W. B. Yeats
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Ireland is a beautiful island that bears the brunt of a painful past riddled with political and religious conflicts. The literature originating from Ireland reflects that turbulence and trauma. W. B. Yeats’s poem “Easter 1916” is an apt example. We need a fundamental understanding of the socio-cultural and political background of Ireland to appreciate this poem and its author. Ireland was ruled by a group of native Earls till the 17th century. But after these Earls were defeated in a war called the Battle of Kinsale, Ireland completely came under English rule and was annexed into the United Kingdom in 1801.
In the early years of the twentieth century, the main reason for the unrest in Ireland stemmed from Irish people’s distaste towards the English rule over their land. To make the situation worse, the Nationalists who were Catholics demanded independence and the Unionists who were Protestants sympathised with the crown and wanted to remain as part of the United Kingdom. The Unionists were affluent landowners and extended support to the British out of the fear of becoming a religious minority in Ireland where the common people were mostly Catholics.
After many political conflicts and protests, a Home Rule Act was passed in 1914 by the British to provide self-governing powers to Ireland, but it did not come into force mainly due to the onset of World War I. The British wanted the Irish to fight World War I along with them before implementing Irish Home Rule. This decision enraged the Irish people and they took up arms against the British in April 1916 and tried to establish the Irish Republic. But this uprising was thwarted by the British and they executed the Irish leaders who led the rebellion. This brutal execution shocked the public and it resulted in increased popular support for Irish Independence. The revolt is referred to as Easter Rising as it happened on Easter Monday of 1916. This inhuman historic incident is the central theme of the poem “Easter 1916.”
As a result of the Easter Rising and the resulting executions, between the years 1919 and 1921, a ruthless Guerrilla war known as the Irish War of Independence was fought between the Irish Republican Army and the English military. In 1920, the island of Ireland was divided into Irish Free State, a new independent self-governing territory with its own military under the British Empire and Northern Ireland. Ireland became a union of six counties under the rule of the United Kingdom. W.B. Yeats became a senator in Irish Free State. A civil war broke out in Ireland soon after the War of Independence and W.B. Yeats was alive to witness that as well. All these historical events deeply influenced his writings. Now let us take a deeper look at our author.William Butler Yeats, a dreamy and imaginative boy, was fascinated by Irish folk stories and mythology. He read Shakespeare to improve his bad spelling and grammar, and later became one of the most important figures in 20th century literature. He was a person who constantly reinvented himself and thus handled various roles in life, such as that of a poet, playwright, critic, theatre owner and even a politician. He revived the Irish literary scene in the late 19th and early 20th centuries along with fellow writers like Lady Gregory, Edward Martyn and others. Along with these writers, Yeats founded one of the most important cultural establishments in Ireland, the Abbey Theatre. W. B. Yeats initial writings were heavily influenced by the works of writers like Edmund Spenser and P.B. Shelley. But later on, William Blake became the chief influence on his writings. After a long and extensive career, Yeats won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1923.
Another important figure who influenced his writing was Maud Gonne, an Irish revolutionary and an actress who was the object of his unrequited love. She appears in his poems directly and indirectly. Even though the early poetry of Yeats is romantic, the later poetry is known for its realism. Today it is impossible to understand Anglo-Irish literature without studying W. B. Yeats. Some of his famous contemporaries include G.B. Shaw, Rudyard Kipling, James Joyce, T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound.
The Easter week of 1916 is remembered as one of the goriest weeks in the history of Ireland. When the British backed down from their promise to give independence to Ireland, the Irish revolutionaries took up arms and tried to overthrow the English rule. But the insurrection failed and to the shock of the public, Britain executed the leaders of the uprising. W.B. Yeats, despite being a nationalist, never supported adopting violent means to achieve a free Ireland. But the ghastly execution of the Irish leaders of the 1916 insurgence deeply affected him. He was a mere observer on the sidelines, while his fellow Irish men and women bravely sacrificed themselves. He was horrified by Britain’s brutality and as a tribute to the Irish martyrs, almost five years after the unrest, Yeats voiced his feelings through this poem. This poem was published in his collection Michael Robartes and the Dancer.
Revolution, Freedom, Martyrdom, Immortality, Sacrifice, Political Elegy
6.2.1 Stanza-wise Summary
The poem opens with the poet’s reminiscences of the people who were killed in the uprising. The poet met some of them usually at the end of the day. After work, they used to come out with bright-eyed faces from behind a counter or a desk. It is not surprising that these people were quite happy at the end of the day. Yeats says that whenever he crossed paths with them, he acknowledged them with a slight nod of the head or some informal conversation. Sometimes, he exchanged small talks with them. These trivial chats were mere courtesy talks.
