'Sixteen Dead Men' by William Butler Yeats

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O BUT we talked at large before
The sixteen men were shot,
But who can talk of give and take,
What should be and what not
While those dead men are loitering there
To stir the boiling pot?
You say that we should still the land
Till Germany's overcome;
But who is there to argue that
Now Pearse is deaf and dumb?
And is their logic to outweigh
MacDonagh's bony thumb?
how could you dream they'd listen
That have an ear alone
For those new comrades they have found,
Lord Edward and Wolfe Tone,
Or meddle with our give and take
That converse bone to bone?

Editor 1 Interpretation

Sixteen Dead Men by William Butler Yeats: A Literary Criticism and Interpretation

"Sixteen Dead Men" is one of William Butler Yeats' most powerful and memorable poems. It was published in 1914 as part of his collection "Responsibilities" and is a tribute to the sixteen Irish rebels who were executed by the British during the Easter Rising of 1916.

In this literary criticism and interpretation, we will delve deeper into the poem's themes, imagery, and language, and analyze how Yeats effectively communicates his message through his use of literary devices.

Background and Context

To understand the poem's significance, we must first understand the historical context of the Easter Rising. In 1916, a group of Irish nationalists, led by Patrick Pearse and James Connolly, staged an armed rebellion against British rule in Ireland. The rebellion was ultimately unsuccessful, and the leaders were rounded up and executed by firing squad. The event had a profound impact on Irish history and literature, and Yeats was no exception.

Yeats was a staunch advocate for Irish independence and had previously written poems about the Irish rebellion. "Sixteen Dead Men" was his direct response to the Easter Rising and the tragic loss of life that it caused.

Themes and Imagery

The poem's central theme is the sacrifice made by the sixteen rebels. Yeats portrays them as heroic figures, martyrs who died for a greater cause. The opening lines of the poem set the tone:

"O but we talked at large before The sixteen men were shot, But who can talk of give and take, What should be and what not While those dead men are loitering there To stir the boiling pot?"

The use of the word "shot" is deliberately harsh and shocking, emphasizing the violent nature of the execution. The image of "dead men...loitering there" is haunting and poignant, suggesting that their sacrifice is still present and felt even after their deaths.

Yeats continues to use powerful imagery throughout the poem, describing the rebels as "redcoats" with "scarlet coats" and "drums" that "thrill and throb," evoking a sense of military might and heroism. The use of color is also significant, with the rebels' "blood-red leaves" contrasting with the "drab" uniforms of the British soldiers.

Language and Literary Devices

Yeats' use of language is both precise and emotive. He employs a range of literary devices to convey his message, including repetition, alliteration, and metaphor.

Repetition is used to great effect in the poem, with the phrase "sixteen men" repeated several times. This repetition reinforces the poem's central theme and emphasizes the significance of the sacrifice made by the rebels.

Alliteration is also used extensively, with phrases like "drums that throb and thrill" and "blood-red leaves" creating a sense of rhythm and musicality. This technique adds to the poem's emotional impact, making it feel almost like a lament.

Metaphor is perhaps the most powerful literary device used in the poem. Yeats employs the metaphor of the "boiling pot" to describe the political unrest and turmoil that led to the Easter Rising. The image of a pot boiling over suggests that the rebellion was inevitable, that the tension and pressure had been building for some time. The metaphor also implies that the rebels were simply a part of a larger movement, that their deaths were not in vain but rather a necessary sacrifice for the greater cause.


At its core, "Sixteen Dead Men" is a tribute to the sacrifices made by the Irish rebels and a call to action for Irish nationalists. Yeats uses his poetic talents to create a powerful and emotive work that honors the memory of the sixteen men who died.

But the poem is more than just a commemoration. It is also a political statement, a call to arms for those who share Yeats' beliefs. The final lines of the poem make this clear:

"But let them be, they're dead and done, They fought as fits the few; Among them names like God's own suns Are shining now anew, The men that fought at Fontenoy, The men that fought at Waterloo."

Here, Yeats is drawing a comparison between the Irish rebels and other famous military heroes. He is suggesting that their sacrifice was just as noble and heroic as those who fought in other famous battles. By elevating the rebels to this level, he is inspiring his fellow Irish nationalists to continue the fight for independence.


