“A Terrible Beauty is Born”: The Easter Rising of 1916 through the Eyes of W.B. Yeats

Historical background: The Easter Rising of 1916

On Easter Monday, men and women went to fight for an independent Ireland. The battle raged for six days and resulted in the destruction of many parts of Dublin city. The bloody executions of the leaders by the British after the Rising awakened a generation to the cause of Irish Freedom.

  • Kostick Conor & Collins, Lorcan “The Easter Rising: A guide to Dublin”.

barricade Easter Rising 1916
Credit: New States Man

The Easter rising of 1916 was considered as a prelude to the independence of Ireland, finally achieved in 1921. The Uprising took place in Dublin city, although it was supposed to be developed all over the country. Most of the British soldiers were fighting in the First World War (1914 – 1918) at that time. Therefore, taking the war as an advantage, the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) decided to plan a rising.

On the 24th, April, the rebels of the IRB together with the Irish Volunteers and the Irish Citizen Army settled in some strategic buildings of Dublin. One of those buildings was the General Post Office. There, Patrick Pearse, one of the leaders of the rebellion, declared the independence of Ireland and set a provisional government. British soldiers did not expect the rebellion and they had several casualties – around 234 approximately -.

Manifesto proclaiming the Irish Republic
Credit: Wikipedia

However, the rebellion did not have all the support necessary to face the British forces: on the one hand, Irish rebels were expecting a shipment of arms and ammunition from Germany, but the British soldiers intercepted the ship and the cargo never arrived. On the other hand, they did not have support either from the Irish population itself.

Consequences

As a result, the rising failed after six days of battling: the city centre of Dublin was practically destroyed, together with more than 2,000 people dead or injured. Once the rising was completely over, the British government arrested the rebels and executed the main leaders of the rising:

  1. Éamonn Ceannt,
  2. Thomas James Clarke
  3. James Connolly

    Executed leaders in the Easter Rising 1916
    Credit: Rebel Dublin
  4. Thomas MacDonagh
  5. Patrick Pearse
  6. Joseph Mary Plunkett
  7. Seán MacDiarmada,
  8. Roger Casement
  9. Con Colbert
  10. Edward Daly
  11. Seán Heuston
  12. John MacBride,
  13. Michael Mallin
  14. Michael O’Hanrahan
  15. William Pearse

However, despite the failure, this sacrifice was not meaningless at all. The executed leaders became martyrs and these events encouraged Irish people to get independence: two years later, Sinn Féin – an independent political party – constituted an Irish Parliament in 1918 after the general elections in the UK.

Concurrently, the Irish Republican Army (IRA) declared war against the British in 1919, which ended in 1921. As a result, they signed the Anglo-Irish treaty, which established Ireland as a free state (except for Northern Ireland). Ireland was eventually proclaimed as an independent country on April 18, 1949.

William Butler Yeats: Easter, 1916

William Butler Yeats was an Irish poet born in Dublin on June 13, 1865. In the 1880s, Yeats met writers such as Lionel Johnson, Oscar Wilde, and George Bernard Shaw. He also met Maud Gonne, a revolutionary woman who was a supporter of Irish independence. Yeats fell in love with her and she became the muse of his poetry: he dedicated The Countess Kathleen to her, among others. Likewise, he met John O’Leary, an Irish patriot who was exiled for revolutionary nationalistic activities. He inculcated to Yeats the necessity of showing Irish matters in his literary work so that it became a source of inspiration for him.

In 1922, he became senator of the new Republic of Ireland, and in 1923 he won the Nobel Prize for Literature. He also founded the Irish Academy of Letters in 1932.

William Butler Yeats
Credit: The Poetry Foundation

Yeats provided new paths for the English poetry movement, introducing themes and a poetic language that would leave its influence throughout the 20th century. He would continue to write poetry until the end of his life with an intensity and quality that surprised the critics. Finally, he died on January 28, 1939, in Menton, France.

Easter 1916 is a political poem in which Yeats portrays all his contradictory and complex feelings towards the events that happened in 1916. It was published in 1921, in the collection Michael Robartes and the Dancer.

Summary

Easter 1916 (click on the link to read the poem) is divided into three main parts. The first part corresponds to lines 1 – 16, the second part in lines 17 – 40, and the third part in lines 41 – 80.

First part

In the first stanza, Yeats moves us to his city, Dublin. There, he describes he meets with some friends and interchanges some “polite meaningless words” with them (lines 6 and 8). He also entertains them with “a mocking tale or a gibe” (line 10).

However, the poem shifts significantly when Yeats makes a criticism of his country: “being certain that they had and I / but lived where motley is worn” (lines 13 and 14). He concludes the first stanza with the key verse which will be repeated during all the poem: “All changed, changed utterly / a terrible beauty is born” (lines 15 and 16).

