Study Guide

Easter, 1916 Themes

By William Butler Yeats

  • Admiration

    Admiration is kind of a funny theme in "Easter, 1916," in the sense that Yeats seems like he's always on the verge of admiring the people who died in the Irish Uprising. But at the end of the day, he can never seem to take that final step and say, "These people were heroes and I was a coward for not dying with them!" But hey, many people have heard of Yeats, and the fighters Yeats mentions in this poem are all fairly obscure. So in the end, history was pretty good to Yeats.

    Questions About Admiration

    1. Of all the lines in this poem, where does Yeats come closest to expressing true admiration for his fallen Irishmen?
    2. Is Yeats right to keep his distance from all the patriotism that surrounds the deaths of the Easter Uprising? Why? Why not?
    3. Do you admire Yeats' stance toward the Easter Uprising, or do you think Yeats is being a bit of a coward?
    4. When Yeats compares the dead fighters to a stone at the bottom of a stream, what does he find similar in the two? Use quotes from the text to back up your answer.

    Chew on This

    When he claims that everything has ben "Transformed utterly" (39), Yeats means that the dead fighters have succeeded in making Ireland a better place.

    Deep down, Yeats admires the dead fighters because he thinks people will remember them longer than they will remember him.

  • Sacrifice

    While he may not be sure about whether he admires the Irish fighters, Yeats can definitely get behind the fact that these people totally sacrificed themselves for something they believed in. In doing so, they show a level of passion and courage that Yeats doesn't seem to have himself. He's content to stand back and write poetry about what's happening around him, and so here we are reading "Easter, 1916."

    Questions About Sacrifice

    1. What is Yeats getting at in lines 67-68 when he writes, "Was it needless death after all? / For England may keep faith"? How does it relate to the question of the fighters' sacrifice?
    2. When Yeats writes, "We know their dream; enough / To know they dreamed and are dead" (70-71), what kind of comment is he making on the lives of the people who gave their lives in the Easter Uprising?
    3. If Yeats doesn't admire the sacrifice of the people who have died in the Easter Uprising, then how does he feel about it? Use quotations from the poem to support your answer.

    Chew on This

    Ultimately, Yeats thinks that the sacrifice of the Irish fighters was foolish, since all they had to do was wait for the war to be over before Ireland got its independence.

    Yeats admires people who sacrifice themselves for a cause because this is something he'd never do.

  • Principles

    It might be hard to see at first, but Yeats does have some principles. He doesn't necessarily have the same principles as the people who died in the Easter Uprising, but that doesn't mean he has none of his own. Yeats seems to be more interested in long, long-term historical changes than he is in individual battles, like those that took place during "Easter, 1916." You might not agree with his stand-back-from-history-and-write-poetry-about-it approach to life. But at least the dude's consistent about his beliefs.

    Questions About Principles

    1. What, if anything, do you think is the main principle that Yeats tries to communicate to us in this poem? Is there one?
    2. How do Yeats' poetic principles differ from the principles of the people who fought in the Easter Uprising? How can you tell, based on the text of the poem? 
    3. What does Yeats mean when he compares a stone to "Hearts with one purpose alone" (41). Whose hearts is he talking about?

    Chew on This

    Deep down, Yeats questions his own principles as a poet and fears that he might be a coward compared to the people who died in the Easter Uprising.

    In this poem, it doesn't look like Yeats has any principles at all. In fact, he can't even explain why he's writing this poem to begin with.

  • Immortality

    Throughout "Easter, 1916," Yeats has a way of talking about the dead Irish fighters as though they'll be able to live forever because of their sacrifice. But on the other hand, he also recognizes that they're dead and gone, possibly for no good reason. The question of immortality is one of the main places in this poem where you really see Yeats struggling to make sense of what has happened in the Easter Uprising. On the one hand, it showed the heroism of the people who fought and died. On the other hand, it was a strategic nightmare that didn't accomplish anything in the long run.

    Questions About Immortality

    1. Do you think Yeats envies the fighters who have died in the Easter Uprising because they'll be immortalized in Irish history? Why or why not?
    2. According to Yeats, why is it our job to keep the memory of the dead alive by mourning them? On the other hand, what is it not our job to do?
    3. How exactly are things "changed utterly" according to Yeats? How is this comment connected to the immortality of the people who've died in the Easter Uprising?

    Chew on This

    Yeats doesn't actually believe that the fighters have been immortalized by their bravery. In fact, he clearly says that all we really know for sure is that these people were once alive and now they're dead.

    Yeats doesn't believe in immortality at all—not even for his own poetry. In the end, he thinks we'll all be forgotten some day and it'll be as if we never existed.