Study Guide

Easter, 1916 Quotes

By William Butler Yeats

  • Admiration

    All changed, changed utterly:
    A terrible beauty is born (15-16)

    Yeats can acknowledge that there's a sort of "terrible beauty" in what the Irish fighters have done. He can also understand that after the Easter Uprising, nothing can be the same in Ireland. But at the same time, this doesn't amount to actual admiration. It creeps right up to the edge of admiration, then stops.

    He might have won fame in the end,
    So sensitive his nature seemed (28-29)

    While writing about a poet and dramatist named Thomas MacDonagh, Yeats hints that maybe this dude could have been famous as a writer if he hadn't gone and thrown his life away in the Easter Uprising. But then again, Yeats also shows a tinge of admiration for the potential this guy showed as a writer. So that's something.

    Yet I number him in this song;
    He, too, has resigned his part (35-36)

    Yeats faces his toughest test when he has to write about John MacBride, the estranged husband of a woman Yeats loved. Yeats makes no bones about the fact that he despised MacBride, but still feels like he needs to mention the guy because he (MacBride) gave his life to the cause of Irish freedom.

    Minute by minute they live:
    The stone's in the midst of all (55-56)

    In stanza 3 of the poem, Yeats compares the passion and courage of the Irish fighters to a stone that sits unchanging at the bottom of a flowing stream. There's definitely some admiration here, if only because Yeats knows that he personally doesn't show this kind of consistency in his own life. He tends to go with the flow like most people.

    I write it out in verse—
    MacDonagh and MacBride
    And Connolly and Pearse (74-76)

    Toward the end of the poem, Yeats still can't commit to full-blown admiration for the Irish fighters. But one thing's for sure: he just wrote a poem about them. This is kind of weird, because Yeats is looking back on his poem and wondering why he just wrote it. Now that's ambivalence for you.

  • Sacrifice

    All changed, changed utterly
    A terrible beauty is born (15-16)

    Now that the Irish fighters are dead, it's safe to say that they've all been changed utterly. Even Ireland's history has been changed. But Yeats might be taking it a bit far to say that the fighters' sacrifice was beautiful, even if it's a terrible beauty. Then again, maybe he's right. Your call.

    He might have won fame in the end (28)

    Even though Yeats is trying to commemorate people for dying in the Easter Uprising, he can't help but wonder if one of the fighters—a fellow Irish poet—could have gone on to become famous if he hadn't gotten involved in the conflict. You almost wonder if Yeats sees a bit of himself in this younger poet. You know, apart from the fact that Yeats played it safe and went on to live a long and influential life.

    He, too, has resigned his part
    In the casual comedy (36-37)

    Even though Yeats can't stand this dude named John MacBride, he has to admit that the guy was pretty brave to give his life to the cause of Irish freedom. But Yeats can't help but make one last dig by calling the Uprising a "casual comedy." In other words, there's something sadly ridiculous about the Easter Uprising, since it didn't really accomplish anything.

    Too long a sacrifice
    Can make a stone of the heart (57-58)

    For Yeats, sacrifice can be a good thing. But too much of it can make a person's heart turn to stone. After all, there's only so much death you can handle before you start to care a little less.

    Was it needless death after all?
    For England may keep faith (67-68)

    Here, Yeats says something that would have been on the minds of many Irish people, although it wasn't something you wanted to say out loud. It turns out that Ireland was going to get its independence either way after World War I; so all of the death and sacrifice of the Easter Uprising might have actually been pointless.

    Now and in time to be,
    Wherever green is worn (77-78)

    By the end of the poem, Yeats admits that whenever people were green (Ireland's official color) in the future, they will be connected to the people who died in the Easter Uprising. It's pretty much the nicest thing Yeats can say about the fighters' sacrifice without actually saying he admires them in any way.

