‘September 1913’ was written during the Dublin lock-out and the Hugh Lane bequest. The latter refers to the period of unrest after the art collector Hugh Lane offered his paintings to the Dublin Municipal Corporation. The former, the Dublin lock-out, is in reference to an industrial dispute involving thousands of workers in Dublin. This is one of several poems written during or about this period. Others include: ‘To a Shade’ and ‘The Municipal Gallery Revisited’.
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Summary of September 1913
The poem takes the reader through Yeats’ perception of the current state of Irish politics and the beliefs of the general public. He feels disdain towards those who have no regard for the past and don’t remember what was lost. Yeats thinks that all the strength of his country has been zapped and all its people have turned inward. The poet mourns for a bygone era in which heroes worked for the greater good, but he admits that it is lost. He gives up on it ever coming back.
Structure of September 1913
‘September 1913’ by William Butler Yeats is a four stanza poem that’s separated into sets of eight lines, known as octaves. These octaves follow a simple rhyme scheme of ABABCDCD, changing end sounds in each stanza. There is some additional repetition in the rhyme as well. The last four lines of each make use of the same full-rhyme and half-rhyme end sounds. For example, in the first stanza the half-rhymes “bone” and “gone” and the full rhymes “save” and grave”. Or, in the second stanza: “spun” and “gone, and then again, “save” and “grave”.
Poetic Techniques in September 1913
Yeats makes use of several poetic techniques in ‘September 1913’. These include alliteration, enjambment, anaphora, and epistrophe. The first, alliteration, occurs when words are used in succession, or at least appear close together, and begin with the same letter. For example, “world like the wind” in the third like of the second stanza and the repetition of the word “prayer” in the fourth line of the first stanza.
Yeats also makes use of anaphora, or the repetition of a word or phrase at the beginning of multiple lines, usually in succession. For instance, the word “And” begins two lines in a row in the first stanza, and “For this” starts two lines in the third stanza.
Another important technique commonly used in poetry is enjambment. It occurs when a line is cut off before its natural stopping point. Enjambment forces a reader down to the next line, and the next, quickly. One has to move forward in order to comfortably resolve a phrase or sentence. For example, the transition between lines two and three of the first stanza and lines four and five of the third stanza.
Finally, but certainly not the last literary device used in ‘September 1913,’ is epistrophe is the repetition of the same word, or a phrase, at the end of multiple lines or sentences. For example, “grave” ends the last line of every stanza, “gone” that ends the seventh lines of all stanzas, and “save” that ends line six of the first two stanzas.
Analysis of September 1913
What need you, being come to sense,But fumble in a greasy tillAnd add the halfpence to the penceAnd prayer to shivering prayer, untilYou 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.
In the first stanza of ‘September 1913,’ the speaker is passing judgement on his fellow Irishmen. He accuses them of greed, of fumbling in “a greasy till” and constantly worrying about money, something he personally doesn’t place value on. There is no joy or love in prayer, instead, it is one “shivering prayer” to the next. The atmosphere in these lines is cold, withdrawn, and passionless. This is reinforced in the fifth line where Yeats refers to “You” as having been responsible for drying the “marrow from the bone”. This is a metaphor for Ireland as a whole and by accusing “You” of this act, the reader is implicated.
Yeats was directing these lines to the greedy, self-absorbed middle classes that he detested. The poet was very interested in what was best for Ireland, but he sees these groups as being a blight on its strength and goodness. The “Romantic Ireland” of the past is gone. The use of capital “r” Romantic in this line connects the poem back to the political beliefs of the Romantic poets and the ideal of a unified Ireland.
In the last line, he refers to “O’Leary”. This is John O’Leary who embodies the national beliefs of the past that have gone into the grave. He believed in Irish independence from Britain, the separation of church and state, and did not promote violence.
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.
In the second stanza, the poet refers to the names of important Irish figures of the past, now lost to the wind. They would’ve been heroes to the kids, powerful enough to stop them from playing and make them take notice of their stories.
Just as he discussed in the first stanza, he believes that times have changed dramatically. The stories are gone from the world and Yeats concludes the stanza with a repetition of the refrain “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.
Another rhetorical question begins the third stanza of ‘September 1913’. He asks the reader, or his intended listeners whoever they may be if all the sacrifices of the past were leading up to this. For him, the losses, deaths, and devastations of the past only resulted in more loss. He specifically mentions Robert Emmet and Wolfe Tone. Both were Irish nationalists and rebellion leaders who pushed back against British rule.
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.
In the last stanza of ‘September 1913,’ the poet expresses his belief that so much has changed since the days of these heroes that evoking them today would be pointless. By this point, all the gains are lost, the passion has been drained, Romantic Ireland is dead, and so “let them be”. He acknowledges the fact that when they were alive, these leaders had goals that could never be achieved. It was the striving that mattered.
The poem ends on a solemn note. Yeats appears to give up hope for a return to the past that brings with it any significance. But, the poem itself represents the opposite. By writing this piece and continuing on the Romantic traditions he alludes to, he is furthering the cause he cares so deeply for.