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Easter 1916 Poem

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English Literature

'Easter, 1916' was a poem written by William Butler Yeats in response to the Easter Uprising that occurred in Ireland on Easter Monday: April 24, 1916. The poem is a four-stanza exploration of the speaker's opinions and questions surrounding the uprising, and simultaneously praises those who fought in the uprising and laments the decision to have an uprising at all. For much of the poem, the speaker's tone remains nearly impartial, mimicking Yeats' own resistance to uprising and democracy in general; Yeats desired a more educated aristocracy in Ireland.

'Easter, 1916' At a Glance

Published In

Michael Robartes and the Dancer (1921)

Written By

William Butler Yeats (1916)

Genre

Lyric poetry, romantic poetry, political poetry, modernism

Form / Style

Four alternating 16- and 24-line stanzas; Loose iambic tetrameter and iambic trimeter

Rhyme Scheme

Alternating rhyming lines in ABAB form

Poetic devices

Irony, juxtaposition, metaphor, metonymy, oxymoron, pastoral metaphor, refrain.

Notable Imagery

Architecture in Dublin, nature, battling/horses, stone

Tone

Ambivalent, considering, elegiac, mournful

Key Themes

Nature of heroism, immortality, elegy

Meaning

This poem examines immortality and heroism through the lens of everyday life in Ireland. It commemorates the lives lost at the Easter Uprising in 1916, Dublin, and immortalizes several names of key leaders in the movement, some of which Yeats knew personally.

Metonymy is when a closely related object or related term takes the place of another term or object itself.

For example, using the term "Hollywood" to stand in for the film industry. In 'Easter, 1916', Yeats uses metonymy to allow clothing to stand in for other meanings. In the last lines the speaker says, "wherever green is worn / are changed, changed utterly". This is an example of metonymy – Yeats is not referring to every person who wears green, rather playing upon his reader's associations of green being the color of Ireland.

This device can be used to create a community and strike deeper than stating "wherever Irishmen are", it plays upon the pride of the color green representing their country.

'Easter, 1916': Historical Context

William Butler Yeats was a known Irish nationalist but resented the need to be involved in politics at all. Yeats' longest lasting love interest was Maud Gonne and, though she cared for him as well, she rejected his proposals of marriage

Easter 1916 poem, Glasnevin cemetery where John MacBride was buried, StudySmarterGlasnevin cemetery where John MacBride was buried as mentioned in 'Easter, 1916'. Pixabay.com

partially because she believed Yeats was not devoted enough to the Irish cause.

Gonne went on to marry a man mentioned in 'Easter, 1916' (John MacBride) who is thought to be the, "drunken, villainous lout" mentioned in line 32. Yeats had a known hatred of MacBride for the way in which he treated Maud Gonne, yet he is included in this poem, adding another layer to the speaker's uncertainty of immortalizing these characters.

The poem 'Easter, 1916' is written explicitly about the Easter Uprising of 1916 that occurred in Dublin, Ireland. The poem itself references a few key leaders of the movement who were either killed or executed.

The Easter Uprising was an armed insurrection conducted by Irish nationalists against Great Britain during WWI. At the time of the Uprising, Ireland was under British control. Britain had promised that Ireland could self-rule but put this plan on hold during WWI to the dismay of many Irish citizens. Yeats was known to contribute heavily to the Irish Literary Revival (also known as the Celtic Revival) which attempted (and succeeded) to strengthen Irish culture and pride as a response to British rule.

The Uprising was unsuccessful. The insurrection lasted only a week before Britain regained complete control, and over 2,000 people were killed. Despite little initial support for the Uprising from the Irish population, the execution of the leaders of the Uprising turned them into martyrs. After the Easter Uprising was quashed, the Irish people began seeing those that fought as having made a valiant sacrifice. In 1921 a treaty was signed that went into effect in 1922, establishing Ireland as the Irish Free State, which became the Republic of Ireland that exists today.

'Easter, 1916': Analysis

The poem

I have met them at close of day

Coming with vivid faces

From counter or desk among grey

Eighteenth-century houses.

