can be prepared for a likely possible outcome.

I have to say that of all the Shakespearean histories I’ve read so far, I enjoyed Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2 the most. They are highly entertaining, elegantly composed, and rich in ideas and imagery. I’m thinking I will have to find some good film versions online to watch. If you have a recommendation, please share.

Thanks for reading.

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“Henry IV, Part 1” by William Shakespeare: The Archetypal Figure of Falstaff

Although this play is a history, it is way funnier than some of Shakespeare’s comedies (just read Measure for Measure). In fact, the “historical” events seem to be more of a background for the antics of Sir John Falstaff.  A more apt title would be The Merrie Adventures of Sir John Falstaff. There were times I found myself ginning or chuckling out loud as I read. For this reason, I figured I would focus my post on Falstaff, and particularly how he embodies an archetype.

Falstaff is a completely unrepentant indulger in worldly pleasures. He has no qualms with being overweight, a cheat, a glutton, a whoremonger, basically, embracing everything society warns us against. And in spite of his wallowing in earthly delights, he does not suffer, but plods on happily regardless of the chaos swirling around him. His main concern is finding his next cup of sack.

With this in mind, we can look at Falstaff as the archetype of the fallen soul, who passes on all things heavenly to enjoy the pleasures of the flesh.

That villanous abominable misleader of youth,
Falstaff, that old white-bearded Satan.

(Act II, scene iv)

This quote made me think about Falstaff’s name, and I figured it might be broken down, such as “False Staff.” If the Good Shepherd uses his staff to lead humans along the Heavenly path, then the great “misleader” would use a false staff to lead others down the “wrong” path. I would also venture to assert that there is a sexual innuendo here too, that the staff that leads men astray is in fact the staff within their trousers.

But is the pursuit of physical pleasure truly a sin? Falstaff presents a defense of his actions.

But to say I know more harm in him than in myself,
were to say more than I know. That he is old, the
more the pity, his white hairs do witness it; but
that he is, saving your reverence, a whoremaster,
that I utterly deny. If sack and sugar be a fault,
God help the wicked! if to be old and merry be a
sin, then many an old host that I know is damned: if
to be fat be to be hated, then Pharaoh’s lean kine
are to be loved. No, my good lord; banish Peto,
banish Bardolph, banish Poins: but for sweet Jack
Falstaff, kind Jack Falstaff, true Jack Falstaff,
valiant Jack Falstaff, and therefore more valiant,
being, as he is, old Jack Falstaff, banish not him
thy Harry’s company, banish not him thy Harry’s
company: banish plump Jack, and banish all the world.

(Act II, scene iv)

This for me is the key to understanding Falstaff. Should someone be banished for being human, for indulging in the desires that are natural to all of us? To banish one person for succumbing to the flesh would mean that all humans must be banished. And isn’t that what essentially happened, according to the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden?

Dost thou hear, Hal? thou knowest in the state of
innocency Adam fell; and what should poor Jack
Falstaff do in the days of villany? Thou seest I
have more flesh than another man, and therefore more
frailty.

(Act III, scene iii)

There is a bit of Falstaff in all of us. Whether we repress those desires, or whether we choose to indulge ourselves, we cannot deny that they are a part of us, that this is an integral part of the human condition. Falstaff lets us know that we should not flagellate ourselves because we eat too much, or drink too much, or fornicate too much. What Falstaff teaches us that that we should accept ourselves, with our faults, because we all have faults. And once we accept those faults and can love ourselves anyway, then we can progress as individuals.

Thanks for stopping by. I’ll be reading Part 2 soon.

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Thoughts on “Henry VI: Part 3” by William Shakespeare

While this is the last of the “Henry VI” plays, the history continues with Richard III, which actually concludes the series. Anyway, overall, I enjoyed this play. It was a pretty easy read and explored some themes on politics and society which I found to be relevant today. I figured for this post, I would share a couple passages that stood out for me.

That’s not my fear; my meed hath got me fame:
I have not stopp’d mine ears to their demands,
Nor posted off their suits with slow delays;
My pity hath been balm to heal their wounds,
My mildness hath allay’d their swelling griefs,
My mercy dried their water-flowing tears;
I have not been desirous of their wealth,
Nor much oppress’d them with great subsidies.
Nor forward of revenge, though they much err’d:
Then why should they love Edward more than me?
No, Exeter, these graces challenge grace:
And when the lion fawns upon the lamb,
The lamb will never cease to follow him.

