William Butler Yeats

 Overall Significance:

Ireland's Coming of Age


        In "Easter 1916," Yeats asserts that Ireland and its people have been "changed utterly"(79).  Yeats memorializes the individuals who sacrificed  their lives in the Easter Rebellion as a tribute their ability to transform themselves and the history of Ireland.  Through "A terrible beauty"(16) of rebellion and chaos, the leaders of the Easter Rebellion and Irish people assert their coming of age.  In "Easter 1916," Yeats suggests that Ireland had to affirm its independence and national identity through rebellion and the passionate pursuit of change.  

        In the first stanza, Yeats alludes to the Ireland's stagnant history beset with "polite meaningless words"(6).  Yeats illustrates the insignificance of these apathetic people through his inability to acknowledge them with little more than a few civil utterances.  As a mirage of lethargic figures conforming to their individual lives, they are a trivial population who live in a state of disillusionment.  Although Yeats portrays these individuals as despondent figures, he asserts that through the events of "Easter 1916" they have "All changed, changed utterly"(15).  Through  rebellion against the established ruling class,  Yeats establishes that the people of Ireland have asserted their independence and identity in order to procure their coming of age.

        Yeats refers to the significant figures of the Easter Rebellion to suggest that all Irishmen have the ability and the responsibility to evoke change.  Rather than merely praise the lives of these Irish martyrs, Yeats illustrates their humanity and imperfections in order to convey that heroic events are not instigated by the brave and infallible individuals but by average citizens who passionately pursue change and justice.   Yeats asserts the need for individuals to take responsiblity for the condition of Ireland and actively affirm their Irish identity.  

        Yeats illustrates the inevitability of change through natural imagery in stanza four.  Yeats portrays the stone as a symbol of permanence and immobility and the stream as a symbol of change.  Yeats maintains that the people of Ireland have been "Enchanted to a stone / To trouble the living stream"(43).  They remain stagnant and afraid of change while "A shadow of cloud on the stream / Changes minute by minute"(49-50).  Yeats implies that throughout history English colonies have fallen and declared their independence while Ireland has remained apathetic and unchanged: "Minute by minute they live: The stone in the midst of all"(55-56).  In order to achieve a sense of Irish identy and come of age, Yeats affirms that  Ireland must abandon the conformity of the stone and pursue change.

        In the midst of his appeal to Ireland to embrace change, Yeats questions the significance of these individuals in that  "Was it needless death after all?"(7).  In the sixth stanza, Yeats maintains that the sacrifice made by these individuals would only be needless if the change procured by these events was lost and forgotten.  In order to promote the memory of these individuals and appeal to the Irish people to continue these works of change and independence, Yeats writes "it out in a verse- / MacDonagh and MacBride / And Connolly and Pearse"(74-76).  Yeats confirms the significance of their sacrifice in that "Whereever green is worn, / Are changed, changed utterly: A terrible beauty is born"(78-80).  Through their ability to instigate change in their individual lives and in the Irish people, these figures of the Easter Rebellion initiated Ireland's coming of age.  Although Ireland must continue to pursue change, Yeats asserts that "Easter 1916" has established "A terrible beauty" that could insight a unified effort for Irish independence or could eventually revert back to Ireland's conformity to English rule.

By Kelley Magill

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