Easter 1916 by William Butler Yeats
Introduction of Easter 1916
The poem Easter 1916 is set in the aftermath of the Easter uprising. A small group of Irish nationalists led a rebellion to overthrow British rule and they wanted to establish an independent Ireland. The protest was mainly team placed by the poets and the philosophers but actually the rebellion was seen to be a failure and as each would put it a casual comedy but it would still go down in Irish history as a turning point. Irish public opinion changed from hostile towards the rebellion. At first they weren’t in favour of the rebellion but this changed when the British leaders executed some of those who had rebelled and this then turned Irish opinion against Britain and in favour of the Nationalists and those people who had started the rebellion.
Context and Background of the Poem
In order to understand Yeats’ work, it is essential to have a thorough understanding of his character and key influences. An understanding of Gaelic Legend and the events of history are also vital to the understanding of Yeats thoughts, images and symbols. Yeats’ philosophy was influenced by a variety of factors including the occult Neoplatonism, Hinduism, Christianity, Nietzsche, William Blake and many more. Yeats’ fondest childhood memories are in the northwest Irish countryside of Sligo where he would visit his grandparents. He was interested in the stories of the local people. Much of his early poetry is based in Irish myth and Celtic legend. He continued to crave for Sligo, long after his family moved away. He missed his cousins and uncle dreadfully and longed for the intangible magic of its wild dark earth and changing skies. This place was one of many key influences on the poet. Yeats was also largely influenced by the people he met. In 1885, he met John O’Leary-a Fenian leader. O’Leary was so significant that Yeats claims that “From O’Leary’s conversation and from the Irish books he lent or gave me has come all I have set my hand to since” In his writing, Yeats presents a series of contradictions most notably between romanticism and modernism. By the accident of his date of birth, Yeats lived into the modern age which arrived violently after World War 1 and the civil war in Ireland at the same time. He was both one of the first moderns in poetry and one of the last romantics. However, he always saw himself as a romantic. This is clear from his own statement where he says “We Irish born into that ancient sect But thrown upon the filthy modern tide”. He was openly opposed to modernism which he saw as a slide downward into material chaos brought about by a neglect of spiritual values. He believed that modernism encouraged habits that undermined imagination. He believed dislocated people from idealism and value which he saw as still within Ireland. However, Yeats was also contradictory in his relationships with Ireland. This love-hate relationship stemmed from a variety of influences. Nationalism was widespread in all its forms in Ireland at the time but Yeats preferred romantic literary nationalism to the new insectary nationalism of his great love more gone. He saw Irish history from two perspectives. While he supported Irish independence from Britain he was appalled at the violence which achieved it. While he was inspired by the idealism of the heroes of his time he was maddened by the complications and hypocrisy of politics and the narrow mindedness and imperfection of leaders. His father came from a strong tradition of devotion to the arts and spirituality whereas his mother came from a heritage of vigorous action and Yeats admired both approaches. Due to the influence of the 19th-century thinker and poet Matthew Arnold whom he admired he saw the Irish as not English or opposite to English. However, it is important to note that Yeats was not only reacting against England but the Irish middle classes. He saw their values as antithetic to ideals of community and our aristocracy. He shows disdain towards the mercantile middle-class whom he saw as her not having values. These fascinating tensions and conflicts are reflected in his work.
Yeats first published his work in 1888 and soon began to be accepted as an authority on Irish folklore and a poet of importance. Some would even say the foremost writer of the Irish Renaissance and a prime supporter of Irish nationalism. Yeats’ greatest achievement was the party played in the Irish literary revival. We must remember that Yeats lived through a tumultuous period of history. He lived through war, revolution and violence and understandably the Romantic wistfulness, the dreamy decorative quality of much of his earlier verse eventually gave way to a matter at once more terse astringent and masculine.
