W. B. Yeats 1916
One of the most important political poems of the twentieth century is W. B. Yeats’s “Easter 1916.” Inspired by events that transpired in Dublin, Ireland, the poem pays tribute to the leaders of the Irish uprising that was timed to coincide with Easter, the religious holiday commemorating Christ’s resurrection. During the rebellion, or what came to be known as the Easter Rising, Sinn Feiners—members of a political party whose name means “We Ourselves” in Irish Gaelic and who favored an independent Ireland—overtook key buildings in downtown Dublin on April 24, 1916. They were forced to surrender under heavy British fire six days later. Sixteen Sinn Fein men were subsequently executed and one woman was jailed. Yeats knew many of the participants, some of whom were fellow poets and writers. While Yeats was sympathetic, like many of the Irish, to the cause of an independent Ireland, he was troubled by the violence of the rebellion and its destructive aftermath. With the executions and the public’s anger at them, however, he also felt something was accomplished: the executions had inspired the Irish with the conviction that England was a ruthless power that must be forced to leave Ireland. Besides being favorably disposed, Yeats was also troubled by something else: the sensitive Sinn Feiners he had known were hardened by their participation in politics, especially violent political insurrection. While Yeats refrained from condemning the leaders for becoming involved in politics—a realm in which he thought they did not belong—he did, however, regret that
they had. The “terrible beauty” serving as the refrain of this poem thus describes a twofold conflict: first, that passion for peace often breaks out in violence, and, two, that thoughtful and sensitive natures are often hardened by a quest for justice. Perhaps one reason this poem is still a vibrant symbol of the movement for Irish independence is that Yeats’s double conflict was, and still is, Ireland’s— particulary in Northern Ireland. In a country fractured by political and religious divisions, it would not be surprising if every man and woman were divided within themselves—vacillating between the need for restraint and the desire to retaliate.
It would be difficult to choose a more important twentieth-century poet than W. B. Yeats. In the space of 74 years, Yeats led the Irish Literary Revival; became an Irish senator in the recently independent Irish Free State; influenced and promoted the most prominent figures of twentieth-century literature, such as Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot and James Joyce; and won literature’s most prestigious honor, the Nobel Prize. Born June 13, 1865, Yeats was a fitting Gemini, the sign of the twins:
“I begin to see things double—doubled in history, world history, personal history,” he once said. His sensibilities were not only doubled, but split: between literature and politics, the occult and the selfevident, the mythic and the mundane. Born in Dublin, Yeats would spend a great deal of time in both Ireland and England. His father gave up law for painting and abandoned his family for New York in 1907, but not before exercising a profound influence on his oldest son by schooling him at home. Yeats’s mother raised four children, inspired in “Willie” his love of Ireland, and eventually suffered a stroke, dying in 1900. Yeats received no formal schooling until age 11, at which time he attended grammar school in England. Later, at a Dublin high school, he was a poor student and poorer athlete. He dropped out, and from 1884 to 1886 attended art schools in Dublin. While there, he cofounded the Dublin Hermetic Society with a schoolmate, poet George Russell (“AE”). This would be only the first of several memberships in occult societies, two others being Madame Blavatsky’s Theosophical Society and, later, The Golden Dawn. An interest in the occult was kindled primarily through his maternal uncle, George Pollefexen, and the latter’s servant, Mary Battle. Battle would become the largest single inspiration for Yeats’s The Celtic Twilight, a work of 1893 illustrating the mysticism of the Irish countryside, the population’s belief in fairies, ghosts, and spirits. Battle also acted as a surrogate mother figure after the death of Yeats’s own mother. By 1937, when Yeats was asked if he believed in the images and structures of his occult system as illustrated in the text A Vision, he would only say, “Oh, I draw from it images for my poetry.”
Concurrent with and related to Yeats’s occult studies was his interest in Irish mythology and nationhood. It was kindled especially by his association with John O’Leary, an Irish ultra-nationalist imprisoned and exiled in France twenty years for his work on an Irish newspaper. O’Leary’s talk of the “terrible continuity” in things Irish has been thought by some critics to have inspired the “terrible beauty” of “Easter, 1916.” In the group gathered around O’Leary, Yeats met radical Irish nationalist Maud Gonne, fell in love with her, and proposed marriage several times. Yeats would also unsuccessfully propose to Gonne’s daughter, Iseult. Finally giving up on the Gonnes, Yeats married Georgina (“George”) Hyde-Lees, who captivated Yeats four days after their wedding with her purported expertise in automatic writing. Despite later affairs, Yeats remained married to George until his death, fathering two children. In 1894, Yeats met Lady Gregory, with whom he would develop an Irish Literary Theater and share his long-lasting interest in Irish folk and fairy tales. After the Easter Rising of 1916 and Irish independence, Yeats served as an Irish Senator from 1922-28, and in 1923, won the Nobel Prize for literature. After an amazingly full and influential life doubled and split by literature and politics, Yeats, in a final letter, described what would be his last aphorism of division: “Man can embody truth but he cannot know it.” He died on January 28, 1939.
I have met them at close of day
Coming with vivid faces
From counter or desk among grey
I have passed with a nod of the head 5
Or polite meaningless words,
Or have lingered awhile and said
Polite meaningless words,
And thought before I had done
Of a mocking tale or a gibe 10
To please a companion
Around the fire at the club,
Being certain that they and I
But lived where motley is worn:
All changed, changed utterly: 15
A terrible beauty is born.
That woman’s days were spent
In ignorant good-will,
Her nights in argument
Until her voice grew shrill. 20
What voice more sweet than hers
When, young and beautiful,
She rode to harriers?
This man had kept a school
And rode our winged horse; 25
This other his helper and friend
Was coming into his force;
He might have won fame in the end,
So sensitive his nature seemed,
So daring and sweet his thought. 30
This other man I had dreamed
A drunken, vainglorious lout.
He had done most bitter wrong
To some who are near my heart,
Yet I number him in the song; 35
He, too, has resigned his part
In the casual comedy;
He, too, has been changed in his turn,
A terrible beauty is born. 40
Hearts with one purpose alone
Through summer and winter seem
Enchanted to a stone
To trouble the living stream.
The horse that comes from the road, 45
The rider, the birds that range
From cloud to tumbling cloud,
Minute by minute they change;
A shadow of cloud on the stream
Changes minute by minute; 50
A horse-hoof slides on the brim,
And a horse plashes within it;
The long-legged moor-hens dive,
And hens to moor-cocks call;
Minute by minute they live: 55
The stone’s in the midst of all.
Too long a sacrifice
Can make a stone of the heart.
O when may it suffice?
That is Heaven’s part, our part 60
To murmur name upon name,
As a mother names her child
When sleep at last has come
On limbs that had run wild.
What is it but nightfall? 65
No, no, not night but death;
Was it needless death after all?
For England may keep faith
For all that is done and said.
We know their dream; enough 70
To know they dreamed and are dead;
And what if excess of love
Bewildered them till they died?
I write it out in a verse—
MacDonagh and MacBride 75
And Connolly and Pearse
Now and in time to be,
Wherever green is worn,
Are changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born. 80
These lines describe the narrator having crossed paths with some of the Dubliners who would become leaders of the Easter Rising. Their vitality is set against a contrasting background of the deadening places where they work—“counter or desk”—that are old and perhaps dirty, indicated by “grey / Eighteenth-century houses.” The vital souls Yeats meets occasionally will be those ushering in the modemera of Ireland. But with them, the narrator engages in only small talk.
In describing these future revolutionaries, the speaker emphasizes their commonness, their status as ordinary “good old boys.” Or, on the other hand, their commonness might be negative, serving as
- An audio cassette titled The Poetry of William Butler Yeats is available from Audiobooks.
- Three American poets—Philip Levine, Peter Davison, and Richard Wilbur—offer a reading of “Easter 1916” at http://www.theatlantic.com/atlantic/atlweb/poetry/soundings/easter.htm
grounds for mocking in the company of more cultured men at the club. But whether these would-be revolutionaries are merely common or dreadfully common, the backdrop of a drab Ireland sets off the farcical character of its idealistic people and the cynical character of its realists.
These two lines jolt, employing a shock cut from a depiction of a mundane and shallow Ireland to one of dead solemnity. If the reader has no knowledge of the Rising, he or she is immediately locked in: What could this “terrible beauty” be, one that completely changed everything? On the other hand, if the reader is in the know, he or she is likely to be intrigued or impressed with the description, which consists of an oxymoron—an especially provocative one at that.