Second part

In the second stanza, Yeats is mentioning indirectly some of the rebels of the rising. For instance, there is a clear reference to one of the main leaders of the rebellion, the teacher Patrick Pearse: “This man had kept a school / and rode our winged horse” (lines 24 and 25). He also makes references to John MacBride. In fact, as MacBride was married to the woman Yeats had always loved, Maud Gonne, he speaks about him with some sort of rancour:

This other man I have 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

(Lines 31 – 37)

Third part

To conclude, in the third stanza, Yeats encourages and praises the actions taken by his friends. He is constantly using natural elements such as stone, horse, birds, clouds, or stream:

Hearts with one purpose alone
Through summer and winter seem
Enchanted to a stone
To trouble the living stream

(Lines 41 – 44)

However, Yeats also wonders if the sacrifice was actually worthy or not: “was it needless death after all?” (line 67).  He describes how the protagonists died because of fighting for their dreams and makes references to them but this time using their names:

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

(Lines 69–75)

Language: theme, tone, mood and imagery

The theme is the main idea or meaning of a poem. Easter 1916 is a political poem about sacrifice, change, admiration, and immortality. The author aims to commemorate the admirable sacrifice that the rebels made for Irish freedom in 1916. Although most of them died, they and their actions will be remembered forever and transmitted over generations, being immortal for Irish people.

Propaganda of the Easter Rising 1916
Credit: Celtic Life International

The tone is the attitude of the poet towards the audience, whereas mood is the general emotion of the poem. In Easter 1916, Yeats is speaking to the audience and he is showing his emotions about the conflict. He had very contradictory feelings about the rising and all the events related to Ireland: even though he was a supporter of independence, he despised violence. The poem reflects his fascination and shock at the heroism shown by his compatriots, many of them his friends. He mixes personal considerations of his coexistence in Dublin with the executed leaders. Finally, Yeats reflects on the validity and significance of the sacrifice made.

The technique of imagery consists of using certain words to create visual representations in our minds. For instance, when Yeats is describing his encounter with some friends: “to please a companion / around the fire at the bar” (lines 11–12). Another example that is full of imagery is:

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 a cloud on the stream
Changes minute by minute;
A horse-hoof slides on the brim,
And a horse plashes within it;

(Lines 45 – 52)

Literary devices

Writers use literary devices to convey deeper meanings through enhancing techniques that make the text more beautiful or even more mysterious, depending on the author’s purpose. Those techniques consist of different symbolisms and figurative meanings: metaphors, similes, metonymy, paradoxes, etc.

Symbolism

  • Line 25 – “and rode our winged horse”: that horse symbolizes Pegasus, a mythological creature from Ancient Greece.
  • Line 43 – “enchanted to a stone / To trouble the living stream”: the stone stands for the people who died at the rising. Yeats establishes a connection between them with a stone as a way of symbolizing that they are unmovable.

Metaphors

Metaphors can be defined as a way of emphasizing the similarities of one thing using a word or phrase which means something different.

Example: “no, no, no, not night but death” (Line 66).

The poet is using the word night but instead, he is actually referring to death.

Similes

Similes are comparisons of two different things to show certain similarities between them.

Example: “to murmur name upon name / as a mother names her child” (Lines 61–62)

Yeats equalizes the fact of murmuring names as mothers do with their children with naming the names of the victims of the rising.

Metonymy

Metonymy is the use of the name of one thing for that of another of which it is an attribute or with which it is associated.

Example: “but lived where motley is worn” (Line 14)

Yeats pretends to somehow ‘play’ with the normal association of the clown attire. Using that, he makes the audience associate that with his criticism towards Ireland as a ‘silly’ country.

Example 2: “wherever green is worn” (Line 78)

Yeats is associating the colour green with Ireland.

Paradox

A paradox is a sentence that apparently looks self-contradictory but that at the same time has some truth in it.

For example, the clearest paradox is when Yeats uses “a terrible beauty is born”, which is the chorus of the poem.

Beauty stands for the positive things, like the admiration of the heroes’ sacrifice. On the other hand, terrible stands for the horror that Yeats felt towards war and violence.

Synecdoche

Synecdoche consists of using part of something to refer to a whole, or the opposite.

Example: “hearts with one purpose alone” (Line 41).

The heart in this verse is a symbol that represents all the Irish people who were driven by a single purpose: freedom.

Conclusion

Patrick Pearse proclaiming the Irish Republic in the General Post Office
Credit: Pinterest

Easter 1916  is, without a doubt, one of the best political poems of the 20th century in the history of English literature. Ultimately, with this poem, Yeats wanted on the one hand, to immortalize the heroic sacrifice of the leaders of the rising. And on the other hand, he also wanted to emphasize the idea that, as the poem says, all have changed, changed utterly. As Patrick Pearse said:

“You cannot conquer Ireland; you cannot extinguish the Irish passion for freedom. If our deed has not been sufficient to win freedom, then our children win it by a better deed.”

References

Books:

  • Cruise O’Brien, Conor & Cruise O’Brien, Maire. “Ireland, a Concise History”
  • Jordan, Carmel. “A terrible beauty: The Easter Rebellion ad Yeats’s great Tapestry”. Bucknell University Press, 1987.
  • Kendall, Tim. “The Oxford Handbook of British and Irish War Poetry”. Chapter 12: ‘Easter, 1916: Yeats’ First World War Poem’ by Majorie Perloff. Oxford University Press, 2007
  • Kostick, Conor & Collins, Lorcan. “The Easter Rising: A guide to Dublin in 1916”. Osprey, 2000.
  • Medina Casado, Carmelo. “Poetas Ingleses del Siglo XX”. Editorial Síntesis, 2014.
  • Smith, Stan. “Irish Poetry and the Construction of Modern Identity”. Dublin: Irish Academic Press, 2005

Internet sources:

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