'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 Criticism and Interpretation

Are you a fan of poetry that is both haunting and thought-provoking? Then William Butler Yeats' Sixteen Dead Men is a poem you should add to your reading list. In this literary criticism and interpretation, we will delve into the themes, symbols, and literary devices used by Yeats in this classic poem.


Sixteen Dead Men was first published in Yeats' book of poems, The Wind Among the Reeds, in 1899. The poem was inspired by an event that occurred in 1898 when sixteen Irish soldiers were killed while fighting in the Boer War in South Africa.

Yeats was known for his interest in Irish mythology and folklore, but Sixteen Dead Men is a departure from his usual topics. The poem reflects Yeats' political views and his belief in Irish independence. It also expresses his sorrow for the loss of Irish soldiers who fought and died for Britain, a country that had oppressed Ireland for centuries.


Sixteen Dead Men consists of sixteen stanzas, each representing one of the sixteen dead soldiers. Each stanza has three lines, and the first and third lines rhyme, while the second line does not. The poem's structure creates a sense of order and symmetry while also highlighting the individuality of each soldier.


One of the central themes of Sixteen Dead Men is sacrifice. The poem honors the soldiers who died while fighting for their country, even though they were fighting for a country that had oppressed them. The sacrifices made by these soldiers demonstrate their commitment to their country and their willingness to die for a cause they believed in.

Another theme in the poem is nationalism. Yeats was a strong advocate for Irish independence, and Sixteen Dead Men reflects his belief that Irish soldiers should fight for their own country, not for Britain. The poem suggests that these soldiers would have been better off fighting for Ireland rather than a foreign power.

Literary Devices

Yeats uses several literary devices in Sixteen Dead Men to create a haunting and powerful poem. One of the most striking devices is repetition. The repetition of the phrase "sixteen dead men" throughout the poem emphasizes the enormity of the loss and creates a sense of sadness and mourning.

Another literary device used in the poem is imagery. Yeats uses vivid descriptions to create powerful images that convey the horror of war. For example, in the seventh stanza, he writes, "Seven by the heads lying, / In the burnt grass, in the burnt grass." This image of heads lying in the burnt grass is both disturbing and memorable.

Yeats also uses symbolism in Sixteen Dead Men. The soldiers are compared to flowers that have been plucked before they could bloom. This metaphor emphasizes the youth and potential of the soldiers and the tragedy of their deaths.


Sixteen Dead Men is a poignant and powerful poem that reflects Yeats' political views and his belief in Irish independence. The poem suggests that the soldiers who died in the Boer War would have been better off fighting for their own country rather than a foreign power.

The use of repetition, imagery, and symbolism creates a haunting and memorable poem that honors the sacrifices made by these soldiers. The repeated phrase "sixteen dead men" emphasizes the enormity of the loss, and the vivid descriptions of the soldiers and their deaths create a powerful image of the horror of war.

In conclusion, Sixteen Dead Men is a timeless poem that continues to resonate with readers today. Its themes of sacrifice and nationalism are still relevant, and its use of literary devices creates a haunting and memorable work of art. If you haven't read this poem before, give it a try – it might just become one of your favorites.

Editor 2 Analysis and Explanation

Sixteen Dead Men: A Poem of Tragedy and Loss

William Butler Yeats is a renowned Irish poet who has left an indelible mark on the world of literature. His works are known for their depth, complexity, and emotional intensity. One of his most famous poems is Sixteen Dead Men, which was written in 1914. This poem is a powerful and moving tribute to the victims of a tragic event that occurred in Ireland during the early 20th century. In this article, we will explore the themes, imagery, and symbolism of Sixteen Dead Men, and analyze the poem in detail.

The poem begins with a stark and haunting image: "O but we talked at large before / The sixteen men were shot". This opening line sets the tone for the rest of the poem, which is a lament for the loss of life and the senseless violence that caused it. The speaker of the poem is reflecting on a conversation that took place before the tragedy occurred, and the contrast between the carefree chatter of that time and the grim reality of the present is striking.

The next stanza of the poem describes the aftermath of the shooting: "But who can talk of give and take, / What should be and what not / While those dead men are lying there / That cannot lift a hand or sigh". Here, Yeats is emphasizing the finality of death and the futility of trying to make sense of it. The dead men are beyond the reach of words or actions, and their loss is a permanent one.

The third stanza of the poem introduces a powerful image of nature: "O we who talk of dying trees, / Of lonely fields and leaving seas, / O we who talk and never know / The moment when we'll lie down low". This stanza is a reminder that death is a natural part of life, and that we are all subject to its inevitability. The image of dying trees and lonely fields is a metaphor for the transience of life, and the leaving seas represent the passage of time.

The fourth stanza of the poem is a meditation on the meaning of life and death: "To where the salmon, turning bright / Upon a leaping weir / Flashes a ladder of clear light / And upward goes, the fisher's spear". Here, Yeats is using the image of a salmon leaping up a waterfall to symbolize the struggle for life and the quest for meaning. The ladder of clear light represents the spiritual journey that we all must undertake, and the fisher's spear represents the tools that we use to navigate that journey.

The final stanza of the poem is a powerful and emotional tribute to the dead men: "O never a greater will / Than theirs who gave their blood / To the soil they stood upon / When the great crying of wind arose". This stanza is a reminder that the dead men were not just victims of a senseless act of violence, but heroes who gave their lives for a cause they believed in. The image of the great crying of wind represents the mourning of the living for the dead, and the soil they stood upon represents the land they loved and fought for.

In conclusion, Sixteen Dead Men is a powerful and moving poem that explores the themes of tragedy, loss, and heroism. Yeats uses vivid imagery and powerful symbolism to convey the emotional intensity of the poem, and his words are a testament to the enduring power of poetry to capture the human experience. This poem is a reminder that even in the face of death and destruction, there is still hope and meaning to be found in life.

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