During Holy Week in 1916, a group of Irish rebels seized the general post office in Dublin and held it for several days. They were fighting for the establishment of an independent Irish Republic. Yeats composed Easter 1916 within a few weeks of the execution of leaders after uprising. Ironically, Yeats is in London where the been secured he couldn’t ignore these critical events as much as he wanted to. The subsequent crushing of the rebellion and the harsh sentencing of its leaders united public opinion behind the aspiration of Irish independence like nothing before. It was the ferocity of the British reaction, an immediacy of the deaths by firing squad of the rebels which turned the tide of public opinion. They were executed on the 9th May and they had already started riding on the 11th. The principals were mostly people he knew personally and his own future hundred abilities. Due to the wholesale execution Yeats became sharply critical of the British government. However, due to a variety of influences Yeat’s attitude towards the event remained ambivalent. In a letter to lady Gregory he writes, ” I feel that all the work of years has been overturned or the bringing together of the classes or the freedom of Irish literature and criticism for politics”. While Yeats condemned the approach of the rebels he strongly supported William Blake’s concept that our positions were necessary to human existence and Blake’s famous words were hard contraries is no progression. This accounts for his reaction to what the lives of the martyrs were and what they became as it’s ghosts in his home.
Through Easter 1916, Yeats exposed the difference between history and mythology and tries to find meaning from all this upheaval inhales. In his poem who seeks a way of mythologizing historical events. We witness his shifting attitude towards perfect self in the heroes. We see a developing an appreciation of the way that the rebels transformed his world. The poem can be seen as a tribute to the rebels or an indictment of fanaticism. He recognized that everything has changed maybe for the better or maybe for the worse. Ultimately Yeats is trying to come to terms with this historic tragedy.
ABOUT EASTER RISING
Easter 1916 is a poem in the which the poet commemorates the Easter rising in Dublin on 24 April 1916. The Irish people stood up in rebellion against the British for independence. The uprising was crushed by the British army. A large number of people were executed; their leaders were arrested and shot dead. Yeats’ attitude towards most of
the Irish revolutionaries was complex since many of them were his friends and he was skeptical of the violent measures they adopted for political change.
The Irish parliament was abolished in 1800 with the Act of Union; Great Britain now had control over Ireland. Nationalists feared that Ireland would be exploited. In 1885, Parnell started a Parliamentary movement for Irish Home Rule. Ireland had witnessed frequent riots.
The Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) was created to counter British rule. The
Supreme council of the IRB convened on September 5, 1914, which was the day after Britain had declared war on Germany. They decided to have a rebellion before the end of the war. The IRB smuggled German weapons into Ireland, in 1914. On April 21, 1916, Britain became aware of the impending uprising. The British arrested Sir Roger Casement for arms running for the IRB. The leaders of the Irish Volunteers, Eoin MacNeill, tried to cancel the rebellion, which was to take place on April 24, but Pearse did not get the message in time. The rebels seized Dublin’s General Post Office and other strategic sites throughout Dublin. British troops invaded Dublin to squash the insurrection. Fighting lasted for about a week; the rebels surrendered on April 29. Pearse and fourteen other leaders were arrested and later executed. Most Irish had been against the insurrection, but the execution of these men incited a negative attitude towards Britain. The executed men were regarded as martyrs and heroes. The Irish government collapsed, and on December 6, 1921, the Irish Free State was established.
Though Yeats was a committed nationalist he was against violence and as a result, he had strained relations with some of the figures who eventually led the uprising. But the event impressed Yeats very much; not for its appropriateness but for the brevity and heroism shown by the revolutionaries. Unlike many other Irish writers, he was not a revolutionary but a true patriot. The deaths of these revolutionary figures at the hands of the British, however, were as much a shock to Yeats and these ordinary people became no more ordinary leaders, and this idea has been expressed in the poem through the refrain “ a terrible beauty is born”
MEANINGS AND EXPLANATORY NOTES
The poem starts with the routine of the poet, lazy and lethargic, before the Easter rebellion. But towards the last of this stanza shows a sudden awakening.
Them —- Irish people who took part in the Easter Rebellion 1916
Close of the day — Evening
Vivid faces —- Happy and lively people
Counter or desk —- shops and offices
Grey eighteenth-century houses—Old marble houses in Ireland
Polite meaningless words— daily casual remarks like, Hi, How are you? Etc.
Lingered —- remained
Mocking tale —–humorous story
Gibe ——- Joke, a sarcastic, taunting remark.
The Club—-the Arts Club in Dublin, where Yeats meets his friends in the Evening Motley-—the coloured dress, party wares; coloured dress of a jester.
