‘Easter 1916’ #
I. Context & Subject Matter #
The poem is written in response to the Uprisings against the British Rule in Ireland during World War I. Irish grievances were many, varied and longstanding; dating from the time of William the Conqueror and most involving brutal oppression and deprivation from the English. Before WWI, England had agreed to Home Rule for the Irish but because of the war England reneged on this promise. Many of the Irish did not support England in the European war. Yeats’ position is ambivalent; his preference is for order and tradition and at first does not identify with the rebels who wanted to overthrow the English. Some of his closest friends were involved in the 1916 uprising and Yeats grudgingly came to accept their cause.
Though successful at first when 1500 men took over Dublin, proclaiming an Irish Republic on the Steps of the General Post Office, the British, despite its commitments of WWI, brutally and ruthlessly put down the insurrection with the loss of over 300 lives. As well eleven leaders were summarily executed within a month. These eleven men became blood martyrs for a national cause - “changed utterly”.
As Virginia Woolf put it:
“Someone has to die in order that the rest of us should value life more. It’s contrast.”
Much of Yeats’ treatment of life is detached, global and general; however in this poem he reluctantly and somewhat grudgingly delves into a specific event, names individuals and ponders its significance in the scheme of our existence. As is usual he reveals his compassion; yet counters this with his misgivings, his ambivalence – the poem fails to resolve the contrariness of life. He reveals historical events can easily morph into legend and even myth.
Yeats is a notable poet worthy of study, not because he provides objective historical answers we might ask about this period, nor does he provide an accurate detailed account of the historical process, but because of his brilliant yet singular visionary insights in our western culture and because of deep sympathy he expresses for the tragedy and pathos of human life.
Easter, 1916 #
I have met them at close of day
Coming with vivid faces
From counter or desk among grey
I have passed with a nod of the head
Or polite meaningless words,
Or have lingered awhile and said
Polite meaningless words,
And thought before I had done
Of a mocking tale or a gibe
To please a companion
Around the fire at the club,
Being certain that they and I
But lived where motley is worn:
All changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.
That woman’s days were spent
In ignorant good-will,
Her nights in argument
Until her voice grew shrill.
What voice more sweet than hers
When, young and beautiful,
She rode to harriers?
This man had kept a school
And rode our wingèd horse;
This other his helper and friend
Was coming into his force;
He might have won fame in the end,
So sensitive his nature seemed,
So daring and sweet his thought.
This other man I had dreamed
A drunken, vainglorious lout.
He had done most bitter wrong
To some who are near my heart,
Yet I number him in the song;
He, too, has resigned his part
In the casual comedy;
He, too, has been changed in his turn,
A terrible beauty is born.
Hearts with one purpose alone
Through summer and winter seem
Enchanted to a stone
To trouble the living stream.
The horse that comes from the road,
The rider, the birds that range
From cloud to tumbling cloud,
Minute by minute they change;
A shadow of cloud on the stream
Changes minute by minute;
A horse-hoof slides on the brim,
And a horse plashes within it;
The long-legged moor-hens dive,
And hens to moor-cocks call;
Minute by minute they live:
The stone’s in the midst of all.
Too long a sacrifice
Can make a stone of the heart.
O when may it suffice?
That is Heaven’s part, our part
To murmur name upon name,
As a mother names her child
When sleep at last has come
On limbs that had run wild.
What is it but nightfall?
No, no, not night but death;
Was it needless death after all?
For England may keep faith
For all that is done and said.
We know their dream; enough
To know they dreamed and are dead;
And what if excess of love
Bewildered them till they died?
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.
Historical biographical details #
Yeats fell in love with Maud Gonne, the daughter of a British colonel in 1890. For many years he tried to persuade her to marry him but she eventually married John MacBride who was executed in the Uprising in 1916. It was her passion in Irish independence politics that sparked his interest in helping his home country becoming a senator from 1922 - 1928. Yeats refers to her in several of his poems.
II. Sound Effects #
Read the poem aloud. Comment on the Sound Effects, verbal music. It’s rhyme. Rhythm and melody. Assonance, alliteration. Onomatopoeia. etc. (Blending repetition patterns. slow/fast movement, harsh, discordant, sibilance, sotto, allegro, Rhapsodic, lyrical, elegiac, upbeat, blue, staccato, dirge, ode, Melody. tone. mood. atmosphere. voice.
The poem begins with close personal observations and the presence of the poet permeates the rest of the poem with the repetition of the first personal pronoun “I” seven times and “we” once. Initially the persona indicates his distance – his disconnection with the cause, however as the events unfold his empathy is induced. His condescending attitude to the masses (horror of the mob – Ochlocracy) has an aristocratic aloofness that is challenged by the supreme sacrifice of his fellow countrymen. His patronising attitude is revealed by his perfunctory greetings, “polite meaningless words”, the dismissive “mocking tales or a gibe…..Around the fire at a club” and the judgemental, misguided “ignorant good will” (a reference to Countess Constance Georgina Markiewicz). Yeats had misgivings of populism of democracy; he preferred the order, authority and restraint of the aristocracy (oligarchy).
