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Last Reviewed on June 24, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 616

In Easter week of 1916, the Irish Republican Brotherhood organized an insurrection, seized key locations in Dublin, and proclaimed the Irish Republic independent of Britain. The insurrection was suppressed after seven days and its leaders later executed. In this poem, Yeats, a committed Irish nationalist himself, marks the change born...

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In Easter week of 1916, the Irish Republican Brotherhood organized an insurrection, seized key locations in Dublin, and proclaimed the Irish Republic independent of Britain. The insurrection was suppressed after seven days and its leaders later executed. In this poem, Yeats, a committed Irish nationalist himself, marks the change born of the Easter insurrection and celebrates those members of the Brotherhood who initiated that change.

I have met them at close of day
Coming with vivid faces
From counter or desk among grey
Eighteenth-century houses.

In these opening lines of the poem, the juxtaposition between the first-person singular pronoun “I” and the third-person collective “them” immediately establishes a sense of division and sets up the speaker, the singular “I,” as something of an outcast.

That the “vivid faces” of these people, in hindsight, seem to emerge from a background of “grey” perhaps suggests that these people possessed a vibrancy and an idealism of which Yeats was initially unaware. The “grey” background could metaphorically represent the dispassionate Ireland that Yeats complains of in poems such as "September, 1913," which these nationalists have decided to leave behind.

In the casual comedy;
He, too, has been changed in his turn,
Transformed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.

This second quotation comprises the lines which conclude the second stanza. The "He" is likely a reference to John MacBride, a nationalist figure who became involved in the Easter Rising. McBride was also married to Maude Gonne, the love of Yeats's life, and is said to have treated her badly. Thus, when Yeats says that "He, too, has been changed in turn," he is implying that the cause of Irish independence has changed McBride from somebody he despised to somebody he can admire.

The final two lines are the same two lines that conclude the first stanza. They are also the lines that become the poem’s refrain, thus emphasizing the importance of the oxymoron, “terrible beauty.” The word "terrible" here has two meanings: firstly, it means something which is awe-inspiringly momentous, and, secondly, it means something which is very bad. The "beauty" of the Easter Rising was, for Yeats, terrible in both meanings of the word. It was momentous and also bad because of what became of its leaders.

There is also in these closing lines a reference to “the casual comedy” (which recalls the reference to “motley” towards the end of the first stanza), and thus a juxtaposition between comedy and tragedy. This captures the comic pretense and obscenity of the past (when Ireland seemed to passively accept being ruled by Britain), the tragedy of the present, and also the momentous promise (“beauty is born”) of the future.

Hearts with one purpose alone
Through summer and winter seem
Enchanted to a stone
To trouble the living stream.

The third stanza takes the form of an extended metaphor, and these opening lines from the third stanza introduce the central symbol of this metaphor. The “stone” symbolically represents the hearts of either the Irish in general or the nationalist revolutionaries in particular. The stone could connote hardness, intransigence, or coldness, and the seeming ambiguity of these connotations could point towards Yeats’s own ambiguity or ambivalence of feelings toward the Irish, the nationalists, or both. He thought, for example, that the Irish were, in general, too coldly passive and indifferent to British rule, and he admired the intransigence of those nationalists who refused to accept this and rose against British rule.

The “living stream” troubled by the stone could represent that British rule, against which the Irish nationalists (the stone) have been standing resolute through “summer and winter.” The stone disrupts the flow of things, as those who led the Easter Rising disrupted the course of British rule in Ireland.

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"A Terrible Beauty Is Born"