Easter 1916

O’Connell Street after the Easter Rising, 1916. Photo by TeachNet.

Easter, 1916 by W.B. Yeats

I have met them at close of day
Coming with vivid faces
From counter or desk among grey
Eighteenth-century houses.
I have passed with a nod of the head
Or polite meaningless words,
Or have lingered awhile and said
Polite meaningless words,
And thought before I had done
Of a mocking tale or a gibe
To please a companion
Around the fire at the club,
Being certain that they and I
But lived where motley is worn:
All changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.

That woman’s days were spent
In ignorant good-will,
Her nights in argument
Until her voice grew shrill.
What voice more sweet than hers
When, young and beautiful,
She rode to harriers?
This man had kept a school
And rode our winged horse;
This other his helper and friend
Was coming into his force;
He might have won fame in the end,
So sensitive his nature seemed,
So daring and sweet his thought.
This other man I had 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,
Transformed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.

Hearts with one purpose alone
Through summer and winter seem
Enchanted to a stone
To trouble the living stream.
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 cloud on the stream
Changes minute by minute;
A horse-hoof slides on the brim,
And a horse plashes within it;
The long-legged moor-hens dive,
And hens to moor-cocks call;
Minute by minute they live:
The stone’s in the midst of all.

Too long a sacrifice
Can make a stone of the heart.
O when may it suffice?
That is Heaven’s part, our part
To murmur name upon name,
As a mother names her child
When sleep at last has come
On limbs that had run wild.
What is it but nightfall?
No, no, not night but death;
Was it needless death after all?
For England may keep faith
For all that is done and said.
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
Now and in time to be,
Wherever green is worn,
Are changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.

Brief Analysis

Yeats wrote this patriotic poem to serve as a tribute to the Irish men and women who stood up against the British government on Easter Monday of 1916. Known as the Easter Rebellion, Irish nationalists fought for independence on the streets of Dublin for a week until their efforts proved unsuccessful. Many of those rebels, who Yeats allegedly knew on a personal level, were eventually executed by firing squad. Some of these influential individuals are described throughout the poem (Abrams and Greenblatt 2380 – 2382).
(See “Notes on Easter 1916” Page)

Yeats’ mention of the important figures of the Easter Rebellion suggests that “all Irishmen have the ability and the responsibility to evoke change.” Instead of simply praising these individuals, Yeats “illustrates their humanity and imperfections in order to convey that heroic events are…instigated…by average citizens who passionately pursue change and justice.” Yeats’ poem calls for the common people of Ireland to assume responsibility for the state of their country and to “actively affirm their Irish identity.” (ireland.wlu.edu) The poem serves as a call to action for all Irish citizens to stop the influence of the British rule.

From the very beginning of the poem, Yeats presents himself at center stage, imploring his reader to try and make sense of the uprising as he is. He spends the entire poem delaying his naming of the dead warriors to emphasize their importance. As if to say, “Their vivid faces standout against the back drop of the twilight, like actors on a darkened stage” (Kendall 233). The roll call at the close of the poem is an example of Yeats subtly reaching out to his muse Maud Gonne, mentioning her estranged husband in high esteem, praising him for his beautiful transformation.

Political and Social Contexts

Photograph of William Butler Yeats by Charles Beresford in 1911. Photo by Wikipedia.

During the 12th century, England invaded and established a stronghold on Ireland’s coast. Then, beginning in the 17th century, Great Britain attempted to assimilate Ireland to the United Kingdom. The English began to oppress Irish culture from religion to language, and established a ruling class loyal to the crown. This continued over the next 200 years until rebellions in 1798 and 1801 lead to Ireland gaining representatives to the British Parliament, although Ireland was still heavily underrepresented. The Irish people felt oppressed by the British and were beginning to make attempts to preserve their culture.

During the 19th century, Great Britain used Ireland for labor and agriculture to bolster their growing factory system. However, after the great famine from 1845 to 1847, the Irish people had lost all hope in the British government. Over a million people died of starvation in a country that had plenty of food, which greatly angered the citizens. Between 1798 and 1923, the Irish people sought independence from the British – with many unsuccessful rebellions. The Irish people simply did not have the same resources as the British and could not withstand the forces of the British army.

The Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) was formed in 1858. The IRB was a secret organization founded on the belief that Ireland deserved freedom from the British. The 1916 Easter Rising was another rebellion by Irish Nationalists. During the rising, rebels took over strategic locations throughout Dublin and called for a full-scale revolution. The militant revolt failed, but the movement succeeded in the members of the IRB signing a proclamation for Irish Independence in December of 1921 (Mazzo & Schaefer. The 1916 “Easter Rising” and Irish Independence).
Back to W. B. Yeats

Biographical Contexts

Maud Gonne Macbride. Photo by Ron Moody.

The biggest factor that influenced Yeats’ writing of “Easter, 1916” was how deeply he was affected by World War I. Yeats was connected to this war in many ways and at first, it was something that did not affect him, as the war was being fought far from where he was sitting in Ireland. When people asked him to write about the situation, he declined many times. Even writing in his, On being asked for a war poem, ‘“I think it better that in times like these a poet keep his mouth shut…” However, there was a series of events that caused him to change his mind.

Yeats was educated in London and had spent much of his life there; he was familiar with its calm nature. In 1915, Germany attacked London, and he was also there when the Zeppelins dropped their bombs. With that, Yeats got his first taste of what it was like to be in the middle of a war-zone. Another episode that chipped at his apathy was the sinking of the Lusitania by German submarines, a ship on which he had once traveled (Alldritt 246). After all of these events, Yeats was ready to take a stand.

The uprising on Easter itself was something that affected Yeats in an interesting way that he could not quite reconcile. Yeats was reported as being “overwhelmed by the news…[and] had no idea that a public event could move him so deeply” (Alldritt 252). Something that could explain this reaction is the fact that one of the leaders of this uprising was Maud Gonne’s estranged husband, John Macbride. Maud Gonne was the woman who Yeats was deeply in love with all his life, but who would never return Yeats’ affections. Macbride was later executed and Yeats traveled to France to propose to Maud a second time. Gonne was herself a fiery rebel, and another motivation that Yeats might have had to break his silence and write this poem to impress her.

Key Players in the Rising

  • Arthur Griffith – founding father of the Irish free state; active Gaelic League and IRB member with no involvement in the Rising; founder of Sinn Fein
  • Edward VII – King of the United Kingdom from 1901 until his death in 1910
  • Eoin MacNeill – Irish scholar, nationalist, revolutionary, and politician; co-founder of the Gaelic League and Irish Volunteer Force and member of Sinn Fein
  • Gaelic League – formed in 1893 by Eoin MacNeill and Douglas Hyde to restore Irish culture, most notably the Irish language
  • Herbert Henry Asquith – British liberal prime minister from 1908 to 1916; lead Britain into WW1
  • Irish Citizen Army (ICA) – formed during the Dublin labor dispute in 1913. Served to enable men to defend themselves in clashes with the police in Dublin as well as provided discipline, cohesion and purpose to unemployed men
  • Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) – formed in 1858; a small, secret, revolutionary body committed to the use of force to establish Irish independence
  • Irish Volunteer Force/Irish Republican Army (IRA) – a paramilitary body started in Dublin in 1913, later became known as the IRA
  • James (Jim) Larkin – Irish trade union leader and social activist
  • James Connolly – revolutionary socialist; trade union leader and a political theorist; executed by firing squad after the Easter Rising
  • Lionel Johnson – an English poet, critic and Essayist; One of the founders of the Irish Literary Movement. Yeats described him as “vivid in {his} memory” describing Johnson’s thoughts as “austere” and “melancholy”
  • Maud Gonne MacBride – Irish revolutionary, feminist, and actress; muse of W.B. Yeats
  • Sinn Fein – Formed in 1905 by Arthur Griffith; a national economic, cultural and political self reliance group
  • Thomas MacDonagh – political activist, poet, playwright, and teacher; member of the Irish Volunteer Force and the IRB and one of the seven leaders of the Easter Rising; executed by firing squad after the Easter Rising
  • W.B. Yeats – Irish poet; member of Irish National Council
  • William Ewart Gladstone – Britain’s prime minister from 1868-74, 1880-85, 1886, and 1892-94

(“Wars & Conflict: 1916 Easter Rising.”)

Historical Timeline of Events leading to the Easter Rising of 1916

1858 – The Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) forms.

April 8, 1886 – First Home Rule Bill for Ireland presented by Gladstone, the Liberal Prime Minister of Britain, to the House of Commons. The bill loses by 30 votes on June 8th.

