Easter 1916 Short Analysis Essays
Yeats starts the poem off by talking about the dudes he runs into in the street when the shops and offices are closing up around Dublin. He basically makes superficial small talk with them, saying "polite meaningless words" (6). And every now and then, he'll tell a funny story that might get a laugh at the bar. But he doesn't really value his interactions with any of these people. So yeah—dude's a bit of a snooty jerk.
Next, Yeats breaks off and starts going through a list of all the people who were involved with the Easter Uprising of 1916. He mentions a woman who helped out with the effort, along with some other guys who might have had bright futures if they hadn't gotten themselves executed for treason. One guy was even responsible for hurting people close to Yeats, and Yeats didn't think much of him. But still, Yeats is getting a little uncertain about his superiority, and is starting to wonder if these people he's mentioning might actually be heroes.
As he continues, Yeats compares these fighters and their unchanging dedication to a rock that sitting at the bottom of a stream. The stream and the nature around it keep changing, but the stone remains unmoved. At the end of the day, Yeats isn't sure how much he admires the people he's talking about. But he definitely has learned to respect them and the sacrifice they made for something they believed in.
Yeats closes the poem by repeating the phrase "A terrible beauty is born," which he's mentioned several times in the poem. Basically, this phrase closes the poem by suggesting that even though the deaths of the Easter Uprising are terrible, history tends to remember bloody battles and self-sacrifice more than anything else. So with regards to being remembered, there's kind of a terrible beauty in the death that came out of Easter, 1916.
The poem begins by paying tribute to the Irish people for leaving behind their previously mundane, trivial lives to dedicate themselves to the fight for independence. In lines which become a refrain, Yeats proclaims, “All changed, changed utterly: A terrible beauty is born.”
The second stanza singles out individual martyrs, killed or imprisoned for their activities, among them his childhood friend Countess Markiewicz (nee Constance Gore-Booth) and Major John MacBride, the husband of Maud Gonne, the woman Yeats had loved long and unrequited. Although he had considered MacBride merely “a drunken, vainglorious lout,” Yeats acknowledges that he too has been ennobled by his heroism.
Stanza 3 notes paradoxically that these martyrs are all changed in that they have become unchanging: their hearts, united by one purpose, have become unchanging as stone, in disturbing contrast to the living stream of ordinary human life. In a characteristic shift of mood, Yeats uses the stone metaphor to warn of the danger of fanaticism: “Too long a sacrifice can make a stone of the heart.”
The final stanza raises but quickly abandons essentially unanswerable questions about the duration and value of the Irish struggle and the trustworthiness of England’s promise of independence. Instead Yeats confines himself to the more modest task of paying tribute to the fallen patriots by naming them with the tenderness of a mother naming her child. While acknowledging the awful finality of death, Yeats proclaims the meaningfulness of their enterprise, in which they doffed the “motley” of their former clownish days to don green in a life both terrible and beautiful in its purpose.
With rare compression, Yeats not only succeeds in expressing his ambivalence about patriotism in general and about the Irish cause in particular, but he also allows the reader to follow sympathetically the shifts of thought and feeling in the troubled mind of a poet who is both critical and compassionate.