Easter 1916

Notes by Eliza Brett

Listen to the poem here

Poetic structure:

  • Yeats uses iambic tetrameter and iambic trimeter. He varies them perhaps to convey the insignificance of (political) conformity and the changes that had taken place / were developing in Ireland.
  •  The rhyme scheme of the poem alternates rhyming lines in an ABAB form.  Yeats varies this structure in order to emphasize specific elements of the poem’s content and significance.
  • Yeasts’ use of language lets him convey the significance of his message. Through a consistency in form, Yeats maintains a sense of unity; yet he allows variations in this structure (going from from iambic tetrameter to iambic trimester), he further emphasizes particular elements of the poem to convey Ireland’s coming of age through the search for change and identity.

 Historical Background:

For more detail on key individuals who inspired Yeats’ verse, see the blog’s pages on ‘Yeats’ Women’ and ‘Yeats’ Men’.

Constance Markievicz: A freedom fighter who dedicated her life to ending British government in Ireland.  With the new Irish government, Markievicz held the position of Minister of Labour. 

Patrick Pearse:  An accomplished Irish writer who was editor of the Gallic League’s paper.  He also founded the St. Enda’s School in Dublin.  Yeats refers to Pearse in “Easter 1916” as the man who “had kept a school / and rode our winged horse” (24-25).  The “winged horse” represents Pegasus, a figure from Greek mythology – the use of this image highlights Pearse’s learned state…he almost, in Yeats’ mind, rises to take his place among the great Greek philosophers (see ‘Among Schoolchildren’ for further Yeatsian reflection on the value of the great Greeks)`

Thomas MacDonagh: He studied the Irish language and met Patrick Pearse through his involvement with the Gallic League.  He joined the teaching staff at Pearse’s St. Edna’s School.  In addition to his involvement in education and the fight for Irish independence, MacDonagh was also an Irish writer.  Yeats asserts Pearse and MacDonagh’s relationship by referring to MacDonagh as Pearse’s “helper and friend”(26).

Major John Macbride: An Irish revolutionary and was married to Maud Gonne. He was predominately featured in Yeats’ poetry.  Although Yeats held particular bitterness against Macbride as a man who “had done most bitter wrong / to some who were near my heart”(33-34), Yeats overcame these judgments (or at least admits that a man in death may bear little resemblance to a man in life – link this idea to ‘An Irish Airman foresees his Death) in order to memorialize Macbride as a heroic figure of the Easter Rising of 1916.

Maud Gonne: The inspiration for many of Yeats’s early poems. A feminist and actress she later moved on to try and release the Irish political prisoners from jail during the Easter Rising.

 James Connolly: Joined the British army at the age of fourteen.  During the time he spent with the armed forces, Connolly educated himself as well as developing his interest in both Nationalism and Socialism.  In the Easter Rising rebellion, Connolly was Commander-General of the Dublin Brigade.

Stanza 1:

  • In this stanza Yeats describes the people or “vivid faces”(2), he sees in everyday life. They are insignificant to Yeats as individuals; however each of them share a certain bond with him. The use of ‘vivid’ suggests the enthusiasm that the founding members of the IRB felt for their political struggle. It is suggested they are only ‘vivid’ when the politics is fantastised about – the moment the struggle becomes a physical reality, the ‘vivid’ faces (in later poems) become haggard. Their vivid faces after work (on their way to meetings?) clearly contrasts with the drab nature of their day-to-day existence. It seems to suggest that only through fantasy did they become truly ‘alive’.
  • In lines 6 and 8, Yeats states that all he says to the people on the street are “polite meaningless words”(6). The fact that what he says to these people is always meaningless, shows how insignificant they are in the greater scheme of things: this corrosponds to Yeats’ theory on time/gyres.
  • The lines: “Being certain that they and I / But lived where motley is worn,”(13-14) add to the fact that each citizen, like Yeats, is well aware that they share a common identity, but the use of ‘motley’ (the chequered outfit worn by jesters) suggests that the idyll they all dream of is foolish.
  • The final line of the stanza: “A terrible beauty is born,”(16) describes the people of Ireland as they come together and work towards the goal of Irish independence from England. The birth of these united people is ‘terrible’ because the fight for independence will inevitably cause bloodshed and death. It is also beautiful because the people are finally uniting and standing up for their beloved country. This is the first time this line is introduced to the poem. It is repeated throughout the poem and creates the poem’s main theme. The repetition of the refrain may suggest that Yeats himself did not believe that any ‘beauty’ would be born – it is almost as if he is attempting to cajole himself/his audience into believing this fact through the endless repetition of the phrase/refrain.

