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.
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...
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