Easter, 1916: by W. B. Yeats - Summary & Analysis

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Stanza I

      I have met them (the people I am going to talk of now) at evening time. Their faces were vivid. They used to come from work at a counter or desk. I usually met them among grey eighteenth-century houses of Dublin. At the time I met them, my response was either just a nodding of the head or when I stopped to have a talk with them, it was polite meaningless words that we exchanged. Before I had finished my talks, I was mostly reminded of some mocking story or joke which I would tell some companion of mine at the club, when we (the well-to-do people) sat around the fire at the club. Most of many companions were usually pleased, if I told them a joke about the Irish people. All this was due to the conviction that they (those people whom I met in the street) and I both basically belong to a land which is considered by the ruling Englishmen to be a land of clowns. But now all that is changed completely. What has come out of this utter change is a kind of beauty which is terrible because the birth of this beauty has meant the death of so many of these Irish revolutionaries.

Stanza II

      The extent of the change can be seen from having a look at these people’s daily routine before their laying down their lives for their country gave to them a “terrible beauty.” For example, that woman’s (Constance Markiewicz) days were spent in showing goodwill to people but she was basically an ignorant woman. Her nights were spent in arguing for such long hours that her voice used to grow shrill in these arguments. When she was young and beautiful and used to ride a horse as part of a riding team, her voice used to be extremly sweet. This man (Patrick Pearse) used to run a school and also wrote poetry (rode on winged horse of poetry). His helper and friend (Thomas MacDonagh the poet and the critic) came into his force and was capable of winning fame due to his sensitivity. I am including this other man (John Mac Bride) also in my song. He was drunken and a boastful fellow. He had done most bitter wrong to some people who are near to my heart. (Maud Gonne was John MacBride’s wife). All these people were playing their roles in this casual comedy (Irish people being the butt of English jokes and being considered clowns wearing motley) and now they have resigned, their roles in this comedy i.e” they are dead now. He (John Mac Bride) has also resigned his role, and he too has been completely transformed, due to his death in the Irish cause. What has ultimately come out of all this is a kind of beauty which is terrible due to the sacrifices which have gone into its making.

Stanza III

      These people’s hearts were united by having one purpose alone. Now that these people are buried in their graves, they are not like a stone, which though dead, is capable of troubling the living stream. Whether it is winter or summer, these hearts will remain enchanted to a stone to trouble the stream. All the other living things around the stone changed. The horse coming from the road, the rider of the horse and birds that fly from one cloud to another, all change minute by minute. Even the shadow of the cloud on the stream keeps changing minute by minute. The hoof of a horse slides on the bank of the stream and the horse splashes in the river. Long-legged moor hens, diving and giving calls to moor-cocks are things which live minute by minute. The stone stays in the midst of all this living activity.

Stanza IV

      The heart cannot help becoming stone if it has to witness or make to too long a sacrifice. When will that sacrifice be considered sufficient (not needed any longer) is not our part but heaven’s part. All we can do meanwhile is to murmur the names of the martyrs one by one. The limbs of these martyrs had run wild, just like the limbs of a child whom the mother keeps naming so that sleep may come to the child’s limbs. After all their death has also been like nightfall. No, no, it was not night but death, but (Yeats asks) was this death a needless death i.e” death which did not achieve any results. At least one thing is certain. England still remains in power in Ireland after all is said and done. Yet we now know the dream of the martyi’s and it is enough to know that these people had it in them to cherish a dream and lay down their lives to live upto that dream. One does not know whether it was excess of love or something else which kept them puzzled till death. Anyway, the best tribute I can pay to them (Yeats says) is by writing out their names in verse—MacDonagh and MacBride, Connolly and Pearse. They are all changed, completely changed, not only for the present but for all times to come. What has come out of all this is a terrible beauty—terrible because it involved the death of so many people and because their attempt was doomed to failure from the start.

Explanation: L. 41-44

      Hearts with one purpose alone....to trouble the living steam. These lines from Easter 1916 by W.B. Yeats sum up Yeats’s attitude towards the revolutionaries who laid down their lives in Easter uprising of 1916. In the preceding stanzas, Yeats has talked of what these revolutionaries were like before their sacrifice invested -them with a terrible beauty and transformed them utterly i.e., completely. Yeats says: “These people had only one purpose in mind which was the liberation of Ireland from the rule of the English. This had united their hearts. But now their death had changed everything and in the midst of the world around them which is a world of change and flux they are like stone which is not affected by change of flux. It seems as if some magic had transformed their hearts in this stone like quality. At the same time their being like a stone among the flux of things has given them the power (even when they are dead) to trouble the stream of living being and people around; them.

