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Easter, 1916 | Summary

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Summary

Stanza 1

The narrator describes meeting Irish nationalists in the streets after a day of work among "grey / Eighteenth-century houses." The narrator has passed them on the streets and, with an air of superiority or indifference, dismissed them with "polite meaningless words." As the Irish nationalists gathered together, men like the narrator made fun of them in the bars, telling a "mocking tale or a gibe" to entertain each other, but after the failed uprising, the narrator realizes everything has "changed, changed utterly" and that a "terrible beauty" has been born.

Stanza 2

The narrator describes four of the rebels who fought in the uprising. One is a "young and beautiful" woman who spent her days in "ignorant good-will" and nights "in argument" when her voice "grew shrill," as opposed to the "sweet voice" of her youth. He describes a man who "had kept a school," another man rising in power who "might have won fame in the end" if he hadn't died, and a man the narrator deems a personal enemy for having "done most bitter wrong" to someone the narrator loved. Whether good people like the woman, or less noble people like the narrator's enemy, each of these rebels was "transformed utterly" in the uprising and became part of the "terrible beauty."

Stanza 3

The rebels seemed to have hearts with "one purpose alone"—Irish nationalism—that were as unchanging as stone. The narrator describes a stone in a river; regardless of how strong the current, or how the landscape around the river changes, the stone remains the same. Even when large animals like horses splash through the water and disrupt the riverbed, the stone remains "in the midst of all."

Stanza 4

The narrator believes it is society's responsibility to remember those martyred for the cause, repeating their names over and over "as a mother names her child." Yet the narrator questions whether the deaths of the four named men—"MacDonagh and MacBride / And Connolly and Pearse"—were truly meaningful. He longs to romanticize death as sleep—"What is it but nightfall?"—but stops himself: "No, no, not night but death." He acknowledges that the martyrs will be remembered, whether or not they were "bewildered" by their cause. He also admits it takes immense bravery, more bravery than the narrator himself has, to change the world and create that "terrible beauty."

Analysis

Tone and Meter

"Easter, 1916" is one of Yeats's most famous poems, likely because of the narrative voice. The rebels' martyrdom becomes accessible through Yeats's conversational style. The poem has an irregular meter, or rhythmic structure, and the lines only occasionally rhyme. Because the poem sounds more like natural speech than "poetry" when spoken aloud, it's easier for wide audiences to appreciate the message. Yeats personally knew many of the executed rebels, some of whom he names in the poem. His descriptions further humanize the martyrs rather than glorify them, which again makes the poem and the people accessible to a wide audience.

Most lines in the poem employ either iambic tetrameter, which repeats the same rhythm—da DUM da DUM da DUM da DUM—four times per line, or iambic trimeter, which repeats the rhythm, da DUM da DUM da DUM three times per line. Iambic tetrameter, as seen in lines such as "I have met them at close of day," gives a sense of order, like marching, and may reflect political conformity. The lines breaking this meter, such as with the iambic trimeter in "Polite, meaningless words," suggest a change of order, or a shaking up of normality.

The opening line is written in a speedy rhythm known as anapestic meter. The line "I have passed with a nod of the head," for example, reflects the curt dismissal Yeats felt toward the rebels. The meter changes at the closing lines, "All changed, changed utterly," which is written in spondee, a literary term for the forced emphasis of two contiguous words—in this case, "changed, changed." This spondee further highlights the magnitude of the changes that occurred after the uprising, both in terms of the public view of the rebels (including Yeats's own) and to Ireland as a nation. The closing line of the first stanza, "A terrible beauty is born," becomes a refrain within the poem, repeated three times as the narrator reassesses his views.

