Easter 1916 by William Butler Yeats: SummaryThe poet begins with a criticism of the politicians, both living and those who died in the recent revolution. Even a note of self-criticism is also conspicuous in, the poem, for Yeats begins by saying that he had also been guilty of complacency and detachment in his attitude towards his fellow-Irishmen: now he recognizes that through the events of Easter week, his fellow countrymen have achieved an admirable heroic intensity. Heroic intensity has gone beyond the cycles of ordinary life, and achieved permanence in the midst of lives.
William Butler Yeats
After recognizing the heroism of Easter week, Yeats wonders if the sacrifice of the martyrs was necessary. But for Yeats it was a needless death, i.e. a death which did not achieve any results. At least one thing is certain that England still remains in power over Ireland after all. Yet we now know the dream of the martyrs and it is enough to know that these people had it in them to cherish a dream and lay down their lives to live up to 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 the narrator can pay for them (Yeats says) is by writing out their names in verse- MacDonagth 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 involves the death of so many people and because their attempt was doomed to failure from the start. In spite of these misgivings, however, Yeats ends by granting the men of Easter week — MacDonough, Connolly, Pearse, and even MacBride — the dignity and immorality of verse.
In the first stanza (lines 1-16), the poet speaks of the men whom he used to meet at the close of day when they returned from work. He and the other Irishmen were leading a meaningless, almost comic kind of life. However, his whole viewpoint changed when a number of nationalist leaders of Ireland died as martyrs for the nationalist cause during the Easter week of 1916. The poet was sure that he and the others were leading a life of complacency which he ridicules.
In the second stanza are catalogued the men Markiewicz, whose voice had grown shrill in Political argument, and the school teacher Patrick Pearse; "this other" is Thomas MacDonough; and "the drunken, vainglorious lout", John MacBride (Maud Gonne's husband). Yeats says, that he has included John MacBride in his poem in spite of the fact the "he had done most bitter wrong/ To some who are near my heart." All these persons, says Yeats, have resigned their parts in the "causal comedy", have been transformed utterly, have become independent and beautiful figures; with the result the "a terrible beauty, is born." The obsession of these persons "with one purpose alone", made them so inappropriate objects in a world of flux. They seem as if they are turned to 'stones' due to their rigid and lifeless determinations. What if these people were misguided? "Was it needless death after all?" That does not in any way diminish their achievement: they sacrificed their body and achieved tragic and heroic stature. Yeats had mixed and ambivalent feelings. Indeed, without this uncertainty, the poem would lose a great deal of its tensioned complexity which make it one of the finest political poems. "That woman of line 17 is a reference to Constance Markiewicz one of the loveliest girls in the country of Sligo, thrown into prison as a result of her participation in nationalistic activities. Yeats believed that one should be flexible amidst the stream of life, and moreover women must have the grace of their female being. “This man had kept school” is a reference PartricTharse (1879-1916), the poet and founder of St. Enda's School. He was one of the leaders shot by the English. "This other" his helper and friend was Thomas MacDonough (1878-1916) the poet and critic. He too met the same fate as Pearse. "This other man" was John MacBride the man whom Maud Gonne had married. Yeats refers to him as "a drunken, vainglorious lout," who had done "most bitter wrong" to someone who were very dear to Yeats (which means Maud Gonne). But even this man rose to the occasion and attained a tragic dignity by his part in the Easter Rising.
The third stanza is also a critique of the hard-hearted revolutionaries who foolishly wasted life in the upheaval. Hearts with one purpose alone... in the midst of all (Lines 41-56)... These persons were obsessed with one purpose alone, their stupid passion for revolution, at the cost of reasonable and thoughtful action and safety. The obsession for the liberation of Ireland made them an unchanging object in a world of change and flux. Their inflexibility of purpose seemed to impede the flow of life. The horses, the riders, the stream, the birds and clouds, all these represent change and flux. But these men hindered the normal flow of life, just as the flowing water of a stream is impeded by a stone that lies on its way.
The last stanza turns to pay tribute to all the rebels who sacrificed and brought about a new era in the nation's life; despite the reservations about their behavior and their foolhardy actions, the poet sees that their death has brought about a change in the people's feelings, and out of their sacrifice has been born a tragic beauty. "Too long a sacrifice can make a stone of the heart", which means that a blind and unreasonable sticking to any purpose impedes the flow of life. A prolonged sacrifice hardens the heart.
William Butler Yeats did not readily support the nationalist ideals in Ireland not so much because he valued the independence of his country so little but rather questioned the means by which it was being promoted. Regardless of Yeats’ political sentiments, he had high regards for the cultural and social heritage of his country as attested to by his earlier works and futures efforts to establish traditional art and literature institutions. The setting of the poem reflects the rise of many political ideologies in Europe that brought into institutions of leadership and society.
In Easter, 1916, Yeats recalls the Easter Rising of April 24, 1916 that resulted in military action in Dublin as well as the execution of several leaders of the revolutionary movement, many of whom Yeats was acquainted with. Social Identity In the first stanza of the poem, Yeats illustrates a society that does not really show any indication that it knows or cares for each other. The lines of the verse bring to mind people meeting in the in streets, tipping their heads to each other and uttering automatically greetings without really meaning any of the words spoken.
