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Analysis of W.B. Yeats' "Easter, 1916"

Analysis of William Butler Yeats' Easter, 1916


William Butler Yeats' poem "Easter, 1916" was written about the Easter Rising, in Ireland, in 1916. The Irish parliament was abolished in 1800 with the Act of Union; Great Britain now had control over Ireland. Nationalists feared that Ireland would be exploited.

The Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) was created to counter British rule. The Supreme council of the IRB convened on September 5, 1914, which was the day after Britain had declared war on Germany. They decided to have a rebellion before the end of the war; they were more than willing to accept help from Germany to further their cause. The IRB smuggled German weapons into Ireland, in 1914.

On April 21, 1916, Britain became aware of the impending uprising. The British arrested Sir Roger Casement for arms running for the IRB. The leaders of the Irish Volunteers, Eoin MacNeill, tried to cancel the rebellion, which was to take place on April 24, but Pearse did not get the message in time.

The rebels seized Dublin's General Post Office and other strategic sites throughout Dublin. British troops invaded Dublin to squash the insurrection. Fighting lasted for about a week; the rebels surrendered on April 29.

Pearse and fourteen other leaders were arrested and later executed. Most Irish had been against the insurrection, but the execution of these men incited a negative attitude towards Britain. The executed men became seen as martyrs and heroes.

The Irish government collapsed, and on December 6, 1921, the Irish Free State was established. The British tried to impose their rule, but they were unsuccessful.

This first stanza reflects the point of view of a flaneur. A flaneur is a person who walks the city, in order to experience it; this new literary concept is found a lot in modernist works. Starting in the last half of the 19thCentury, there was a noticeable change in population density; people began exchanging their rural lives for city life. The first four lines of this poem are all about rush hour, when everyone is getting off from work and heading home. Yeats is putting himself in this poem as an interactive observer. He is studying the faces of these people, who have just come from their public service 'nine to five' jobs. Their "vivid" faces are those of youthful idealists, who want to change the future of Ireland.

He talks to them; thus participating in usual everyday discourse. He wants to relate to these ordinary people, who spend their lives working for people that are wealthier than they are. While on this walk he thinks of a nice story or joke to amuse his friends, which are most likely other writers. "Motley" refers to the clothes worn by a jester, which leads one to believe that these men were also of the theatre. The Abbey Theatre was known for not caring about the serious issues that plagued Ireland.

The tone is changed in the last two lines of this poem. "Terrible beauty" is an oxymoron, which is used to describe the dual effect of the Easter Rising. It is terrible, because of all the needless death that occurred during this uprising. It is beautiful, because it opened the eyes of Ireland, which allowed for the creation of the Irish Free State. These last two lines function as a way of reminding the reader of the larger issue facing Ireland. It is repeated in the other stanzas as a way of linking them together; even though each stanza speaks in a different way about the Easter Rising, in Ireland, they are connected with this phrase.

This stanza of the poem is an elegy to the fallen revolutionaries of the Easter Rising.

In line 17, "what woman" refers to Constance Markiewicz. She was an Irish revolutionary, politician, suffragette, and socialist. In 1913, Constance's husband moved to the Ukraine, leaving her alone in Ireland. She belonged to the Irish Citizen Army (ICA). She designed the ICA uniforms and wrote their anthem. She was ranked as a lieutenant in the ICA, which allowed her to carry arms. During the Easter Rising, she was stationed at St. Stephen's Green as second in command. She fought the British army along with the rest of her comrades. They only stopped fighting when the British brought them a copy of the surrender order written up by Pearse. There were only seventy women participating in this Rising, and they were all put in solitary confinement after the surrender. She was convicted and sentenced to death, but it was later changed to life in prison. In 1917, she was released from prison along with the others, who had been involved in the Rising, they had been granted amnesty.

Yeats' opinion of Constance does not seem to be very high. He says that she is ignorant. He seems to be reminiscing about how sweet she was when she was young, before she became involved in the political cause. She took part in a man's war and lost her innocence because of it. The fact that she was let out of her death sentence, because she was a woman seemed to really bother him. If she was going to fight like a man then she should die like a man.

In the second part of this stanza, "this man" refers to Patrick Henry Pearse. He was a supreme council member of the IRB. He helped to plan the Easter Rising. He surrendered to the British on April 29, 1916 and arrested. He was executed by a firing squad.

Pearse was also a teacher, poet, and writer. He founded the school St. Edna, in Dublin. It was a bilingual school for boys. The "winged horse" refers to Pegasus, the horse of the Muses, which is a fitting symbol for him because he was a writer.

In line twenty-six, "his helper and friend" refers to Thomas MacDonagh. MacDonagh worked with Pearse at his school, and held the office of Assistant Headmaster and teacher. He was a poet and playwright. He was also a leader in the Easter Rising. His regiment saw little action, because the British army avoided the Jacob Biscuit Factory, which is where he was stationed. He surrendered on April 30 and arrested. He was executed by firing squad on May 3.

