September 1913

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"September 1913" is a poem by W. B. Yeats. The poem was written midway through his life as a highly reflective poem which is rooted within the turbulent past. Most notably, the poem provides insight into Yeats' detestation of the middle classes whilst also glorifying figures such as John O'Leary.


What need you, being come to sense,
But fumble in a greasy till
And add the halfpence to the pence
And prayer to shivering prayer, until
You have dried the marrow from the bone;
For men were born to pray and save;
Romantic Ireland's dead and gone,
It's with O'Leary in the grave.

Yet they were of a different kind,
The names that stilled your childish play,
They have gone about the world like wind,
But little time had they to pray
For whom the hangman's rope was spun,
And what, God help us, could they save?
Romantic Ireland's dead and gone,
It's with O'Leary in the grave.

Was it for this the wild geese spread
The grey wing upon every tide;
For this that all that blood was shed,
For this Edward Fitzgerald died,
And Robert Emmet and Wolfe Tone,
All that delirium of the brave?
Romantic Ireland's dead and gone,
It's with O'Leary in the grave.

Yet could we turn the years again,
And call those exiles as they were
In all their loneliness and pain,
You'd cry `Some woman's yellow hair
Has maddened every mother's son':
They weighed so lightly what they gave.
But let them be, they're dead and gone,
They're with O'Leary in the grave.[1]


The use of the strong ABAB rhyme scheme maintains a spiteful and accusatory tone, and unpleasant adjectives such as 'greasy' are very much indicative of this.

Key Themes and John O'Leary[edit]

The poem focuses on manifesting Yeats' new stance of exploring his political mind and celebrating those whom he believes worth of praise. Notably, in all four of the refrains, Yeats mentions John O'Leary, who was an Irish separatist 'of a different kind'. O'Leary's political stance was much less self-interested than many of his contemporaries, as he instead focused on getting the greatest good for Ireland. It is clear through the poem that Yeats admires this and wishes for a return to the less egotistical and self-driven politics of a bygone era. Yeats does, however, appear to question whether these great historical figures, whom he admired and previously emulated in the style of his earlier work, are comprehensive in their understanding of the world in which they lived.

"September 1913" functions also as an iconic example of Yeats's own fidelity to the literary traditions of the 19th century British Romantic poets. A devoted reader of both William Blake and Percy Shelley, Yeats' repetition of the phrase "Romantic Ireland" connects the politically motivated ideals of the Romantics "to an Irish national landscape."[2] The fact that Yeats attaches a second repetition of "It's with O'Leary in the grave" indicates further the speaker's belief that John O'Leary embodied a nationalism in his political actions that now rests solely within the poem. Indeed, John O'Leary "directed Yeats not just to large-mindedness, but to a way of combining Romanticism with Irishness into an original synthesis."[3] In other words, O'Leary's influence on Yeats enables the poet to both inherit the literary legacy of the Romantics while carrying on the nationalistic vision of O'Leary. As a result, the romantic idealism found in Blake and Shelley is now transformed into a fundamentally Irish concept whereas Yeats's deep Irish heritage becomes Romantic in every sense of the word. "September 1913" thus illustrates that "Romantic Ireland is not dead after all; rather, it lives on in the remarkable voice uttering the poem, the voice of O'Leary's greatest disciple, fully of hybridity and passion at once."[4] In a matter of four stanzas, the poem's speaker manages to exist at the confluence of British Romanticism and Irish nationalism.

Yeats's endorsement of the Romantic imagination in "September 1913" is also used to identify several of its flaws that are in need of his revision. Writing at the nexus of the Romantic and Irish traditions "enabled him to correct flaws not only of Shelley but also of Blake, who he thought should have been more rooted and less obscure."[5] Now that "Romantic Ireland's dead and gone," it can no longer express its will and thus requires Yeats poetic prowess to clarify Ireland's message. Speaking specifically about Irish leaders such as Edward Fitzgerald, Robert Emmet and Wolfe Tone, Yeats describes them as brave yet a bit delirious, a classification that treats the poet as far more grounded in his politics than the Irish nationalists who died. Yeats channels the fervor of their idealism and struggle through his words by insisting that his own poem continues the nationalist project initiated by those who came before him. The speaker's voice thus becomes "the characteristic note of Yeats's great mature poetry."[6]

The Hugh Lane Bequest[edit]

Hugh Lane offered his collection of paintings to the Dublin Municipal Corporation. Public reaction was mostly negative on economic and moral grounds. In the end, as Yeats said "the mob" prevailed. In a note to this poem Yeats wrote that the pictures "works by Corot, Degas and Renoir - were compared to the Trojan Horse 'which destroyed a city'. They were dubbed 'indecent' and those who admired the painting were called 'self-seekers, self-advertisers, picture dealers, log-rolling cranks, and faddists'..."[7]

Dublin Lock-out[edit]

Yeats wrote this poem following the Dublin Lock-out and the Hugh Lane bequest. Robert Emmet, mentioned in the poem, planned for a revolution several times, unsuccessfully. When he was finally successful, he was said to try and stop everything mid-rebellion, because he witnessed a man being pulled from his horse and killed. Considering that Emmet had spent months previously manufacturing explosives and weapons, this sudden drawback at the sight of violence, suggests that he did not fully understand the implications of a revolution. Perhaps Yeats is acknowledging the naivety of some Irish Republican figures like Robert Emmet, and himself, following public violence as a result of attempts at revolution.


  1. ^
  2. ^ George Bornstein, "Yeats and Romanticism," The Cambridge Companion to W.B. Yeats, 27. Edited by Marjorie Howes and John Kelly. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006.
  3. ^ George Bornstein, "Yeats and Romanticism," 27.
  4. ^ George Bornstein, "Yeats and Romanticism," 28.
  5. ^ George Bornstein, "Yeats and Romanticism," 27.
  6. ^ George Bornstein, "Yeats and Romanticism," 28.
  7. ^ Adele M dalsimer, "By the Irish Political Ballad, Colby Library Quarterly, 12,1 March 1976, p38)

 This article incorporates text from September 1913, by W. B. Yeats, a publication from 1913 now in the public domain in the United States.