Yeats has one of the most recognizable sounds of any modernist poet, and you can almost catch it right away with his loose tetrameter and ABAB rhyme scheme. But even though he has these strict formal boundaries on his poetry, he somehow manages to make it sound as if he's talking to us in normal (albeit still pretty) language.
At the poem's beginning, he gets our attention by saying, "I have met them at the close of day/ Coming with vivid faces" (1-2). Now the phrase "close of day" is a clever way of saying that the day is getting toward it's end, but also that the businesses are shutting down and people are closing up and heading home. When you really focus on the sound of "the close of day," though, you also get a sense of how Yeats likes to change one of two words in his phrasing to give his language a nice musical quality.
Another thing you usually get with Yeats is something that sounds pretty, but actually describes something horrifying. For example, at the end of stanza one he says, "All changed, changed utterly: / A Terrible beauty is born" (15-16). Now what he's actually talking about is people being executed. But Yeats has this way of still making death and suffering sound like it's part of some larger more beautiful plan. It's as if everything can be beautiful once it exists in poetry, and Yeats' sound does a great job of conveying this.
When you first look at the title of this poem, you might be all like, "Great, a poem about Easter." But you won't get very far before you discover that there are no bunnies or colored eggs to be found in these lines. Nope, this poem's about people getting executed for trying to overthrow the British government in Ireland. Not exactly family fare.
Now Yeats could have avoided this confusion and called this poem "The Easter Uprising." But he chose "Easter, 1916" probably for a couple of reasons. First off, he seems to be addressing this poem mostly to Irish people, so just saying the date gives the poem a sort of "insider" quality, because this date would immediately mean much more to Irish folks than people from other countries.
Next off, Yeats' choice to call the poem by a date helps him put the Irish Easter Uprising into a larger historical perspective. There have been lots and lots of bloody battles fought throughout history, and the Irish Uprising on Easter, 1916 was just one of them. This aspect of the title helps Yeats convey the idea that while the Uprising was important, it definitely wasn't one of a kind.
And finally, it reminds us of a running theme in the poem—sacrifice. After all, according to Christian doctrine, Jesus sacrificed himself for humanity's sins, and then was resurrected on Easter. Could that complicated even more Yeats's already muddled feelings toward the Irish leaders of the uprising? Definitely.
The poem is set in Ireland (probably the city of Dublin) sometime after the Easter Uprising of 1916. For those of us who don't know what the Uprising was, here's a quick rundown.
At the beginning of the 20th century, Ireland was ruled by the English. The Irish were never big fans of that, but things looked like they were going to get better when the English promised to hand Ireland back to the Irish people in 1914. The problem is that this is the same year World War I broke out. The English needed all the territory and military fighters they could get, so they broke their promise and told the Irish they'd get their country back after the war was over. You know, after a few hundred thousand Irish people had died fighting for the English army.
Well as you can imagine, the Irish people didn't take kindly to that. And after two years into the war (1916), there was no end in sight to the conflict. So during the Easter week of 1916, some Irish patriots got themselves some guns and pitchforks and seized control of the country. Now you might think that England would be all like, "Yeah, fair enough." But instead they devoted a bunch of their military forces to crushing the Irish Uprising. By the time the whole thing was over, 300 people were dead and 17 more were sentenced to be executed for helping to plan the rebellion. So yeah, that's the kind of Ireland that Yeats is talking to in this poem.
At the start of this poem, it seems like everything is good and hunky-dory in the Land of Eire. The speaker (probably Yeats himself) gets to walk down the streets at the close of day and exchange "polite meaningless words" (6) with the common folk of Dublin. But in stanza 2, Yeats starts talking about some of the people who have died in the Easter Uprising, and things get a little more real on us.
In the third stanza, we suddenly find ourselves staring at some sort of "living stream," probably somewhere out in the Irish countryside. But it turns out that this is just a metaphorical place where the dead Irish fighters will live on forever like a stone. At the end of the day, we return back to the streets of Dublin, which are a little emptier now that over 300 people are dead.
Teachers will often tell you that it's a mistake to confuse the speaker of a poem with the author. But in this case, you're fine with saying, "This speaker is totally Yeats." And if he isn't, he's a dude who is the same age as Yeats and who knows all the same people and has all the same opinions about all the same experiences.
