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Easter 1916 Summary

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

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,...

(The entire section is 905 words.)