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Analysis of Poem 'Easter 1916' by William Butler Yeats

Andrew has a keen interest in all aspects of poetry and writes extensively on the subject. His poems are published online and in print.

'Easter 1916' focuses on Yeats's reaction to the Irish rebellion against the British, popularly called the Rising, when the Proclamation of the Republic was issued on April 24th 1916 and read out on the steps of Dublin's General Post Office by Padraig (Patrick) Pearse, one of the leaders.

The poem reflects the contradictory attitude of Yeats towards the leading rebels who initiated the insurrection, his indifferent approach to them personally, and then subsequent change of mind regarding their deeds and sacrifices.

This shift in emphasis is worked out over four stanzas in rhyming trimeter, which gives the lyric a song-like quality in places. Over time certain lines, acting almost as a refrain, have stuck in the collective memory:

All changed, changed utterly:

A terrible beauty is born.

Change and transformation then, Eastertime being perfect for the death of the individual and rebirth of a whole nation. Sacrifice is also part of the equation.

The four stanzas in summary:

  • First: first-person speaker knows of the rebels but is indifferent to their cause.
  • Second: four people judged, a woman and three men, part of the Rising.
  • Third: metaphor and nature used to describe events and behaviour.
  • Fourth: a memorial to those who died for the cause, named as heroes.

There are unanswered questions on serious topics in the poem, perhaps because, for Yeats, there were no definitive answers. As he wrote in a letter to his sister Elizabeth (Lolly) from his home in London, having heard of the Rising:

'There is nothing to be done but to do one's work and write letters.'

This was true to an extent, but Yeats had been shaken when he heard of the outcome of a week of death and carnage in Dublin. A short time later, with the executions of the Irish rebels ongoing, he wrote to his writer friend Augusta Gregory:

'I had no idea that any public event could so deeply move me — '

In May 1916, Yeats had already started the poem, affected by the unexpected deaths of the men he knew personally. Come September, the poem was finished but, due to hesitancy and timing, it wasn't officially published until it appeared in the New Statesman, 23rd October 1920.

By this time, the first world war had ended and Britain was in a more stable state. The Irish problem, still raw and dealt with too severely it could be argued in 1916, had taken a forward step with the introduction of the Home Rule Act 1920.

Yet, this was not enough to stop a bloody Irish civil war raging intensely for nearly one year, from June 1922 to May 1923, in which Yeats the poet was caught up, in his tower at Coole Park.

Yeats wrote other war poems, political works of varied quality, including 'Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen,' 'Meditations in Time of Civil War' and earlier, 'September 1913.'

'Easter 1916' is the best known. Near the end of the poem, he names four men (out of fifteen) who were executed by the British. Some commentators think this a throwback to the ancient bards who wrote of the hero warriors slain during battle. Perhaps so.

Yeats certainly wanted to underline and set in the record his own tribute to their ultimate sacrifice. After all, he knew them as fellow Irishmen, ordinary folk who were teachers and poets and family men, who committed to the extraordinary and made political history.

'Easter 1916' by W.B. Yeats

analysis-of-poem-easter-1916-by-william-butler-yeats
analysis-of-poem-easter-1916-by-william-butler-yeats

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Stanza-by-Stanza Analysis of 'Easter 1916'

A formal looking poem on the page, the stanzas and the lines based on the date of the Easter Rising 24.4.16—the first and third stanzas have 16 lines each, the second and fourth 24, four stanzas in total.

First Stanza

Yeats gives the speaker a first-person voice, Yeats himself, who knew some of the rebel leaders in charge of the insurrection, executed by the British, which shocked the poet and probably triggered the writing of the poem.

The rhyme scheme and metre give the opening stanza a song-like feel, the iambic beat lilting in places, broken up consistently by trochee and spondee feet.

The speaker knows of 'them,' the rebels, passing them on the street, nodding because he knows their faces and names, knows that they are working men from solid Dublin families mostly.

