In the Easter of 1916, the Irish made an uprising against the British. The British promised them freedom, but when World War I broke out, they postponed this freedom to when it ended. The Irish upheaved against this. And it is about this upheaval that this poem was written. It was published in 1921 when the memories of this revolution were still fresh in the minds of the people.
About the Poet:
William Butler Yeats (W B Yeats) was born in the year 1865 at Sandymount in County Dublin, Ireland. His interest in poetry came on at an early age due to his fascination in the Irish legends and occults. His earliest publishing of verse was in the year 1889, though he wrote poetry long before that. He is considered one of the most important figures of the 20th century. He is responsible for the revival of Irish literature alongside many others. His most notable works include ‘When You are Old’, ‘Her Anxiety’ and ‘A Dialogue of Self and Soul’. He was a versatile writer and wrote his poetry in many forms. He received the Noble Prize in Literature in the year 1923. He died in 1939 at the age of 73.
Easter 1916: Setting
The setting of the poem is probably in Dublin, the capital of Ireland.
Easter 1916: Poetic Devices
There are some inconsistencies but for the most part the poem has a rhyme scheme of ABAB for successive four lines. The inconsistencies in the rhyme scheme goes to show the attitude of the poet towards the content in those four lines where the inconsistencies occur.
There is some alliteration in the poem. ‘Casual comedy’ in paragraph 2 is an example.
Synecdoche is using a part to refer to the whole. ‘Hearts’ in paragraph 3 and ‘limbs’ in paragraph 4 are examples of synecdoche. They both refer to the bodies of the revolutionaries as a whole.
There is much imagery in the paragraph 3 of the poem. Horses, riders, clouds, moor-hens with long legs; they are all part of the imagery used.
The winged horse reference to paragraph 2 is a symbol for a poet. This is according to Greek myth.
There is some metaphor when the speaker speaks of stones. The stones here may refer to the hearts of the revolutionaries, unmoving and unchanging but at the end of the paragraph, stones may refer to the legacies the revolutionaries leave behind, which remain constant through the flow of time.
There is foreshadowing towards the ending of the first paragraph. ‘All changed, changed utterly’; this sentence speaks of the content to be expected in the coming part of poem.
Easter 1916: Summary
The speaker of the poem starts by speaking of routine and mundane life. He is detached from his fellow acquaintances and only speaks to them because he has to. He thought about how he could please his companions at the club and that was all. But this silly and meaningless life was about to change soon.
The speaker then dives right into the upheaval by speaking of the main people who took part in it. He speaks of a beautiful woman grown hoarse by the politics, of a school founder, a budding poet, and dramatist who lost his life before he could gain fame in the literary side and a ‘lout’ who changed revolutionary for the better.
They all lost their lives for one purpose only; freedom of the Irish. They strongly believed in it and their convictions couldn’t be changed or moved. While everything was changing in this world, their determination remained constant and so their legacies will be remembered for long, long time.
The speaker then wonders if the revolution was really necessary; if so many sacrifices, so many deaths could only be prevented if only they had waited a little longer, for the English might have kept their word in granting their freedom. He does not know this b, but he knows that they all have dreamt of a dream and thed while trying to achieve it. And for this they will be remembered by the people and hence, a ‘terrible beauty’, a history of bloody upheaval full of dreams was born.
Easter 1916: Analysis
The speaker of the poem starts by saying he met them at the end of the day. ‘They’ here refers to workers, specifically those who worked behind counters or desks. The speaker says their lives are mundane by using the word ‘grey’ in association with their workplaces. He passes these men with a nod of the head or with some polite meaningless words. This shows the speaker’s detachment from them. This also shows that the speaker feels a sort of superiority over them. He did not give much mind to these passing acquaintances and this is seen in his repetition of ‘polite meaningless words’. And even before he’s done talking these ‘polite meaningless words’, he wou;d have thought of a tale that would please his companion in his club. This further enforces the idea that the speaker indeed does not mind those people. The speaker was certain that he and they all lived where ‘motley’ is worn. ‘Motley’ is the multi-coloured costume of a jester. This motley is meaningless and silly to adults. By saying that they lived where ‘motley is worn’, the speaker implies that they were all living a silly and meaningless life. But then everything changed. The repetition of the word ‘change’ goes to show how great a change it was. This is a foreshadowing of things to come in the next part of the poem. Till now, the speaker speaks of a mundane life. We can expect something interesting or exciting to come next. ‘A terrible beauty is born.’ Now this is an oxymoron. Beauty is something that is meant to be soothing, nice and good. But it is described as terrible. So we can expect things which were beautiful in meaning but terrible in nature.
Now going by the background of the poem, the circumstances in which it was written, we can deduce that the speaker speaks of the revolutionaries who were part of the Uprising in this next paragraph.