Changed utterly —– altered completely
Terrible beauty –—-an oxymoron used by Yeats, and refrain too. It gives a picture about the martyrs of Easter 1916 uprising.
That Woman ………………. Countess Constance Gore-booth Markievic (1868-1927) s who was a daughter of an Aristocrat from Sligo, who had a great respect from Yeats, wrote two poems about her. But she later became a fanatic.
Ignorant goodwill ———- She had all opportunities to do good things but she was rather unaware of it becoming a fanatic.
Harriers ———– a small kind of dog belonging to the hound species employed in the hunting the hare. Hunting sport of aristocrats intended here.
This man ————– Patrick Henry Pearce(1879-1916), an enthusiastic leader of Revolt, journalist, pamphleteer, and had started a school at Rathfurnham. Later he was executed on 3rd May 1916.
Winged horse-——Greek mythological horse, Pegasus, a favourite of Muses, Goddesses of poetry. Poetic inspiration (here)
This other ————– Thomas Macdonagh(1878-1916), a poet and revolutionary, and lecturer in English at Dublin. Later he was executed on 3rd May 1916.
This other man———- John Macbride(1868-1916), he was a revolutionary, who married Maud Gonne, lover of Yeats. But she was separated from him and alleged ill-treating her. Yeats had least respect for him.
Vainglorious lout —–a rogue, uncivilized fool.
Casual comedy ———life is like a comedy governed by chances
Yeats introduces the stone image in this stanza.
Hearts with one purpose —- Revolutionaries with a single aim
A stone— a heartless thing; stiff and merciless.
The living stream—-the active flow of life
Horse-hoof—-the foot of the horse
Plash—water scattering on the strike in the surface of water
Moor-hen—a kind of bird seen in water
Dive—moving into the water deep
Moor-cock—-the male partner of the moorhen
Heaven’s part –—-God’s decree
Murmur name upon name—-Call their name softly like an affectionate mom calls her kid even after his mischievous pranks.
Dream—a free Ireland.
James Connolly—an organizer and leader of Irish transport workers, who formed Citizen Army. A staunch nationalist who had involved in the Easter Rebellion. He has been executed on 12th May 1916.
ANALYSIS OF THE POEM EASTER 1916
The poem opens in a casual tone. Yeats recalls his meeting with some of those people who later involved in 1916 Rising. He has often met them in the evening; he has often exchanged polite meaningless words with them, sometimes he had made fun of them. They seemed so ordinary. They worked all day at ‘counter or desk’ emerging from the ‘eighteenth-century houses’ where they resided. Their faces are ‘vivid’, in contrast to the old grey buildings which were constructed during the British reign, and Yeats may be comparing the quiet elegance and restraint of the aristocratic world of the Anglo-Irish and British to the pompous, gaudy world of these new patriots whom he despised. He believed that they were only playing at being revolutionaries and would never do anything meaningful in their struggle for an Irish republic. Yeats thought little of these people, not considering them worthy of his time. He often laughed at them when at his club, believing them to be fools. The reference to ‘motley’ means mixed colours, such as were worn by medieval jesters. Even while speaking to the revolutionaries, he would be storing up a ‘mocking tale or gibe’ to tell his friends at the club. As in ‘September 1913’, there is a refrain at the end of the opening section which is repeated throughout the poem. The refrain shows Yeats’ shock at the incidents of Easter 1916. The people he mocked and considered foolish and powerless rose up against the British, and as a result, many of them lost their lives. He must now face the fact that he was completely wrong in scorning the new revolutionaries and thinking they were incapable of any sort of heroism. The men he despised have become like the dead patriots he revered. In this poem, Yeats is reminding us that he expressed his distaste for the new breed of Irishman, but he acknowledges now that he completely misjudged them. Another interesting point is the way the poem is structured: there are 16 lines (for 1916) in the first and third stanzas, 24 lines (for April 24, the date the Rising began) in the second and fourth stanzas, and four stanzas in total (which refers to April, the fourth month of the year).
The ‘beauty’ of this heroism is not without a cost. The oxymoron ‘terrible beauty’ is Yeats’ attempt to reconcile the heroism and the bravery of the Rising with the brutal death
and execution of many of the revolutionaries. Yeats sees the complexity of the Rising, and he does not attempt to portray it as an entirely romantic or glorious event.