Throughout this poem, Yeats tries to grapple with how he actually feels about the unsuccessful Easter Uprising of 1916. He wrote this poem in 1921, which means he had five years to decide how he felt. But even after half a decade, he still can't come down hard on whether the uprising was a good or bad idea.
On top of that, he's not sure how he feels about the people who died or got arrested in the uprising. Sure, he's willing to mention them. But he says one of them had "ignorant good will" (18) and a "shrill" voice (20). Then there's the "drunken, vain-glorious lout" (32), which you can translate as "a cocky jerk." Still, though, he feels like he has to say something about these people and the legacy they left behind.
At the end of the day, the speaker can't get behind what happened in the Easter Uprising. But he can say that the fighters deserve to be remembered in a poem and that they'll be remembered "Whenever green is worn" (78). So in the end, he never overcomes his sense that he was right to stay out of the conflict. But he's still willing to acknowledge that the fighters didn't die for nothing.
It's not like Yeats' language in this poem is all that tough. But what is tough is the kind of thinking that Yeats is trying to capture. Basically, he wants to commemorate people who died in the Irish Uprising, but doesn't really know if the Uprising was all that great an idea. The only thing he can say to express his contradictory feelings is that the whole thing seems "terribly beautiful" to him in a weird way. Because Yeats can't really figure out how he feels, it makes it tough to follow the lines of thinking in this poem.
Plus, it's tricky to understand all those references if you're not an Irish person from the early 20th century. Good thing Shmoop's here to help.
Ambivalent removal, eh? Now what in the world does that mean? Well, the word ambivalent means that you really aren't sure how you feel about something, and the word "removal" in this sense means that Yeats distances himself from all of the patriotic rah-rah emotions that fuelled the Easter Uprising.
And yeah, this is pretty typical of Yeats. Yeats tends to stand back from the world as a poetic observer. Then when history starts being made and guns start going off, Yeats keeps his distance and writes poetry, like, say, this little gem. Part of you wants to respect him for it; the other part wants him to stop being such a wimp and pick a side.
For the most part, Yeatsy likes to stick to iambic tetrameter with an ABAB rhyme scheme, which is pretty much as straightforward as it gets for meter and rhyme. But every now and then he'll slip into some trimeter.
For example, you can see the switch from tetrameter to trimeter in lines 5-6, where Yeats writes, "I have passed with a nod of the head/ Or polite meaningless words." The sudden switch to trimeter helps convey the idea that Yeats like to keep these superficial meetings with people nice and short. But he suddenly switches this tendency in line 15, where he uses trimeter in the phrase, "All changed, changed utterly." So his superficial world has suddenly changed into something way more serious—a world of death and executions.
Yeah, Yeats kind of knows what he's doing with all this meter stuff. Dude wasn't a master poet for nothin'.
From the start of the poem, Yeats is pretty up front about the fact that he makes a lot of meaningless small talk with the people he runs into on the streets of Dublin. He even repeats the exact same phrase, "Polite meaningless words" to talk about how boring and repetitive this process can be for him. But hey, the dude has to act polite, even if he's being totally phony.
Three times in the poem, Yeats ends a stanza with the phrase, "A terrible beauty is born." He even ends the poem with it, which should set off our spidey sense and tell us that it's probably an important phrase.
Whenever he talks about terrible beauty, Yeats seems to be trying to bring together the different (even contradictory) emotions he feels when he thinks about the Irish Uprising of Easter, 1916. On the one hand, the Uprising is beautiful because it'll go down in history as a great fight for Irish freedom. On the other hand, a whole bunch of people died. The phrase "terrible beauty" seems to be Yeats's way of saying that history's most celebrated moments are usually moments of death. A little dark, but kind of true.
During the second stanza of this poem, Yeats goes through a short list of some of the people he knew who fought in the Easter Uprising and who were either jailed for life or executed. It's not totally clear whether he admires them or doesn't care about them. But one thing for sure is that he feels like he needs to write about them, even if he isn't sure why.
Yeats devotes the entire third stanza of this poem to talking about a stone that's sitting at the bottom of a stream. But it becomes clear pretty quickly that he's comparing the stone to the people who have given their lives in the Easter Uprising. For Yeats, there's something interesting in the fact that the Irish fighters, like the stone, cannot be changed or moved even while the world changes around them. Their passion for Irish independence is like a stone, especially now that they're dead. They're removed from the world of change. Here, Yeats might actually be showing some shame for the fact that he's willing to go with the flow as far as the world's concerned.