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Last Reviewed on June 23, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 494

The Easter Uprising of 1916 happened because the British had previously promised the Irish that they could have the freedom to control their own country, but in the subsequent developments of World War I, they reneged on that promise. The Irish were understandably upset, and this set in motion the...

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The Easter Uprising of 1916 happened because the British had previously promised the Irish that they could have the freedom to control their own country, but in the subsequent developments of World War I, they reneged on that promise. The Irish were understandably upset, and this set in motion the events which led to an uprising; Irish leaders banded together in solidarity to demand what had been promised to them. The English reacted with force, executing leaders of the uprising, some of whom were friends of Yeats.

The speaker, presumably a representations of Yeats himself, recalls passing these revolutionaries in common, ordinary life. Their "vivid faces" stand out among the "grey / Eighteenth-century houses" of the landscape. Twice the speaker notes that he uses "polite meaningless words" as he either passes with a nod or stops to converse. There is a detachment and sense of despair in the first stanza as the speaker notes the lack of connection he forms with these people, offering only "mocking tales" as a source of halfhearted entertainment. He thinks they live as a "motley" crew, all as different as Catholics and Protestants, educated and not, yet they are all Irish at their cores. Suddenly, all is changed; Yeats uses an oxymoron in the "terrible beauty" that follows.

The second stanza examines four people who lose their lives due to the uprising, each painting a different portrait of the individuals involved. One is a woman whose final days are voiced in passionate arguments against the English, which contrasts sharply with the sweet voice of her youth. Another man is deeply involved in education. Another man could have achieved fame in his own right if he had not been executed. The last is a man who had inflicted some injustice upon someone the speaker cares for. Even so, the speaker must count him in the group of people who declared the "song" of independence and transformed his home country into a thing of "terrible beauty."

The sense of nationalism to which the rebels clung is compared to a stone in the third stanza. Though a stream rushes by, the stone cannot be moved. When storms arise or horses splash through the stream, overturning its bed, the stone remains steadfast. These rebels had a heart "with one purpose alone" that drove them to extraordinary bravery in their quest for Ireland's freedom.

In the final stanza, the speaker notes that as time passes, it becomes easy to forget the sacrifices that heroes have made, their names slipping into forgotten history. He therefore sees it as his duty to keep the sacrifices of individuals alive by repeating their names. He goes on to question whether their deaths were "needless" but proceeds to commend their collective passion for a dream they held and the bravery they showed through the commitment to Ireland even though it brought them to their violent deaths. The "terrible beauty," therefore, is showing bravery through patriotism in the face of death itself.

Summary

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 905

Although written within a few months of the event that it commemorates, and privately printed later in the year of its composition, “Easter 1916” did not receive general publication until 1920. It was first collected in the volume Michael Robartes and the Dancer (1920). It is Yeats’s best-known poem. Its title refers to the Irish rebellion of Easter, 1916, when a small group of rebels in Dublin unexpectedly proclaimed the establishment of an Irish Republic. The rebellion was in defiance of the British rule under which Ireland was then governed.

The refrain of “Easter 1916” has frequently been thought to refer to the new political arrangements initiated by the rebels. Yet such a reading is not necessarily what Yeats had in mind, as awareness of the poem’s publication history will confirm. “Easter 1916” is not a political poem in the sense that it takes one side or the other in the rebellion. Nevertheless, the poem’s renown is, to some extent, the result of a narrow, one-sided interpretation of the line “A terrible beauty is born.” It is important to note, however, that Yeats carefully refrains from providing a facile understanding of the momentous event in Irish history that has taken place. On the contrary, the poem is notable for the questioning manner in which it expresses awe and bewilderment at the rebels. The difficulty in reaching an immediate understanding of what “A terrible beauty is born” means crystallizes the poet’s own stunned reaction to the rebellion. Therefore, the most striking feature of “Easter 1916” is its honesty.

The basis for the poet’s reaction is contained in the poem’s opening stanza. The reader is informed that, although the poet and his cronies were aware that republican militants existed, nobody took them seriously. They were unassuming, had little social status, and provided occasions of trivial conversation. In addition, the anonymous “them,” which the poet later names, were considered laughingstocks by their social superiors. The poet includes himself among those superiors, members of the “club.” Yet social superiority in itself is said to count for nothing, since both the ridiculers and the ridiculed live in a land fit for clowns (“motley” being a reference to the traditional dress of the jester). The suggestion is that the rebel’s subsequent heroism and self-sacrifice were unimaginable.

The second stanza presents some of the rebels in a different light. All but the first of those mentioned were executed for their part in the rebellion. Two of those mentioned were well known to the poet. “That woman” is Constance Markievicz, born Constance Gore-Booth, an Anglo-Irish aristocrat whose involvement with the rebels Yeats views as a fall from grace. The other person with whom Yeats was acquainted is Major John MacBride, “A drunken, vainglorious lout” and the estranged husband of Maud Gonne. Yet even MacBride can no longer be considered simply a clown. Mention of these two personal associations, neither of them particularly attractive, provides a frame within which Yeats portrays two of the rebel leaders. “This man” is Patrick Pearse, a poet and teacher who led the rebellion. “This other” is Thomas MacDonough, poet and academic. Although Yeats was not very well acquainted with either of them, he presents them in a favorable light, which adjusts the force of “motley” in the opening stanza.

The first two stanzas’ emphasis on personality and society is replaced in the third stanza. There, a more fundamental conception of life, the natural order, is considered. According to this conception, life may be compared to a stream: Living things continually change as they grow and mature. The rebels differ from this order in the way that a stone is the opposite of a stream. Not only is a stone the stream’s opposite; it also deflects or “troubles” the stream’s free and direct flow. Similarly, there seems to be something unnatural about those who do not participate spontaneously and naturally in life. Yet by the opening of the fourth stanza, this view of the rebels is itself challenged, just as the original view of them as clowns was both acknowledged and corrected in the opening two stanzas.

It is impossible, the poem argues, to know how much must be given in the name of a cause. One’s human nature, “the heart,” may turn to stone, but only a higher power, “Heaven’s part,” can determine how great a sacrifice is necessary in order to redeem a given situation, in this case the Irish nation. Meanwhile, all that can be done is to ensure that the magnitude of the sacrifice is recognized for what it is. Yeats conveys this sentiment through an appeal to language. Poetic fancy, such as the metaphor of mother and child, is inadequate to register what has taken place, as the stark, “No, no, not night but death” makes clear. Even the fact that “England may keep faith” does not diminish the rebels’ impact.

England is mentioned because a version of Irish independence had been passed into law in 1914. Its application was suspended, however, until the end of World War I. According to Yeats, however, one must bear in mind that not only did the rebels take action, but their activism also cost them their lives. This inescapable and shocking fact is the poem’s inspiration and the birth of what it calls “a terrible beauty.” The rebels’ sacrifice is that terrible beauty, an act as awe-inspiring and overwhelming as the greatest art.

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