The second stanza is devoted to a sharp sketch of the chief actors.
The first of these democratic spirits was a woman- Countess Markievicz. His initial description of her is not flattery. He believes that she was well-intentioned but misguided: ‘ignorant goodwill’. Her voice is ‘shrill’ from nights spent ‘in argument’, and Yeats seems to feel that her political views descended into a sort of hysterical fanaticism. However, he also remembers how she had a sweet voice ‘When young and beautiful / She rode to harriers’. It appears that Yeats would have preferred her to stay on her estate in Lissadell,
remaining a symbol of beauty and elegance instead of becoming involved in militant nationalism.
The second person Yeats describes is Patrick Pearse, a teacher and poet. The
‘winged horse’ he rode is a reference to Pegasus, a figure in mythology which represents poetry. Next, Yeats talks about Pearse’s ‘helper and friend’ Thomas Mac Donagh, who was a poet, English lecturer and dramatist. Yeats feels that Mac Donagh was a man who could have gone on to great things in the literary world: ‘He might have won fame in the end’. The description of MacDonagh as ‘sensitive’ and with thoughts ‘so daring and sweet’ makes him seem less suited to warfare than to literary pursuits. The final person in this list is the most interesting; John MacBride married Maud Gonne, the woman Yeats loved for many years, despite her repeated refusal to marry him. Yeats despised MacBride, calling him a ‘drunken, vainglorious lout’ and alluding to his violence towards his wife and her daughter Iseult: ‘did most bitter wrong / To some who are near my heart’. However, the word ‘dreamed’ tells us that Yeats now knows that his view of MacBride was not a complete one and that MacBride too has been ‘changed’ by his part in the Easter Rising. He has ‘resigned his part in the casual comedy’ of life and has become a hero.
This reference to the ‘casual comedy’ reminds us of Yeats’ earlier view of men like MacBride; men he laughed at and believed to be a part of society ‘where motley is worn’.
This section analyses the impact of the Rising and the type of people who played their part in it. He sees in their action a fanaticism not quite desirable. Such men are like stones in a stream, standing firm against the flow of public opinion. The stone symbolizes strength and courage but it is also a symbol of stillness of death. They are devoted to ‘one purpose alone’ and are somehow under the spell of their dream, or ‘Enchanted’ by it. The
events of 1916 are an unchangeable reality in the middle of an ever-changing world. They have transcended time and their deeds will mark as an unremarkable event in Irish history. All the images of nature in this section are connected with movement and change. Birds fly ‘from cloud to tumbling cloud’ and a horse splashes through the stream while moorhens dive. The repetition of ‘minute by minute’ reminds us that this change is constant. Nothing stays the same.
(The ancient Greek philosopher used the idea of water – a river – to suggest change. He said that no man can stand in the same river twice, for it is not the same river and he is not the same man.)
The final stanza continues the imagery of hearts of stone. Men who devote themselves entirely to one purpose can become incapable of engaging with the lively, colourful world. They have sacrificed the other aspects of their lives and are totally committed to the cause. Yeats does not judge them for this, saying that it is ‘Heaven’s part’ to decide whether the men were right or wrong. Our only duty is to remember these men and keep their names alive by speaking of them. In a beautiful and gentle image, Yeats compares those who have died to a child falling asleep after great exertion. He continues to explore this idea, wondering if their fate was really like falling asleep at night. He quickly says that it was not and that we cannot soften the reality of their brutal deaths by cloaking them in metaphor. The stone image becomes rather complex as the stone represents the doggedness and steadfastness of the revolutionaries as well as their hard-heartedness.
SHORT ANSWER QUESTIONS
1) Who was ‘the drunken vainglorious lout’ who had “done most bitter wrong to some who are near my heart” according to Yeats?
John McBride, the Irish nationalist who married Maud Gonne, the love of Yeats’
2) Who was the woman whose nights were spent in argument until her voice grew shrill?
Constance Markiewicz (nee Gore Booth). She was the second in command during the uprising.
3) Who was the man who “kept a school And rode our winged horse”?
