Hello there, Easter parfait peeps! How are you? I hope you are settling in for a wonderful weekend ahead!
With Easter coming our way, I thought it would be good timing to feature and review William Butler Yeats’ poem “Easter, 1916.” If you do not know it, the full version of the intriguing poem is available at the link above.
Political Origins of ‘Easter, 1916’ by William Butler Yeats
The poem “Easter 1916” has its base in politics. In his poem, William Butler Yeats is referring to the Easter Rising (also called the Easter Rebellion), which was a series of events that took place in Ireland in 1916. The political uprising was planned by Irish republicans whose goal was to take over British rule in the area. The uprising officially began on April 24, 1916, and it lasted just under a week. Unfortunately, many revolutionaries were killed for their efforts.
While the uprising proved unsuccessful, it did inspire Yeats to write “Easter, 1916,” which was first published in 1921. It is ones of his most well-known works today and said to be a major breakthrough for his career. Originally, “Easter, 1916” was published in the book Michael Robartes and the Dancer.
First Stanza Analysis of ‘Easter, 1916’ by William Butler Yeats
The Yeats poem ‘Easter, 1916’ begins with the lines:
I have met them at close of day
Coming with vivid faces
From counter or desk among grey
These lines evoke in the reader thoughts of a person walking the streets of Ireland, taking in the atmosphere and being one with their region. The poetic words “desk among grey” refer to the city life and hint of a lack of enthusiasm for the work life. Yeats uses the “I” perspective to be able to provide his own perspectives on what was happening in Ireland and provide an intimate feeling to the troubled times. He wrote the poem shortly after the Easter Uprising was brought to its end.
The “vivid” faces are described as lively in “Easter, 1916” as they were likely youths who want to take over the British rule to gain independence for their homeland. The first stanza then moves from empowerment to a more somber tone with its last line, which is:
A terrible beauty is born.
This line holds a lot of meaning. It is a reference to the Easter Rising, where many Irish people died as they tried to overcome British rule. The words “terrible beauty” are opposites, just as the goal of the rising was to create peaceful rule yet instead brought about the opposite effect, which was bloodshed and death by violent means. The phrase “terrible beauty” is an oxymoron.
Second Stanza of ‘Easter, 1916’ Poetry Analysis
The second stanza then describes the revolting Irish people who ended up losing their lives. The lady described in the stanza was Countess Constance Markievicz, who is described by the BBC as the “Larkinite rebel countess.” She was a politician and socialist who participated in the uprising, later being forced into surrender and sentenced to prison.
Also referenced later in the second stanza is Patrick Henry Pearse, a writer and revolutionary who helped plan the Easter Rising. Like Markievicz, he was forced to surrender. His death came soon after, by a firing squad. The line “a terrible beauty is born” then repeats, providing a powerful end to the stanza with the use of repetition.
On the Third Stanza of Poetry Written by William Butler Yeats
In the third stanza, the reader is taken to images of a stream, a road, a horse and birds. These things all symbolize parts of the uprising. Poet William Butler Yeats tried to make sense of the deaths and the revolt that did not go as the Irish people had planned.
He explains in the poem that the Irish “hearts with one purpose alone” were “enchanted” by a stone to drop it in a “living stream.” In other words, they wanted to change the structure of the ruling system in Ireland or change the way the stream’s current ran.
The birds Yeats described are flying along in the sky, just as the days continued to pass after the revolutionaries were arrested or killed.
‘Easter, 1916’: The Final Stanza by William Butler Yeats
In the fourth and final stanza, William Butler Yeats began with the lines:
Too long a sacrifice
Can make a stone of the heart.
O when may it suffice?
And, so, the stone becomes linked to the heart. In this reference, the reader is led to think of the stone heart as encompassing all of Ireland. Indeed, there was much unrest amongst the people there, as proven by the existence of the Easter Rising.
The tone was sorrowful in as William Butler Yeats wrote:
We know their dream; enough
To know they dreamed and are dead
This harsh image is a tough one, even today, to digest. That the Irish people fought for independence, their shared dream, and yet many were killed in the end is a tragic notion to digest. It is obvious that Yeats felt Ireland was in a state of chaos and he was sending the message that things needed to change. He was also expressing pain about the passing of many well-known revolutionaries.
And tragic too is the way “Easter, 1916” ends, with the powerful line echoed again:
A terrible beauty is born.
Personal Reflections on ‘Easter, 1916’
On a personal note, I find this poetry by William Butler Yeats is quite fascinating because it is so different from the traditional images of Easter. There is no mention of bunnies or chocolate, and happiness is overridden by the later “stones” in the poem. Looking back in history, we see the battles many places such as Ireland have had. We see also that people tried to reach for a better life, but did not get the ends they sought, at that time.
As we head into Easter, I send you a kind wave and remind you that freedom is never something to be taken for granted.
©2015 Christy Birmingham