This stanza marks a change from the general to the more specific. The first person discussed is Constance, or “Con,” Gore-Booth who, upon marrying a count, became Countess Markiewicz. For her role as an assistant commander in the Rising, she was imprisoned, although later released (see Yeats’s “On a Political Prisoner”). Yeats had met Markiewicz and her sister Eva at their mansion, Lissadell, while she was doing charity work that the poet refers to as “ignorant good will”. Apparently, she could imitate the cries of hares with her young and beautiful voice as she hunted them with her dogs (harriers). It was this voice that became shrill by politics.
“This man” was Patrick Pearse, the founder of a boy’s school in Dublin and the Commandant-General and President of the provisional government during the Rising. He was a member of the Irish bar and was also a poet. The winged horse is Pegasus, a symbol for poetry or the poet’s inspiration. Pearse was a poet and one of the leaders executed.
“This other,” Thomas MacDonagh, taught English Literature at University College, Dublin, and was a poet, playwright, and critic. Yeats had met him and felt that “within [MacDonagh’s] own mind this mechanical thought is crushing as with an iron roller all that is organic.” MacDonagh was also executed for his leadership in the Rising.
“This other man” refers to Major John MacBride, the man who had married and divorced Maud Gonne, Yeats’s longtime passion who refused his requests to marry several times. The “some who are near my heart” are likely Maud and her daughter, Iseult, who Yeats had, also unsuccessfully, asked to marry. While Yeats did not like MacBride, he felt he owed him tribute for his part in the Rising. Like MacDonagh and Pearse, MacBride “resigned his part” (was executed) and no longer had to act in the “casual comedy” of Ireland described in the first stanza. Thus, political events are compared to theatrical events.
Because of MacBride’s martyrdom, he was changed from a lout to a hero. This is part of the meaning of “terrible beauty”: that even a fool could become transformed into a thing of beauty.
This stanza is another rapid edit away from specific heroes, even if unnamed, to abstract observations by way of images known as metaphors. Briefly put, this stanza says that those willing to sacrifice themselves and others to principle, ideology, or by another reading, the stone that refers to Ireland herself, are those “enchanted to a stone.” They become stony because they are committed, while those around them (“the living stream”) react and change with differing circumstances. Or as Yeats puts it, while stones do not change, most everything else does: moving horses suddenly veer off course; riders react to their horses (as poets react to Pegasus’s inspiration); birds dive, careen, and call; and clouds and their reflections shift and mutate. The softer beings of animals, clouds, and water change; that hard thing—stone—does not.
The transition into the last stanza, unlike the previous changes between stanzas, is gradual. From the description of stones as obdurate and perhaps unsympathetic things, Yeats moves on to explain the reason people become like stone: through self-sacrifice. Yeats’s explanation makes it easier for readers to sympathize with the insurrectionists. In line 59, Yeats himself turns to sympathy. As if pleading to heaven, the poet asks how long people must sacrifice themselves, must make a stone of their heart, in order to gain what is just. Because the question is unanswerable, Yeats says that all we can do is remember the dead (“To murmur name upon name”) as when a mother utters the name of her sleeping child to make sure he awakens and remains with her.
Almost as soon as Yeats enters into his analogy between recalling the martyrs and “naming” the sleeping child, he exits with the words “not night but death,” because, after all, the revolutionaries are not sleeping but dead. The poet wonders whether their deaths were needless since Britain had promised Ireland a great measure of independence as soon as World War I was over. In the meantime, Ireland felt forced to furnish the British with men and food, something that angered Irish dissidents and helped drive them to revolt.
The revolutionaries dreamed of an independent Ireland, but the reality is that they are dead. Now the question is what to make of them. From the revolutionaries characterized as overly hard in stanza three, to those at the beginning of stanza four who sacrificed themselves to make a stone of their heart, the revolutionaries now become, in lines 72 and 73, those who loved too much and were confused by an “excess of love.” Is this a contradiction, or can it be said that the revolutionaries turned to stone because of love?
The new name in these lines is James Connolly. Under Pearse, Connolly was second in command of the Republican forces and Commandant at the General Post Office, the principal location of the Republican forces. Connolly was perhaps left to the end of the poem because Yeats did not know him well, even though they had been in demonstrations together in the 1890s. Due to their revolutionary action, the four men mentioned in the poem, and presumably the others executed who were not mentioned, will be transformed from the more or less average people they were into heroes—especially “Wherever green is worn,” that is, in the Emerald Isle, Ireland. By the end of the poem, even if ignorant of the Rising, readers can venture a pretty sound guess as to what “terrible beauty” at least partially refers: martyrdom.
Public vs. Private Life
For much of his life Yeats struggled with his conviction that public life had an adverse effect on the private person—especially the poet. He thought that mixing with or leading the crowd would coarsen sensitivity due to constant arguing as well as unsettle one’s peace and principles from repeated compromise. Yet he was a social and political person, a tireless joiner and fraternizer, even becoming a senator in the newly independent Irish Free State for six years. In “Easter 1916,” Yeats’s conflict between the public and private spheres is transposed to five of the revolutionaries of the Easter Rising. Where Yeats saw a conflict, it is probable that some of the revolutionaries—especially the writers, Thomas MacDonagh and Patrick Pearse, and the charity worker, Constance Markiewicz—saw the act of revolt as less a conflict with their private sentiments and lives than a necessary continuation of them. While, for Yeats, revolt would have meant troubling self-examination, to the revolutionaries, to not revolt would have meant the same. In this poem, and in comments made to others, Yeats expressed regret that peaceful, sensitive souls got involved with the Rising, not only because politics and militarism did not suit some of the revolutionaries—Yeats might even say, coarsened them—but also because it killed them.
The dichotomy between public and private is clear for Yeats when it comes to observing how privately sensitive natures are made shrill in argument and combat; the poet is therefore comfortable with his regretful sentiments. Where the poem becomes more than an elegy, however, is not where the binary between public and private has been tragically and regretfully transgressed by the revolutionaries,
Topics for Further Study
- What different events or phenomena in the realms of psychology, politics, nature, etc., can you describe with the words “terrible beauty?”
- Consider the advantages and disadvantages of using pictures or textual images, instead of words of explanation to describe ideas such as those in stanza three.
- The Easter Rising was timed to coincide with Christ’s rising. Compare and contrast events and figures of the Easter Rising with the story of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection.
but, instead, where the polarized difference between public and private is not so clear and where it becomes troublesome. This is the tension that has made this poem endure. The reader might sense that Yeats, fully understanding the transformation that the Rising has brought, is annoyed by the possibility that he himself might have had more effect on Ireland if he had also put down his pen and picked up a gun. Against his more rational or rationalizing side, the poet of “Easter 1916” seems to wonder just under his breath whether the extensive space he once saw between the public and the private appears only from certain angles. From another viewpoint—after the Rising and the quick execution of its leaders—the public and private do not look so far apart, because it can be said that these men and this woman died for something that, before it became extremely public, was passionately private. But as Yeats’s lifelong friend Maud Gonne had remarked, perhaps there would have been no public Rising without the publication of Yeats’s private passions for Irish tradition—publications that were likely internalized by the likes of Pearse, MacDonagh, and Markiewicz before they would again emerge in the public explosion of 1916.
The Easter Rising lasted from April 24 to April 29, 1916. Yeats dated his poem “Easter 1916” on September 25, 1916. Why did it take as long as it did to finish the poem? Even with Yeats’s appended date, critics disagree as to when the poem was written. Some say it was a couple of weeks after the executions, which would be the last two weeks in May. Others say the writing took place in July and August. Whatever the case, Yeats reportedly did not know what to make of the event immediately. Additional incidents would have to take their course, people would have to be listened to, and thoughts sifted. Perhaps what is even more surprising is that the poem was not published until 1920. While this is not the place to speculate on exactly why Yeats waited to write and publish, some general remarks may be ventured. After the Rising, most of Ireland was angry at the revolutionaries. But after the executions, anger was directed at Britain. Yeats’s sentiments seem as fickle as the public’s. Unlike what might have been a public response, Yeats did not direct a poem of hate at Britain but, instead, took a more indirect and arguably a more effective route: he remembered the martyrs with love.
“Easter 1916” is nothing if not a eulogy—one that could have been read at the martyrs’ funeral. Yeats, while acknowledging certain failings of the martyrs, always ends on a note of praise, remembering these men for what could have been their finest hour. Yeats’s course resembles that of memory itself. With time, memory—unless the self suffers a major blow that provokes revenge—sluffs off its anger and keeps its fondness, usually an easier emotion. “Easter 1916” is a poem of memory and, even if Yeats was unaware of it, about memory. With the passage of time, Yeats could more easily forgive the leaders of the Rising and even praise them.