Patrick Pearse, a leader of the uprising and commandant General of the Irish Republican Army. He also founded the St Edna’s School. He was also a poet and the winged horse refers to Pegasus, who was the favourite of the Muses in Greek Mythology.
4) To what does Yeats compare the revolutionary?
Yeats compares the revolutionary to a stone in the midst of the stream of life. Too long a sacrifice according to him will make a heart of stone. 5) “We know their dream”. What is the dream referred to?
The dream that is referred to by Yeats in Easter 1916 is the Irish nationalist’s dream of an Ireland free from the rule of Britain.
Imagery of the poem
The poem is remarkable for the depth and intensity of symbols which have three characteristic features: “Directness of expression illuminated by sudden unexpected symbols, a tone of tragic solemnity and thirdly a professional quality”(Dr.B.Chaterjee). In the first stanza, ‘the close of the day’ conveys the image of an evening sky, of pale dusk and is thus linked to ‘grey eighteenth-century houses’, then follows a stream of images telescoped into one another. The whole poem is really focused on a single phrase- ‘terrible beauty’. According to Dr.B.Chaterjee “the two images are mixed up and reconciled, anew beauty is evoked, something like a red rose emerging out of a blood saturated ground”. Like this the stream which represents change and the stone, immobility are antithetical symbols which grasp the ambivalence of the poet regarding the actions of the heroes. “In the final process hearts are changed utterly, the petrified stone dissolves and new beauty is born”, observes Dr.B.Chaterjee.
Yeats’ attitude towards revolutionaries.
Although earlier Yeats had disapproved of many of the actions of the revolutionaries, this uprising impressed him and this poem is a sincere if ambiguous tribute to the leaders of the movement. This event moved him deeply not for its appropriateness but for the brevity and heroism shown by the people participated in it. The poem begins with a note of self-criticism for Yeats had been guilty of complacent detachment from his fellow Irishmen. But now he recognizes that through the events of Easter week, his fellow countrymen have achieved admirable heroic intensity. Constance Markiewing, Padriac, the poet, Thomas Macdonagh, a poet and critic who shared Pearse’s fate; and John Macbride who had hurt Yeats by marrying Maud Gonne, the great love of his life have been changed utterly and have become part of the terrible beauty of Ireland after the uprising. These people were obsessed with one purpose alone – the liberation of Ireland. This obsession made them unchanging objects in a world of change and flux. Yeats was not quite persuaded to believe that all that bloodshed was wise. It was possible that England might keep her promise and give freedom to Ireland but for the Irish, it was enough to know that they dreamed of the liberation of their country and died because of their dreams. Yeats celebrates in his poetry, the heroic intensity that Macdonagh and Macbride and conneley and Pierse had achieved.
LONG ANSWER TYPE QUESTIONS
An Appreciation of “Easter 1916”.
William Butler Yeats is one of the prominent British Poets of the twentieth century. An Irish poet, he was closely associated with the Irish Literary Revival and the Abbey Theatre. But unlike many other Irish writers like Sean O’Casey, Yeats was not revolutionary in his attitudes. He was not quite persuaded to believe that all that bloodshed was wise and he did not think of patriotism as a very good or suitable subject of poetry. On 24th of April, 1916 an Easter Sunday the Irish revolutionary leaders occupy the General Post Office in Dublin and proclaimed Ireland a free republic. However, their forces were defeated by the British army within a week. Sixteen of the leaders were court-martialed and shot dead. Although militarily, the uprising was insignificant, it captured the imagination of the Irish People.
The literal meaning of the poem is easy enough to grasp. The poem possesses a remarkable lyrical intensity. It has no metaphysical level and the poet is seen devoted to the expression of his vision of abstract reality. Even though Yeats had much in opposite with many of the actions of the revolutionaries, this uprising moved him deeply and this poem is a sincere ambiguous tribute to the leaders of the movement. The poem begins with a note of self-criticism for Yeats had been guilty of complacent detachment from his fellow Irishmen. But now he recognizes that through the events of Easter week, his fellow countrymen have achieved admirable heroic intensity; they have achieved permanence, he recognizes and confirms by including them in his song. He contrasts “the polite meaningless words’ which constituted the “Casual Comedy” of pre-revolutionary Ireland. Ireland had been mortally warned with the tragic “terrible beauty” that was born of the Easter rising.