Sometimes they stop and chat, but the words are polite and meaningless, small talk only. This is Yeats setting up the divide, between the rebels and himself essentially . . . he knows them but can't help taking a story or two back to his private club, for a laugh.

Yeats came from an affluent, artistic family and was for a long time based in London. Yet because of his involvement in Irish politics and the Abbey Theatre in Dublin, he worked and spent time with working class people and families. The only thing they had in common was the motley—woolen clothing of various design, a mix of things worn.

The last two lines sum up the whole situation for Yeats and are metrically emphatic, abrupt trochee to the fore. Everything had changed without a doubt. The rebel cause had roused a nation and despite the executions and many civilian deaths, independence soon was achieved. Yeats termed it a terrible beauty.

Second Stanza

Twenty-four lines in this next stanza focus on several male and female persons, unnamed . . . That woman . . . This man . . . again, the ringleaders of the Rising. This time described, and some might say judged, by the speaker.

The woman in the opening line is one Countess Constance Georgina Markiewicz, Irish aristocrat and nationalist, who was not executed (because she was a woman) despite involvement. She is deemed ignorant, of shrill voice.

The male runs a school and also rode a horse like the woman. This is Padraig Pearse, leader.

This other helper, sensitive and potentially famous, is Thomas MacDonagh, poet and teacher.

This other man, a lout who had done wrong, is Major John MacBride, a rival of Yeats for the hand of Maud Gonne, the revolutionary woman who had stolen the poet's heart but who refused to marry him. She married MacBride instead. Yeats generously includes him in the 'song.'

Third Stanza

There's a shift from the first-person speaker to a more objective narrative, homing in on nature using metaphor and description. The rebels and their cause are seen with hearts of stone, solid and unmovable, in the stream of life.

Everyday business moves and is inconstant, bustling with energy and sexuality. But the stones are there, and they trouble the living stream, which suggests that the normal flow is being upset. It is not the minds that are metaphorically stone, but the hearts, the feelings.

Fourth Stanza

But the hearts make the ultimate sacrifice and is that ever enough? Greater love hath no man . . .? But these are political deaths, not religious, even though Yeats sees them as martyrs in this final stanza, men who were once children, loved by mothers.

England had promised so much with regards to Home Rule. And at the time of the writing of this poem, people were still in two minds, doubting that the imperialists would ever let go of the Emerald Isle.

Yeats, ever the romantic, tells of their dreams and love, dreams of independence free of the chains of empire, love for the island people, its history and environment. All they wanted was freedom to govern their own country.

So Yeats named them, the four rebels who led and were executed, who helped change things for good. This last stanza memorialises MacDonagh, MacBride, Connolly and Pearse.

Rhyme Scheme, Metre and Poetic Device in 'Easter 1916'

Rhyme Scheme and Metre

Using full and half rhyme in the scheme abab, Yeats gives the poem a folk-lyric feel with short, mostly iambic trimeter lines. There is some variation in certain lines which break with the familiar daDUM daDUM unstressed/stressed syllabic beat. Here are the opening four lines:

I have / met them / at close / of day

Coming / with viv / id faces

From count / er or desk / among grey

Eighteenth / century / houses.

So the first and third lines are full rhyme, the second and fourth half rhyme.

Metrically, there are few iambic feet in the opening lines. The first line ends with iambic but opens with a trochee, emphasis on the first person I, and mid-line is a strong spondee, two stressed syllables.

The second line opens with a trochee again, has one iambic and ends with an extra syllable.

The third line flows with the anapest dadaDUM beat.

The fourth line has three trochees, emphasis on the first syllable of each foot.

The iambic and anapestic lines of regular beat bring a comforting familiar rhythm but the constant use of trochee and spondee alter this, change it, and the reader has to vary pace and emphasis, breaking with routine.

Oxymoron

The pairing of terrible beauty lends tension and contrast. Yeats was shocked by the outcome of the Rising and wanted to express the awful nature of the deaths out of which would come the birth of nation.

Metaphor

A stone of the heart, the heart becomes hard and rigid and unmoving.

Sources

© 2021 Andrew Spacey

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