September 1, 1893 – Gladstone’s Second Home Rule Bill passed by House of Commons but vetoed by The House of Lords by 419 votes to 41.

1903 – National Council formed by Griffith to protest the proposed visit of Edward VII to Ireland. The Council attracts members such as W B Yeats and Maude Gonne.

April 1912 – Asquith introduces the Third Home Rule Bill to the British Parliament. Passed by the Commons and rejected by the Lords, the bill would have to become law thanks to the Parliament Act. Home Rule expected to be introduced for Ireland by autumn 1914.

1913 – Jim Larkin founder of the Irish Transport and General Workers Union (ITGWU) calls for a workers strike for better pay and conditions.

1916 newspaper.jpg
A United States newspaper reporting the Rising on Tuesday April 25th 1916. Photo by 1916 Easter Rising Coach Tour.

August 31, 1913 – Massive protest rally on Sackville Street attacked by the Dublin Metropolitan Police. Two strikers killed by the police.
November 23, 1913 – Larkin and James Connolly establish the Irish Citizens Army in order to protect strikers.

August 4, 1914 – First World War declared. Home Rule for Ireland shelved for the duration of the war with Germany.

September 9, 1914 – Meeting held at Gaelic League headquarters between IRB and other extreme republicans. Initial decision made to stage an uprising while Britain is at war.

May-September 1915 – Military Council of the IRB is formed consisting of Pearse, Plunkett, MacDiarmada, Ceantt and Clarke. These men take effective control of the plans for the Rising.

January 1916 – James Connolly encouraged to join the IRB and is voted onto the Military Council thus ensuring that the Irish Citizens Army shall be involved in the Rising. Thomas MacDonagh becomes the seventh member of the Military Council several weeks later. Rising date confirmed for Easter Sunday.

April 23, 1916 9:00am – The Military Council meet to discuss the situation considering MacNeill has placed an advertisement in a Sunday newspaper halting all Volunteer operations. The Rising is put on hold for 24 hours. Hundreds of copies of The Proclamation of the Republic are printed in Liberty Hall.

April 24, 1916 12:00pm – The 1916 Rising begins in Dublin.
(“Timeline of Events Leading up to the Easter Rising”; Trueman, Chris)


Abrams, M. H. & Steven Greenblatt (Ed.) (2001). The Norton Anthology of English Literature. New York and London: W. W. Norton & Company.

Alldritt, K. (1997). W.B. Yeats: the man and the milieu. New York: Clarkson Potter.

“Easter Rebellion of 1916.” 2008. TeachNet Ireland. Teachers Network. www.teachnet.ie/

How Local Town US Newspapers Reported the Rising on Tuesday April 25th 1916. Digital image. Easter Rising Coach Tour. 3 July 2012. Web. <http://1916easterrisingcoachtour.blogspot.com>.

Magill, Kelley. “Overall Significance: Ireland’s Coming of Age.” Web: http://ireland.wlu.edu/landscape/Group2/overall_significance.htm.

Mazzo & Schaefer. The 1916 “Easter Rising” and Irish Independence. Web: https://sites.udel.edu/britlitwiki/files//2018/06/The1916EasterRisingandIrishIndependence.pdf.

Moody, Ron. Maud Gonne. Digital image. Find A Grave. 27 Apr. 2011. Web. <http://www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=pv&GRid=5746941&PIpi=41609223>.

Perloff, Marjorie. “‘EASTER, 1916’: YEATS’S FIRST WORLD WAR POEM.” The Oxford Handbook of British and Irish War Poetry. Ed. Tim Kendall. 227-41. Print.

Photograph of William Butler Yeats Taken by Charles Beresford in 1911. Digital image. Wikipedia. 18 Aug. 2013. Web. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/On_being_asked_for_a_War_Poem>.

“Timeline of Events Leading up to The Easter Rising.” 1916 Rebellion Walking Tour. Web. <http://www.1916rising.com/pic_timeline.html>.

Trueman, Chris. “The 1916 Easter Rising.” History Learning Site. Web. <http://www.historylearningsite.co.uk/1916_easter_rising.htm>.

“Wars & Conflict: 1916 Easter Rising.” BBC News. BBC, Nov. 2009. Web. <http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/british/easterrising/profiles/index.shtml>.

“William Butler Yeats – Biographical.” Nobelprize.org. Nobel Media AB 2013. Web. 17 May 2014. <http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/literature/laureates/1923/yeats-bio.html>.