Yeats goes onto catalogue the men and women whom he had previously undervalued; Constance Markiewing acknowledged to be the loveliest girl in country Sligo and an expert rider and hunter, whose voice had grown shrill in political argument: Padriac, the poet and founder of St. Edna’s school who was shot by the British; ThomasMacdonagh, a poet and critic who shared Pearse’s fate; and John Macbride who had hurt Yeats by marrying Maud Gonne, the great love of his life. Yeats bitterly refers to him as a drunken vainglorious lout, but all of them even Macbride have been changed utterly and have become part of the terrible beauty of Ireland after the uprising.
However, after paying tributes to these leaders, Yeats, the poet of mixed emotions, goes on to ruminate on the nature of revolutionary heroism. These people were obsessed with one purpose alone – the liberation of Ireland. This obsession made them unchanging objects in a world of change and flux. Rock like in this unchanging determination, they also become stone-like impeding the flow of life. Yeats brings in images of change-horses splashing in water, moorhens calling to moorcocks, the clouds that cast shadows on the stream but the stone in the middle of the stream remains unchanging. The revolutionaries although heroic are also like the unfeeling hard stones in the river of life.
A prolonged sacrifice can harden the heart. At what stage can we say that the sacrifice already made will suffice. Yeats opines that it is not for human beings to decide this but for God. All we can do is mutter the names of those who have sacrificed themselves just as a mother utters a child’s name when the child is lulled to sleep.
But then Yeats realizes that these people are not asleep but dead and he wonders if the sacrifices of the martyrs are necessary. It was possible that England might keep her promise and give freedom to Ireland but for the Irish, it was enough to know that they dreamed of the liberation of their country and died because of their dreams. Yeats celebrates in his poetry, the heroic intensity that Macdonagh and MacBride and Conneley and Pierse had achieved. The poem is an ambivalent celebration of the heroism of Easter, 1916. The doubts and misgivings in the poem are characteristically Yeatism. He is, in a sense, the poet of mixed feelings. It is this uncertainty that gives the poem its intension and complexity and makes it one of the finest of all political poems.
Explanation of the Poem Easter 1916
I am now just going to explain the poem stanza by stanza.
Stanza 1describes the Dublin streets and the lives of himself and The Dubliners in an almost dreamlike comedy of errors. It conveys his belief about these ordinary men before the extraordinary events of the rebellion. You will notice that a dramatic motif runs throughout the poem starting off as a comedy and transforming into a tragedy as the events unfold. You can see from the use of the first-person pronoun “I”. From the very outset that this will be a personal poem and about more than just the events. It is not simply a recount of the rising itself. It is about Yeats’ personal response. The present perfect tenses have met, have past and have lingered is cleverly chosen by Yeats. This particular tense as opposed to past simple tense who could have said I passed, I met, I lingered makes a link between past and present and suggests that Yeats present response has changed as a result of his experience. The contemptuous use of the third person pronoun “them, they” and the small talk of polite meaningless words suggests Yeats initial apathy that changed after the Easter events. Consonants that are letter D and I have passed them with a nod of the head almost mimicking the action of nodding and the repetition of polite meaningless words conveys the mundane meaningless, emptiness of his past interactions with these people. This is reinforced by the way that he describes how he wouldn’t entertain his other friends at the club with a mocking tail or a jime about these encounters. This mocking tail and jime it can be contrasted with his use of song and verse later in the poem. He seems to be in this first answer condemning his past actions and there is a sense of transformation which is why the present perfect tense is so effective. Herewith it is uniting of the past and the present. In this opening stanza, the readers are in the presence of a modern metropolis in this case Dublin. Yeats likens the Dubliners vivid faces to those of actors and their backdrop is the counters desks and eighteenth-century houses. It is reinforcing that theatrical motif likening of The Dubliner’s clothes, to motley, alludes to the fools or the jester’s clothes in a comedy the costume that the fool will wear.