  • Principles

    Being certain that they and I
    But lived where motley is worn (13-14)

    Yeats always lived his daily life figuring that he lived in a world where nothing should be taken too seriously. He was totally sure that that was the basic principle of daily life—nothing really matters too much and everyone is more or less satisfied with the way things are. But Yeats turns out to be wrong on this one.

    All changed, changed utterly
    A terrible beauty is born (15-16)

    As a matter of principle, Yeats feels like there's something important that has happened with the Easter Uprising. He wants to connect all of the death and sacrifice to larger events that have taken place throughout history. And even though all the death might be terrible, there is something beautiful about how it fits in with the cycle of death and violence that has always been going on in the world.

    Her nights in argument
    Until her voice grew shrill (19-20)

    It looks like Yeats isn't all that big a fan of women entering the world of politics. While he tends to be pretty nice to the men involved in the Easter Uprising, Yeats regrets the fact that a beautiful woman like the Countess Constance Markievicz threw away her femininity by yelling about politics until her voice "grew shrill." Sheesh, Yeats. We know you wrote a long time ago, but that's still pretty misogynistic.

    He, too, has been changed in his turn (38)

    Even though Yeats could never stand Major John MacBride, he is willing to give the guy his due for sticking to his principles and fighting in the Easter Uprising. John MacBride was the husband of a woman Yeats was totally in love with, so you can see how giving MacBride his props would have been tough for Yeats.

    Minute by minute they live:
    The stone's in the midst of all (55-56)

    The world tends to be a place where things are constantly changing and people are adapting to that change. But like a stone, the fighters of the Easter Uprising weren't willing to take things as they came. They decided to take matters into their own hands. Their unchanging principles make them like a stone that won't change even though water might flow around it.

    That is heaven's part, our part
    To murmur name upon name,
    As a mother names her child (60-62)

    It turns out that it might not be our role as humans to decide when there's been enough death and suffering in the world. According to Yeats, that's the responsibility of heaven or God. It's our responsibility to just keep having babies and mourning each other when we die. Yeesh, no wonder the guy didn't bother fighting in any battles. That's about as stoic as it gets.

  • Immortality

    All changed, changed utterly
    A terrible beauty is born (15-16)

    For most of his adult life, Yeats was happy to walk around Dublin and make meaningless small talk with the people around him. But all of that changed with the Easter Uprising of 1916. After that, everything was different. A lot of people were dead, yet Yeats can't help but feel that their historical sacrifice has a sort of terrible beauty to it.

    He, too, has been changed in his turn (38)

    Yeats wasn't all that big a fan of Major John MacBride. But he still has to admit that the dude has become a little bit immortal because of the role he played in the Easter Uprising. Then again, the phrase "changed utterly" might just mean that MacBride is dead. You never know with Yeats.

    Hearts with one purpose alone
    Through summer and winter seem
    Enchanted to a stone (41-43)

    For Yeats, there's something potentially immortal in the fact that the Irish fighters had a passion for freedom that never seemed to change over time. In this world, most things do change like the seasons. But the fighters' passion is immortal like a stone, unchanging and permanent.

    Minute by minute they live:
    The stone's in the midst of all (55-56)

    Things in this world tend to change minute by minute. We get up, we move around, and life goes on. But the people who've died in the Easter Uprising can't change anymore because they're dead. On the other hand, there's almost something immortal about the fact that there's no more changes left for them to undergo.

    No, no, not night but death (66)

    For the past few lines, Yeats has been talking about how "night" has come over the people who fought in the Easter Uprising. Now usually, most poets would be content to leave the metaphorical connection between night and death up to us. But not Yeats. Here, he decides to make it clear that he's talking about death. As in dead. No immortality, despite what he's said in other places.

    Now and in time to be,
    Wherever green is worn (77-78)

    At the end of the poem, Yeats decides that after all of his hemming and hawing, he thinks that the people who've died in the Easter Uprising have achieved some sort of immortality. After all, these people are part of Irish history, and whether people know their names or not, they'll always be part of what's going on whenever green is worn. That's because green is the color of Ireland and these people died for the cause of Irish freedom.