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Last Updated on June 24, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 369

Heroism as Redemption

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Yeats writes about the Irish people who sacrificed themselves by fighting in the Easter Rising against the British in 1916. These people were everyday individuals who were ennobled to some degree by their efforts. A woman who spends her days in argument "until her voice grew shrill" becomes beautiful with her sacrifice. Even an arrogant man whom Yeats knows and does not particularly like, as this man has harmed those he loves, has achieved a kind of greatness for his role. At the end of the poem, Yeats mentions by name the people who led the uprising and who have also achieved a kind of beauty with their sacrifice.

Questioning Violence

Though Yeats believes that the people who sacrificed themselves for the Irish cause are ennobled by their efforts, he also questions the wisdom of fighting with violence. He asks at the end of the poem whether death was necessary, as England will continue their policies in spite of people's sacrifices. Yeats writes about a man with a very sensitive nature and believes that this man would have achieved greatness if he had not died fighting in the Easter Rising. The oxymoron "terrible beauty," which appears several times in the poem, expresses Yeats's divided mind. He at once celebrates the heroism of those who died for the cause of Irish independence and questions the wisdom of this sacrifice and whether it was necessary.

Immortality through Legacy

Yeats compares those who sacrifice themselves to a stone at the bottom of a stream. This image can be interpreted to symbolize the conviction of the fighters, who proceeded in the face of death. The stone faces the force of the water as well as other physical forces, yet it holds its ground. Similarly, despite all of the factors threatening them, the rebels persisted in protest. Everything around the stone changes, such as a horse that comes to the stream with a rider, the clouds, or the birds around the stream. Despite these changes that take place around it, the stone remains unchanged. The stone can also be interpreted to stand for the permanence and immortality of the legacies of those who fought, and their noble efforts will remain while all around them changes.

Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 393

There are two interrelated themes in “Easter 1916,” one political and public, the other personal and private. The poem is based on a historic event: A small group of Irish rebels, under the leadership of Patrick Pearse and James Connolly, led an armed uprising against British rule despite the fact that even the rebels themselves knew they would fail. In spite of the rebellion being crushed by British troops within a week, “a terrible beauty [was] born”; the executions of the leaders made them martyrs and unified the nation in the fight for independence. The poem also explores Yeats’s personal response to the failed rebellion and to the costs of such sacrifice.

Yeats was pessimistic about the character of his countrymen. In “September 1913” he complained that “Romantic Ireland’s dead and gone,” replaced by greed and superficial piety. The first stanza of “Easter 1916” makes the same charges, accusing the rebels—who lead safe lives behind “counter or desk”—of lacking the stature to restore Ireland’s revolutionary drive. In proving themselves willing to die for their beliefs, however, the rebels succeeded in reuniting the nation, and Yeats had to grant them grudging admiration for their commitment to their dreams. Their common lives became heroic inspiration.

If MacDonagh, MacBride, Connolly, and Pearse had been “transformed utterly,” Yeats’s own feelings were more ambivalent. The rebels had become martyrs for Ireland; their courage was not in doubt, and the poem recognizes their accomplishments. Nor did Yeats dismiss their impact on the future. He does question the costs of the Easter rebellion, however, wondering if the same results could have been achieved without the bloodshed. The rebels, in their Easter rising, as symbolic as it is in a Christian sense, paid a price that was perhaps too great. Death is final—“No, no, not night but death”—and Yeats laments what was lost by those deaths in his discussion of one of the rebels: “He might have won fame in the end,/ So sensitive his nature seemed/ So daring and sweet his thought.” The poem’s refrain, the “terrible beauty” of the uprising, is made even more moving by Yeats’s refusal to resolve its ambiguity; one never knows whether it is the beauty or the terror that is triumphant. In “Easter 1916,” one feels Yeats’s own awe and trembling in the face of this event.