I have passed with a nod of the head

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

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:

A terrible beauty is born.

That woman's days were spent

In ignorant good-will,

Her nights in argument

Until her voice grew shrill.

What voice more sweet than hers

When, young and beautiful,

She rode to harriers?

This man had kept a school

And rode our wingèd horse;

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.

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;

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.

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,

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;

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:

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

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?

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

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

And Connolly and Pearse

Now and in time to be,

Wherever green is worn,

Are changed, changed utterly:

A terrible beauty is born.

'Easter, 1916': Summary

Pro tip: When beginning to analyze a poem, objectively summarize each stanza. Notice images that stand out and highlight them, but don't go into depth analyzing them yet. Have a good, practical understanding of what the poem is saying.

Stanza One: The first stanza describes everyday life of Dublin, where many of the revolutionaries from the Easter Uprising lived. This stanza is very concerned with the mundane city life experience of passing people, exchanging pleasantries, and seeing them in common social settings, such as "the club" (line 12). The speaker's tone is very matter of fact in this stanza. We do not see the turn to the refrain "a terrible beauty is born" until the last lines of the stanza (line 16). A notable image from this stanza includes the motely worn by those in the streets.

Stanza Two: After we are introduced to the day-to-day life of Dublin, we learn a bit more about the people that participated in the Uprising. We first see a woman with a sweet voice riding to the harriers, then an artist that could have won fame with his "sensitive nature", then a man who the speaker clearly dislikes. The third person in the stanza is referred to as a "drunken, vainglorious lout", but the speaker notes that even he is Easter 1916 Poem, Horses in Ireland, StudySmarter"number[ed] [in the] song" (lines 32-35). We then, again, get the refrain "a terrible beauty is born" but the penultimate line of the stanza states "transformed utterly", describing the disheartening and horrific impact of the Uprising on these people (lines 39-40).

After the Uprising, all people with Irish pride were transformed for the worse because these leaders and revolutionaries were lost. Some notable images in this stanza include the Pegasus or "wingèd horse", which could be used to describe a poet, as the Pegasus commonly represented poets in Greek mythology. (line 25).

Stanza Three: This stanza is where we really begin to see the natural imagery. The stanza begins with the seasons moving, a stone in a river, horses, birds, and clouds. The stanza is composed almost entirely of natural images that change (the clouds, the water, the seasons) all juxtaposed or contrasted with the stationary and immovable stone.

The pastoral imagery and metaphor present in this stanza and throughout the poem represents the familiarity and resolve of the Irish people defending their homeland. The stone in the stream, for example, represents the resolve of the rebels and, despite the fact that the river flows around it unimpeded, the resolve is not shaken by the forces moving against it.

"A terrible Beauty is Born" micro-analysis: W. B. Yeats repeated the refrain "A terrible beauty is born" in all stanzas except the third. Why the deviation from the refrain? The third stanza concentrates on the consistency and determination of the rebel cause during the Easter Uprising through the symbol of the stone. The deviation from the refrain allows the immovable nature of the stone to stand out even further.

Additionally, "A terrible beauty is born" is an oxymoronic phrase that is one of Yeats' most famous. "Terrible" and "beauty" can be seen as opposite phrases in this line, seemingly contradictory to one another. The horrific events of the Easter Rising can be described as "terrible", but the strength of heart of those who led the cause is "beautiful".

This plays into the concept of the sublime, a commonly explored concept of the time. When one is experiencing the sublime, there is tension present between the smallness of the human self and body, and the vastness of the universe, which can be both horrific and blissful.

Oxymoron is a literary device that can instil conflicting emotions in the readers of a text, and Yeats is almost certainly employing it as such in 'Easter, 1916'.

Stanza Four: The image of the stone is carried into the first two lines of stanza four. The meaning of this stone, originally standing for determination, now stands for bitterness upon failure.

