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.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“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...

(The entire section is 570 words.)

Easter 1916

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

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.