The recitation of the revolutionaries’ names in the last stanza is like so many names upon the walls of war memorials or on AIDS quilts. Names connected with tragedy are forgiven, since it is difficult to hate or remain angry at those who have suffered, even if they have caused others to suffer. Perhaps Yeats waited as long as he did to write the poem, even publish it with changes, until the action of memory softened his tone and until the poem could inspire its readers to identify the insurrectionists as heroes. Perhaps Yeats believed that love, more than anger, was the best emotion to provoke the populace into passion for the liberation of Ireland
Memory’s connection to change has already been discussed—more often than not, bruises and anger are minimized or forgotten, leaving behind what can be praised. This is how the Rising’s rash revolutionaries were transformed into heroes. Ireland also changed after the Easter Rising; the “terrible beauty” was born. Before the Easter Rising there were other Risings—in 1798 and 1803— but none lasted as long and resulted in so many martyrs. After the 1916 Rising, a more entrenched nationalism—a hunger for independent nationhood—took hold and took on a militant aspect that continues to this day. The “terrible beauty” of Yeats’s time would eventually result in a completely independent Republic of Ireland and may yet result in a united Republic of Ireland: in May, 1998 a Northern Ireland peace agreement was signed, giving more power to Ulster Catholics, many of whom are sympathetic to unification and complete independence. This is probably the most prominent feature of the utter change foreshadowed in Yeats’s poem.
There is also another type of change depicted in “Easter 1916.” In stanza three—the only part of the poem written in the language of images—Yeats shows himself devoted, almost religiously, to the idea of change. Yeats paints change in the transformations of clouds, reflections, animal movement, and seasons. For the notion of stagnancy, that thing that does not change and that presents an obstacle to those things that do change, there is the image of the stone. Stanza three contains no argumentation, just presentation of the notion that change is good and that which stays the same is bad. The same is true in the first two lines of stanza four. Here, the imagery is transferred to inside the body where the constantly beating, changing heart is transformed into a stone by holding on to unchanging ideas and passions. Yeats is undialectical, change being all good and constancy being all bad. Further, the imagery is ineffective, especially because it is difficult to invest stones with the image of an incorrigible person. True it is that people can take on characteristics attributed to stone: hardness, denseness, deafness, coolness. In this respect Yeats’s image of a heart turned to stone is successful. But it is more difficult to turn stones into a certain kind of person, because constancy and stability have their place in the scheme of things, and because stones are rarely invested with threat. While tales of monstrous plants and animals abound, seldom do stones cause fear. More, stones are the product of fear—as in petrified wood and people. On the other hand, Yeats was astute in selecting the word stone rather than rock, in that rock connotes solidness and dependability. Perhaps Yeats even considered transforming the troubling stone of stanza three into the rock of commitment at the end of “Easter 1916.” But this would have clashed with the three refrains describing utter change and transformation, even risked privileging constancy over change. For a man who valued change so highly, this would not have been the best option.
“Easter 1916” is a four-stanza poem, with the stanzas being composed of an unusual number of lines. The first and third stanzas contain 16 lines, perhaps referring to the last digits of 1916, the year of the Easter Rising. The second and fourth stanzas have 24 lines, pointing to April 24 as the first day of the Rising. In every stanza, the rhyme scheme is abab and Yeats employs both full rhyme (“day” and “grey”) and near or slant rhyme (“faces” and “houses”), where only the last syllables rhyme. Though Yeats employs primarily end-stopped lines, he sporadically uses enjambment, a technique used to make sense and syntax spill over one line and into the next. As an example, in the following lines, “grey” makes much more sense if read, not as a noun, as would be the case if read with its own line, but as an adjective modifying houses: “From counter or desk among grey / eighteenth-century houses.” The poem is in iambic trimeter, with three feet per line composed mostly of one unaccented syllable followed by an accented syllable. This meter was often used by dramatists—which Yeats was—because its rhythm and meter was thought to most faithfully reproduce that of conversation. However, there are variations. Two unaccented syllables which are followed by an accented syllable are called an anapest as are the last two feet in line three:
From coun/ ter or desk / a mong grey
Another variation on the iamb is the first foot of line two:
Com ing/ with vi /vid faces
This line’s first foot, with its accented syllable followed by an accented syllable, is called a reversed foot, or trochee.
No rhythm has been used in English verse as much as iambic meter, though five feet per line (pentameter) is more frequent than three feet per line (trimeter). The iamb is thought by many critics to relate to the beat of the heart, the act of breathing, the alternation of feet and arms in movement— all of which repeat thousands of times a day and tend to reinforce the iambic character of language.
On April 24, 1916, Easter Monday, Dubliners were enjoying a relaxed public holiday. Many were out of town. While an occupying force of 400 British troops stood duty in Dublin, Patrick Pearse and James Connolly led a company of 150 men—part of a total force of 1,500 volunteers from the Irish Citizen’s Army and the Irish Volunteers—through downtown Dublin from Liberty Hall to the General Post Office a short distance away. After his group stormed the post office and easily overpowered an unarmed guard of seven, Pearse reappeared on the front steps to read The Proclamation of the Irish Republic whose most important sentence read: “We declare the right of the people of Ireland to the ownership of Ireland, and to the unfettered control of Irish destinies, to be sovereign and indefeasible.” While Pearse and Connolly commandeered the forces at the post office, Thomas MacDonagh led those at Jacob’s Biscuit Factory, and Michael Mallin and his second-in-command, Countess Constance Markiewicz, occupied St. Stephen’s Green. By Sunday of the same week, all would surrender, easily overpowered by a larger, more heavily armed British counterforce. This was expected by the leaders of the Rising, as Connolly was reputed to have said “We’re going out to be slaughtered, you know.” In the wake of the Easter Rising, portions of Dublin were in ruins, hundreds were homeless, factories and shops were closed down, one third of the population—100,000 people—found themselves on public relief, 2,500 had been wounded, and 400 were dead. As might be imagined, the public turned against the Sinn Fein leaders, that is until the British executed sixteen insurrectionists—Pearse, Connolly, MacDonagh, and MacBride among them.
The larger backdrop of the Easter Rising was World War I. Since the war began in 1914, Ireland had objected to the recruitment of its soldiers by England. In posters, pamphlets, newspapers, and armed demonstrations, dissident Irishmen insisted it was neither Ireland’s duty nor business to fight for a British government that had not even granted Ireland its freedom. The British saw it differently, since in 1914 the Irish Home Rule Act (a decree of somewhat limited self-government) was supposed to have become enacted, but was delayed, England said, because of the necessity for Irish exports and volunteers to fight in World War I. Even though Irish dissidents advertised their anger, Britain decided against any systematic suppression. So afraid was the United Kingdom of further inflaming militant demands for home rule and the consequent loss of Irish food exports and volunteers (by the time of the Rising there were more than 150,000), that it excepted Ireland from a January, 1916 decision to draft men into the armed forces from Wales, Scotland, and England. But by April 22, 1916, two days before the Rising, two events provoked Britain into quashing Irish unruliness. First, the British captured a merchant ship carrying munitions from Germany to the Irish rebels. Second, Roger Casement, a retired British diplomat turned Irish revolutionary, was captured when it was discovered he had been recruiting for the Rising by trying to gather a militia of Irish prisoners of war within Germany. Because Germany was Britain’s enemy in World War I, a German-Irish conspiracy was intolerable. When Britain rushed to stop the rebellion—discovered as a result of investigating the arms shipment and Casement—it was already too late. The first shots of the Easter Rising had already been fired. While it might have served Germany’s interest to get behind the Rising in order to cripple Britain, Germany collaborated only to the extent of sending munitions. Requests from Irish groups for troops and money were apparently denied. In fact, the most outside money for the Rising was sent by an Irish-American group, Clan na Gael, that sided with Germany rather than Britain because of Britain’s continued occupation of Ireland.
