by William Butler Yeats
Easter, 1916 Introduction
In A Nutshell
W.B. Yeats's "Easter, 1916" is all about a historical event called the Easter Uprising, which happened in Ireland on Easter of (you got it) 1916. Basically, the British promised the Irish that they would give them free rule over their country in 1914. But then a little scuffle known as World War I broke out, and the English totally backed down on their promise, telling the Irish that they'd get around to the whole home-rule thing when the war was over.
Well, some Irish folk didn't want to wait around for the war to end, so they banded together and seized control of the country on their own. The English were, shall we say, not happy. They brutally put down the uprising and executed a bunch of the uprising's leaders. Some of these leaders were good friends of W.B. Yeats. So Yeats wasn't too happy either.
Okay, so W.B. Yeats wasn't all that big on revolutions, or even democracy for that matter. He was more interested in the status quo and the well-educated aristocracy. And at the start of this poem, you can see how he distances himself from the folks who led the Easter uprising. But at the end of the day, Yeats has to begrudgingly admit that these folks were brave and that they'll probably be remembered forever in Irish history. And if there's one thing Yeats loves, it's Irish history.
At the end of the day, Yeats has trouble deciding what he truly thinks about the uprising. On the one hand, he things it's all a bit crude. On the other hand, he realizes that the people who died were probably a lot braver than himself, and he feels compelled to acknowledge this in a poem. So dig in and see if you can sort out this poor guy's emotions. We're betting he could use a hand.
Why Should I Care?
If you're like W.B. Yeats, you might sometimes feel a little disconnected from the events going on in the world around you, even when those events involve a lot of death and suffering. Life is pretty comfortable for you, so why worry too much about revolutions and uprisings that probably won't accomplish all that much change in the long run?
Well, the thing is that whether you like it or not, history's most important moments always tend to be written in blood, and there's a certain kind of insecurity that comes with realizing that you're standing on the sidelines while history unfolds in all its gory glory. There's a dedication and a bravery to people who risk their lives for a cause that many of us will never feel, and realizing this can make us feel a little… cold.
These are the same kinds of emotions that Yeats struggles with in "Easter, 1916." On the one hand, he feels like he's above all the common, less-educated folk who fought in the Easter Uprising and died terrible, somewhat futile deaths. On the other hand, he recognizes that their sacrifice might go down in history more than his poetry will. Basically, he's a little uncomfortable with his upper middle-class comfort and sense of superiority.
But not too uncomfortable. Just enough to make him write a poem. And a famous poem at that.