Analysis

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Last Reviewed on June 24, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 406

“Easter, 1916” was written to elegize some of the Dubliners who died during Ireland's Easter Rising of 1916. The work has four subjects: John MacBride, “the vainglorious lout”; Countess Markievicz, the woman of “ignorant good-will”; Patrick Pearse, the man who “kept a school”; and Thomas Macdonagh, his “helper and friend”; all of whom were staunch republicans well known to Yeats. The poem’s primary theme is new birth, as characterized by its refrain: “a terrible beauty is born.”

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The oxymoron “terrible beauty” might be interpreted in several ways: it could mean the awakening of Irish national consciousness and unity, which had diminished somewhat in the first years of the twentieth century and would be rekindled by the harsh response of British authorities to the events of Easter, 1916. Alternatively, it could refer to zealous nationalistic feelings, the “excess of love” that the politically cautious Yeats feared might be compelling good people to give up their lives in pursuit of a cause which might be won through peaceful means.

The poem’s first stanza presents a somewhat scathing picture of the middle-class urban life to which Yeats was accustomed, a life of social engagements and other diversions where “motley is worn,” from which Yeats sees his four subjects as having deviated by an act of will. This act of will is what he praises, the rejection by his four subjects of an easy and comfortable existence on the basis of principle, in order to guarantee liberty for children as yet unborn in Ireland. The poet is not overly complimentary of his subjects. For instance, he is somewhat patronizing of his fellow poet MacDonagh, allowing that he “might have won fame in the end,” and he is openly hostile toward John Macbride.

However, in their decision to become revolutionaries, he recognizes a transcendence of their faults as human beings. While their lives might be short and meaningless in themselves, they had by virtue of their courage gained cultural immortality. Yeats asserts this point by means of an extended metaphor in which he compares rocks in the natural world to idealists in the realm of politics. In the images of the moor-hens diving and the shadows shifting on the surface of the stream, he evokes how public opinion shifts back and forth, while the stones “in the midst of all” represent the ideals to which Yeats’s subjects were committed, from which they would never shrink even at the point of death.

The Poem

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 486

“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 Pearse, and John MacBride, the husband of Maud Gonne, Yeats’s own great love. With their varied accomplishments and failings, all were “transformed utterly” by their Easter sacrifice.

In the third stanza, Yeats contemplates the single-mindedness of the rebels, those “Hearts with one purpose alone.” A stone metaphorically represents those who refuse to sacrifice their ideals to the “living stream.” Maud Gonne many years before had referred to herself as a stone in her refusal to marry Yeats, claiming that she could not surrender her political mission in order to lead an ordinary life. As symbols of the transitory nature of such a life, the horses and riders, clouds and streams, moor-cocks and moor-hens of the third stanza live “minute by minute,” but “The stone’s in the midst of all,” unchanged and immovable.

In the final stanza, Yeats notes the possible results of such commitment and dedication. He fears that “Too long a sacrifice/ Can make a stone of the heart,” intimating that the purpose that drove the martyrs may have “bewildered” them as well. Perhaps the English would have granted freedom without the bloodshed of the Easter rising; all that can be known is that “they dreamed and are dead.” It remains for those who survive to chronicle the effect of their dreams, “To murmur name upon name”: “I write it out in a verse—/ MacDonagh and MacBride/ And Connolly and Pearse.” Their deaths changed the course of Irish history by uniting the country in the fight for independence; the dead men, “Wherever green is worn/ Are changed, changed utterly:/ A terrible beauty is born.”

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 570

“Easter 1916” is one of Yeats’s most popular and often quoted poems; its subject matter—the revolt of the rebels and their resulting martyrdom—is inspiring and accessible. Yeats gives the poem a balladlike quality, telling the story conversationally while exploring his feelings about it. Written in irregular meter with alternate rhyming lines, “Easter 1916” lacks the poetic artifices of many of Yeats’s other poems; it has few complex images or metaphors.