After the Rising and Britain’s quick execution of the sixteen leaders in May, Irish independence demanded resolution if Britain was going to win the war. Especially troublesome was the refusal of United States, with its large Irish population, to get behind Britain until it resolved the troubles in Ireland. But talks between Britain and Ireland proved ineffectual. With the increasing radicalization of Ireland subsequent to the execution of the Rising’s martyrs and the imposition of British martial law, Sinn Fein (“we ourselves”), the party led by the rebels of 1916, gained popularity and won elections even though its members, in protest, refused to sit in the British House of Commons. But it was the announcement of conscription in Ireland on March 28, 1918—the result of intense German attacks against the Allies—that really angered Ireland and solidified respect for Sinn Fein. Even with English promises of home rule for Ireland, neither home rule nor, for that matter, conscription, were actually instituted by 1918, the end of the war. After the war, Britain had to fight Ireland on two fronts: the political and the military. Sinn Fein had sweeping victories in local elections in 1920, and by 1919, Michael Collins was leading the Irish Republican Army (IRA) in a successful guerilla war against
Compare & Contrast
- 1916: For almost one week—April 24 to 29— the Irish Volunteers and the Irish Republican Army held key buildings in downtown Dublin during the Easter Rising. After a fierce battle, the revolutionaries surrendered to a much stronger and larger British force. The following month, sixteen revolutionaries were executed by the British.
1998: Three young, Roman Catholic boys were burned to death in an arson attack in the Protestant village of Ballymoney, Northern Ireland. The flaming gas bomb that killed them is believed to have been thrown by a Protestant angry that a Protestant march through a Catholic neighborhood was banned by the British.
- 1916: In February, one of the major battles of World War I begins and lasts for ten months. France (Britain’s ally) and Germany (Britain’s enemy) fight over the French town of Verdun. An estimated 700,000 soldiers lose their lives.
1994: From 500,000 to one million Tutsis are slaughtered by Hutus in a four-month period during the Rwandan Civil War. This war sets a record for the most people killed in the shortest time period outside of the U.S. atomic bomb blasts in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
- 1916: The art movement known as Dada is started by Hugo Ball, Tristan Tzara, and others at the Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich. Employing intentional insanity, nihilism, and irony through text, image, and performance, Dada launched an attack against a modernity that led to the insanity and mass destruction of World War I.
Today: Four grants from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) are denied in 1990 to performance artists Karen Finley, Holly Hughes, etc. (“The NEA 4”) on the basis that their art is lewd. Their grants are restored in 1993. The question of content restrictions and definitions of obscenity regarding NEA funds is still in court.
Britain. While the Irish terrain was unfavorable to guerrilla warfare, the Irish populace was not. The British found that the Irish would not betray IRA positions and activities. Casualties on both sides were high and British repression was brutal, an indication that British occupation was beginning to unravel. On December 6, 1921, a treaty was signed effecting semi-independent “dominion” status for Ireland, the retention of two British naval bases in the southern part of Ireland, and a review of the border between Northern Ireland and the now nearly independent Ireland. The Irish pro-treaty forces settled for this comprised state of affairs because the British threatened all-out war if they didn’t. But only one of two Irish factions supported the treaty, that of Michael Collins. Eamon de Valera opposed the treaty. By June 28,1922, the first shots would be fired in the Irish Civil War between pro and anti-treaty forces. The outnumbered, anti-treaty forces could not win and surrendered on May 24, 1923. Five hundred people had died and 77 were executed, 53 more than the British had executed. The treaty resulted in complete internal control of the new Irish Free State. By 1937, the Irish Free State would become Eire after it dropped its allegiance to the United Kingdom in 1932. In 1938, naval rights were abandoned by Britain. In 1949, Eire became The Republic of Ireland and withdrew from the British Commonwealth. As any follower of international news knows, however, Ireland is still not at peace. The major source of contention remains a non-unified Ireland, with the six counties of mostly Protestant Northern Ireland (Ulster) still separated from a mostly Catholic Republic of Ireland and aligned with Britain. In May of 1998, however, the Northern Ireland Peace Agreement was passed, providing Northern Ireland with a new Assembly to give Catholics more political power. Though the conflict is far from over, an independent Ireland may yet see unification.
“Easter 1916” is one of Yeats’s most popular and discussed poems, especially in Ireland where it anticipated the birth of that nation. Yeats’s other political poems that focused on the Easter Rising are “The Leaders of the Crowd,” “Sixteen Dead Men,” “The Rose Tree,” and “On a Political Prisoner.” All can be found, along with “Easter 1916,” in Michael Robartes and the Dancer (1921).
Richard Ellman, in The Identity of Yeats, maintained that Yeats’s poem contained both a nationalist and anti-nationalist position, since its assertions were accompanied by qualifications and questions. Ellman believed this indicated Yeats’s passionate and fundamental skepticism in circumstances riddled by conflict. Hazard Adams, writing in The Book of Yeats’s Poems, holds a differing opinion. Adams asserts that Yeats rises to the occasion of glorifying the revolutionaries because he praises the poets who became revolutionaries and appears to criticize himself for once having mocked them behind their back at the club (stanza one). Adams also understands Yeats’s imagery of stanza three not so much as critical of people wedded to a singleness of political purpose but as praiseworthy. These “stones” were necessary to trouble the living “stream of Dublin workers” who presumably were too complacent about English occupation and the deculturation of Ireland. In Yeats and the Poetry of Death, Jahan Ramazani praises “Easter 1916” for avoiding eulogistic cant. Much like Ellman and Hazard, Ramazani understands the poem to embody an interior quarrel or conflict but goes further to understand Yeats’s quarrel as an interiorization of the social and historical forces of revolution. Ramazani also stresses that not only did the revolutionaries utterly change Irish history, but, in the process, they were transformed into Irish heroes. Finally, and perhaps controversially, Ramazani has Yeats not merely questioning or praising what the martyrs accomplished, but instead coming to identify with them: “Yeats sees himself in their revolutionary act.” Whatever the case may be, “Easter 1916” is a poem that has sparked far less interpretive controversy than it has nationalist pride.
Jhan Hochman holds a Ph.D. in English and has published a book and numerous articles. In the following essay, Hochman explores the “play of twos” found throughout “Easter 1916.”
Throughout the warp and weft of “Easter 1916” is a play of twos. First, there are the pairings. Many critics believe “Easter 1916” to be the sister poem, or palinode (a re-singing or recanting) of Yeats’s earlier poem “September 1913.” Whereas in “September 1913” Yeats bemoaned the death of Irish culture and its political resolve under the thumb of British oppression, in “Easter 1916” Yeats heralded the birth of a “terrible beauty,” a violently vital Irish push for nationhood. In another pairing, the poem unfolds in a two-part structure, each part composed of two stanzas. The first stanzas of each part contain 16 lines, most likely a play on the year, 1916. The second stanzas in each part contains twenty-four lines, reminding the reader of the first day of the Rising: April 24. Not only are stanzas paired, but so are lines: every other line is married through full or canted rhyme. There is also the pairing of revolutionaries: Constance Markiewicz and John MacBride, the first and fourth persons mentioned in stanza two, are portrayed with negative and positive traits. Patrick Pearse and Thomas MacDonagh are characterized as sensitive writers. In the last stanza, minor leaders MacDonagh and MacBride are paired, as are the major leaders, Connolly and Pearse. Finally, there is, even before Yeats’s poem, the overall “comparing” of Ireland’s Easter Rising with Christ’s Easter resurrection and with the spring, a time of newly born green symbolizing both nature and Ireland.
Another play of twos is found in a series of transitions. First, there is the transition from grey to green. The grey of “grey / eighteenth-century houses” suggests withering age, death, dirt, and unclarity. On the other hand, the green of “Wherever green is worn” implies Ireland, the resurrection of spring, and a general vitality. The Easter Rising in the spring of April 1916 and the execution deaths of sixteen revolutionary leaders a short time later mark the transition from an old, dying, politically unmotivated country (grey) to an Ireland reborn through martyrdom (green). The poem’s other chromatic transition is that from motley to green. Motley, an outfit of many colors, indicates the fool who, even when wise, speaks but never acts. Before the Easter Rising, the wearing of motley indicates that Yeats’s Ireland is a silly, lighthearted place—one that may talk but rarely acts. After the Rising, wearing green will come to indicate something different: that the country has grown
What Do I Read Next?
- Elias Canetti’s Crowds and Power, written in 1962, is an extensive study of different kinds of religious and political crowds and explorations of elements necessary to crowds, such as symbols and commands. Because the table of contents is so detailed, the work only suffers slightly from the absence of an index.
- Seamus Deane’s 1986 work, A Short History of Irish Literature, commences in the fifth century and ends in the 1980s.
- Eric Hoffer’s landmark study of 1951, The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements, focuses on the characteristics of mass movements be they religious, social, or nationalist.
- The United Irishmen—a group that began in the latter part of the eighteenth century—had a tremendous impact on the popular culture of Ireland. This impact is reviewed in great detail by Mary Helen Thuente in her 1994 text, The Harp Restrung.
