Study Guide

Easter, 1916

By William Butler Yeats

Easter, 1916 Introduction

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.

What is Easter, 1916 About and 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.

Easter, 1916 Resources

Websites

Official Page for the Yeats Society
If you're a big Yeats fan, these are the people you want to make friends with.

Yeats's Vision
In case you didn't know, Yeats had some pretty wacky ideas about how the universe worked. This site is dedicated to explaining just what those ideas were.

Video

The Cloths of Heaven
If you get bored of the harp music, scroll ahead to 1:09 in the video to hear the poem being read by Anthony Hopkins.

Cyril Cusack Reading Yeats
You might not know who this guy is, but he sure knows how to read him some Yeats.

Video Reading for "Easter, 1916"
Since it's the poem we've been studying, why not check out a video reading of it?

Audio

Yeats' Poem "The Lake Isle of Innisfree"
This is one of Yeats' most famous poems, so you best respect. Plus his voice is just plain awesome.

"When You Are Old"
Another great poem by Yeats. Because you know, we're all gonna' get old some day.

Radio Documentary on Yeats and Politics
As you can tell from "Easter, 1916," Yeats had his own take on political stuff. If you want to know more about it, check out this great radio documentary.

Images

Younger Yeats
Here's a picture of Yeats in his younger years. How about them glasses? And that carefully disheveled hair?

Older Yeats
Here's a pic of an older Yeats, who more or less looks the same as he did when he was young.

Easter?
Here's a shot of the aftermath of the Easter Uprising. Not exactly your typical family holiday.

Articles and Interviews

"Near Perfect Poems, Imperfect Poet"
Check out what the New York Times thinks of Yeats – not only as a poet, but as a person

"Yeats at the End: Still Writing"
Here's a nice tribute to the way that Yeats could never really bring himself to stop writing, even as he got really old and frail.

"Poet, Businessman, Mystic, Senator, Irishman"
Check out this article for an interesting look at the many different roles Yeats took on during his lifetime.

Books

W.B. Yeats: A New Biography
You know, 'cause the old one is too old now.

W.B. Yeats: Images of a Poet
After all, what are we except the images that we present to the people around us?

W.B. Yeats: The Last Romantic
This title totally begs the question, "Who was the first romantic?"