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Easter, 1916 | Themes



Yeats's poem questions the great loss of lives during the Easter Rebellion of 1916, particularly questioning whether the rebels had to die. The narrator asks, "O when may it suffice?", seeming to question why the rebels would sacrifice themselves for a cause they knew they were doomed to lose. What gives the sacrifice value is the recognition that Thomas MacDonagh, John MacBride, James Connolly, Patrick Pearse, and the other rebels who lost their lives earned immortality in return. Through each stanza of the poem, the rebels are "changed" from everyday citizens, whom the narrator initially rebuffs, to immortalized martyrs. While the rebels started out as ordinary people (a noble woman, a teacher, a poet, an angry drunk), the narrator asserts their names will be remembered in Irish history books as heroes. Their martyrdom brought Ireland together, unified in horror against England's violence. Yeats partakes in the immortalization by listing some of the rebels' names in this poem, and the narrator urges readers to "murmur name upon name" to keep their memories alive. In the end, the narrator claims that while the rebels' deaths are eternal, so are their memories as they will be thought of "now and in time to be, / wherever green is worn."


For Yeats, there's no question that the rebels were doomed to lose their uprising against England, yet they pressed forward in their fight in the hopes of uniting Ireland. Their grisly deaths martyred them and did unite the country in their fight for independence. Yet the narrator continues, even to the end of the poem, to question whether they needed to die: "Was it needless death after all?" The poem questions whether England "may keep faith," meaning England might have given independence without the bloody fight. He also questions whether the rebels' love for their country became "excess" that "bewildered" them to the futility of their fight. Like many Irish, the narrator feels compelled to romanticize the martyrs' deaths, in this case by comparing death to the peace of sleep, but he stops himself: "No, no, not night but death." People Yeats knew and cared about died; this poem reflects his mourning. The narrator acknowledges the "excess of love" the rebels felt, yet equally acknowledges that the rebels marched somewhat belligerently into battle, with "hearts with one purpose alone." Had the rebels been open to discussion, they might still be alive. While the rebels' deaths resulted in a "terrible beauty," the narrator states, quite bluntly, that history will remember the rebels this way: "they dreamed and are dead."


The fact that the uprising takes place on Easter, a Christian religious holiday that celebrates the resurrection of Jesus Christ, immediately conjures images of rebirth. In the Bible, Jesus Christ offers a blood sacrifice to atone for human sin by dying on the cross. He lies, as if asleep, in a tomb for three days, rising from the dead on Easter Sunday. Many rebels were influenced by the idea of a "blood sacrifice" to rejuvenate Irish nationalism, and there's no question their executions inspired a new wave of patriotism. Yet the narrator questions whether the sacrifice was needed, noting that the rebels were ordinary men who, unlike Jesus Christ, were not themselves resurrected. They were met with "not night but death." The narrator struggles with this ideological divide throughout the poem. Did so many people need to die? Is the resurrection of an ideal as important as human life? History has seemingly answered the narrator's question. While the rebels died, there was a resurrection within the Irish nation, as its citizens were unified in outrage and demanded independence. Just as Christianity was born out of Christ's martyrdom, a new Irish nationalism was born out of the rebels' martyrdom.

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