- Between Thoreau and Martin Luther King, the torch of nonviolent rebellion was carried not only by Gandhi, but by Leo Tolstoy whose essays are collected in Tolstoy’s Writings on Civil Disobedience and Non-Violence, published in 1967.
- Yeats’s 1938 work, A Vision, explains from whence Yeats’s system of occult visions arose— from the automatic writing and sleep monologues of his wife, George—and describes their nature, structure, and relationships to each other.
and matured into an independent nation, one that has acted to gain that independence. Yeats’s prediction that a “terrible beauty” had been bom was correct: while most of Ireland was critical of its revolutionaries during and just after the Rising, the popular tide turned green after the executions. On this count, Yeats was in agreement with the people of Ireland. If there was a difference between Yeats and his countrymen, it was only that he believed the sensitivity of the revolutionaries made them ill suited for their hardened roles in the Rising.
That the revolutionaries were miscast takes us to another play of two, that of opposition. Yeats believed in the need for a barrier between political and private life, because he thought that politics would coarsen and corrupt the individual. As Yeats wrote, Countess Markiewicz, in her private life, was full of “ignorant good will” and had a young and beautiful voice made shrill by her public role in politics. MacDonagh and Pearse were sensitive writers in their private life but eventually took up arms and publicly revolted. During the Rising, Yeats was staying in England with a friend, William Rothenstein, who recounted that Yeats had commented on the revolutionaries: “These men, poets and schoolmasters ... are idealists, unfit for practical affairs; they are seers, pointing to what should be, who had been goaded into action against their better judgment.” Still, later in life, Yeats would grow firmly against a life of politics, made clear in an unpublished letter from April 7, 1936: “Do not try to make a politician of me, even in Ireland I shall never I think be that again—as my sense of reality deepens, & I think it does with age, my horror at the cruelty of governments grows greater ....” In “Easter 1916” Yeats metaphorizes the opposition between the sensitive souls of private life and those hardened by public politics. It is done in stanza three by means of the opposition between the living stream, signifying life and change through motion, and the stone, indicating hardheartedness and stubbornness through immobility. Rather than viewing the politician as bending with the breezes of public reaction or soft money donations as we might today, Yeats depicts the politician as an argumentative, unyielding, obdurate
“Was [Yeats] bitter because no matter how many plays and poems he wrote, or stories he collected, all in the name of promoting a proud and independent Ireland, literature did not, perhaps could not, have the impact of an event like the Easter Rising?”
ideologue, paradoxically more befitting the marginalized politician of change and revolution than the entrenched politician of business as usual.
The problem with Yeats’s metaphorical complex of stone versus stream becomes an all-out contradiction in stanza four. Where, in stanza three, the hearts of the revolutionaries are hardened to changing life, in stanza four the revolutionaries are said to be bewildered by an excess of love. Did Yeats notice this contradiction or was he trying to say what seems extremely unlikely, that an excess of love hardens the heart? As this is improbable, the contradiction might not be a contradiction at all, since Yeats could have decided that the martyrs suffered both from an excess of love for Ireland and of hate for Britain. Whatever drove them more— love or hate—is anybody’s guess
One might want to argue that the refrain, “terrible beauty,” finally emphasizes beauty over terrible since the adjective is subservient to the noun modified. Still, the phrase effectively maintains the tension of an irreconcilable polarity, a kind of vacillation between traditional male and female principles: the sublime “terrible,” inspiring fear, and the beautiful, which arouses love. On one hand, a characterization of the sentiments in “Easter 1916” might be resolved contradiction, but another might be its opposite—indecision. Indecision characterized Yeats’s father, the family member who perhaps most influenced Yeats, who said, “I am not sure that this absurd ‘rising’ will not in the end help home rule and make it more substantial.” The elder Yeats uses the word absurd for the Rising because the revolutionaries could not hope to succeed at immediately extricating Britain from Ireland, though they might be influential over the long haul. Yeats shared some of his father’s sentiments, as indicated in the lines “Was it needless death after all? / For England may keep faith / For all that is done and said.” These indicate indecision, with Yeats wondering whether England would have instituted the postponed Home Rule Act of 1914 at the end of the World War I. If England, as it promised, would have instituted a measure of Irish independence by war’s end, then, Yeats thinks, the revolutionaries died in vain—perhaps an “absurd” death, to use his father’s word. In 1916, this was an interesting problem, its very unsolvability producing paralytic indecision when it came to whether the martyrs wasted their time and lives in the Rising.
Whether, from the viewpoint of 1916, the martyrs of the Easter Rising died in vain provoked not only indecision, but a more problematic internal conflict: Yeats’s suspicion—fear even—that in order to accomplish political change one had to make a stone of the heart:
Too long a sacrifice
Can make a stone of the heart.
O when may it suffice?
That is Heaven’s part ...
Yeats does not and cannot resolve the question, leaving it to heaven to decide. Apparently he is unwilling or unable, through sacrifice, to make a stone of his own heart. On the other hand, he, in effect, admits the strategy has been productive because it brought about “utter change” and a “terrible beauty.” Perhaps Yeats even wonders whether insurrection was more effective than merely murmuring “name upon name ... MacDonagh and MacBride / Connolly and Pearse” as he did in “Easter 1916.” Why did Yeats not simply praise the heroes of the Rising and accept his inability to do what they did? Was he bitter because no matter how many plays and poems he wrote, or stories he collected, all in the name of promoting a proud and independent Ireland, literature did not, perhaps could not, have the impact of an event like the Easter Rising? That the pen might not be mightier than the sword would have split the dean of Irish cultural nationalism in two. Maud Gonne, Yeats’s long-admired and unattainable love, however, would have thought this internal schism groundless. After Yeats’s death, Gonne claimed that “Without Yeats there would have been no Literary Revival in Ireland. Without the inspiration of that Revival and the glorification of beauty and heroic virtue, I doubt if there would have been an Easter Week.” At the present time, when literature and politics are seen by so many to have little to do with each other, Gonne shows their pairing as complementary and their relationship reciprocal: without Yeats’s work there might not have been an Easter Rising; without an Easter Rising there could be no literature written about it. Perhaps this is a reason why writers and actors are often interested in politics and even run for or serve in office. Ever since its beginnings, literature has glorified and criticized existing military and political figures, inspiring or discouraging those who would learn from their example. Though Yeats did not always seem to think so, his life as a senator and opinion maker not only divided him from his poet-self, but also united him, just as it united the writer-heroes of the Rising and made their thoughts live through action. Perhaps nowhere in his work is it more evident that politics and literature can be closely paired—and paired forcefully—as in “Easter 1916.”
Source: Jhan Hochman, in an essay for Poetry for Students, Gale, 1999.
Carolyn Meyer holds a Ph.D. in Modern British and Irish Literature and has taught contemporary literature at several Canadian universities, including the University of Toronto. In the following essay, Meyer notes that “Easter 1916” negotiates between the extremes of art and politics and, through its ambivalence and ambiguities, renders the complexities of the historical event. Both an elegy and political poem, it finds its creative tension through opposition and paradox.
The poet Patrick Pearse, one of fifteen militant nationalists jailed and executed for his role in the failed Easter Rising of 1916, believed with a nearmessianic fervor, as noted in his Plays, Stories, Poems, that only those willing to die “in bloody protest for a glorious thing” could bring Ireland to the brink of independence. Three years before he signed the Proclamation that would effectively seal his fate, bringing about his martyrdom at the hands of the British judicial system, and three years before his deliberate “blood-sacrifice” launched Ireland on its violent course toward nationhood, Pearse wrote in his political tract “The Coming Revolution”:
I do not know if the Messiah has come yet, and I am not sure that there will be any visible and personal Messiah in this redemption: the people itself will perhaps be its own Messiah, the people labouring, scourged, crowned with thorns, agonising and dying, to rise again immortal and impassable.... [B]loodshed is a cleansing and a satisfying thing, and the nation which regards it as the final horror has lost its manhood. There are many things more horrible than bloodshed; and slavery is one of them.
In what turned out to be a self-fulfilling prophecy, made all the more poignant by its sacrificial language, Pearse outlined the intractable terms of a fanatical republicanism. Yet not all in Ireland were prepared to rally to the cause as he defined it. Among them was W. B. Yeats.