Yet this poem concedes a reluctant admiration and develops into a stirring memorably tribute to the people who by giving their lives for the insurrection have been “utterly transformed” into national heroes.
So the tone of the poem modulates from a dismissive critical one to that of esteem and commemoration for acts of supreme sacrifice for a noble cause. Perhaps Yeats has regrets about his lack of conviction and participation? His self-deprecating admission of admiration goes some way to absolving his passivity.
“beauty… born”, “force… fame”, “casual comedy”, “no, no, not night”
“polite meaningless words… polite meaningless words”,
“changed,changed utterly [twice, and ‘changed’ occurs elsewhere]”,
“a terrible beauty is born [3 times]”,
“horse… horse-hoof… horse”,
“cloud… cloud… cloud”,
“moor-hens… hens to moor-cocks”,
“stone… stone… stone”,
“name upon name”,
“nightfall… not night but death… death”, “dream… dreamed”,
“shrill”, “plashes”, “call”, “murmur”
III. Themes, Issues, Values, Concerns #
All great art originates in the tragedy of history. Thus the art produced in the antiquity of Greece and Rome, Byzantium, and in Renaissance Italy was great because it emanated from a period when tension was high, pain from violence was excruciating but when the history of man was in the making.
Despite the misgivings Yeats had about the insurrection it is the deep sympathy he has for the tragedy and pathos of human life that arouses his ambivalent acceptance of the martyrs to a worthy cause.
“As writers and readers, as sinners and citizens, our realism and our aesthetic sense make us wary of crediting the positive note. The very gunfire braces us and the atrocious confers a worth upon the effort which it calls forth to confront it. We are rightly in awe of the torsions in the poetry of Paul Celan and rightly enamoured of the suspiring voice in Samuel Beckett because these are evidence that art can rise to the occasion and somehow be the corollary of Celan’s stricken destiny as Holocaust survivor and Beckett’s demure heroism as a member of the French Resistance. Likewise, we are rightly suspicious of that which gives too much consolation in these circumstances; the very extremity of our late twentieth century knowledge puts much of our cultural heritage to an extreme test. Only the very stupid or the very deprived can any longer help knowing that the documents of civilization have been written in blood and tears, blood and tears no less real for being very remote. And when this intellectual predisposition co-exists with the actualities of Ulster and Israel and Bosnia and Rwanda and a host of other wounded spots on the face of the earth, the inclination is not only not to credit human nature with much constructive potential but not to credit anything too positive in the work of art. Seamus Heaney - also an Irish Poet.
Yeats acknowledges that much of history can be transformed by blood sacrifice into noble legend or myth.
IV. TECHNIQUE #
Structure: linear, circular, episodic, flash backs, climatic.
Images: (visual, auditory, olfactory, tactile, ,gustatory) figures of speech: similes, metaphors, personification, analogy, synecdoche, contrast, antithesis, unity, irony, Allusions, etc
The poem is divided into 4 stanzas and like most of his poetry moves from the general to the specific, from his disconnection to his grudging admiration and respect. At first the people are anonymous, but later identified by name, at first they wear “motley” later it is identified as “green”.
Motley could be read in various ways:
- Is it disparate – heterogeneous, varied, non-conformity?
- Multi-coloured as in patchwork or a clown’s suit?
- Non –uniform as in mufti or civilian digs?
Green can be read as:
- young immature, callow
- Colour of Ireland
Antithesis is also evident in his images, the most prevalent, “the living stream” and three references to “*stone”. *The “stream” comes to represent the changing situation, while the “stone” has multiple possible meanings.
Stone could have several meanings
- Rock solid, impervious, immovable, unchangeable
- numb, hard-hearted, callous, insensitive
- The blarney stone – mythical symbol of Ireland
- Stones are often found in streams.
V. LANGUAGE: #
Approach: Subjective/Objective, Attitude or Tone, Audience, Style:
diction, word play, puns, connotative/denotative, emotive (coloured
biased,) /demotive, (technical, dispassionate) clichés, proverbial,
idiomatic, expressive, flat, Jargon, euphemisms, pejorative, oxymoron.
Gender biases. Register: formal, stiff, dignified or Colloquial; relaxed, conversational, inclusive, friendly or Slang; colourful, intimate, Rhetorical devices; Questions, exclamations, cumulation, crescendo, inversion, bathos, repetition, 3 cornered phrases.
Yeats is mainly revered for his ability to express agony and suffering in elegant resonant language. His ambivalence is conveyed in the ambiguity through multiple meanings of words: both Motley and stone could be read in various ways. A poem’s richness and subtlety is often created by wide possible meanings. This allows the responder to engage with the poem and decipher their own interpretations.
It is the repetition of the Oxymoron “a terrible beauty is born” that demonstrates his reluctant acceptance of their mythic heroism acknowledging that All great art originates in the tragedy of history.
VI. Evaluation: #
This, together with September 1913, is one of Yeats’ more political poems where he deals with Ireland’s domestic problems. He is basically a conservative who holds ceremony and aristocratic order in high regard, but due to the involvement of many of his friends in the Irish nationalist cause begins to ambivalently accept their sacrifice.
The poem is conflicted and though he concedes admiration for their heroism, his internal conflict remains not fully resolved.