During these interactions, he cooked up a funny story or some taunts to tell his friends later at the club. Here, the poet admits that he used to make fun of these common folks along with his elite companions. He openly admits that he was not an admirer of these revolutionaries before their martyrdom. But now, after the horrible executions, the poet feels as if all of these light-hearted conversations happened in an alternate world or time, a place where ‘motley is worn.’
“Motley” refers to vibrant clothes worn by clowns and jesters. Here, a figure of speech called metonymy is in play. The poet uses it to describe the light-heartedness of the time before the Easter Rebellion by referring to ‘motley’ clothes which embody the quality of cheerfulness and gaiety. Metonymy is a figure of speech where a thing or an idea is referred to by something closely associated with it. Clown costumes are associated with fun and triviality. Hence, he used the term “motley” to refer to the happy spirit of the time before the revolutionaries were killed.
[Let us come back to the narrative of our poem. The poet says, “those people lived in a place where motley is worn, where nothing serious ever happened but everything changed entirely.” I think you can guess what happened, right? As the title indicates, ‘Easter 1916’ happened. The title alludes to the crucifixion, sacrifice and resurrection of Jesus. In the poem, Yeats uses the allusion to recall the martyrdom of the revolutionaries on that date and how it bestows them with immortality. Ireland became alive to fight for its independence.]
A tragic dignity returned to Ireland on Easter 1916. “A terrible beauty” was born again. The rebels achieved greatness, heroism and beauty with their martyrdom. Terrible beauty is the sacrifice made by the rebels and their martyrdom resulted in awakening Ireland to fight for its independence with greater vigour. The expression “Terrible beauty” is repeated three times in the poem. ‘Terrible’ refers to the execution of the rebels and suggests emotions of pity, sadness and fear. ‘Beauty’ evokes feelings of honour, pride, romantic imagination, devotion and patriotism.
It seems strange that the poet is describing beauty as terrible, doesn’t it? Also, isn’t it bizarre that the poet is even using the word beauty in association with bloodshed? ‘Terrible beauty’ is an instance of oxymoron. It combines two words that have opposite meanings to highlight the paradox or to create a dramatic effect. Here, the incident of Easter 1916 possesses both the qualities of being terrible and beautiful. Even though the loss of lives is terrible, the fact that these revolutionaries were fighting for freedom makes it beautiful. Remember how gory events like the Wagon tragedy and the Jallianwala Bagh massacre fuelled India’s independence movement? Easter 1916 is an event akin to that. There is something beautiful about the events involving people’s self-sacrifice, even though they almost always unfold terribly.
Metonymy: Metonymy is a figure of speech where a thing or an idea is referred to by something closely associated with it. E.g., “Being certain that they and I / But lived where motley is worn.”
Oxymoron: An oxymoron is a figure of speech containing words that seem to contradict each other. It is often referred to as a contradiction in terms. E.g.: “A terrible beauty is born.”
In the second stanza of the poem, the poet talks about a few revolutionaries that he knew on a personal level. The first person that he talks about is a woman, Constance Markievicz. She fought for strong political causes without enough knowledge about it. In other words, she was misled by wrong notions and her strong political opinions were born out of goodwill rather than facts. She was so intense in her opinions that her voice grew shrill in her arguments. She used to be a sweet young lady who found delight in hobbies like hunting small animals. It is hard to believe that such a privileged person turned out to be a revolutionary, isn’t it? Perhaps that’s why the poet assumed that she was ignorant.
The second revolutionary Yeats mentions is Patrick Pearse. He was a teacher and rode the “winged horse”. Probably, it is an indication of his poetic talents. In Greek mythology, the winged horse named Pegasus is seen as a symbol of poetic inspiration. The next rebel who was killed in the uprising was Thomas MacDonagh, a friend and helper of Patrick Pearse. MacDonagh also had a knack for writing and was just gaining a reputation as a poet. He was a charming personality with courage of convictions.
It is quite obvious that Yeats is not fond of the last revolutionary. He is referred to as “A drunken, vainglorious lout.” It turns out that this man has wronged some people who are close to the poet’s heart. It was no secret to the readers of that time that the “uncouth drunk” in this poem is none other than Major John MacBride. Mac Bride was the estranged husband of Yeats’s true love Maud Gonne. But the poet sets aside his bitterness to commemorate the death of his rival. MacBride also lost his life in the revolution which Yeats refers to as “the casual comedy”. The poet still can’t embrace the logic of revolting for freedom and creating anarchy in society. This uprising has even transformed MacBride. It doesn’t matter what kind of life he led before the rebellion, now he has been transformed into a hero and a martyr.