While Yeats had done much to further the cause of cultural nationalism by helping to establish a national theater, the Abbey, and by renewing ancient Irish myths and legends through his poems and plays, he had always prided himself on being an aesthete, dismissive of the vulgarities of politics, and had been genuinely dismayed by the destructive political passions of his friend and would-be lover, Maud Gonne. The political poems that he did write were, as his critic Richard Ellmann has noted in his critical survey The Identity of Yeats, “always complicated by his being above politics.” At the time of the insurrection in Dublin, Yeats was not even in Ireland but on an estate in England, having long divided his time between the two countries. Yet even at a distance, the events of April and May 1916 had a profound effect on him, leading in part to his renewed commitment to Ireland. Shortly after the Rising, he wrote to his friend and collaborator Lady Augusta Gregory:
I am trying to write a poem on the men executed— “terrible beauty has been born again.” I had no idea that any public event could so deeply move me and I am very despondent about the future. At the moment I feel that all the work of years has been overturned, all the freeing of Irish literature and criticism from politics.
Despite his obvious disapproval, by late September Yeats had completed one of his rare political poems, a meditation that fixes the historical moment at the same time as it transcends mere political fact. Structured around antitheses and embodying a host of contradictions, “Easter 1916” is as paradoxical as the oxymoronic aphorism “terrible beauty” that echoes through its refrains, for it expresses not only Yeats’s disapproval but his approval of the activists he had once decried. A revisionist martyrology, it commemorates heroes at the same time it questions, with awakened compassion, the idealism of their cause and recognizes their progressive depersonalization in the face of public idolatry. It is moreover a public poem, oratorical in its rhetoric, yet until 1919 it was published only as a privately printed underground pamphlet intended mainly for the poet’s friends. Above all, however, “Easter 1916” is an elegy that, while mourning and eulogizing the dead, offers consolations only to doubt and undermine them.
As politically divided as Yeats and Pearse had been, both were convinced of the decline of civilization and expressed this in their writing through metaphors of violence. For Yeats, the Easter Rising constituted one of several cataclysmic events that signaled the coming of a new, darkly heroic yet violent age—one that would reverse the tide of two millennia and sweep away its systems of belief.
The choice of a title evocative of Christ’s passion and resurrection reinforces already pronounced parallels, from their joint persecution and to their seminal roles in reshaping human destiny and the course of civilization. In this case, however, it is national, rather than strictly spiritual, redemption that comes through the shedding of blood. The fallen patriots’ transformation from distinct, yet maligned, average citizens to worshiped national demigods is examined over four stanzas of alternating lengths (16 lines, 24 lines, 16 lines, and 24 lines) and alternating rhyme (ababcdcd). To dramatize their metamorphosis over the course of the first two sections, Yeats draws his metaphors from the world of drama. Life in prerevolutionary Dublin is said to have resembled a stage comedy in which the business of commerce and petty bureaucracy (“counter and desk”) is rounded out by trivial social routine. In two syntactically similar lines (“I have met them at the close of day” and “I have passed with a nod of the head”), the speaker stresses his passing acquaintance with the rebels, almost to convince himself of the fact. Yet his familiarity with them is of the kind that breeds contempt:
And I thought before I had done
Of a mocking tale or a gibe
To please a companion
Around the fire at the club.
Within the stratified, class-conscious society still dominated by the grey, eighteenth-century houses of the Ascendancy (the English ruling class), those of political conviction are singled out only as a source of humor. Along with the sense of decline (“close of day”) and ennui, even language has been reduced to “polite meaningless words,” a script seemingly memorized by actors in “motley,” a costume that makes fools of them all. Recalling this spiritually enervated period before the Rising, Yeats wrote in Autobiographies, “doubtless because fragments broke into ever smaller fragments, we saw one another in the light of bitter comedy.” While comedy, Yeats observed, has a way of magnifying or enhancing traits of characters, tragedy does precisely the opposite, negating or obscuring them: “tragedy must always be a drowning and breaking of the dykes that separate man from man, and ... it is upon these dykes that comedy keeps house,” he wrote in Essays and Introductions. Having resigned their roles in “the casual comedy,” the patriots are no longer themselves—the distinct personalities sketched in the second stanza—but selfless, nameless adherents tragically absorbed in their cause.
Each of the four portraits in Yeats’s eulogizing series is readily identifiable—Countess Constance (Gore-Booth) Markiewicz, whose sentence of execution was commuted, Patrick Pearse, Thomas MacDonagh, and Major John MacBride, the latter the estranged husband of Maud Gonne. As Yeats remembers them, they are all too human—idiosyncratic, full of promise, and beset by weaknesses. Yet in withholding their names, Yeats suggests how their individual identities are subordinated and ultimately lost to both the cult of extreme nationalism and the mantle of tragic heroism. Warning of this transformation with the forcefulness of a tragic chorus, the refrains that close the first and second stanzas intermingle the antitheses of death and birth, terror and beauty, and in so doing reflect the complexity and ambiguity of the poet’s response. No longer second-stringers in a petty modern comedy, the rebels are beautiful yet terrible—to be admired and feared—for having risen above normal life. Their armed revolt provides the stimulus for the birth of a nation, but it is a birth achieved at the expense of life. The refrains uncannily echo words that Patrick Pearse had spoken only a year before his execution: “life springs from death and from the graves of patriot men and women spring living nations.”
The two final stanzas register an abrupt shift in the speaker’s way of thinking, since what he feels is remarkable about patriots is not their capacity to change, but their essential changelessness. Their steadfast and single-minded devotion to their cause has made them stone-hearted, immune to the joys of life, just as it has allowed them to transcend the mutable world, the world subject to time (“summer and winter,” “minute by minute”) and death. The stone becomes a symbol for the rebels’ intransigence and a metaphor for what political fanaticism does to people. It is made all the more terrifying by its contrast with the burgeoning beauty and regenerative vitality of the natural world. Yeats conveys this dynamism, this ceaseless flux, not only through the exhaustiveness of his catalogue (which includes horses, riders, birds, clouds, moor-hens, and moor-cocks) but through a single elaborately structured sentence marked by alliteration (“longlegged”), strong consonantal verbs (range, change, slides, plashes, dive, call, and the verb that encompasses all of the preceding, live), as well as galloping triple meters that hasten the movement of the lines and replicate the flow of “the living stream.” Through syntax alone, all living things are linked in a single, cohesive whole. All, that is, except the stone, set off by the colon that precedes the stanza’s final line. It resists, even impedes, the flow of life. Conspicuous by its stasis, its deadness, and its timeless permanence, the stone is also something of a gravestone, touchstone, and foundation stone—an unassailable reminder of sacrifice, a moral center “in the midst of all,” and focal point for the task of nation building.
As the final stanza begins, Yeats once again unites his two opposing symbols—“Too long a sacrifice / Can make a stone of the heart”—resulting in a wry comment on how Maud Gonne’s obsessive love of country diminished her ability to love. Though the contemplation of it may be a comfort, the permanence the heroes have achieved has come at a considerable cost. The delusive power of political belief, the efficacy of the actions committed in its name, and the inadequacy of any outsider’s response to it are among Yeats’s primary concerns as the poem draws to a close. Where, according to convention, the standard elegy seeks to find consolation, an antidote to loss, Yeats makes several tentative and unsuccessful attempts at this, each one fraught with doubt and skepticism. As much as he praises his subjects, he is equally aware of the folly of their actions. The speaker asks more questions than he answers, but in so doing, he reproduces the thought processes by which we attempt to deal with loss. What has “changed, changed utterly” is the speaker’s attitude toward the leaders, who are no longer the objects of scorn and mockery, but compassion. It is not even his place to judge—“that is heaven’s part.” The role left to everyone else is chiefly commemorative: “To murmur name upon name, / As a mother names her child,” an acknowledgment of the public masses that elevated the leaders to the status of martyrs within weeks of their death. Beyond this, however, reality intrudes on the search for consolation. Despite the lines that recall Hamlet’s self-deluding take on mortality— “To die, to sleep— / To sleep / perchance to dream”
“‘Easter 1916’ is a poem that traverses the dangerous ground between art and politics, bringing both into a peaceable accord.”
(Hamlet 3.1.64-65)—the deaths of the patriots are unassailable facts. Given the remote possibility that England could still make good on its 1913 promise to grant part of Ireland home rule, their sacrifice might well be in vain. Yeats even speculates that they were led astray and betrayed by their romantic idealism, “bewildered” and “enchanted” by their cause and ideology. In writing of the “excess of love” that led the patriots to the deaths, Yeats borrows directly from Pearse’s Political Writings: “If I die it will be from the excess of love that I bear the Gael.”
Only in the final lines does it become clear that the entire poem enacts the response Yeats prescribes: “I write it out in a verse— / MacDonagh and MacBride / And Connolly and Pearse.” Their names made plain for the first time, they belong not to the temporal world, over which they have triumphed, but to a timeless one. That is where their identity lies “now and in time to be.” Critic C. K. Stead, in his well-known essay “On ‘Easter 1916,’” observes, “the world is, for the moment in which the event is contemplated, ‘transformed utterly.’” Language itself has also been transformed as “polite meaningless words” have given way to poetry that has the power to enshrine and celebrate, it too achieving its own victory over time.