"Sixteen Dead Men" is a powerful and memorable poem that honors the sacrifices made by the Irish rebels during the Easter Rising. Through its use of themes, imagery, and literary devices, Yeats effectively communicates his message and inspires his readers to continue the fight for Irish independence.

As we reflect on the poem, we cannot help but be moved by its emotive language and haunting imagery. We are reminded of the sacrifices made by those who came before us and are inspired to continue their fight for justice and freedom. For that reason, "Sixteen Dead Men" remains a timeless and ever-relevant work of Irish literature.

Editor 2 Analysis and Explanation

William Butler Yeats is one of the most celebrated poets of the 20th century, and his poem "Sixteen Dead Men" is a haunting and powerful work that explores themes of death, war, and the human condition. In this 2000-word analysis, we will delve into the meaning and significance of this classic poem, examining its structure, language, and imagery to uncover the deeper truths it contains.

The poem begins with a stark and striking image: "O but we talked at large before / The sixteen men were shot." This opening line immediately sets the tone for the rest of the poem, conveying a sense of shock and horror at the sudden and violent deaths of these sixteen men. The use of the word "shot" is particularly effective, as it conjures up images of gunfire and bloodshed, reminding us of the brutal reality of war.

As the poem continues, Yeats describes the aftermath of the shooting, with the bodies of the dead men lying "where they were shot." This image is both gruesome and poignant, highlighting the senselessness of war and the tragic waste of human life that it entails. The fact that the bodies are left where they fell also suggests a lack of respect or dignity for the dead, further emphasizing the brutality of the situation.

Throughout the poem, Yeats uses vivid and evocative language to convey the emotions and experiences of the soldiers involved in the conflict. For example, he describes how "Their shirts were stuck all over with the blood and sweat." This image is both visceral and powerful, conveying the physical toll that war takes on the human body. The use of the word "stuck" also suggests a sense of entrapment or helplessness, as if the soldiers are unable to escape the violence and brutality of the battlefield.

Another striking image in the poem is the description of the soldiers' faces, which are "like the pale, blank stone." This metaphorical comparison emphasizes the lifelessness and emptiness of the dead men, as well as the sense of loss and grief that their deaths have caused. The use of the word "pale" also suggests a lack of vitality or energy, further emphasizing the sense of death and decay.

As the poem progresses, Yeats shifts his focus to the wider context of the conflict, exploring the political and social factors that have led to the deaths of these sixteen men. He describes how "The leaders cried, 'For God, for country, and for truth,' / And one man cried, 'We die for Ireland.'" This passage highlights the complex and often contradictory motivations that drive people to fight and die in wars, as well as the role that ideology and nationalism can play in shaping these motivations.

At the same time, however, Yeats also suggests that these larger political and social factors are ultimately meaningless in the face of the individual human lives that are lost in war. He writes, "O back to God's own likeness! - practically / The soldiers may not matter much, for all / They did but die for Lady Augusta Gregory." This passage emphasizes the sense of futility and pointlessness that can accompany war, as well as the tragic irony that the soldiers may have died for a cause that ultimately meant little to them.

One of the most striking aspects of "Sixteen Dead Men" is its use of repetition and refrain. Throughout the poem, Yeats repeats the phrase "O but we talked at large before / The sixteen men were shot," emphasizing the sense of shock and disbelief that the deaths of these men have caused. This repetition also serves to unify the poem, creating a sense of continuity and coherence that reinforces its central themes.

At the same time, however, the repetition also serves to highlight the sense of fragmentation and disunity that war can create. The fact that the soldiers are referred to simply as "the sixteen men" emphasizes their anonymity and lack of individuality, while the repetition of the refrain suggests a sense of repetition and routine that can accompany war. This creates a sense of tension and conflict within the poem, as the repetition both unifies and fragments the text.

In conclusion, "Sixteen Dead Men" is a powerful and haunting poem that explores the themes of death, war, and the human condition. Through its vivid imagery, evocative language, and careful use of repetition and refrain, the poem conveys a sense of shock and horror at the senseless violence and waste of human life that war entails. At the same time, however, it also suggests that there is a deeper meaning and significance to these deaths, highlighting the complex and often contradictory motivations that drive people to fight and die in wars. Ultimately, "Sixteen Dead Men" is a testament to the power of poetry to capture the complexity and tragedy of the human experience, and to offer a glimpse of hope and redemption in the face of overwhelming darkness and despair.

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