The river continued to flow around the stone despite its resolve, representing the ways in which the cause was unsuccessful. We then go on to see some images of nightfall and religious language. The stanza then begins asking questions about death and pondering the realities of the losses that occurred during the Uprising.

The speaker is contemplative and makes it clear with this questioning that they are not certain the loss was worth the gain. But then the speaker goes on to say, "we know their dream", bringing the poem back to a place of admiration for those lost during the insurrection (line 69).

Yeats includes, in this stanza, four names of his friends who were lost due to the battle, through the fighting or executions. The closing image of the poem is wearing green (traditionally the color of Ireland) and states that all those who wear green are "changed, changed utterly" as a result of this conflict and loss (78-79).

Yeats was popular for his ability to create meaningful form in his poetry. Stanzas 1-4 are composed of alternating 16- and 24-line stanzas. Stanzas one and three were perhaps reminiscent of both the year 1916 and the 16 people who were executed by England after the Uprising. Stanzas two and four were written in 24-line stanzas, reminiscent of the date of the Uprising, April 24, 1916.

'Easter, 1916': Themes

There are many themes in the poem 'Easter, 1916'. Here, we will concentrate on a few prevalent themes, some of which recur in other texts by Yeats.

Heroism

It is clear that 'Easter, 1916' is interested in the analysis of heroism. Throughout the poem, we see examples of the speaker being uncertain if the sacrifice of those who lost their lives to the Uprising was worth it. In the final stanza, the speaker questions these things:

Too long a sacrifice

Can make a stone of the heart.

O when may it suffice?

That is Heaven's part, our part

To murmur name upon name ...

What is it but nightfall?

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

To know they dreamed and are dead;

And what if excess of love

Bewildered them till they died?

We know that Yeats was an Irish nationalist, but he was not a supporter of this Uprising before it occurred. The poem 'Easter, 1916' is an exploration of the concept of heroism. The speaker offers several (sometimes contradictory) opinions regarding the concept of those who died being immortalized, but one of the only conclusions that the speaker comes to is that, despite England keeping the faith in their own cause, the dreams of the Irishmen killed in the Uprising will continue on. There are several symbols that indicate this memorialization, which will be explored later on.

One of these contradictory opinions can be seen in the ways in which the clothing mentioned in the poem changes as the poem goes on, moving from the motely clothing of a jester, to the confident and proud Irish green.

This shift indicates a change within the speaker himself as he goes from thinking that the rising was foolish (motely clothing) to thinking that those who participated in the Rising should be memorialized. The speaker has some other contradictory feelings at times as well, particularly in the last stanza as they are working through what death means. Is it an ending or a continuation? What is the nightfall that occurs as a result of this fighting? Is it benevolent?

Many of these questions remain unanswered, but the speaker does determine that the legacy of those who died in the Rising will continue on.

Natural world

The near entirety of the third stanza of the poem is concentrated on the duality of the natural world. The theme of the changing natural world allows Yeats to create a juxtaposition between the "hearts with one purpose" (likened to a stone) and the changing nature of humanity (line 31).

Hearts with one purpose alone

Through summer and winter seem

Easter 1916 poem, The River Liffey, StudySmarterThe River Liffey as referenced in 'Easter, 1916'. Pixabay.com

Enchanted to a stone

To trouble the living stream.

The horse that comes from the road,

The rider, the birds that range

From cloud to tumbling cloud,

Minute by minute they change;

Yeats uses nature (clouds moving, seasons changing, shadows) to explore the changing nature of human causes. The speaker of this poem isn't sold on the necessity of this Uprising. Stanza 3 is an intimate look into the heart of the political cause. William Butler Yeats often uses natural imagery in his work when referring to Ireland, and 'Easter, 1916' is no exception. The theme of a changing nature allows us to see the steadfast and strong passion of the rebels.

Spirituality and religion

William Butler Yeats was a protestant and a member of the Anglican church. Religious imagery is often present in his work, and he continues the use of this in 'Easter, 1916'. Another interpretation of lines 69-74 looks at the stanza through the lens of religion.

That is Heaven's part, our part

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?

