A Short Analysis of W. B. Yeats’s ‘Easter 1916’

By Dr Oliver Tearle

W. B. Yeats (1865-1939) wrote ‘Easter 1916’ in the summer of 1916, shortly after the Easter Rising in Dublin and when the events were still fresh in the memory. Yeats had conflicted feelings towards the rising – more details about which can be read here – since he deplored violence (in most cases) as a way of achieving Irish independence from the British. In ‘Easter 1916’, Yeats refers to a number of key figures in the struggle for Irish independence, although without naming them, so the poem requires a bit of analysis and context.

Easter 1916

I have met them at close of day
Coming with vivid faces
From counter or desk among grey
Eighteenth-century houses.
I have passed with a nod of the head
Or polite meaningless words,
Or have lingered awhile and said
Polite meaningless words,
And thought before I had done
Of a mocking tale or a gibe
To please a companion
Around the fire at the club,
Being certain that they and I
But lived where motley is worn:
All changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.

That woman’s days were spent
In ignorant good-will,
Her nights in argument
Until her voice grew shrill.
What voice more sweet than hers
When, young and beautiful,
She rode to harriers?
This man had kept a school
And rode our wingèd horse;
This other his helper and friend
Was coming into his force;
He might have won fame in the end,
So sensitive his nature seemed,
So daring and sweet his thought.
This other man I had dreamed
A drunken, vainglorious lout.
He had done most bitter wrong
To some who are near my heart,
Yet I number him in the song;
He, too, has resigned his part
In the casual comedy;
He, too, has been changed in his turn,
Transformed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.

Hearts with one purpose alone
Through summer and winter seem
Enchanted to a stone
To trouble the living stream.
The horse that comes from the road,
The rider, the birds that range
From cloud to tumbling cloud,
Minute by minute they change;
A shadow of cloud on the stream
Changes minute by minute;
A horse-hoof slides on the brim,
And a horse plashes within it;
The long-legged moor-hens dive,
And hens to moor-cocks call;
Minute by minute they live:
The stone’s in the midst of all.

Too long a sacrifice
Can make a stone of the heart.
O when may it suffice?
That is Heaven’s part, our part
To murmur name upon name,
As a mother names her child
When sleep at last has come
On limbs that had run wild.
What is it but nightfall?
No, no, not night but death;
Was it needless death after all?
For England may keep faith
For all that is done and said.
We know their dream; enough
To know they dreamed and are dead;
And what if excess of love
Bewildered them till they died?
I write it out in a verse—
MacDonagh and MacBride
And Connolly and Pearse
Now and in time to be,
Wherever green is worn,
Are changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.

‘A terrible beauty is born’: the words that end three of the four long stanzas that make up ‘Easter 1916’, with each new repetition of them changing them slightly. ‘All changed, changed utterly’. For among other things, ‘Easter 1916’ is about the tension between change and permanence, steadfastness and flexibility – and nowhere is this seen more clearly, perhaps, than in Yeats’s use of the stone in the third and fourth stanzas of ‘Easter 1916’.

This bears closer analysis: in the third stanza, Yeats presents the stone as something dependable and solid in the midst of a ‘living stream’: the waters may flow over it, but the stone remains. Yet in the fourth stanza, the emphasis on the stone shifts slightly:

Too long a sacrifice
Can make a stone of the heart.
O when may it suffice?

Summoning the old idiom about a ‘heart of stone’ – used here to describe revolutionaries whose empathy and compassion have been reduced by their dogged commitment to a cause – these lines mark a shift in the poem’s use of the stone as a symbol. What was a symbol of steadfastness is now a symbol of rigid inflexibility, even coldness.

Ironically, the stone, used to suggest something unchanging and constant, has itself changed in the course of the poem. (Note how ‘sacrifice’ and ‘suffice’ do not simply rhyme with each other, too: instead, ‘suffice’ is a thinning out of ‘sacrifice’, as if the grand gesture of renunciation for a cause has given way to something that is merely sufficient. What was once romantic idealism is now a mere matter of sticking to the course and seeing it through to the bitter end – whenever that may come.)

‘Easter 1916’ alludes to a number of specific figures involved in the struggle for Irish independence: the ‘woman’ referred to at the beginning of the second stanza is the Countess Markievicz, whom Yeats knew a little; the lines seem to regret the fact that her ‘voice grew shrill’, the louder and more vocal she became in her espousal for the revolutionary cause (note that Yeats goes on to mention that she once had a ‘sweet’ voice).

The ‘man [who] had kept a school / And rode our wingèd horse’ is Patrick Pearse, while his ‘other helper and friend’ is Thomas MacDonagh. Perhaps the most notable of all of the revolutionaries Yeats alludes to is John MacBride, who is mentioned by name in the final stanza alongside Pearse and MacDonagh: MacBride was the estranged husband of Maud Gonne, Yeats’s muse throughout his life.

Yeats loathed MacBride, and the lines in the second stanza about a ‘drunken, vainglorious lout’ who ‘had done most bitter wrong / To some who are near my heart’ refer to Yeats’s personal reasons for hating MacBride, given his mistreatment of Gonne. The personal and the political are thus combined.

The metre of ‘Easter 1916’ is difficult to analyse because, although it’s largely written in iambic trimeter, there are numerous variations and Yeats doesn’t stick doggedly to the iambic metre. This gives the verse a sense of unpredictability which echoes the revolutionary event the poem responds to. The repeated line, ‘A terrible beauty is born’, which may have been inspired by Ford Madox Ford’s 1915 poem ‘Antwerp’, presents us with an oxymoron that almost calls up the Sublime, and that mixture of awe and terror which so arrested and captivated the Romantics. What will the events of the Easter Rising mean for the future of Ireland? When he wrote ‘Easter 1916’, Yeats could not tell.

In turn, Yeats’s great poem about a momentous point in Irish history would inspire W. H. Auden (who wrote a poem in memory of Yeats in 1939) when writing his poem about another momentous event and another war: ‘September 1, 1939’, about Germany’s invasion of Poland, uses a similar rhyme scheme and metre to that used by Yeats in ‘Easter 1916’.

About W. B. Yeats

William Butler Yeats (1865-1939) is one of the greatest of all Irish poets. His first collection, Crossways, appeared in 1889 when he was still in his mid-twenties, and his early poetry bore the clear influence of Romanticism. As his career developed and literary innovations came with modernism in the early decades of the twentieth century, Yeats’s work retained its focus on traditional verse forms and rhyme schemes, but he became more political, more allusive, and more elliptical.

His late work, such as his 1927 poem ‘Sailing to Byzantium’, about growing old, show a thoughtful and contemplative poet whose imagery and references defy easy exegesis (what exactly does the ancient city of Byzantium represent in this poem?). And yet, at the same time, there is a directness to his work which makes readers feel personally addressed, and situates his work always at one remove from more famous modernist poets (such as T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound).

Yeats died in 1939. Throughout much of his life, a woman named Maud Gonne was his muse. Yeats asked her to marry him several times, but she always refused. She knew she could be of more use to him as a muse than as a wife or lover. Yeats was in favour of Irish independence but, in poems such as ‘Easter 1916’ which respond to the Easter Rising, he reveals himself to be uneasy with the violent and drastic political and military methods adopted by many of his compatriots. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1923.

Discover more of Yeats’s greatest poetry with The Major Works including poems, plays, and critical prose (Oxford World’s Classics). Continue to explore his work with our summary of his celebrated late poem ‘Lapis Lazuli, our commentary on ‘An Irish Airman Foresees His Death’, and our thoughts on ‘The Lake Isle of Innisfree’.

The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.

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