Easter 1916 by William Butler Yeats: Summary

The 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 B. Yeats (1865-1939)

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.

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Sharma, K.N. "Easter 1916 by William Butler Yeats: Summary." BachelorandMaster, 23 Nov. 2013, bachelorandmaster.com/britishandamericanpoetry/easter-1916.html.