Easter, 1916 by W B Yeats is set in the aftermath of the Easter Rising of 1916, when a small group of Irish nationalists led a rebellion to overthrow British rule and establish an independent Ireland.
It was a strange kind of rebellion. Ireland’s professional soldiers – a quarter of a million of them – were fighting for the British Army against Germany. The rebellion was therefore left to a group of idealists. – poets and philosophers – rather than to military men.
It was was quickly put down and looked to be a complete failure – a “casual comedy” as Yeats put it. Yet, in spite of this, it went on to become a turning point in Irish history.
Irish public opinion was largely hostile to the rebellion at first, but that changed when the leaders were executed. The executions were seen as a brutal over-reaction and turned Irish opinion against Britain and in favour of the Nationalists. In this way, as Yeats puts it, a “terrible beauty is born”.
Easter, 1916 gives Yeats’ view of the rebels from the days before the Rising and relates how those views changed afterwards.
First stanza – a terrible beauty is born
Most of the leaders were prominent in Irish Nationalist circles. In the opening 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 would therefore 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.
He thought that he and the rebels only lived where “motley” is worn, that is a reference to clothes of any colour without any particular significance or belief. This contrasts with the idealism summed in the phrase “wherever green is worn” at the end of the poem.
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