W. B. Yeats: On a political prisoner

She that but little patience knew,
From childhood on, had now so much
A grey gull lost its fear and flew
Down to her cell and there alit,
And there endured her fingers' touch
And from her fingers ate its bit.

Did she in touching that lone wing
Recall the years before her mind
Became a bitter, an abstract thing,
Her thought some popular enmity:
Blind and leader of the blind
Drinking the foul ditch where they lie?

When long ago I saw her ride
Under Ben Bulben to the meet,
The beauty of her country-side
With all youth's lonely wildness stirred,
She seemed to have grown clean and sweet
Like any rock-bred, sea-borne bird:

Sea-borne, or balanced in the air
When first it sprang out of the nest
Upon some lofty rock to stare
Upon the cloudy canopy,
While under its storm-beaten breast
Cried out the hollows of the sea.

The political prisoner is Countess Markievicz, condemned to death by the British Government for her part in the Irish rebellion of 1916. The sentence is commuted to life imprisonment, but she is later released.

In many ways, Yeats both loves and disagrees with her political involvement, feeling “her mind became a bitter, an abstract thing…” Nevertheless he writes the poem.

She is elected as a Member of the British Parliament in 1918 but refuses to take the seat because it would have involved an oath of allegiance to the English crown.

Following Irish independence in 1922, Countess Markievicz is appointed Minister for Labour in the Irish Government, the first woman Minister to be appointed anywhere in Europe. She leaves us in 1927.

“On a Political Prisoner” is from Michael Robartes and the Dancer. W.B. Yeats. New York: Macmillan, 1921.

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