Poetry Analysis of ‘Easter, 1916’ by William Butler Yeats

Old books with poetry for Easter

Old Poetry about Easter. Photo via Wikimedia Commons, CC-BY-SA-2.0 .

Hello there, Easter parfait peeps! How are you? I hope you are settling in for a wonderful weekend ahead!

With Easter coming our way, I thought it would be good timing to feature and review William Butler Yeats’ poem “Easter, 1916.” If you do not know it, the full version of the intriguing poem is available at the link above.

Political Origins of ‘Easter, 1916’ by William Butler Yeats

The poem “Easter 1916” has its base in politics. In his poem, William Butler Yeats is referring to the Easter Rising (also called the Easter Rebellion), which was a series of events that took place in Ireland in 1916. The political uprising was planned by Irish republicans whose goal was to take over British rule in the area. The uprising officially began on April 24, 1916, and it lasted just under a week. Unfortunately, many revolutionaries were killed for their efforts.

While the uprising proved unsuccessful, it did inspire Yeats to write “Easter, 1916,” which was first published in 1921. It is ones of his most well-known works today and said to be a major breakthrough for his career. Originally, “Easter, 1916” was published in the book Michael Robartes and the Dancer.

First Stanza Analysis of ‘Easter, 1916’ by William Butler Yeats

The Yeats poem ‘Easter, 1916’ begins with the lines:

I have met them at close of day
Coming with vivid faces
From counter or desk among grey

These lines evoke in the reader thoughts of a person walking the streets of Ireland, taking in the atmosphere and being one with their region. The poetic words “desk among grey” refer to the city life and hint of a lack of enthusiasm for the work life. Yeats uses the “I” perspective to be able to provide his own perspectives on what was happening in Ireland and provide an intimate feeling to the troubled times. He wrote the poem shortly after the Easter Uprising was brought to its end.

The “vivid” faces are described as lively in “Easter, 1916” as they were likely youths who want to take over the British rule to gain independence for their homeland. The first stanza then moves from empowerment to a more somber tone with its last line, which is:

A terrible beauty is born.

This line holds a lot of meaning. It is a reference to the Easter Rising, where many Irish people died as they tried to overcome British rule. The words “terrible beauty” are opposites, just as the goal of the rising was to create peaceful rule yet instead brought about the opposite effect, which was bloodshed and death by violent means. The phrase “terrible beauty” is an oxymoron.

Easter, 1916 is written by poet Yeats

Ah yes, poet William Butler Yeats. Photo via Wikimedia Commons, CC-BY-SA-3.0.

Second Stanza of ‘Easter, 1916’ Poetry Analysis

The second stanza then describes the revolting Irish people who ended up losing their lives. The lady described in the stanza was Countess Constance Markievicz, who is described by the BBC as the “Larkinite rebel countess.” She was a politician and socialist who participated in the uprising, later being forced into surrender and sentenced to prison.

Also referenced later in the second stanza is Patrick Henry Pearse, a writer and revolutionary who helped plan the Easter Rising. Like Markievicz, he was forced to surrender. His death came soon after, by a firing squad. The line “a terrible beauty is born” then repeats, providing a powerful end to the stanza with the use of repetition.

On the Third Stanza of Poetry Written by William Butler Yeats

Profile photo of poet Yeats

Poet William Butler Yeats. Photo via Wikimedia Commons, public domain.

In the third stanza, the reader is taken to images of a stream, a road, a horse and birds. These things all symbolize parts of the uprising. Poet William Butler Yeats tried to make sense of the deaths and the revolt that did not go as the Irish people had planned.

He explains in the poem that the Irish “hearts with one purpose alone” were “enchanted” by a stone to drop it in a “living stream.” In other words, they wanted to change the structure of the ruling system in Ireland or change the way the stream’s current ran.

The birds Yeats described are flying along in the sky, just as the days continued to pass after the revolutionaries were arrested or killed.

‘Easter, 1916’: The Final Stanza by William Butler Yeats

In the fourth and final stanza, William Butler Yeats began with the lines:

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

And, so, the stone becomes linked to the heart. In this reference, the reader is led to think of the stone heart as encompassing all of Ireland. Indeed, there was much unrest amongst the people there, as proven by the existence of the Easter Rising.

The tone was sorrowful in as William Butler Yeats wrote:

We know their dream; enough
To know they dreamed and are dead

This harsh image is a tough one, even today, to digest. That the Irish people fought for independence, their shared dream, and yet many were killed in the end is a tragic notion to digest. It is obvious that Yeats felt Ireland was in a state of chaos and he was sending the message that things needed to change. He was also expressing pain about the passing of many well-known revolutionaries.