The imagery of drama being used again. You are known as later that these ordinary citizens are transformed into revolutionaries. The reference to Motley might also be giving an insight into the perspective of the rebels. This might convey that he was thinking that maybe their actions were foolish and that is the reference to Motley that it was a meaningless sacrifice. I think he is still coming to terms with these ideas. This stanza, the first one, closes with the sonorous powerful refrain all changed, changed utterly a terrible beauty is born.
The overstressing of the syllables and that the places in change in terrible and beauty emphasized the dramatic nature of the event and how sudden violent and abrupt the change was yes world had been utterly transformed. There’ is a total break with all past ideals beliefs and concepts. The rebels in Ireland have changed utterly because of the actions of the rebels. The oxymoron terrible beauty is exemplary of his ambivalence towards their sacrifice in the tragedy. It might also be an allusion to the Christian tradition of Easter which represents both sacrifice of Jesus’s life and resurrection or hope but I will let you decide whether you think there is a connection there.
We now turn our attention to the second stanza. It talks about the list of leaders of the uprising and describes their pre uprising behaviour. Yeats was more interested in art than politics and their possibilities as artists and writers and this comes through really strongly stanza. This stanza suggests how difficult it is for Yeats to reconcile what he knew of them with what they have become. These four characters who he refers to were not the most obvious figures from the rebellion. Marjorie Perloff who wrote the article entailed Easter 1916 asserts that their inclusion was because of Yeats personal connection and describes the poem as more mythography than realistic document. We notice in this stanza that the Yeats becomes a little bit more particular rather than the vague and distant ‘them’ and ‘they’, he personalizes the roles and gives descriptions of them. That woman is Markovic, this man refers to Pierce, this other McDonough and finally this other man Mcbride. That woman countess Markovic was one of the leaders of the rebellion but she wasn’t executed. She was from County Sligo and a childhood friend of Yeats. He describes her charitable work for the poor. That woman’s day is spent ignorant goodwill. She was renowned for her beauty and we get a sense that Yeats regrets her change. He chastises her for arguing politics so vehemently that her voice grew shrill. The once beautiful aristocratic horsewoman from his sacred Sligo has been destroyed by revolutionary zeal. This shrillness of her voice is contrasted with her sweet singing that he remembers from his youth. He describes how this man Pierce rode winged horse. This is an allusion to Pegasus-the Greek mythological winged horse and muse of poetry. This other John MacDonald was a teacher at Pierce’s school St. Enders where Yeats attended. He laments over the tragic loss of this poet scholar and author who in his view was approaching his best work or as he puts it coming into his force. Of both of these poets Pearse and McDonagh.Yeats observes that they might have been better off remaining educators and writers. Finally, this other man John McBride was executed. He had married .Yeats has loved Maud Gonne in 1903 but they separated a few years later and were estranged at the time of his execution. He was abusive to her and this explains Yeats description of McBride as loathsome and a drunk vainglorious slapped. The conjunction yet in the line “yet I number him in this song” shows us that he is struggling with his past conceptions and ambivalent feelings about the rebels and the rising itself. Yeats description of Mcbride is very significant because it signals to the reader the transformation from comedy to tragedy that I referred to earlier. He writes that too has resigned his part in the casual comedy. He too has been changed in his turn. Then finally comes the refrain at the end of the stanza reminding us of Yeats’ sense of awe recognition and humility in response to the rising as he recognizes the power of the actions of these individuals.