(Act IV, scene viii)

Here Henry is expressing his disillusion with being a leader. He considers all the good things he has done, but in spite of all that, he still does not have the support of the people. He comes to the conclusion that people too often view kindness as a weakness. This is a sentiment that sadly seems to have survived into the present day. Personally, I prefer the benevolent leader, but I see that a lot of people do not share my sentiment.

Lo, now my glory smear’d in dust and blood!
My parks, my walks, my manors that I had.
Even now forsake me, and of all my lands
Is nothing left me but my body’s length.
Why, what is pomp, rule, reign, but earth and dust?
And, live we how we can, yet die we must.

(Act V, scene ii)

In this scene, Warwick realizes that all his worldly accomplishments amount to nothing in the end. As I read this, I was reminded of Shelley’s great poem, “Ozymandias.” So many of us spend our whole lives, striving and working to create something that will serve as a lasting monument to our lives. But in the end, none of it matters. We all die, and everything that we created will eventually crumble and turn to dust. This seems even more true now in the digital age. How many people can name relatives more than three generations back? Our connection to history is diminishing. I’m sure after I die, that everything I have been writing on this blog will eventually fade away too. It is just the nature of existence. We create things, and our creations eventually return to dust.

Ironically, knowing that our works will crumble does not fill me with despair. It’s oddly comforting to me. It makes me value what I do in the present even more. I write for the now; what happens later is not my concern.

Thanks for stopping by and sharing in my musings. I hope you have a blessed day.

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Thoughts on “Henry VI: Part 2” by William Shakespeare

Reading this play not long after finishing Henry VI: Part 1, I can see just how much better Shakespeare’s craftsmanship is in this play.

As I am wont to do, I figured I would share and comment on the passages that stood out for me.

And, force perforce, I’ll make him yield the crown,
Whose bookish rule hath pulled fair England down.

(Act I, scene i)

Henry is criticized for being bookish, in other words, educated and thoughtful, as opposed to being a man of action. It is similar to the mindset of many people today. Educated leaders are deemed “elitist” by many individuals, who prefer a leader who embodies the characteristics of the common person. There is even the belief that the best political candidate is the one who has little or no experience in government, and virtually no formal education. Personally, I think being thoughtful and educated are prerequisites to being an effective and good leader.

Patience, good lady; wizards know their times:
Deep night, dark night, the silent of the night,
The time of night when Troy was set on fire;
The time when screech-owls cry and ban-dogs howl,
And spirits walk and ghosts break up their graves,
That time best fits the work we have in hand.
Madam, sit you and fear not: whom we raise,
We will make fast within a hallow’d verge.

(Act I, scene iv)

In this scene, Bolingbroke is preparing to conjure spirits. What struck me about this passage is the importance of time when performing an occult ritual. There are certain times, essentially threshold periods, when practice of spiritual or mystical arts is considered to be more effective. Midnight, dawn and dusk, solstices and equinoxes, full moons—these are all times that are significant in religious and mystical rites.

Ah, gracious lord, these days are dangerous:
Virtue is choked with foul ambition
And charity chased hence by rancour’s hand;
Foul subornation is predominant
And equity exiled your highness’ land.

(Act III, scene i)

Again, I could not help but notice the correlation with the political climate today. The majority of politicians do not appear to act based upon what is right and best for the country and the population, but instead are motivated by self-advancement and financial manipulation from corporate entities. Short-term financial benefits are often considered more important that long-term solutions to challenges. It is this short-sighted mentality and the self-centered focus that has led us to the socio-political mess that we are dealing with today.

Every time I read Shakespeare, I marvel at how similar humans are today to our ancestors 500 years ago. We have not advanced or changed all that much. Our technologies and general knowledge have leapt forward, but our core beliefs and motivations have remained the same. Personally, I feel that humans need to embrace a new paradigm if we are to continue as a species. If we maintain our current trajectory, I do not see our civilization lasting much longer.