Once again, the stanza is tied together with the oxymoron “A terrible beauty is born.” Since the poet repeatedly uses this line throughout the poem at the end of stanzas, we can call it a refrain. A refrain is a line, a group of lines or even a phrase that appears repeatedly in poems usually at the end of the stanzas to tether the poem together. It is a popular literary device and appears at regular intervals in certain poems. This particular refrain “A terrible beauty is born” is an iconic line from W.B. Yeats which is quoted quite often.
Refrain: A repeated line or number of lines in a poem or song, typically at the end of each verse. E.g.: “A terrible beauty is born.”
The third stanza of the poem is dedicated to depicting the unwavering will and determination of the revolutionaries. Their hearts have only one purpose and that is the freedom of their country. Their hearts are compared to a stone which suggests immovability and rigidity. It symbolises the tenacious determination of the insurgents through the imagery of a naturally formed stone in a flowing stream. Nature is constantly changing around the stone.
Seasons like summer and winter come and go. The riders and the horses passing along the side of the stream change. The birds and clouds above are in a state of mutation. Everything in nature changes minute by minute. Have you ever noticed the reflection of clouds in water? Even those reflections are moving and get transformed every minute. Yet the stone remains unchanged. Sometimes, a horse’s hooves slip into this stream and other times, the moor-hens and moor-cocks mate in the stream as well. Life goes on as usual but the stone remains unshaken and unchanged amidst everything. The stone is a symbol of single mindedness and the fervour of the rebels.
In the last stanza of the poem, Yeats’s scepticism regarding the uprising raises its head. When people dedicate their entire life to a single cause, their hearts can turn rigid. Using the image of the stone which he formerly employed to embody the strong will of the rebels, Yeats conveys a new meaning that prolonged commitments to political causes and constant sacrifices can turn people’s hearts hard like a stone.
The poet wonders whether these sacrifices are ever enough to fulfil the aim of the revolutionaries. Their aim is Irish Independence. But he answers his own thought by saying that it is the job of the almighty to decide whether these sacrifices are worthy or not. Our responsibility is to murmur the names of these martyrs like a mother. She names her children when her children fall asleep. Naming thus keeps them alive in the memories forever. Ireland must immortalize them and remember them.
In the last section, we can see the poet once again contemplating death and the sacrifice of the people that he used to know. He thinks aloud and remarks that ‘it’ must be like nightfall. Suddenly he clarifies that he is not literally talking about night but death. Even though he is in awe of these brave insurgents, he wonders whether the sacrifice of these revolutionaries is futile. Yeats’s authoritarian sympathies get the better off him. He is sure that the Irish would never have revolted if England had kept the word.
Next, he makes a cynical comment about the dream of the revolutionaries. Though they dreamt of an independent Ireland, they could not live to see an independent nation. The poet cannot understand the reason behind their sacrifice. He wonders whether their excess love for Ireland confused them. He also expresses his thoughts regarding the uprising and mentions some of the revolutionaries by their names. While some are mentioned by their names, some are indirectly referred to. Yeats says that these people have transformed everything. Whenever green is worn, these people will be remembered. The colour green represents Ireland and its culture. He concludes the poem with the same refrain used earlier providing uniformity to the structure of the poem.
W. B. Yeats was an ardent nationalist but he was always a moderate person when it came to politics. He was never a proponent of violence. But the sheer audacity and cruelty of the English shocked him into reconsidering certain views. The ideological disparity between Yeats and the revolutionaries killed in the uprising is quite obvious in the beginning. We can see how superficial was his relationship with some of these people. He never showed his disapproval of their political views to their faces which again reinforces the diplomatic nature of the poet.
Throughout the poem, we can see Yeats trying to come to terms with the realisation that there are certain people who prioritise public good over personal safety. He acknowledges everyone who lost their life including his rival John MacBride. This reveals how the bloodshed deeply shocked him. Yeats oscillates between praise for the rebels and disapproval regarding their cause. A close reading reveals certain ambivalence in the poetic voice. He makes disillusioned comments about the revolutionaries right after praising them.
Again, and again we see a man who is struggling to understand the sacrificial action of his friends that he himself would never do. Maybe that is what is pushing him to question too much. He was standing on the sidelines when his peers were being part of history. He repeatedly emphasises the fact that all these people have been transformed. It implies the heroic stature that they have achieved and the way they have altered the political landscape. It seems as if the poet slightly regrets his misgivings regarding the rebels’ readiness to achieve martyrdom. Maud Gonne severely criticised Yeats for his view of the heroes who embraced martyrdom. She claimed that these men were not ‘sterile fixed minds’ but served Ireland with varied faculties and vivid energy. To her, they were men of genius with large, comprehensive, speculative and active minds.