The third stanza is very different from the rest of the poem. There is an absence of refrain but it is still a beautiful and melodic stanza. The musical quality is created by the rhyme, rhythm and repetition of the stanza. The focus is on the natural world rather than the socio-political world of the other stanzas. Yeats departs from realism into symbolism. Another significant difference is there is active change in this stanza through the use of active present tense verbs rather than passive ones. Yeats’ love of the past rule is evident in this stanza. The material world bent little to his imagination. So he found the sources of his imagery in Anima Mundi or World Soul. The intrinsic connection between all living things, an idea which originated with Plato and we see this through his visual imagery of the stone, the stream, the horse, the clouds and the more hymns and more cocks. There is a beauty and fluidity in the movement of the natural elements. The tumbling cloud, the horse hooves slides, the horse splashes, the more hens died, the more cocks caught. Our eyes are drawn up and down the landscape and around from the stream to the horse, to the rider, to the birds, to the clouds and back to the stream. This forward and backward movement is reinforced by Yeats use of cazness in minute by minute. They change and then later changes minute by minute. The most important symbol in this stanza, however, is the stone which represents that implacable will that chooses death instead of life. The unnaturally fixed stone causes violence. It troubles the flowing water. It is connected yet it disrupts the stream. The pastoral environment is meant to convey. It conveys above all the peacefulness of the natural world. The natural order encompasses movement and transformation. This stanza is about change. The world of change, movement, history which he sees fanaticism and rebellion the fix stones as blocking. The meter and rhythm of the stanza represent change. They drive us forward but the rhyme and repetition remind us of the fixed. The petrification of the stone contrasts with the movement of the rest of the features of the landscape. This can be seen as an indictment of fanaticism. He writes that the stone troubles the stream. On the other hand, Cubed is in inventing Island literature of a modern nation asserts that without the stone the stream which can represent society or government is inactive. He claims that without that stone in its fixity, no ripples could vibrate at all. The stone symbolizes the firmness of all the purpose of strength and mind of the Patriots. The troubling of the revolution is necessary if there is ever to be real change in the life of the nation or the stream. Thus yeats’ stance is ambivalent. Is he supporting or opposing the rebels? It seems that this stanza conveys his own admiring that troubled assessment of the value of the rising. Interestingly, Wendla observes that Yeats is drawing a contrast between himself and the rebels. She describes it as a contrast between ideological fixity and mobility of mind.
We now move to the fourth and final stanza which can be seen in two very different ways. It could be seen as a condemnation of the actions of the rebels or an immortalizing of the rebels. Perloff asserts that Yeats immortalized the rebels, not as heroes in the abstract but agents of change. I will allow you to decide. Yeats uses the interesting poetic device of rhetorical questions. There is a temptation for the reader to answer these but we can’t. He has deliberately placed this series of rhetorical questions in the final stanza where he should be coming to conclusions but instead, he is asking more questions or when may it suffice :
What is it but nightfall wasn’t needless death after all?
What if access of love bewildered them until they died.
This shows his ability to question himself and the change and to change the way he thinks. Yeats is prepared to consider the beauty not previously recognized. He is not afraid to ask these challenging questions reminding us again of endless mobility of the imaginative mind. Terry Eagleton states that these are the questions that have to be asked of all war poetry and can never truthfully be answered. This reinforces Yeats’ ambivalence and his questioning of whether or not it was worth it. This is the question that plagues him. Were their lives sacrificed for a reason or would Home Rule have been passed anyway and it was all for nothing. For this reason, while he aims to mythologize the rebels he is concerned about celebrating these events. He states that too long a sacrifice can make a stone of the heart. Here, he is referring to the long history of the Irish plate. He is implying that this patriotism, this total dedication petrifies the heart and creates a coldness and inhumanity. He asks when may it suffice the interjection or intensifies his concern and sounds almost like a prayer. He is asking when will the British rule end. In this stanza, Yeats makes a personal connection with the rebels when he asks what if excess of love bewildered them until they died. Something he understood too well because of his unreciprocated passionate love of Maude Gonne. Yeats uses the cliche of sleep as death but then decides not to sweeten it. When he writes no no not night but death in the next line, he asks was it meaningless death after all. He then goes on to say that he may keep faith for all that is said and done referring to the home rule which will be put in place after World War 1. These two lines imply that this change was already occurring and the sacrifices of the rebels were not necessary. Island was there already heading towards independence. There was enormous patronizing tone in the image of the mother murmuring her child’s name at the end of a rigorous day of play when they are safely asleep the limbs that had run wild referred to a foolish child out of control in play. Perhaps the way he views the fanaticism of the rebels. But the murmuring of their names suggests that he believes that they ought to be remembered and he later gives them more weight. I ride it out in a verse McDonough and McBride and Connolly and Pierce. The delay caused by the – preceding the names gives them, even more, weight and importance. We also notice that the jesters Motley has now turned to green, the symbolic colour of Irish patriotism and Gaelic heritage. After hearing that analysis I returned to the question I posed at the beginning do you believe that Yeats was glorifying the rebels or condemning them. That concludes my analysis of Easter 1916.
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