“Easter 1916” is a poem that traverses the dangerous ground between art and politics, bringing both into a peaceable accord. Northern Irish poet and critic Tom Paulin, in his introduction to The Faber Book of Political Verse, argues that “Yeats’s insistence on art’s superiority to politics was partly a ruse.... Yeats was an intensely political writer and his frequent sneers at politicians, journalists and other ‘groundlings’ are part of his consistent deviousness, his influential habit of first affirming that art and politics are hostile opposites and then managing to slip through the barrier, a naked politician disguised as an aesthete.” It is this latent enthusiasm combined with the deep unease of Yeats’s ambivalence that has helped to make “Easter 1916” one of the best-known and least reductive political poems of this century.
Source: Carolyn Meyer, in an essay for Poetry for Students, Gale, 1999.
In the following excerpt, Perloff examines the significance of the characters in “Easter 1916,” noting that only three of them were actually involved in the uprising.
Yeats was staying with friends in Gloucestershire when the Easter Rising of 1916 broke out, and, according to his biographers, the news took him with the same surprise as it took the general public in Ireland. The Rising was chiefly promoted by the extreme Nationalists of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, a group of Nationalists of whom Yeats really knew very little because they had come into prominence since the days when he and Maud Gonne were actively engaged in the Gaelic movement. But one of the leaders, Thomas MacDonagh, whose book on Gaelic influences on English prosody Yeats admired, was an old friend, as was Constance Markiewicz, in whose home Yeats had frequently stayed when she was still a Gore-Booth of Lissadell. He was also acquainted with Pearse, Joseph Plunkett, and James Connolly; the latter had worked with Yeats on the ‘98 Memorial Committee for Wolfe Tone. His English friends noticed that at last Yeats seemed to be moved by a public event. He spoke to them of innocent and patriotic theorists carried away by the belief that they must sacrifice themselves to an abstraction. They would fail and pay the penalty for their failure.
On May 11, Yeats wrote to Lady Gregory that the Dublin tragedy had been a great sorrow and anxiety. “I am trying to write a poem on the men executed—‘terrible beauty has been born again.’ If the English Conservative party had made a declaration they did not intend to rescind the Home Rule Bill there would have been no Rebellion. I had no idea that any public event could so deeply move me —and I am very despondent about the future.... I do not yet know what she [Maud Gonne] feels about her husband’s death. Her letter was written before she heard of it. Her main thought seems to be ‘tragic dignity has returned to Ireland.’” And on May 23, he wrote to John Quinn [as reprinted in The Letters of W.B. Yeats], “This Irish business has been a great grief. We have lost the ablest and most fine-natured of our young men. A world seems to have been swept away. I keep going over the past in my mind and wondering if I could have done anything to turn those young men in some other direction.”
It is no coincidence that the first word of “Easter 1916” is “I” and that the pronoun recurs three times in the first stanza. Yeats is immediately present in the poem, “meeting” other men, “passing,” “nodding,” “lingering,” and “mocking.” The political event that is the occasion for this poem is not viewed from the outside ...; the center is rather the “I” who must come to terms with the public event. And the important thing to notice is that the speaker does not really understand the Rising until the end of the poem, which charts, to paraphrase Langbaum, the evolution of an observer through his evolving vision of the Irish scene.
... “Easter 1916” begins with a remembered locale: the place is Dublin with its “grey / Eighteenth-century houses,” the time the “close of day,” the speaker Yeats himself meeting the clerks and shopkeepers, who were to form the hard core of the Irish Republican Army, as they leave their places of business at closing time. The casual reference to “them” in the first line—a reference made before one knows who “they” are—immediately implicates the reader in the speaker’s drama; it implies that he shares the speaker’s frame of reference, that he knows these persons and places. As the poet recalls his random streetcorner meetings with the future patriots, he is puzzled by the triviality and inconsequence of their former existence. In the days before the Rising, he remembers with a measure of self-reproach, he had paid little attention to these amateur soldiers, exchanging a few “Polite meaningless words” with them and joking about their activities with the Dublin clubmen with whom he dined, “Being certain that they and I / But lived where motley is worn.” But the trivial and slightly ridiculous pre-Rising Ireland, of which Yeats himself, as the “and I” testifies, was a part, has been completely transformed: “All changed, changed utterly: / A terrible beauty is born.” In the first instance of the refrain, the word “terrible” seems to be used chiefly as an intensive: it means “very great” or “excessive.” The observer’s initial reaction is one of sympathy and respect for the action that could “change” such aimlessness into something tragic and powerful. Even the image of the opening lines has this implication: the “vivid” faces of the working men are contrasted both to the darkness of the “close of day” and to the greyness of the office buildings from which they emerge.
In the second stanza, four “vivid” faces emerge from the crowd of Stanza I, and the poet characterizes them, one at a time, with a few swift strokes. The choice of characters is extremely odd. Of the seven men who actually signed the Proclamation of the Republic—Padraic Pearse, Thomas MacDonagh, James Connolly, Eamonn Ceannt, Joseph Mary Plunkett, Sean MacDermott, and Thomas Clarke—only Pearse and MacDonagh play a part in “Easter 1916,” although Connolly is briefly mentioned in the roll-call of the last stanza. Thomas Clarke, usually considered the “chief moving force behind the Rising,” [according to Goddard Lieberson in The Irish Uprising,] is never named. The point, of course, is that Yeats is not trying to be an objective reporter; he includes only those whose transformation will be relevant to his theme. Thus he begins by pondering the tragic evolution of the beautiful Constance Gore-Booth of Lissadell, the aristocratic horsewoman whom he admired as a young man, into the Con Markiewicz of revolutionary politics, the “shrill” demagogue whose marvelous energy is dissipated in “ignorant good will.” The potential of Padraic Pearse, the man who “kept a school / And rode our winged horse,” and of Thomas MacDonagh, “his helper and friend,” has similarly been dissipated by the Rising. Both men had considerable literary and intellectual gifts which might have done much for the Irish cultural revival. Pearse, the Gaelic enthusiast and timid poet, who, according to Timothy Coogan, could hardly bring himself to handle a knife to cut a loaf, is strangely transformed into the General of the Irish Republican forces, who preaches violence and bloodshed. The transformation of “sweet” and “sensitive” MacDonagh may be glossed by a passage in Yeats’s Autobiography: “Met MacDonagh yesterday—a man with some literary faculty which will probably come to nothing through lack of culture and encouragement.... In England this man would have become remarkable in some way, here he is being crushed by the mechanical logic and commonplace eloquence which give power to the most empty mind, because, being ‘something other than human life,’ they have no use for distinguished feeling or individual thought.”
But why is MacBride, that “drunken, vainglorious lout,” included in the poem and placed in the climactic position at the end of the second stanza? Neither a major figure in the Rising, nor, like Con Markiewicz, Pearse, and MacDonagh, a symbol of tragically wasted potential, MacBride has a significance for Yeats that is purely personal: he was Maud Gonne’s estranged husband, the man who “had done most bitter wrong” to the woman Yeats adored. His transformation, in contrast to that of the other leaders mentioned, is one for the better; courage and suffering have given him a brief moment of nobility and grandeur: “He too has resigned his part / In the casual comedy; / He, too, has been changed in his turn, / Transformed utterly: / A terrible beauty is born.” In this context, “terrible beauty” continues to have positive connotations for the poet. Although great gifts were sacrificed by the Countess Markiewicz, by Pearse and MacDonagh, their sacrifice is awe-inspiring: it is a sacrifice that can make even the despicable life of MacBride meaningful. In line 35, “Yet I number him in the song,” the speaker displays his personal generosity: he can praise even the enemy when praise is deserved.
But the mood of sympathetic admiration is rapidly dissipated. With the imagery of stone and stream in the third stanza, attitudes that are only implicit in the first two stanzas in such references as “Until her voice grew shrill,” come into the foreground:
Hearts with one purpose alone
Through summer and winter seem
Enchanted to a stone
To trouble the living stream.