No, no, not night but death;

There is an exploration of the sacred in this questioning, as well as a clear callback to Christian religious imagery. The speaker clearly mentions Heaven's hand in remembering the name of the rebels that died in the Uprising, but what about the concept of death presenting itself as night?

Yeats includes some names of folks that he knew in the poem:

I write it out in a verse—

MacDonagh and MacBride

And Connolly and Pearse

The concept of immortalizing these individuals through verse was traditional in Ireland. William Butler Yeats explores the concept of immortality and life after death through staving off death in the ways he could, including memorializing the names of these individuals, rejecting his own earlier questioning of their sacrifice in the process.

There is also a clear parallel between the name of 'Easter, 1916' and the Easter of Christianity. Why didn't Yeats name the poem 'Easter Rising, 1916'? The parallel between the sacrifice of those lost in the Easter Rising and the death and rebirth of Jesus Christ is made explicit through the title of the poem, as well as the religious imagery pointing to death and dreaming. In 'Easter, 1916', death is not an ending, but a continuation.

The dreams of the rebels live on through their legacy and bravery, but they also live on in Heaven, the cause reborn among both the Irish people and the afterlife.

'Easter, 1916': Symbolism

William Butler Yeats was a well-known symbolist poet. There are many symbols in the poem 'Easter, 1916', some obvious and some that require a bit of searching. Here, we will look at only a few of the many symbols present in 'Easter, 1916'.

The Stone

One of the most well-known symbols in 'Easter, 1916' is the stone mentioned in stanza three and continued into stanza four. There are several times that this stone is mentioned in the poem, and the image of the stone is used as an anchor for both the readers and what it represents: the determination of the cause.

There is a possibility that Yeats uses this stone is an allusion to the Stone of Destiny in County Meah, Ireland, which has come to stand as a symbol of freedom and Irish nationalism.

In the poem 'Easter, 1916' we can see the ways in which William Butler Yeats describes the constancy of the rebels. The speaker refers to the "hearts with one purpose ... enchanted to a stone" in stanza three and continues describing the ways in which that stone is immovable, despite the changing world around it. We can really see the constancy of the stone in lines 53-56:

The long-legged moor-hens dive,

And hens to moor-cocks call;

Minute by minute they live:

The stone's in the midst of all.

These lines are a wonderful example of the ways in which the rebel cause remains constant in the midst of constant change in Ireland. Despite life moving on and always forward, the cause remains strong.

Irish clothing

There are two different examples of clothing that are presented in 'Easter, 1916', both of which represent Irish pride.

Motely: In the first stanza, the speaker refers to, "Being certain that they and I / But lived where motley is worn" (lines 13-14). To wear motely means to wear different colors or styles of clothing, combined.

The Irish were certainly a motely people at the time of the uprising, composed of many different beliefs and desires. Some were Catholic, some Protestant, some rich some poor, some Irish-born, some English. Some supported the Uprising, some didn't, but they were drawn to a common cause in this instance, acknowledging the horror of the death during and after the Easter Rising.

Motely is also representative of a jester's clothing, implying early on in the poem that the speaker thinks the Easter Rising was foolish, though that opinion certainly changes throughout the poem.

Green: Green has been the color most commonly representing Ireland for the past couple centuries, and this was no different during the time of William Butler Yeats. In the final lines of 'Easter, 1916', the speaker states:

Now and in time to be,

Wherever green is worn,

Are changed, changed utterly:

A terrible beauty is born.

These lines represent Irish pride and culture through the symbol of wearing green clothing. It's an explicit reference to the tradition of associating Ireland with the color green, but it's something that would surely end this inquisitive poem on the right note for the Irish people: wherever there is an Irishman (in Ireland or abroad), something has shifted as a result of those who gave their lives at the insurrection.