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Thoughts on “Henry VI, Part I” by William Shakespeare

This was my first time reading this play. Honestly, I shied away from the histories in the past, and tended to focus on the comedies and tragedies. I guess some part of me felt they might not be as enjoyable. But the truth is, this is a very enjoyable play and much more interesting than I expected.

The play is steeped in politics. It is set during the English battles with the French, where Joan la Pucelle (Joan of Arc) demonstrated her force on the field. It also explores the political strife that led to the War of the Roses. So there is a lot going on, but in spite of that, it is pretty easy to follow.

There is speculation that Shakespeare may have collaborated with Christopher Marlowe and Thomas Nashe on the writing of this play.

Some regard Henry VI, Part 1 as the weakest of Shakespeare’s plays, and along with Titus Andronicus, it is generally considered one of the strongest candidates for evidence that Shakespeare collaborated with other dramatists early in his career.

(Source: Wikipedia)

Personally, I feel this play is way better that Titus Andronicus, but that’s just my opinion. That said, there are a few passages of interest that I want to share.

Charles: Then come, o’ God’s name; I fear no woman.

Joan la Pucelle: And while I live, I’ll ne’er fly from a man.

(Act I, scene ii)

What I love about these two lines is that they succinctly sum up the patriarchy mentality, and the rejection of that paradigm. As king of France, Charles embodies the idea of male dominance. But Joan is the feminist archetype. She rejects this male-dominance idea completely, and asserts that she will never allow herself to be subservient to someone strictly based upon gender. Not surprising, men of power view strong women as a threat, labeling them as witches and servants of evil.

Here, here she comes. I’ll have a bout with thee;
Devil or devil’s dam, I’ll conjure thee:
Blood will I draw on thee, thou art a witch,
And straightway give thy soul to him thou servest.

(Act I, scene v)

While factionalism in politics seems extremely pronounced these days, Shakespeare reminds us that politics have always been contentious and factional.

Good Lord, what madness rules in brainsick men,
When for so slight and frivolous a cause
Such factious emulations shall arise!
Good cousins both, of York and Somerset,
Quiet yourselves, I pray, and be at peace.

(Act IV, scene i)

As I look around me, I notice that we are living in a fear culture. The news media provides a steady stream of “what if” scenarios and opinions intended to increase your fear and keep you coming back to the channel or website. This is having a terrible effect on society, as well as on individuals. And as Shakespeare points out in this play, fear is one of the worst of human emotions.

Of all base passions, fear is the most accursed.

(Act V, scene ii)

And the last quote I want to share concerns marriage.

A dower, my lords! disgrace not so your king,
That he should be so abject, base and poor,
To choose for wealth and not for perfect love.
Henry is able to enrich his queen
And not seek a queen to make him rich:
So worthless peasants bargain for their wives,
As market-men for oxen, sheep, or horse.
Marriage is a matter of more worth
Than to be dealt in by attorneyship;
Not whom we will, but whom his grace affects,
Must be companion of his nuptial bed:
And therefore, lords, since he affects her most,
It most of all these reasons bindeth us,
In our opinions she should be preferr’d.
For what is wedlock forced but a hell,
An age of discord and continual strife?

(Act V, scene v)

I love this quote because it extols the importance of love when it comes to matrimony. It is clearly a romantic view that puts the focus on the compatibility between two people, as opposed to the financial or political advantages that might be gained from an arranged marriage.

While I agree that this is not Shakespeare’s greatest play, it is still good and worth reading. If for nothing else, it provides a glimpse into the writing of a young Shakespeare, as he was developing his skills as a wordsmith.

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Thoughts on “The Hosting of the Sidhe” by William Butler Yeats

Image Source: Wikipedia

The host is riding from Knocknarea
And over the grave of Clooth-na-Bare;
Caoilte tossing his burning hair
And Niamh calling Away, come away:
Empty your heart of its mortal dream.
The winds awaken, the leaves whirl round,
Our cheeks are pale, our hair is unbound,
Our breasts are heaving, our eyes are agleam,
Our arms are waving, our lips are apart;
And if any gaze on our rushing band,
We come between him and the deed of his hand,
We come between him and the hope of his heart.

The host is rushing ’twixt night and day,
And where is there hope or deed as fair?
Caoilte tossing his burning hair,
And Niamh calling Away, come away.