It is sometimes argued that the “stone” here symbolizes the firmness of purpose and strength of mind of the patriots, a strength that “troubles” or rouses the average man from his daily round of blind, aimless living. But such a reading ignores the positive connotations of the “living stream.” In the world of nature, “change”—the key word recurs here in a radically altered context—is a steady but gradual process; it is not the radical, abrupt, and overwhelming transformation (“All changed, changed utterly”) of the patriots. In the natural world, birds, horses, clouds, and water are in perpetual free movement; there is constant sliding, plashing, and mating: “hens to moorcocks call.” But the “Hearts with one purpose alone” of the 1916 leaders have been “enchanted to a stone”—a spell has been cast upon them by their total absorption in a Utopian vision until they become rigid, inflexible, petrified—ultimately beyond change. By the end of the stanza, “The stone’s in the midst of all”: the joy and spontaneity of natural life have been cramped by the stonelike hardness and rigidity of the rebels. Their inflexible purpose absorbs everything into a system. Here, then, Yeats as dramatized speaker dissociates himself from the political movement. The third stanza is the only one that ends without the refrain “A terrible beauty is born.”
“When the speaker declares in line 74, ‘I write it out in verse,’ the reader feels that he is actually looking over his shoulder; the poem seems utterly spontaneous, immediate.”
Readers often feel that the sudden introduction of stone and stream imagery in Stanza III is arbitrary and unmotivated: how does one jump from the concrete characterizations of Stanza II to the symbolic image of the third stanza? True, the symbols are marshalled rather abruptly, but the very abruptness is telling. The sharp break after line 40 suggests that the speaker has suddenly been struck by the thought that, contrary to Maud Gonne’s view that “tragic dignity has returned to Ireland,” he himself could never participate in or condone such a rebellion; it is repugnant to him. Instead of giving elaborate reasons for this outlook, Yeats simply presents the image of the stone troubling the stream as it now strikes the speaker. The poem, in other words, imitates the structure of the observer’s experience; he “discovers his idea through a dialectical interchange with the external world” [according to Robert Langbaum in The Poetry of Experience].
This discovery is brought to a climax in the opening lines of Stanza iv:
Too long a sacrifice
Can make a stone of the heart.
It is easy to mistake this assertive statement for the theme of the poem; in fact, however, the speaker passes beyond it to his final perception or epiphany. His first step is to realize that disparagement of the rebels is no better than excessive admiration. Perhaps impartiality is the answer. It is, after all, “Heaven’s part” to judge the rebels, while “our part,” the poet bravely declares, is “To murmur name upon name, / As a mother names her child / When sleep at last has come / On limbs that had run wild.” But the nightfall of the rebels is not that of the peacefully sleeping child. “No, no, not night but death,” the speaker suddenly realizes, and with that thought he finds it impossible to remain aloof and impartial. The crucial question must finally be asked: “Was it needless death after all? / For England may keep faith / For all that is done and said.”
It is a question that history, quite apart from the poem, has never satisfactorily answered. Amy Stock observes [in W.B. Yeats: His Poetry and Thought] that “The men who made the rising did so with the clear expectation of defeat. They thought it useless to wait for the consent of England and died deliberately in the belief—justified by the event—that their death would commit the nation to fight on till freedom was won. Their courage could not be questioned: their judgement might, for it was conceivable that after the war the English might have consented to Home Rule. But the rising made that question unanswerable forever.”
The ultimate significance of the Easter Rising is similarly ambiguous to the speaker of “Easter 1916.” The perception toward which the poem moves is his understanding of its “terrible beauty.” It is beautiful because of the sublimity of the tragic gesture of the patriots (“We know their dream; enough / To know they dreamed and are dead”), but is is also terrible—the word is now used in the sense of awful or frightening—because the gesture was, in the final analysis, not only misguided but futile: “And what if excess of love / Bewildered them till they died?” The speaker can now “write it out in verse” because he has come to terms with the paradoxical “terrible beauty” of the Rising. For the first time he names the patriots directly: “MacDonagh and MacBride / And Connolly and Pearse.” It is not only these tragic figures who are “changed, changed utterly”; the speaker, too, has been “changed in his turn”; from initial puzzlement, he has passed through the extremes of admiration and condemnation to a moment of aloofness, immediately followed by a return to engagement, to an active participation tempered by a new awareness of the “terrible beauty” of human life. “The most impressive thing about the whole poem,” writes [critic] Donald Davie, is that “the 1916 leaders are mourned most poignantly, and the sublimity of their gesture is celebrated most memorably, not when the poet is abasing himself before them, but when he implies that, all things considered, they were, not just in politic but in human terms, probably wrong.”
In “Easter 1916,” then, Yeats solves a problem which Arnold attempted but failed to solve in “Haworth Churchyard.” Arnold wanted to assimilate the historical and documentary, to absorb the public event into the fabric of the romantic lyric. But the references to persons, places, and events are stated rather than dramatized; the poet himself is not in the poem. In “Easter 1916,” on the other hand, the reader adopts the poet’s extraordinary perspective and shares his experience, an experience that is not fully understood until the poem is over.
That understanding makes clearer why “Easter 1916” is, in Auden’s words, a “reflective poem of at once personal and public interest.” It avoids being “an official performance of impersonal virtuosity” in that it presents the Rising only in terms of its impact on a particular observer, the poet Yeats. The autobiographical convention dominates the poem; the persona is not the “prophet,” the “spokesman for Irish culture,” or any other such abstraction; it is the dramatized “I” of Yeats himself, reacting to an actual historical event involving his own friends and acquaintances. When the speaker declares in line 74, “I write it out in verse,” the reader feels that he is actually looking over his shoulder; the poem seems utterly spontaneous, immediate. On the other hand, “Easter 1916” rises far above “trivial vers de societé” because its analysis of the particular historical event isolates those qualities that are typical of any major political upheaval: the splendor and terror that are the inseparable and inevitable consequences of change. The particular occasion is endowed with universal significance.
Source: Perloff, Marjorie, “Yeats and the Occasional Poem: ‘Easter 1916,’” in Papers on Language and Literature, vol. 4, 1968, pp. 320-27.
Adams, Hazard, The Book of Yeats’s Poems, Tallahassee: Florida State University Press, 1990.
Ellman, Richard, Yeats: The Man and the Masks, New York: Macmillan, 1948.
Paulin, Tom, introduction to The Faber Book of Political Verse, London: Faber, 1986, p. 21.
Pearse, Patrick, “The Coming Revolution” in Political Writings, Dublin, n.d., pp. 91, 98-99.
———, Plays, Stories, Poems, Dublin, 1924, p. 333.
———, Political Writings, pp. 25, 136-7.
Stallworthy, Jonathan, Between the Lines: Yeats’s Poetry in the Making, Oxford: Clarendon, 1963.
Stead, C. K., “On ‘Easter 1916,’” in Yeats: Poems, 1919-1935, edited by Elizabeth Cullingford, London: Macmillan, 1984, p. 162.
Timm, Eitel, W. B. Yeats: A Century of Criticism, Columbia, SC: Camden House, 1987.
Ward, Allan, J., The Easter Rising: Revolution and Irish Nationalism, Arlington Heights, IL: AHM Publishing, 1995.
Yeats, W. B., Autobiographies, London, 1955, p. 195.
———, The Collected Poems of W. B. Yeats, second edition, edited by Richard Finneran, New York: Scribner, 1996.
———, Essays and Introductions, London, 1961, p. 241.
———, Letters, edited by Allan Wade, London, 1954, pp.
This anthology consists of essays on Yeats’s relationship to fascism, aristocracy, nationalism, and revolution.
Caulfield, Max, The Easter Rebellion, New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1963.
Caulfield writes his history like a novel, one filled with lesser characters seldom heard from.
Cullingford, Elizabeth, Yeats, Ireland and Fascism, New York: NewYork University Press, 1981.
Cullingford explores the more distasteful side of Yeats’s sympathies, descending especially from his readings of Nietzsche.
Jones, Francis P., History of the Sinn Fein Movement and the Irish Rebellion of 1916, New York: P. J. Kenedy and Sons, 1921.
This is a history of the Rising from a frankly anti-British viewpoint. Jones traces the Rising back to its roots in 1903 at the First National Council Convention.
Jordan, Carmel, A Terrible Beauty: The Easter Rebellion and Yeats’s Great Tapestry, London: Associated Universities Press, 1987.
Jordan’s book explains how Druidic and Christian elements influenced Yeats’s works related to the Easter Rising.
Loftus, Richard J., Nationalism in Modern Anglo-Irish Poetry, Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1964.
Besides Yeats, Irish figures such as A. E., Pearse, MacDonagh, Plunkett, and Padraic Colum are discussed.
Ure, Peter, Yeats and Anglo-Irish Literature, Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 1974.
Ure discusses Yeats’s life and influences as they relate to his work as poet and playwright.