The final person that Yeats refers to in this stanza is Major John MacBride. He was the husband of Maud Gonne, who was the woman that Yeats had been madly in love with for many years.

He was involved in the Easter Rising, but he was not a member of the Irish Volunteers. He didn't plan to get involved, but stumbled upon the fighting and offered to help the rebels. He was executed on May 5. He stood before the firing squad, but he refused to be blind folded.

A "vainglorious lout" is an extremely vain and brutish person. In lines 33 and 34, Yeats is referring to the alleged abuse that MacBride inflicted upon Maud during their marriage. This made Yeats very angry, because he was in love with her.

"Yet I number him in the song;/ he too has resigned his part" (35-6). Even though Yeats does not like him, he still has to acknowledge that he did die in the Rising. Yeats refers to this rising as a "casual comedy" (37) as a way of saying that human life is extremely undervalued. All these people died, and for what?

The third stanza of this poem focuses on nature as a way to discuss the duality of the Rising.

A stone that is thrown into a stream displaces water and disrupts the natural order of things; the revolutionaries do the same thing. Their one purpose is to have a free Ireland. The stone, in line forty-three, has many symbolic meanings. It is the symbol of rigidity, which reflects the dedication of the rebels to their political ideals. It also represents Ireland. Jordan states that "one of the well known names of Ireland" [is] 'Inisfail' (Island of the Stone of Destiny)...the Stone of Destiny was one of the four sacred talismans of the Tuatha De Danaan (people of the Goddess Dana), a mystical race of druids and seers who ruled Ireland centuries before the coming of Christianity" (37). The stone is said to be both enchanting and fatal. In these first four lines, Yeats is saying that the revolutionaries are enchanted by the Stone of Destiny to alter the natural order of Ireland with violence.

"Birds that range" means birds that sail or pass along; in this case they are sailing amongst the clouds. They are continuously moving; changing their location every minute. In nature, animals are constantly moving forward, they do not dwell in the past. The clouds are even moving, and their reflections can be seen in the stream. The incoming storm can be seen as the impending Easter Rising.

A "brim" is the supper surface of a body of water. The horse slides into the river, and is now splashing around in it, disturbing the natural habitat of some birds. "moor-hens" are a medium sized water bird. Nature lives in the moment, but the natural order of things will soon be disturbed by the Stone of Destiny.

The meaning of the stone has been changed in this last stanza, now it symbolizes something that is hard. The heart of Ireland is now stone, taken over by the revolutionaries. Yeats is asking when this needless death is going to quit. He says that in the end God is the only one, who can stop the revolutionaries.

"For England may keep faith/ for all that is done and said" (68-9) refers to the Home Rule Act of 1914. The British parliament intended to let Ireland have "self-governance;" however, the act was postponed due to WWI, and it was never enacted.

Yeats does not include himself in the poem until this last stanza when he says "we know their dream" (70). Up until this point he had been talking about what other people did or he would talk about himself in the third person; he is now a part of the Irish republic.

It is the excess of love that the revolutionaries had for Ireland that got them killed, and the reason why so many others were killed.

Yeats does a final count of the dead revolutionaries; however, he omits Constance Markiewicz and replaces her with James Connolly. James Connolly helped to form the Irish Socialist Republican Party, in 1896. He participated in the Easter Rising and was severely injured during combat. He developed gangrene from his wound. The British propped him up in a chair, and the firing squad shot him dead.

These revolutionaries may be dead and buried under the green grass, but they will live on forever; influencing and inspiring future revolutionaries. In the end, the true terrible beauty is the revolutionaries themselves. They are the reason the Easter Rising began, and why so many had to die.




Sources


"Constance Markiewicz." Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. 1 Oct 2009, 12:27 UTC. 1 Oct 2009 <http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Constance_Markiewicz&oldid=317267694>.

"Easter Rising." Encyclopædia Britannica. 2009. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. 26 Sep. 2009. <http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/176916/Easter-Rising>.

"James Connolly." Encyclopædia Britannica. 2009. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. 26Sep. 2009 <http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/133052/James-Connolly>.

"John MacBride." Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. 1 Sep 2009, 19:15 UTC. 26 Sep 2009 <http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=John_MacBride&oldid=311328010>.

Jordan, Carmel. "The Stone Symbol in 'Easter 1916' and the Cuchulain Plays." College Literature 13.1 (1986): 36-43.

"Patrick Henry Pearse." Encyclopædia Britannica. 2009. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. 26 Sep. 2009. <http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/448088/Patrick-Henry-Pearse>.

"Thomas MacDonagh." Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. 3 Aug 2009, 21:44 UTC. 2 Oct 2009. < http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Thomas_MacDonagh&oldid=305892220>.

Yeats, William Butler. "Easter, 1916." Norton Anthology of English Literature: Twentieth Century and After. Vol. F. Ed. Stephen Greenblatt. New York: Norton, 2006. 2031- 3.

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