The speaker first speaks of a woman who spent her days in ignorant good will. From research it is found that this woman is one Countess Constance Markievicz. She was one of the main people behind the uprising and when it was over she was sentenced to death, but later that was changed to a life sentence. The speaker goes on to say that the Countess spent her nights in arguments, possibly over political issues, and in course, her voice grew shrill. The speaker is not exactly approving of the woman’s actions. She was young, beautiful with a sweet voice, in the days she rode to harriers. ‘Rode to harriers’ here means riding on a horseback for hunting. It implies that the woman was rich and carefree before she dived into politics.
The speaker then speaks of a man who had kept a school. This man was one Padraic Pearse, a leader of the Uprising. He was a founder of a boys’ school in Dublin. He says he rode a winged horse. Now a winged horse is symbol for a poet in Greek myth. The ‘winged horse’ mentioned in this line is the man the speaker speaks of next.
That man was a friend and helper to Pearse, and he was getting into his groove. He had a sensitive nature, and daring and sweet thoughts; all which are the making of an excellent poet. And who knows; he might have become famous had he just stayed out of the uprising and continued on with his poems. The man in question is Thomas MacDonagh, a poet and dramatist. As can be deduced from the framing of the verse, MacDonagh was executed for taking part in the uprising.
The speaker next speaks of a drunken, vainglorious lout. These are the strongest words that the speaker had used throughout the poem. It shows that the speaker felt strongly towards this person. The person here is Major John MacBride. And he married Maud Gonne, a woman dear to Years, and divorced her later. And though strong were his feelings for MacBride in the negative sense, he still put him in this poem. This shows that the speaker found in him to respect MacBride a little for his role in the uprising, despite his personal qualities. MacBride is said to have ‘resigned his role’, implying that he died, in the ‘casual comedy’. The use of ‘casual comedy’ to describe the uprising goes to show what exactly the speaker thinks of the uprising. The man, MacBride had transformed utterly in the uprising and hence, ‘a terrible beauty is born.’
The sentence ‘A terrible beauty is born’ refers to the history made by these people. Bloody though it was, requiring a number of sacrifices, it was still beautiful in the sense that they fought for what they believed in and gave their lives for that cause.
This aspect of them is discussed in the next paragraph. The speaker speaks of their hearts with one purpose alone, that of freeing the Irish from the British rule. It is compared to a stone, constant, unmoving and unchanging, in the flow of life, constant throughout the seasons. The speaker then speaks of all the things that do change with time. He uses imagery to do so. He speaks of the horse that comes down the road, of its riders, the birds that fly above, the shadow of a cloud on a stream; they all change by the minute. Then he speaks of animals which live by the minute, the horse and the moor-hens specifically; unconcerned of the future and not haunted by the past. And among all these constantly changing things lies the stone, the heart of the revolutionaries, unchanged and unmoved. The speaker praises this conviction of the revolutionaries, though grudgingly.
The speaker says that a sacrifice that is too long can turn a heart into a stone. This can either mean that the heart turns into something cold and unfeeling, or it can mean that the heart is further strengthened in its conviction and determination. It is probably the latter. Only the heavens know when this long sacrifice gets over. Meanwhile, the part of the humans is to murmur name upon name, probably of the dead. ‘When sleep has come at last’ confirms the idea that the names are of the dead. ‘On limbs that had run wild’ means the revolutionaries who fought in the uprising. This is a synecdoche right here, where the limbs refer to the whole body. The speaker then muses on the death of these revolutionaries. Was it needless death after all? He asks. This is a rhetorical question. Who knows, the England may have kept faith (England promised freedom to Ireland but then the World War came and they postponed the freedom to when it ends). But the speaker acknowledges their dream and determination. But here too are negative vibes: they dreamed and they are dead. The speaker asks if the revolutionaries had not excess love towards their country, and if this excess blinded them and confused them. This is again rhetorical.
‘I write it all out in a verse’; the speaker writes all his thoughts out in this poem. And then he mentions the four names which he alluded to in the second paragraph. These people weren’t what they were before the revolution now. From now on and for the time to come, they will be remembered as something different, ‘wherever green is worn’ (Green is the national colour of Ireland). The speaker ends the poem by again saying that a terrible beauty is born.
The speaker is conflicted in his opinion of the uprising and of the people who took part in it. He is both reprimanding and grudgingly approving, if not of the uprising but of the people’s convictions and determination in it.
Easter 1916: Central Idea
While writing the poem, the central idea of the poet wh to put out all his thoughts, opinions, and impressions of the upheaval in the Easter of 1916.
Easter 1916: Tone
The tone of the poem is disinterested at the beginning. But when it starts to speak of the upheaval, it becomes conflicting. It is at times disapproving while at other times, grudgingly acknowledging.
W B Yeats puts out his thoughts and opinions on the upheaval of 1916 and captures a pretty good portrait of the people and their changes during this particular upheaval.