Last Updated September 6, 2023.
“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.”
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.