I am looking for examples of "they say/I say" arguments in W.B. Yeats's poem, "Easter 1916." 

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Doug Stuva eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Classifying "Easter 1916" by Yeats as containing "they say/I say arguments" may be a bit strong.  The poem's subjects and subtle arguments are left ambiguous, and are presented with sympathy. 

The speaker can't help but feel some admiration for the rebels of the Irish rebellion, and he can't help but admit that what they've done has united Ireland--turned it from "motley" (multi-colored, clownish) to "green" (spring-like, the national color of Ireland). 

The ambiguity the speaker feels is revealed in two parts.

  • The members of the rebellion who ultimately united Ireland when they were executed, led common-place, trivial, and meaningless lives before the rebellion (stanzas one and two).  In fact, to the speaker, they were at least mildly laughable.
  • The sacrifice may have been unnecessary.  The English may, in the future, confer home rule on Ireland without the bloodshed and sacrifice of the rebellion (stanza four). 

The ambiguity felt by the speaker is perhaps best demonstrated in the character of the rebel, Major John MacBride, the husband of Yeats's longtime love, Maud Gonne.  Before the uprising, MacBride was "A drunken, vainglorious lout," who "had done most bitter wrong/To some who are near my heart,..."  Yet, he is included in the poem and he, too, was "Transformed utterly," and is a part of the "terrible beauty" of the rebellion and its aftermath.

In short, the speaker is himself confused and conflicted.  Those he once did not particularly respect and even disliked, became as solid in their commitment as a stone, and were transformed.  Their sacrifices united Ireland against the English.  Yet, it's possible that the sacrifice was unnecessary. 

The speaker's ambiguities are, of course, represented in the oxymoron, "terrible beauty," repeated as a refrain in the poem.  The rebellion of Easter, 1916, was both terrible and beautiful. 

Read the study guide:
Easter 1916

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