By referring to the social pleasantries as “polite meaningless words”, Yeats suggests a superficial veneer to these encounters. As reservation to the nationalist movement, the scenario indicates the lack of real communication in society and the predisposition to keep social appearance. Thus, there is also a lack of social identity or concern for social issues. The lack of social identity translates to a compromised national identity.
The lack of support form civil society for any nationalist initiative will compromise the political will to achieve true independence. In this perspective, Yeats may have viewed that Irish society was still too attached to the social status quo for it to pay the price for a “terrible beauty”. At the same time, it gives the impression that the issue was still limited to a few individuals and even if there were public knowledge or support for the nationalist concerns, it is not discussed in public or a subject of open debate.
These dichotomies between acceptable social veneers and the real interests of individuals are also reflected in the various characters Yeats uses in the poem. Though they are all portrayed as dramatic characters, he eventually points out that they are participating in a comedy. Yeats points out that regardless of how much the nationalist cause is to each of these characters, there is a persistence of individualistic purpose: even if there is a realization of a collective Irish identity, people remain generally unconcerned with the interests of other people.
Ultimately, what Yeats criticizes is the events leading to the Easter Rising and addressed neither the social conditions that will support nationhood or the need for a national identity. Ideology and Reality Yeats did not equate independence with rebellion. There is no denying his regard for the leaders of the Easter Rising: he portrayed them not as idealized heroes but rather as ordinary men answering to an extraordinary cause against extraordinary odds.
According to him, the biggest threat to realization of independence is the concentration of politics instead of reform. As suggested in his earlier lines, at times, the concern was limited to political debate and not the social issues of independence, keeping issues impersonal and limited to its facade. Thus, Yeats is saying that before the Easter Rising, “ignorant good-will” prevailed implying that though there was discussion of independence, there was no true leadership or organized action to achieve it.
In essence, Yeats felt that no one truly understood the price of “terrible beauty”, or what becomes clearly Yeats’ representation of Irish emancipation. For Yeats, independence for Ireland is to be gained from the civil action rather than political initiatives. Of all the characterizations he uses for the poem, it’s the characters of Patrick Pearse and Thomas MacDunagh that he views will contribute more effectively to Irish independence. He highlights their works as teachers and writers, educating and publicizing their cause to the public.
Furthermore, Yeats considers this the true ideological foundation for independence: Pearse and MacDunagh’s example deter the apathy, the “ignorant good-will” and the conformity in Ireland that was an advantage to English control. Yeats emphasizes the need for the independence ideology as a transformative power in society: neither limited nor exclusive as a political or a social concern. He points out a need for independence leaders to stop romanticizing what has to be accomplished to gain independence and to accept that it will likely be violent, bloody and require the sacrifice of many lives.
In saying that, “Wherever green is worn, Are changed, changed utterly”, there is implication that for independence to be a reality for the country, there is a need for social and political change, a condition he believed remained lacking in the revolutionary movements prior to the Easter Rising. Rebellion and Independence Though he criticizes the sense of nationality that motivated the Easter Rising, he points out that the event serves as a reality check as well as an inspiration for future independence initiatives.
He points out that the Easter Rising should serve as a lesson of what it means to be under the rule of a foreign power and the price of opposing such a power. Despite his personal feelings towards John MacBride, he groups him together with Thomas MacDonagh, Patrick Pearse, Thomas MacDonagh and James Connolly identifying them as men who are sacrificed for Irish independence. Prior to the Easter Rising, Yeats points out that everything was limited to debate which did not necessarily was for the benefit of furthering independence ideologies but was used as venue for personal showcasing.
In the line “as a mother names her child when sleep has come”, Yeats points out that only those who are willing to give the highest sacrifice, using to refer to death and the sacrifice of one’s life, will be recognized by the Ireland, represented by the mother. The suggestion is not a morbid one but rather is in recognition of the men who were executed in connection with the Easter Rising and future likelihood of future sacrifices for independence. Thus, though Yeats questions the nationalist movement that led to the Easter Rising, he considered the Easter Rising itself as an act true to the cause.
He considers the event as marker that Irish society and its views on nationalism and independence have “changed, changed utterly”. Yeats considers these changes had taken too long because of political debate and the lack of political will, contributing as well to the lack of fervor for true independence in society. In essence, Yeats believed that the rebellion parallel to social awakening and the beginning of the true struggle for independence. Conclusion
It should be noted that Yeats has an intimate understanding of the lack of political and social commitment to the ideologies of independence. Like many Irish, prior to the Easter Rising, independence issues was a topic for political debate grandstanding and did not reach popular audiences. The poem also marks a shift in Yeats views on the revolution: the action taken against the revolutionaries and the general pubic to implement control made him question the social value of the political status quo.
In summary, Yeats reservation of the nationalist movements that culminate to the Easter Rising rose from his sentiments that they were mired in politics and did not focus enough on social change and did not address the apathy, the “ignorant good-will” and the conformity that prevailed in Irish society. However, he also commends the Easter Rising as decisive albeit unsuccessful action to gain independence. In conclusion, his critique is that there is a need for action, reform and authenticity of ideology, a state that neither accommodates for personal or political grandstanding and romanticizing of the struggle for independence.