Yeats uses his interest in myth and folktales to create a modern myth from recent history. He recognized the event’s transcendent significance; although most Irish had initially disapproved of the rebels, public opinion swiftly rallied when the British sentenced them to death. While the executions were taking place, Yeats wrote that “I feel that all the work of years has been overturned, all the bringing together of classes, all the freeing of Irish literature and criticism from politics.” Revolutionary politics returned with a vengeance.

Yeats also drew on his own experience; he knew many of the rebels and, in the poem reveals his own doubts and antipathies to them and their cause. They serve as symbols of a certain type of driven personality, and he exposes the contradictions between their dreams and their characters. Countess Markiewicz, whose “ignorant good-will” made “her voice grow shrill,” epitomizes the upper classes’ patronizing sense of noblesse oblige. Pearse, the revolutionary schoolteacher, was an intellectual playing at romantic violence who allowed his belief in heroic Irish myths, “the wingèd horse,” to alienate him from ordinary life. MacBride, Maud Gonne’s estranged husband, for whom Yeats had only disgust and envy, is portrayed as “a drunken, vainglorious lout.” Yeats questions their motives and characters, but he also examines his own contradictory feelings of doubt and admiration.

These conflicting thoughts are reflected in Yeats’s use of colors. Dublin is “grey” before the Easter uprising; it is a “motley” world, mixed and heterogeneous, lacking in noble ideals. Afterward, the grey and motley are replaced by a single hue of green, representing the renewed and unified spirit of the people. Green is the national color of Ireland and a universal symbol of spring; in the poem, it represents the resurrection of Ireland. A subtle contradiction remains, however, for the ubiquitous use of green by strident nationalists had made it also a symbol of decadence rather than renewal. In his color imagery, Yeats implies that the changes wrought by the uprising were a mixed blessing.

The stone imagery continues these contradictions, as Yeats weighs the achievements of the revolt against the costs. In contrasting the rebels’ stonelike steadfastness with the “living stream” which changes “minute by minute,” Yeats indicates a reluctant admiration for their dedication; the permanence of their cause contrasts with the transitory nature of ordinary life. Yet Yeats also warns that the revolutionaries risk a loss of their own humanity, allowing their hearts to harden to stone.

The result is that—as the poem’s refrain reminds the reader—“A terrible beauty is born,” an oxymoron deriving its power from the obvious contrast between the terms. The Easter uprising was terrible because “not night but death” awaited the rebels and many innocent victims, a “needless death” if England would have granted independence without the violence of 1916. There was nevertheless a transforming beauty that took the rebels, and perhaps many others, out of their lives of “casual comedy” into the tragic drama of life.

Easter 1916

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 314

The poem begins by paying tribute to the Irish people for leaving behind their previously mundane, trivial lives to dedicate themselves to the fight for independence. In lines which become a refrain, Yeats proclaims, “All changed, changed utterly: A terrible beauty is born.”

The second stanza singles out individual martyrs, killed or imprisoned for their activities, among them his childhood friend Countess Markiewicz (nee Constance Gore-Booth) and Major John MacBride, the husband of Maud Gonne, the woman Yeats had loved long and unrequited. Although he had considered MacBride merely “a drunken, vainglorious lout,” Yeats acknowledges that he too has been ennobled by his heroism.

Stanza 3 notes paradoxically that these martyrs are all changed in that they have become unchanging: their hearts, united by one purpose, have become unchanging as stone, in disturbing contrast to the living stream of ordinary human life. In a characteristic shift of mood, Yeats uses the stone metaphor to warn of the danger of fanaticism: “Too long a sacrifice can make a stone of the heart.”

The final stanza raises but quickly abandons essentially unanswerable questions about the duration and value of the Irish struggle and the trustworthiness of England’s promise of independence. Instead Yeats confines himself to the more modest task of paying tribute to the fallen patriots by naming them with the tenderness of a mother naming her child. While acknowledging the awful finality of death, Yeats proclaims the meaningfulness of their enterprise, in which they doffed the “motley” of their former clownish days to don green in a life both terrible and beautiful in its purpose.

With rare compression, Yeats not only succeeds in expressing his ambivalence about patriotism in general and about the Irish cause in particular, but he also allows the reader to follow sympathetically the shifts of thought and feeling in the troubled mind of a poet who is both critical and compassionate.

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