Explanation: L. 57-64

      Too long a sacrifice.....On limbs that had run wild. These lines are from the poem Easter 1916 by W.B. Yeats. After having remembered the people who lost their lives in the Easter uprising of 1916 and after talking of the way they spent their lives before this sacrifice, Yeats in these lines talks of the real nature of their sacrifice. Yeats says: “The heart cannot help getting hardened if it has to go through a prolonged sacrifice. At the same time it is difficult to decide the stage at which one can say that the sacrifice already made is sufficient. Moreover, deciding it is God’s part, all we can do meanwhile is to murmur the names of those who sacrificed themselves. Doing this will be just like a mother murmuring the name of her child with affection when the child foils asleep after the fatigue of having played throughout the day. (The death of those people can also be compared to sleep which comes to a man at night).

Critical Comments

      These lines which show Yeats’s modified attitude of admiration for the Irish revolutionaries and martyrs show how touched Yeats was by their deaths. At the same time, the economy of phrasing which these lines have and their suggestiveness is also remarkable. Also Yeats’s ability to use rhyming for great poetic purposes is also evident enough here.

      These lines contain the result of Yeats’s contemplation on the real nature of those people’s sacrifice who lost their lives in the Easter uprising of 1916. At the same time, Yeats succeeds in conveying that the Irish people’s sacrifices in their freedom struggle were prolonged and spread over a long period. Also these lines are remarkable for the delicacy and genuineness of feeling with which Yeats treats his subject.

Critical Analysis


      Easter, 1916, was written on September 25, 1916. It appeared in the volume, Michael Robarts and the Dancer. The poem was written to commemorate the 1916 uprising against the British occupation of Ireland. Easter 1916 is one of the finest of Yeats’s public poems. What adds to the complexity of the poem is the fact that there is more than illustrating Yeats’s achievement of objectivity by means of the dramatic ‘Mask’. The poem also uses the terms of drama in order to stylize and objectify the world of political fact which is its subject. In this great poem, ‘Life’ and ‘Art’ interact and merge into a single image. For Yeats, in this poem, literary problems became analogs for the problems of living. Written five months after the tragic disaster of 1916, in which a group of revolutionaries lost their lives, the poem gave their deaths their meaning. The remarkable thing about this meaning was that it is not a meaning in terms of propaganda but in terms of human life and human history. The movement of the poem is from the temporal to the timeless.

Development of Thought

      The first three sections of the poem look backward to a ‘comic’ world that has been left behind. The fourth section points forward to a world of tragic permanance achieved by those killed in the rising. The opening lines of the poem present the ‘comic’ Dublin scene before the Easter Rising.

      The second section of the poem sketches the personalities of some of the nationalists before their destruction in the Easter Rising. Maud Gonne was one of them: beautiful when young, had spoiled her beauty in the fervor of political agitation; another was a poet and; school teacher; a third had show sensitivity and intellectual daring; a fourth had seemed only a drunken vain glorious lout. The beauty which is born out of these deaths is a terrible beauty in that it is the beauty bought only at the expense of life.

      The third section is a general image of the world subject to time and death and the fourth section talks of the stasis achieved by this sacrifice. Our part, Yeats says is only that of a chorus. At whatever human expense a new symbol of heroism has been created, for good or ill, all the people who sacrificed themselves are changed utterly. The personalities of the principal actors and chorus—of all those whose interaction created the interplay—are irrelevant to the effect. The world is, in the movement in which the event is contemplated, “transformed utterly.” What is born out of this complete transformation is a kind of ‘terrible beauty.’ And in the midst of all this is the stone or stillness of the grave.


      In terms of style also, Easter 1916 is one of the best poems of Yeats. The variety of tone is really remarkable. One of the most striking technical achievements of Yeats in this poem is his use of the rhetorical syntax which plays off and contrasts ‘artificial’ with ‘natural’ speech rhythms. The lofty opening rhythms of the poem quickly give way to the loose ‘casual’ movement of the later lines and this is quite in keeping with the contrast of the ‘vivid faces’, and the commonplace gossip which the poet refers about them. At the center of the poem is the carefully worked out antithesis between the “polite meaningless words” which constitute the “casual comedy” of prerevolutionary Ireland and the tragic “terrible beauty” that is the outcome of the rebellion. The metaphors of change and fixity (stone) are also manipulated impressively by Yeats. Another remarkable technical achievement of the poem is that the length of sentences is quite in keeping with the mood of the poet at a given stage in the poem.

Critical Opinion

      William H. Pritchard in his essay The Uses of Yeats's Poetry says about Easter 1916: “to write....a poem cold and passionate as the dawn, which is what Yeats did in Easter 1916, demands full exploitation of the tone and syntax through which ordinary life—the casual comedy—is set forth. Then beyond that, springing out from it and against it is the momentary presence of a timeless voice singing of a realm beyond comedy or bitterness or society where horses splash
and moor-cocks call and where things do not yield up their meanings to the words that would summarize them. The result is muted and impersonal poem which remains with us and is not easy to live with.”

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