'Easter, 1916': Meaning

'Easter, 1916' is a seemingly straightforward poem that explores deep and unanswerable questions such as what happens after death, what makes a worthy sacrifice, and what makes a hero. At its core, 'Easter, 1916' is an exploration of William Butler Yeats' own opinions regarding the Easter Uprising of 1916 and the lives lost in that conflict. While the poem itself is an expression of uncertainty, it does draw several meaningful conclusions; a change has occurred for the Irish people as a result of these lost lives, ordinary life in Dublin is altered, and those who lost their lives are immortalized in things such as art.

'Easter, 1916' - Key takeaways

  • William Butler Yeats wrote 'Easter, 1916' in 1916, but he published it in his collection Michael Robartes and the Dancer in 1921.
  • 'Easter, 1916' is about the Easter Uprising in Dublin, Ireland that took place against Great Britain in 1916. William Butler Yeats, though not a supporter of the Uprising to begin with, understood the significance of the event and memorialized several people he knew that were killed either during or after the insurrection.
  • There are several common themes in 'Easter, 1916' including, but not limited to, natural imagery, heroism, and spiritual exploration.
  • There are several well-known symbols from 'Easter, 1916', but the most notable are both the stone presented in stanza three and the motley and green clothing discussed throughout.

William Butler Yeats, Michael Robartes and the Dancer , 'Easter, 1916', 1921.

Easter 1916 Poem

There are several themes in 'Easter, 1916'. A few include heroism, the natural world, and spirituality and religion.

The refrain of "a terrible beauty is born" refers to the lives lost as a result of the Uprising. It is terrible that the Uprising occurred, but the strength of heart that the rebels had in the uprising (symbolized by the stone) was beautiful despite its horror.

'Easter, 1916' begins with an explanation of day-to-day life in Dublin, Ireland. The first stanza concentrates on an explanation of the speaker's behavior in this mundane and unaltered world before the Uprising.

'Easter, 1916' is an in-depth exploration of the lives lost at the Easter Uprising of 1916 and looks into the concepts of heroism and sacrifice. The poem is more of an exploration than a statement on the Uprising but ends on a note of admiration for those who lost their lives.

As a result of the Easter Uprising, Yeats wrote the poem 'Easter, 1916'. The poem indicates that those who died were immortalized as a result of the Easter Rising, and that all Irish people were "changed, changed utterly."

Final Easter 1916 Poem Quiz

Question

What does the symbol of the stone represent in Yeats' 'Easter, 1916'?

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Answer

Yeats uses the symbol of the stone in 'Easter, 1916' to represent the consistency and determination of the rebels in the Easter Uprising of 1916.

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Question

What is Yeats' poem 'Easter, 1916' about? 

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Answer

'Easter, 1916' is about the Easter Uprising of 1916 in Ireland and explores the concept of heroism and sacrifice.

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Question

When did Yeats write 'Easter, 1916'?

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Answer

Yeats wrote 'Easter, 1916' in 1916, though he didn't publish it in his personal collection until 1921

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Question

What is the meaning of 'Easter, 1916'? 

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Answer

'Easter, 1916' is an exploration of the concepts of heroism and sacrifice in day-to-day Irish culture. It explores the ways in which sacrifice is justified and the potential of what happens to one's legacy after death.

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Question

What does the year 1916 in the poem 'Easter, 1916' refer to? 

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Answer

The year 1916 refers to the Easter Uprising of 1916. 

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Question

What are some symbols found in 'Easter, 1916'?

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Answer

The stone and various Irish clothes, including motely clothes and green clothing.

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Question

Did Yeats support the Easter Uprising? 

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Answer

No. Yeats did not initially support the Easter Uprising, though he came to understand its significance after the fact.

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Question

What was Yeats' personal connection to the people in the poem?

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Answer

Of the four names mentioned in the poem, three were his friends and one of them was the late husband of his lifelong love interest.

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Question

What are a few literary devices Yeats relies heavily on in 'Easter, 1916'?

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Answer

Irony, juxtaposition, metaphor, metonymy, oxymoron, pastoral metaphor, refrain  

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Question

What is the refrain in 'Easter, 1916'?

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Answer

"A terrible beauty is born". 

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