 

Stanza 2:

  • Yeats illustrates the stationary indifference and conformity in Ireland before the Rebellion through his description of the leading figures in the Easter Rebellion.   Yeats characterizes Constance Markievicz  as a figure of “ignorant good-will / Her night in argument / Until her voice grew shrill ” (18-20).  Through this portrayal of Markievicz, Yeats suggests that the dream of Irish independence has not yet become reality because people talked of rebellion and politics, but before Easter 1916, they obediently conformed to England’s rule rather than pursing change.  The imagery of Markievicz arguing “Until her voice grew shrill”(20) but maintaining a life of “ignorant good-will”(18) illustrates the deceptive nature of appearances. The use of ‘shrill’ is also almost an anthithesis to the beauty she possessed when she was young (see ‘In Memory of Eva Gore-Booth…’).
  • Yeats describes Patrick Pearse as “a man who had kept a school”(24) and Thomas MacDunagh, “his helper and friend”(26).  Pearse and MacDunagh were both members of the Gallic League and were actively involved in Ireland’s fight for independence.  Yeats portrays these two figures favorably, but he emphasizes the simplicity of their lives by referring to their skill as writers and teachers. However, there is the unmistakable suggestion of wasted talent; it is almost being said that their lives would have been more worthy remaining as teachers/artists than by sacrificing all for a dream.
  • Yeats portrays John MacBride, an Irish revolutionary and the ex-husband of Maud Gonne, as a “vainglorous lout”(32).  Although Yeats personally despised MacBride because “He had done most bitter wrong / To some who are near my heart” (33-34) (for further information on this see notes on Maud Gonne on the blog’s page about ‘Yeats’ women).  Yeats maintains that “He, too, has been changed in his turn”(38).  It is almost as though even Yeats’ feelings for MacBride have been mellowed by his matrydom – or that death metamorphoses everything. It is almost as if a ‘thing dead’ is an ‘artifice of eternity’ that renders it a separate thing completely from the thing that inspired it in life (make links to ‘Sailing to Byzantium’). The dead MacBride is a symbol/a hero – it is now almost irrelevant that the living MacBride was a philanderer and possible child abuser. 
  • Yeats implies that the figures of the Easter Rebellion should be respected for their participation in an event that will suggest a change for Ireland even though they may not have been pleasant people.  Yeats conveys the imagery of flawed figures as heroes to emphasize the change that has affected the lives of all the victims of the Rebellion and the citizens of Ireland as a nation. Assessed on their individual merits, the participants of the Easter Rebellion are one of many insignificant figures shouting to be heard until their “voice grew shrill”(20).  Because they took action and passionately evoked change in Irish society, Yeats memorializes these individuals as heroes and patriots despite their personal merits prior to the Rebellion.
  •   In the final lines of stanza three, Yeats indicates that these individuals have “Transformed utterly”(39).  Through their efforts to activate a change in Ireland these figures establish their own coming-of-age. In a sense, through their sacrifice they have been made into figures of lore that do not change or alter with time; they are almost the artifices of eternity that the poet so hankers after in his later verse (see ‘Sailing to Byzantium’ and ‘Among School Children’).

