The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“Easter 1916” is a poem of four stanzas, with sixteen lines in the first and third, and twenty-four lines in the second and fourth. One of William Butler Yeats’s best-known political poems, it was written shortly after the Irish Republican uprising against the British government in April of 1916, although it was not published until 1920. “Easter 1916” is one of several poems that Yeats composed during the Irish national struggle against the English, which lasted until an independent Irish state was created in 1922.

In a first-person voice that conveys Yeats’s personal beliefs, the opening stanza confesses disillusionment with a shallow existence before the Easter uprising. Dublin is a “motley” place centered in the past and the “grey/ Eighteenth-century houses” refer to the last time that Ireland had its own parliament. The future revolutionaries are dismissed with “polite meaningless words” and made fun of “around the fire at the club.” The stanza concludes with the ominous yet thrilling discovery that, because of the uprising, “All changed, changed utterly:/ A terrible beauty is born.” This phrase, with some variation, becomes a refrain for the poem.

The second stanza describes the history and character of several of the rebels, though not identifying them by name. Yeats’s contemporaries would have recognized Countess Constance Markiewicz, a childhood friend from County Sligo, the schoolmaster Patrick...

(The entire section is 486 words.)