Before we can begin to understand the symbolism in this poem, we have to know the names and places mentioned by Yeats.

  • Sidhe—The Faeries, but with a more general implication of supernatural beings.
  • Knocknarea—Mountain in Sligo.
  • Clooth-na-Bare—A faery who sought death in the deepest lake in the world, which she found in Sligo; hence, also a place name.
  • Caoilte—Legendary Irish hero (companion of Oisin).
  • Niamh—Beloved of Oisin, whom she lures into the adventure described in Yeats’s long early narrative poem “The Wanderings of Oisin.” Her name means “brightness and beauty.”

(Definitions source: M.L. Rosenthal)

Rosenthal provides further information regarding the Sidhe and what they meant to Yeats in particular.

Thus the Sidhe are more than mere faeries in the ordinary sense; they are supernatural beings of a more exalted character. Yeats sometimes thinks of them as including all mythical heroes, and at other times makes them quite sinister. To be touched by them is to be set apart from other mortals, an ambivalent condition common to all who succumb to enchantment.

Clearly, this is a complex poem which contains layers of symbolism. I’ll do my best to bring some of these symbols to the surface.

The Sidhe appear to embody the mythology of Ireland, a combination of the mystical and the heroic. They are the Druids, the poets, the heroes, the supernatural beings, all combined into one host. Essentially, they are the source of inspiration for Yeats.

Knocknarea and Clooth-na-Bare are both in Sligo, so we have the lofty peak and the deepest lake, respectively, in the same location. Yeats seems to be implying that the mystical inspiration for his poetry is drawn both from searching the heavens, or the realm of the divine, as well as in exploring the depths of the waters, which symbolizes the deep wellspring of the subconscious mind. This places Ireland at a sort of crossroads, a place where the divine and the human meet, where god consciousness blends with the magical power of human consciousness.

Niamh is a little more complicated. I see three possible representations here. First, she could represent Ireland as the mother country. Second, she could symbolize the embodiment of the divine creative force, or the muse which inspires the poet to craft verse. And thirdly, I suspect there is a correlation between Niamh and Maud Gonne, Yeats’s beloved and personal inspiration. Considering that there are three possible representations embodied in Niamh, it is also possible that Yeats intended her to symbolize the triple goddess (maiden, mother, crone).

I suspect that Yeats sees himself reflected in the character of Caoilte. He is an Irish hero, heeding the call of the Sidhe, lured into the adventure of creating poetry by the mythical being of Niamh. As I envision him “tossing his burning hair,” I see a symbol of the mystical poet, whose mind and thoughts are aflame with the divine fire of inspiration, burning with a passion to rekindle the creative flame that was once Ireland.

As with so many of Yeats’s poems, I suspect this one is open to other interpretations. This one is just my personal view. If you have other thoughts or ideas regarding this poem, please feel free to share them in the comments section.

Thanks for stopping by, and happy St. Patrick’s Day.

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“To Ireland in the Coming Times” by William Butler Yeats

Know, that I would accounted be
True brother of a company
That sang, to sweeten Ireland’s wrong,
Ballad and story, rann and song;
Nor be I any less of them,
Because the red-rose-bordered hem
Of her, whose history began
Before God made the angelic clan,
Trails all about the written page.
When Time began to rant and rage
The measure of her flying feet
Made Ireland’s heart begin to beat;
And Time bade all his candles flare
To light a measure here and there;
And may the thoughts of Ireland brood
Upon a measured quietude.

Nor may I less be counted one
With Davis, Mangan, Ferguson,
Because, to him who ponders well,
My rhymes more than their rhyming tell
Of things discovered in the deep,
Where only body’s laid asleep.
For the elemental creatures go
About my table to and fro,
That hurry from unmeasured mind
To rant and rage in flood and wind;
Yet he who treads in measured ways
May surely barter gaze for gaze.
Man ever journeys on with them
After the red-rose-bordered hem.
Ah, faeries, dancing under the moon,
A Druid land, a Druid tune!

