Easter, 1916 | Study Guide

W.B. Yeats

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Easter, 1916 | 10 Things You Didn't Know

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On Easter Sunday in 1916, a group of Irish nationalists rose up against the English in an attempt at Irish independence. The Easter Rising, as it was known, lasted for six days and led to more than 400 deaths. It was an utter failure, but it signaled a change in Irish history, and it resulted in William Butler Yeats's poem "Easter, 1916."

Yeats wrote the poem not long after the uprising. Describing the rebels—poets, teachers, and many of Yeats's close friends—and the sacrifices they made, "Easter, 1916" considers whether those sacrifices were worthwhile. The poem was published in a short run of 25 volumes for Yeats's friends in 1916 but wasn't widely distributed until it appeared first in The New Statesman in 1920 and then in a verse collection, Michael Robartes and the Dancer, in 1921.

1. Yeats was in love with the wife of one of the men involved in the Easter Rising.

Yeats met Maud Gonne, an actress and revolutionary, in 1889. That was when, as the poet put it, "the troubling of my life began." Gonne was a six-foot-tall beauty, and Yeats fell in love with her immediately. Gonne, however, was in love with a married man and bore his child while Yeats was courting her. Yeats proposed to her repeatedly, and she declined; he wrote love poems about and to her, but she insisted theirs remain a spiritual love. In 1903 she married John MacBride, an Irish nationalist whom Yeats hated and who was a central figure in the Easter Rising. MacBride was court-martialed and shot for his role in the rebellion. After his death, Yeats proposed again to Gonne, and when she turned him down again, he then proposed to her daughter Iseult, who also refused him.

2. Yeats uses the color he most despised to eulogize the men killed in the uprising.

Critic Helen Vendler noted Yeats hated the color green as a symbol of Irish independence, perhaps because he felt its use as a symbol of the country was insincere under British rule. He even refused to have his books bound in green covers. However, green had long been considered the color of Irish nationalism, and Yeats made an exception and referred to green as a symbol of the movement in the final lines of "Easter, 1916":

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.

3. One of the rebels in the Easter Rising had to be physically propped up for execution.

Fifteen of the leaders of the Easter Rising were executed by the British in May 1916, one by one. One of them, James Connolly, had been shot in the foot during the uprising. Due to his wound, when he was placed before the firing squad on May 12, he had to be propped up in a chair for his execution.

4. "Easter, 1916" predicted the enormous changes the Easter Rising brought to Ireland.

Hundreds died in the Easter Rising of 1916, and the uprising itself was a total failure. The violent British reaction to the uprising, however, led to the growth of the organization Sinn Féin, a militant group that battled hard and often violently for independence. The group kept the issue of Irish independence in the public eye until, in 1937, the Republic of Ireland was formed. Yeats's description of the mystery and beauty of the uprising reflected the confusion the Irish felt about it. The poem's text, however, makes it clear Yeats knew this was a turning point, after which everything was "changed, changed utterly."

5. The woman Yeats mentions in "Easter, 1916" was sentenced to death but survived.

Yeats lived in Constance Gore-Booth's house for a number of years when she was a teenager. She became a painter and suffragist, and she joined the Daughters of Ireland, a nationalist party. Gore-Booth founded the Warriors of Ireland, a group that trained young people to use weapons, and she was arrested for trying to burn the British flag. She was one of the leaders of the Easter Rising and was sentenced to death. In her prison cell, she heard her compatriots being executed, but rather than execute a woman, the British transferred her to an English prison. She was released in an amnesty in 1917 but continued her activism until her death from tuberculosis in 1927. Yeats's lines about her stated "that woman's days were spent / in ignorant good-will." Some critics believe these lines were an insult, suggesting the idea women should not have been involved in the revolt.

6. Yeats thought one of the leaders of the Easter Rising was "half-cracked."

Patrick Pearse, one of the leaders of the uprising, was a schoolteacher whom Yeats called "mystical" and said was "flirting with the gallows tree" due to his emulation of the revolutionary Irishman Robert Emmet, a rebel leader who was executed in 1803 after a failed uprising against the British. Yeats believed Pearse was "half-cracked," and said, "Pearse I have long looked upon as a man made dangerous by the vertigo of self-sacrifice. He has modeled himself on Emmett." In fact, Pearse, like his hero Emmet, was executed for his role in the uprising.

7. Yeats's tone in the poem has been described as an "agonized uncertainty."

While some readers consider "Easter, 1916" a poem of patriotic fervor, many critics agree it reveals what Yeats biographer Roy Foster called an "agonized uncertainty" over whether the cost of the rebellion was worth it. The lines "Too long a sacrifice / Can make a stone of the heart" imply the poet questioned whether the rebels had placed politics above humanity.

8. Vice President Joe Biden quoted a line from "Easter, 1916"—over and over again.

Joe Biden, the Irish American vice president (2009–17) under Barack Obama, was exceedingly fond of the phrase "all is changed, changed utterly" from "Easter, 1916." He quoted it to describe the world in the 21st century at a conference in Munich, Germany; in a speech to the European parliament; in remarks in Istanbul, Turkey; at a campaign event; and at meetings and events in Mumbai, Singapore, Ireland, and New Zealand (among others).

9. Experts argue furiously over whether the holes in the Dublin General Post Office came from Easter Rising bullets.

The Easter Rising of 1916 took place outside the General Post Office in Dublin. It sits in the city center and was, in 1916, a symbol of the British government. The building was shelled by a British gunship and nearly destroyed by the ensuing fire. It was later rebuilt, doubling its size. For decades tourists have visited the building to view the holes in its facade, which have for over a hundred years been said to be bullet holes from the uprising. The postal service, however, claimed the holes are from "acid rain" and "weather erosion," not bullets. This claim shocked both city dwellers and tourists, causing an uproar.

10. Yeats compared being a poet to being a "galley-slave."

One of the questions Yeats was often asked by interviewers—and the one that perhaps annoyed him the most—was whether poets actually "worked" or not. He claimed, "My poetry costs me endless labor. I sit down to it ... like the galley-slave to his oars." Yeats often wrote as few as eight lines a week, reworking and reciting the words aloud. He would even stop conversations to hold up a hand and speak the lines he was working on.

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