"He disappeared in the dead of winter..."

The 28th January 2014 marks the 75th anniversary of the passing of one of the great literary giants – William Butler Yeats. By way of commemorating his passing, acknowledging his influence as a poet and communicating the ongoing relevance of his poems, we have put together some activities on Yeats’ poem Easter 1916, Seamus Heaney’s poem Casualty and W.H. Auden’s elegy In Memory of W.B. Yeats.

Activities: Easter 1916

The text of the poem can be found here

1. The central dilemma Yeats evokes in Easter 1916 is whether it is morally right as human beings to fight oppression or to endure it. This is also a dilemma Hamlet voices in his famous ‘To be or not to be’ soliloquy – “whether it is nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune or take arms against a sea of troubles, and by opposing, end them?”

a. What is the poet's attitude toward this question? What evidence from the poem supports your response?

b. What is your attitude toward this question?

2. Consider Yeats' representation of the Easter Rebellion.

a. Does the Easter Rebellion of 1916 change Yeats' perception of the people who led it?  In what ways?

b. How do the images in stanza three of the poem relate to the poem as a whole? 

3. One of the main themes of the poem is ‘change’ or ‘transformation’. This is communicated through the refrain “All changed, changed utterly: A terrible beauty is born”.

a. According to Yeats, what has “changed, changed utterly”?

b. What is the “terrible beauty” that is “born” in the wake of the Easter Rebellion?   

Activities: Casualty

The text of the poem can be found here.

1. Casualty is set in the northern province of Ulster in 1972. This was the year of Bloody Sunday, when the British army killed 13 civil rights protesters in the Bogside area of Londonderry. In this elegy Heaney memorializes a fisherman; a regular patron of the pubs, who becomes a casualty of the sectarian urban warfare in this region.

a. In what ways is Yeats’ refrain “a terrible beauty is born” reflected in Heaney’s poem?

b. With reference to poetic techniques, form and features, explain how Heaney shows the relevance of Yeats’ words - that violence has transformed Ireland and given birth to something “terrible”.

2. In Easter 1916, Yeats memorializes the leaders of the Easter Rebellion. However, Heaney memorializes an ordinary ‘everyman’ figure in Casualty.

a. Why do you think Heaney made this choice?

b. What is the significance of this choice?

Activities: In Memory of W.B. Yeats

The text of the poem can be found here.

1. Do you think it is the loss of Yeats the man or Yeats the poet that saddens Auden? Give reasons for your answer.

2. Auden comments that “poetry… survives/In the valley of its making where executives/Would never want to tamper, flows on south/From ranches of isolation and the busy griefs,/Raw towns that we believe and die in; it survives,/A way of happening, a mouth.”

a. If “poetry makes nothing happen”, why is it so important?

b. Consider Easter 1916 and Casualty in light of the above quotes about poetry. In what ways are both of these poems evidence of Auden’s assertion that, whilst poetry may not change anything, it is important in offering fresh perspectives and communicating emotion?

 3. Auden wrote this poem just before the outbreak of World War Two. Similar to Yeats and Heaney, it was a poem composed during a time of social and political tension.

a. Consider Part 3 of the elegy. Auden seems to be suggesting that people are too “sequestered” in their hate to truly understand the potential consequences of that hate. How does Auden suggest that poetry can change us and is therefore an important contribution to the world?

b. Do you think that people around the world would be better off after having read Easter 1916, Casualty and In Memory of W.B. Yeats? In your view, are these poems powerful enough to cause us to reconsider our actions? Why/why not?


"In the deserts of the heart 

Let the healing fountain start, 

In the prison of his days 

Teach the free man how to praise."


- Emily Bosco 

AuthorEmily Bosco