And tragic too is the way “Easter, 1916” ends, with the powerful line echoed again:

A terrible beauty is born.

Yeats gives a poetry quote at Easter

Quote by William Butler Yeats. Photo: QuotesEverlasting, CC BY 2.0, via Flickr

Personal Reflections on ‘Easter, 1916’

On a personal note, I find this poetry by William Butler Yeats is quite fascinating because it is so different from the traditional images of Easter. There is no mention of bunnies or chocolate, and happiness is overridden by the later “stones” in the poem. Looking back in history, we see the battles many places such as Ireland have had. We see also that people tried to reach for a better life, but did not get the ends they sought, at that time.

As we head into Easter, I send you a kind wave and remind you that freedom is never something to be taken for granted.

~Christy xo

©2015 Christy Birmingham

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63 thoughts on “Poetry Analysis of ‘Easter, 1916’ by William Butler Yeats

  1. Clanmother

    Every time I read this poem, I am profoundly moved by the emotional complexity. While Yeats was against violence as a means to secure Irish independence, his anguish and shock at the deaths of participants can be felt in his words. Thank you for an excellent post.

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  2. Aquileana

    Hello Christy

    What a wonderful post and such a different approach of Easter Times…
    Your review is perfectly articulated and help edme to appreciate the successive layers, context and symbolic meanings of Yeats’ poem.

    One of the poetic resources that really caught my attention is that the poet links the idea of change and transformtion with the idea of “a terrible budding beauty”.

    We can see that he does that in three of the four stanzas of “Easter 1916” and always in the last two verses
    ►1st : “All changed, changed utterly: A terrible beauty is born”.
    ►2nd: “Transformed utterly:A terrible beauty is born”.
    ►4th: “Are changed, changed utterly: A terrible beauty is born”.

    It seems that the revolutionary strategy did change the nearby surroundings.
    The images conjure up a grotesque metamorphosis of ugliness and death.
    In the third stanza the same idea of changes appears:
    ►”Minute by minute they change”. And “Changes minute by minute”..

    I agree with you when you said that repetition here is used as a way to emphazise a sorrowful feeling of loss

    I also found that there is a straight link between the last two verses of the third stanza and the first two verses of the fourth and last stanza.

    They do make sense as whole and summarize the ending result of the failed uprising:

    ►Minute by minute they live: / The stone’s in the midst of all.
    ►Too long a sacrifice/ Can make a stone of the heart.

    Amazing share.
    Thanks a lot for your review and for teaching us about Yeats´poem.
    Happy Easter, Aquileana 🙂

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    1. Christy Birmingham Post author

      Hi Aqui,

      How great to read your additional thoughts about the poem! You point out more about the repetitions within the poem and the other literary qualities that Yeats is well known for. His pain seethes between the lines of his poem here and it really is another way to look at Easter. History is full of the good and bad moments and it is amazing how they can be penned with poetry.

      Your thoughts are well explained and I’m so grateful for them… and for you! Thanks Aqui for your support and friendship. Happy Easter to you too! ((Hugs))

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  3. syl65

    Thank you for sharing such wonderful insight into Yeats’ poem. A cause for inner reflection about the freedoms we have and you’re right about not taking anything for granted. I will read this on Easter. Thank you Christy.

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  4. prince2000ful Poems Videos and Photoes.

    Many thanks dear Christy for your wonderful site.. And for sharing this poem of Yeats´and I like the way you includes your thoughts about the poem and what it evokes to you.. Reflection is absolutely on place.. Have a splendid Easter and I will see you on our other chat.. Love to you Kerstin

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  5. Valentine Logar

    Wonderfully done analysis Christy. I don’t think I have ever paid any attention to the underlying meaning, though I have read the poem before. I appreciate both your analysis and your thoughts. Thank you for both.

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    1. Christy Birmingham Post author

      Val, it’s amazing isn’t it how when we know the story behind a poem it can add so many layers to the meaning. Thanks for stopping by and for the appreciation. On an unrelated note, do you know how best I can reach Redmund Pro? I have tried many emails without success. Any help is appreciated.

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  6. penpusherpen

    Using Poetry gets deep into the heart of terrible times such as these Christy, and shares emotions, pain, betrayal and death in a way that reaches everyone … Thankyou for the sharing of your thoughts twin. Happy Easter to you and yours… xPenx

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    1. Christy Birmingham Post author

      Pen, poetry does have such a special way of delving into emotions… you are quite right there. Thanks for taking time here and understanding the messages. Happy Easter to you too! xo

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  7. The Regular Guy NYC

    Wonderful analysis of Yeats’ poem. It is quite different from the normal images of Easter that we all know. It was such a tragic battle for Ireland’s independence and that land has long been involved in much strife.

