Easter, 1916

Easter, 1916

"Easter, 1916" is a poem by W. B. Yeats describing the poet's ambivalent emotions regarding the events of the Easter Rising staged in Ireland against British rule on Easter Monday, April 24, 1916. The uprising was unsuccessful, and most of the militant Irish republicans involved were executed for treason. The poem was written between May and September 1916.

Commentary and Interpretation

Yeats disapproved of violence as a means to securing Irish Home Rule, and as a result was estranged with many of the figures who eventually led the uprising [Vendler, Helen (2007). "Our Secret Discipline." The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, pg 17. ISBN 0-674-02695-0] . The speaker of the poem admits to having exchanged only "polite meaningless words" with the revolutionaries prior to the revolt, even going so far as to think of "a mocking tale or gibe" about them. However, this attitude changes with the refrain at the end, which has rhythmic similarities to the popular ballads of the era as well as syntactic echoes of William Blake: "All changed, changed utterly: / A terrible beauty is born." [Vendler, pg 20]

In the second stanza, the speaker proceeds to describe in greater detail the figures involved in the uprising and his relation to them without actually listing names. For example, Yeats despised John MacBride, who was Maud Gonne's former husband, and who had abused both Gonne and their daughter during the marriage [Vendler, pg 17] . MacBride is alluded to a "vainglorious lout" who had "done most bitter wrong" to those close to the speaker's heart. Despite these charges, the speaker admits, again, that "A terrible beauty is born."

The third stanza differs from the first two stanzas by abandoning the first-person narrative of "I" and moving to the natural realm of streams, clouds, and birds. The speaker elaborates on the theme of change ("Minute by minute they change ... Changes minute by minute") and introduces the symbol of the stone, which opens and closes the stanza. Unlike the previous images, which are characterized by their transience, the stone is the sole item that does not change [Vendler, pg 19] .

The fourth and last stanza of the poem resumes the first person perspective of the first and second stanzas. The speaker tackles the issue of guilt and justice by making an allusion to Shakespeare's play "Hamlet" with the second line, "That is heaven's part" (the parallel line occurs in Act I, scene V, regarding Gertrude's guilt: "Against thy mother aught: leave her to heaven"). [Vendler, pg 23] Further in the stanza, the speaker considers the possibility that the deaths were "needless," before moving on to making a comparison with himself; the "excess of love" recalls the character of Oisin in Yeats's long poem "The Wanderings of Oisin." [Vendler, pg 23] Finally, the speaker names some of the revolutionary figures, and repeats the reprise.

The extent to which Yeats was willing to eulogize the members of the uprising can be seen in his usage of the phrase "motley green;" his abhorrence for green as a political symbol was such that he forbade green as the color of the binding of his books [Vendler, pg 24] . Moreover, the date of the Easter Rising can be seen in the structure of the poem: there are 16 lines (for 1916) in the first and third stanzas, 24 lines (for April 24) in the second and fourth stanzas, and four stanzas in total.

The poem may have been written to retract some of Yeats's sentiments in an earlier poem entitled "September 1913".


External links

* [http://www.online-literature.com/yeats/779/ "Easter, 1916" at The Literature Network]
* [http://www.nli.ie/yeats/ Original 'Easter, 1916' MS on display at National Library of Ireland]

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