(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...

(The entire section is 905 words.)