Historical Figures

The rebels were an army of 1,200 volunteers, comprising Irish Republican Brotherhood Volunteers, led by Patrick Pearse, and Irish Citizen Army Volunteers, led by James Connolly, both of whom Yeats names in the poem. Pearse and Connolly shared a seemingly mismatched partnership: Pearse, a teacher before the revolution, studied Irish history, including the native language and mythology. He believed bloodshed would be the only way to awaken Ireland to independence, and to secure him immortality: "Blood is a cleansing and sanctifying thing," Pearse wrote, "and the nation that regards it as the final horror has lost its manhood." Even as he waited for his execution after the uprising, Pearse wrote, "You cannot conquer Ireland; you cannot extinguish the Irish passion for freedom."

Connolly, on the other hand, felt motivated to eradicate the deep racism he felt the occupation was tied to. A socialist who believed a society's wealth should be controlled by the people, Connolly ardently rejected capitalism, writing that even if England gave Ireland its independence tomorrow, unless socialism reigned, England would continue to control the people through capitalism. England would rule, he wrote, "through the whole array of commercial and individualist institutions" imparted on Ireland and "watered with the tears of our mothers and the blood of our martyrs."

Yeats also names Thomas MacDonagh, a teacher and fellow poet, and John MacBride. MacBride was married to Maud Gonne, Yeats's tumultuous love interest, to whom he proposed marriage many times. Gonne allegedly suffered terribly in an abusive relationship with Major John MacBride, whom Yeats immortalizes in the poem as a "drunken, vainglorious lout." Yet even MacBride, Yeats acknowledges, "has been changed in his turn" by the "terrible beauty" of the uprising.

Unnamed in the poem is Countess Constance Markievicz, who is called only "that woman." Markievicz was the daughter of a wealthy Anglo-Irish landowner who became caught up in the nationalist movement through her involvement with artists who were active in the movement. She fought actively in the uprising and was sentenced to death. However, the sentence was commuted to imprisonment for life and she was released from prison in 1917.

The second stanza describes the lives of the rebels as ordinary people. The narrator refers to the rebels as "that woman" and "this man" again to highlight their ordinariness. They are ordinary because they could have been any Irish woman or man, and they are also ordinary because they were simply people Yeats knew—people with sweet voices, big dreams, and angry vices. No matter whether aristocrat, teacher, or drunk, they were all transformed. This stanza also hints at the mythology surrounding the rebels' martyrdom, with reference to the "wingèd horse," which conjures an image of Pegasus, the winged horse from Greek mythology. Pegasus carried heroes to defeat monsters—an apt metaphor for Yeats's dear friend Pearse, a teacher, who led the rebellion against the English occupation.

Yeats's Politics

In the years following the publication of "Easter, 1916" most audiences viewed it as a political poem honoring the rebels for their sacrifice. The poem was taken at face value, with little critical questioning of Yeats's true intent. It is only recently that scholars have begun to examine Yeats's ambivalence, and today "Easter 1916" is largely regarded as a poem about emotional conflict: Yeats wants to honor his friends' lives, but questions whether they needed to die at all. At the time of its publication, Yeats had distanced himself from the Irish nationalist movement. The poem itself wasn't published until 1920, when the nationalist movement was winding down. For the four years between the uprising and the poem's publication, Yeats was resolutely silent on all political matters. Publicly, he neither defended nor praised the rebels. His feelings remained as ambiguous as the narrator's tone in the poem.

When his friends were executed, Yeats wondered whether their sacrifice was necessary, and "Easter 1916" analyzes the death from both sides. As a result of the executions, the Irish people united in anger. For the first time, they worked together against English oppression. On the other hand, because England had promised independence after World War I, Yeats questions whether the rebels had been blinded, or "bewildered," by their single-minded determination. The rebels had "hearts with one purpose alone" which Yeats critiques, comparing their hearts to "stone." Nevertheless, Yeats recognizes the importance of the rebels' sacrifice, or at the very least, the bravery of their sacrifice. He acknowledges that whether or not they needed to die, Irish history will immortalize them as heroes—an immortalization he contributes to by listing the names of his friends, and encouraging the reader to repeat the names again and again.
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