Stanza 3:

  • The use of “stone” in lines 43 and 56 is symbolic.  A stone represents an lifeless object that stays the same and has no emotion.  To go along with the key Romantic theme of mutability, Yeats includes the idea that clouds change minute by minute.  The state of constancy is the important aspect of this word.  Everything that has happened previously in the poem cannot be changed.  The stone will forever be a stone, as will the deaths of those who died.
  • The entire stanza has the theme of nature.  None of the previous stanzas mention nature.  Instead, Yeats discussed people and their actions.  He shifts the focus from the individuals like MacBride to nature.  Nature proves to be important because the constant motion of the stream and the clouds symbolizes that change is inevitable and is a reminder that life goes on.

Stanza 4:

  • Amidst all of this change, the stone, is a symbol of consistency as it does not move from its position on the bottom of the stream.  In line 57-58, Yeats expresses the heart in a transformation, becoming steady like the stone.  “Too long a sacrifice”(57) in regards to war, has caused the heart to become a stone, bringing damaging effects upon the hearts of all men.  When this occurs, the responsibility the world must take is to acknowledge each corrupted soul, calling each by name “as a mother names her child when sleep has come”(63).  However, sleep is a metaphor for death and these men die in result of their failure to change among the changing events around them.
  • Yeats “writes out in a verse,”(74) as he does in many of his poems to convey an explanation and an understanding that will affect future readers.  He leaves this poem as a legacy and memorial to those people–MacDonagh, MacBride, Connolly, and Pearse–who are all untied by their dedication to the heroic dream, giving Ireland everything they could.  Yeats continues to say that wherever the spirit of Ireland lies, represented by people wearing the color “green,” those people will be forever changed.
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25 thoughts on “Easter 1916

  1. Have you also noticed that the poem has four stanzas? Two of which have 16 lines, and the other have 24 lines?? 24/4/16 was the date that the Easter Rising began

  2. are you not going to mention the Easter rising in Ireland in 1916 in the historical background…. seeing as the poem is named after the events …..

    • What kind of things are you looking for? Because the analysis of stanza 2 is all about how the poem relates to Ireland and the Easter Rising, so you could use that instead. Also the Historical Background is about how the characters mentioned fit in with Irish society and the Easter rising. Do you want specific facts about the Easter Rising? They may not be as useful as knowing how the poem and the event are connected. Just a thought, bigknob.

    • yeats feels regret throughout the ‘man and the echo’ and when he describes ‘that play’ within the poem, he believes that ultimately if he hadn’t have written the play about the easter rising then people the ‘english shot’ would not have died, and therefore this is why he feels regret.

  3. what questions do you think would come up to do with this poem? could you post some on here so I could practice? thanks

    • I’m in the process of doing an essay plan for ‘Discuss Yeats presentation of the dream in Easter 1916’, but I’m struggling for ideas, any thoughts? Thanks.

  4. Discuss Yeats Ambivalent attitude to Nationalism? through the poems Sept 1913 and Easter 1916. As Sept 1913 was written as a palinode.

  5. please help; is there a reason why all stanzas end in ‘a terrible beauty is born’ yet just stanza three dosnt???

    • The final line of the stanza: “A terrible beauty is born,”(16) describes the people of Ireland as they come together and work towards the goal of Irish independence from England. The birth of these united people is ‘terrible’ because the fight for independence will inevitably cause bloodshed and death. It is also beautiful because the people are finally uniting and standing up for their beloved country. This is the first time this line is introduced to the poem. It is repeated throughout the poem and creates the poem’s main theme. The repetition of the refrain may suggest that Yeats himself did not believe that any ‘beauty’ would be born – it is almost as if he is attempting to cajole himself/his audience into believing this fact through the endless repetition of the phrase/refrain (read information <.< and good luck in your exam on 15th)

      • Because This stanza is focused on Nature. Yeats shifted away from talking about the people and their actions, instead he highlight the constancy and consistency of nature and the “Stone”.

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