While still I may, I write for you
The love I lived, the dream I knew.
From our birthday, until we die,
Is but the winking of an eye;
And we, our singing and our love,
What measurer Time has lit above,
And all benighted things that go
About my table to and fro,
Are passing on to where may be,
In truth’s consuming ecstasy,
No place for love and dream at all;
For God goes by with white footfall.
I cast my heart into my rhymes,
That you, in the dim coming times,
May know how my heart went with them
After the red-rose-bordered hem.

This is one of Yeats’ Irish nationalist poems, where he envisions an Ireland free from English rule. He aligns himself with three other Irish nationalist poets: Thomas Osborne Davis, James Clarence Mangan, and Sir Samuel Ferguson. Yeats believes that Irish poetry and art, which extol Irish heritage (symbolized by faeries and Druids), will inspire the Irish people and usher in the Irish Renaissance.

A metaphor which is repeated in each stanza is the “red-rose-bordered hem.” I thought about this image quite a bit, trying to figure out what exactly Yeats was trying to represent here. My thought is that Yeats was making a reference to Lady Liberty, as expressed in Delacroix’s famous revolutionary painting (see below). The implication here is that the hem of Liberty’s dress may have to get stained with the blood of revolutionaries before Ireland can become a free nation. The sad truth is that revolutions are rarely bloodless.

Eugène Delacroix

While I personally prefer Yeats’ mystical poetry, I can appreciate his nationalistic works as well. Artistic expression is almost always influenced to some extent by the socio-political climate at the time the artist is working. I confess, I am curious to see what works of art arise from our current social and political climate.

Thanks for stopping by, and feel free to share any thoughts in the comment section below.

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Analysis of “Easter 1916” by W. B. Yeats

Easter1916

Easter Uprising: Image Source – British Literature Wiki

Since today is Easter, I decided to reread Yeats’ great poem regarding the Irish uprising against England on Easter in 1916. It is fairly long, so I am not going to include the entire text, but here is a link to the poem online should you want to read it in its entirety.

Easter 1916

I will include the fourth and final stanza of the poem, since that is what I will focus my analysis upon.

Too long a sacrifice
Can make a stone of the heart.
O when may it suffice?
That is Heaven’s part, our part
To murmer 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.

The stanza begins with references to sacrifice and stone. The leaders of the uprising sacrificed themselves for Irish independence, and there is a symbolic connection to the sacrifice made by Jesus in leading his followers to spiritual freedom. I see the reference to “a stone of the heart” as having multiple meanings. On one hand, the English government has hardened its stance against the Irish rebels; additionally, the Irish have become hardened in their stance against English rule. But also, since Christ was buried in a cave blocked by a stone, the stone becomes a symbol for the heart of the Christian faith and the promise of resurrection. Hence, although the rebel leaders are executed (like Christ was executed), the cause will continue in spirit and their martyrdom will be the rock or foundation of the revolution.

Yeats then continues by emphasizing the importance of murmering “name upon name” in order to keep the memory of the executed leaders alive. One gets the sense that Yeats is implying the need for a national invocation, where by chanting the names of the fallen leaders, their ideals and their spirit will become part of the collective consciousness.

Next, Yeats expresses how the rebels died for a cause, or a dream, and he ponders whether it was a “needless death” or whether their sacrifice was worth it. “England may keep faith” implies that Parliament will not change its stance against Irish independence and that likely a longer and bloodier struggle will ensue. It is also worth noting that 1916 was the middle of World War I, so I cannot help but wonder if Yeats viewed the struggle for Irish independence as a microcosmic symbol of the larger conflict that was ravaging Europe at the time.

Yeats decides to commit the story of the uprising to verse, and names the leaders who were executed:

I write it out in a verse–
MacDonagh and MacBride
And Connolly and Pearse

This has strong symbolic significance. For Yeats, committing something to verse is instilling it with deep spiritual power, almost like making it immortal. So by immortalizing the martyred leaders, he is ensuring their rebirth and resurrection, guaranteeing that their cause will live on.

The last words are somber, though. He acknowledges that the revolution is important and right, but suspects that it is also symbolic of the end, in the same way that the resurrection of Christ, while glorious and beautiful, signals the beginning of the apocalypse. Compare the ending of this poem to the ending of “The Second Coming,” Yeats’ famous apocalyptic vision:

“Easter 1916”

Are changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.

“Second Coming”

And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

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