After years of occupation a spark of nationalism occurred in Ireland during World War I. Ireland was unhappy about sending it's men to war because the Mother Country said so. Frustrated The Easter Rising was a protest against British rule and the participants were members of the Irish Volunteers, a parliamentary force formed during the crisis over the home rule bill of 1912.
England reacted by suspending home rule bringing about a meaningless and violent rebellion. From the 1890's, nationalism found expression in the Irish Literary Renaissance and one of the leaders of this movement was the poet William Butler Yeats.
An important event in Yeat's lifetime, he wrote this long piece approximately six months after it occurred in 1916. On April 24th a group from the Irish Volunteers of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, approximately seven hundred in all, took possession of central Dublin over a period of five days. When defeated the leaders were for the most part summarily executed. On May 11th, Yeats wrote a letter to Lady Augusta Gregory that said in part:
"I had no idea that any public event could so deeply move me -- and I am very despondent about the future. At the moment I feel that all the work of years has been overturned, all the bringing together of classes, all the freeing of Irish literature and criticism from politics."
Yeat's poem is his personal appraisal of the Uprising. The first stanza Yeats creates the scene referring to the actors in this event They are the Revolutionaries in an everyday general sense setting the tone as he the author is remote, an observer of the unfolding events. The lines:
"being certain that they and I
But lived where Motley is worn"
form a striking portrait of people play acting in contrast to the impending and all to real savagery. The last two lines of the first stanza are among the most notable in twentieth century literature....
The second stanza begins to describe the significance, events, and people of the uprising. Yeat's knew the four leaders of the Rebellion personally. That woman in the first few lines is the wife of Count Markievicz, Constance Gore-Booth. She is the subject of another of Yeat's best poems, "In Memory of Eva Gore-Booth and Con Markiewicz". She was condemned to death for partaking in the uprising but she was later freed when her sentence was commuted.
This man who had kept a school was Padraig Pearse, a published poet of the day, a founder of St. Enda's School and, for the Easter week, President of the provisional government.
This other man was Thomas MacDonagh who adored the Celtic language, taught at Pearse's school and was a friend Yeats held in high regard.
The second other man however, is one whom Yeats held in great contempt. He was a one Major John MacBride a soldier in the war against England in South Africa and whom had married Maud Gonne (the woman Yeats loved) only to....according to Yeat's, 'cruelly divorce' her. This misfortune must have seemed to Yeats especially wonderful.
Transformation and beauty is born in the third and final stanza. A litany of the failed revolt the conception of hearts "enchanted to a stone" becomes not only central to the rest of this poem but represents a change of focus in Yeats' view of Irish politics. The passions of revolutionary politics had stymied Yeats personal and artistic goals at every turn for the past twenty five years. Yeats creates the stone and it becomes a product, as well as a symbol of the Cause.....'a cause of turbulence in the stream and the condition of the hearts of those who gave their whole existence to it'. The next stanza depicts this turning point of Yeat's politics...... it has transformed from things which rely upon the events to something incapable of being avoided, the deaths of ..
"MacDonagh and MacBride
And Connolly and Pearse"
...are the inescapable effect.
At the time England had promised home rule to the middle-class Irish and The Easter Rising was not immediately well received since there were well over one hundred thousand Irishmen serving in the British Army. By the time Yeats published his Easter 1916 the stone had gained enough momentum that it could not be turned. A terrible beauty was born, and as Yeats says near the end of his piece "England may keep faith" it was too late, the swift and deplorable execution of the leaders by then had turned them into martyrs.
Some information was gathered from Poet's Corner at