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.