Ireland Easter 1916 – William Butler Yeats
We didn’t plan our Ireland trip this summer to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the Easter 1916 nationalist uprising in Ireland, but we’re pleased it’s worked out that way.
One of our deepest desires for this trip is that our participants finish feeling that, not only have they experienced the physical beauty of Ireland, not only have they stretched their bodies in yoga practice and their pens in writing practice, but that they’ve stretched themselves intellectually as well, learning about Irish history and its links to Irish literature.
In that vein, and in tribute to one of William Butler Yeats most memorable poems, here is a video of Liam Neeson reading “Easter 1916”.
A terrible beauty is born. (Below the YouTube embed is a short summary and analysis of the poem).
“Easter 1916” is a poem about an Irish nationalist plan to overthrow the British reign in Ireland. About fifteen hundred people participated in this revolutionary plot to seize the government office building of Dublin on Easter morning.
Three hundred of them were killed on the spot, and over two hundred people were taken prisoner and tortured.
Yeats and many others had advised the plotters not to proceed after the Irish ship importing weapons from Germany had been intercepted by the British army a week before.
Most of the leaders of the rebellion were prominent in Irish Nationalist circles. In the opening stanza of the poem Yeats tells of how he would sometimes chance to meet them on the street as they came out of work. They had “vivid” faces, perhaps hinting at the energy and idealism to come.
Yeats would have known most of them personally having dabbled in Nationalist politics himself as a young man. He tells how he would stop and exchange pleasantries or “polite meaningless words” but he did not take them seriously. Indeed, he would be just as likely to mock them and tell amusing stories about them when he met his friends later in his club.
In the second stanza Yeats presents the stories of the people who participated in the revolution.
“That woman’s days were spent” – refers to the Countess Markiewicz who was a prominent Irish nationalist and campaigner — unlike the other major figures in the rebellion, Countess Markiewicz was spared from execution because she was a woman.. She was a lifetime friend of Yeats who knew her when she was young. He comments that her voice was sweet when she was young but numerous nights of endless argument had made it shrill. Yeats had been interested in Nationalism but had grown tired of it as he got older. The way the Easter Rising reinvigorates people’s appetite for Nationalism is one the main themes of the poem.
“This man kept a school” – Patrick Pearce had founded St Enda’s School, which steered pupils towards the Irish language and Irish culture. The “winged horse” is a reference to the Greek mythological figure Pegasus, a symbol of poetry. The reference alludes to the fact that Pearse was a poet. “A terrible beauty is born” – Pearce read the Proclamation of independence at the General Post Office where the Rising began.
Thomas MacDonagh, Pearce’s helper and friend, was a promising poet and critic. The fact that the Easter Rising was led by poets and other non military people leads Yeats to describe the Rising as “a casual comedy.”
“This other man” – refers to John MacBride, whom Yeats describes as a “vainglorious lout”. As a young man, Yeats had fallen in love with the beautiful actress and nationalist, Maud Gonne. She refused his offer of marriage several times and instead married John MacBride. The two later divorced, referred to in the lines, “He had done most bitter wrong, to some who are near my heart”.
James Connolly doesn’t appear with the other characters in the second stanza but is named in the fourth stanza. He was a union leader who also took part in the Rising. He was so badly wounded that he was unable to stand before the firing squad, so he was tied in his chair before being executed. The manner of his death in particular, outraged the Irish public.
In the third stanza Yeats talks about the people who had only one purpose in mind — the liberation of Ireland from the rule of the English. This had united their hearts. The obsession of the liberation of Ireland made them an unchanging object in a world of change and flux. The horses, the riders, the stream, the birds and clouds, all these represent that changeability.
“The stone” was considered sacred to the Tuatha De Danaan – a mythical tribe who according to legend once ruled Ireland. The Stone of Destiny, and also countless other stones dotted across Ireland, have had a symbolic resonance for thousands of years. In this stanza, Yeats uses the image of the stone to highlight the constancy and determination of the rebels.
Yeats had drifted away from nationalism as he got older. The leaders of the Rising, however, have “hearts with one purpose alone”. These men Yeats names are like stones, troubling the normal flow of life, just as the flowing water of a stream is impeded by a stone that lies in its way.
In the fourth stanza Yeats steps away from symbolism and starts asking hard questions. Have the long years of sacrifice hardened the hearts of the rebels to a point where they have lost perspective? Was their sacrifice worth it, “for England may keep faith”? This question refers to a pledge the British Government made in 1914 that it would introduce Home Rule for Ireland once the Great World War was over. Had the rebels waited a few years, they might have achieved Home Rule without any bloodshed.
In the end, the question was moot because the Easter Rising led to the Irish War of Independence and the Home Rule Bill was never enacted.
The last stanza pays tribute to all the rebels who sacrificed their lives. Yeats questions whether excess of love has overpowered the rebels … love for their country, for freedom, for justice. There is no way of knowing. All we can says is that “We know their dream; enough / To know they dreamed and are dead.”
The final lines of the poem return to the familiar refrain about a terrible beauty being born. This time Yeats refers to “wherever green is worn”. Green is used here as a symbol of Irish nationalism but it is also a symbol of new life and renewal. The “terrible beauty” is also a symbol of hope to people everywhere who feel oppressed and want to achieve freedom.