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    1. Christy Birmingham Post author

      Yes Phil, it’s a different take here on Easter for sure. A bit of a history lesson too! Thank-you for taking time with us and with Ireland here. I hope your holiday weekend is a nice one.

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  8. Maxima

    Easter is a promise of joy and renewal
    May this one before us
    Marks a new beginning
    Of happiness, love and prosperity.
    Wishing you a Happy Easter
    With love maxima

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  9. irinadim

    Thank you for this fine analysis, Christy. The poem comes to life when its background and symbolism is explained, and you have done it so well. I haven’t read this poem before, so I’m really glad I learnt about it. Happy Easter to you! Hugs 🙂 Irina

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  10. simon7banks

    Thanks, Christy. I think Yeats is more ambivalent even than you suggest. He intensely disliked violence and feared disorder. He admires the revolutionaries and celebrates their sacrifice, but the image of the stone in the river “Too long a sacrifice/ Can make a stone of the heart”) suggests he fears the revolution will lead to fanaticism, already contained fanaticism. Six years later he was writing “Mediatations in Time of Civil War” and his fears had been realised.

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  11. Kourtney Heintz

    That’s a great reminder, Christy. There are so many things we take as givens that others had to fight so hard for. Yeats is a favorite poet of mine. I even memorized one of his poems as a child. Yup, mega dork.

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  12. Mike

    You have done great justice to this saddest – and last – of the great nationalistic poems of colonial Ireland. It was one of the few poems on the school curriculum that touched me as a teenager and it can still roll a tremble down my spine. Pearse (35) was a poet, a primary school teacher whose first play had just been performed – as a writer he “was coming into his force/He might have won fame in the end/So sensitive his nature seemed/So daring and sweet his thought”. A rifle was a foreign instrument to him. He refused a blindfold a week later. The others had fascinating backgrounds too but I understand most what Yeats meant when he spoke of Pearse. His repetition of his ‘terrible beauty’ here foreshadows that of all the leaders, Pearse became the symbolic martyr whose death would incite revenge. Thank you for this thoughtful and respectful review Christy.

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    1. Christy Birmingham Post author

      Mike, thank-you for adding even more detail to this post with your words about Pearse. I’m glad you shared your personal history with the poem too. I wasn’t sure how the post would be received but I am so glad now that I published it. Take care.

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  13. Gallivanta

    Thanks for the reminder of other terrible events that were happening, aside from WWl. As you saw in my post on Anzac Day, we can become so focused on one tragedy that we tend to forget other struggles of the era.

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  14. Pingback: Poetry Analysis of 'Easter, 1916' by William Bu...

  15. Hygienus Emmanuel

    In my own opinion, the line: ” A terrible beauty is born”, suggests the death of the revolutionists and the freedom of Ireland through it. So that in the end, the long anticipated Irish freedom(beauty) is achieved at a price of the revolutionists lives (terrible). It is an oxymoron aimed at making the ready pause and think outside the box.

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  16. beebeesworld

    I love WB Yeats, Robert frost as well. I think I have put Yeat’s poem, Brown Penny on before. I might do it again. I remember a Robert Frost poem that I learned in 5th grade. I guess that is when I started loving poetry. We see to have similar taste. Some of the poets from the past have a beautiful way of expressing themselves that it seems young authors have lost. Though Robert Frost was “poet laureate” under President Kennedy , and Yeats from across the pond in an earlier time, there is great passion in their work! Beebee

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  17. Phil Ryan

    Thanks again, Christy. In a couple of days you’ve introduced me to Frost and Yeats. Who else have you got in your address book/on speed dial?
    I think…. Yeats is all for Irish independence but not by force. He references the beauty of the country but recognises as a stone causes ripples in a stream, Revolution causes far bigger ripples. So many people missing out on the beauty of life is too high a price to pay, in his view. The Irish are a wonderful people in a horrible situation thanks to some abysmal British rule. They have much in common with the rest of the U.K.; we too have to live with our leaders but violence isn’t the answer. Yeats recognises this and doesn’t want independence to be overshadowed by the cost to achieve it.
    Anyway, another fantastic post, Christy, just sorry I’m 8 months late 🙂

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    1. Christy B Post author

      Better late than never, as the saying goes, Phil! And, besides, you’re making more of a statement entrance when you arrive a bit later than the others to the party 😉 It’s a poetry party and we’re all set for the words of Frost, Yeats, and the other great poets. Gather round and listen in 🙂

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