“Too long a sacrifice makes a stone of the heart.”

Before I could even begin to articulate why, that line from W.B. Yeats played through my mind. I had watched in horror the slow murder of George Floyd. And then the convulsive reaction of rage and protest played out across the country. That stone seemed to weigh in my hand like something you might throw through a plate glass window.

The line comes from Yeats’ poem ‘Easter 1916.’ Maybe what put it in my mind was another line from that poem, actually something of a refrain… “All changed, changed utterly.” I’d had that sense when I first watched the video online, that somehow something was now changed. Maybe this was only a hope — that the callouses we’d built over the years were going to be ripped away — by the horror to which we were all witness.

That’s the narrative of Yeats’ poem.

“Too long a sacrifice makes a stone of the heart.”

The poet begins with his own complacency, a clever disdain for revolutionaries, their tiresome causes, arguable politics, flawed personalities. The Easter Rising of 1916, an attempt at a start for a revolution, for a new republic, had been crushed by British forces in a matter of days. Within a few weeks the instigators had been executed. Yeats dates his poem of marked witness September 25, 1916, months later. Easter is long passed, Pentecost. In the liturgical year Catholic Ireland is back to what’s called ‘Ordinary Time.’ But something has changed.

“Too long a sacrifice makes a stone of the heart.”

That stone is “in the midst of all” in Yeats’ poem. It is something fixed, itself unchanging, not a weapon exactly, not to be picked up and thrown. It may “trouble the living stream” but it is rooted in place. That living stream, the day-to-day, has it’s ephemeral qualities, shadow and splashes, minute by minute. For all the troubled flux and flow around the stone there is something of it that is permanent, terrible, beautiful.

That’s the other famous line from that poem “ — a terrible beauty is born.”

It’s a resounding thing. I’ve long admired it as poetic trope, the gorgeous contradictory tension of it —terrible beauty. I think I understand it a little differently now. The whole of that poem is changed for me with this recent examining. The stone, the stream, that terrible beauty. It is about reckoning with a fact that has always been.

“Too long a sacrifice makes a stone of the heart.”

That terrible fact; George Floyd’s murder made it vividly plain; as one I heard commented the other day, “Racism isn’t getting worse in this country, it’s getting filmed.”

“Too long a sacrifice makes a stone of the heart.”

One has to wonder if there will ever be ‘ordinary time’ again. We’ve grown accustomed to crisis. Should we ever get back to normal, I think it right to ask what that would be, that normal. Reaction, action and reaction, may ultimately point in the direction of reform. There’s also always the possibility of equal and opposite in the political sphere. Social movements and campaigns have their moment and then the tick of a pendulum clock.

Is there something more lasting that can come of this?

“Was it needless death after all?” Yeats asks near the end of his poem.

Maybe it is deliberately unclear, the way he then answers by simply reciting the names of those “who dreamed and are dead” and noting that in writing and in bearing witness to those names they “ — Are changed, changed utterly” and that — “A terrible beauty is born.”

When Yeats wrote those lines there was a long path of struggle still ahead before that new republic would come about. Even as it did it came to involve conflict and compromise, trouble. It’s a place my grandparents fled seeking peace here in this country.

Beauty, I suppose, is in the eye of the beholder and “too long a sacrifice makes a stone of the heart.”