William Butler Yeats: “Easter,1916”


William Butler Yeats, as a poet, a playwright, and an activist had a profound cultural influence on the Irish Independence movement and Irish cultural identity. His legacy marks him as Ireland’s most prized poet, and throughout the country, his work and he as a public figure are commemorated. Given that Yeats continues to be studied for his work, it is evident that he has profoundly influenced Irish and Imperial History. As for how Yeats is remembered as a poet and a public figure is what I will discuss in this website. What I will discuss specifically is Yeats’s as an anti-colonial writer, a discussion and analysis of his poem “Easter 1916,” and commemoration to his poem as a public representation of his memory. 

William Butler Yeats, sourced from Simon and Schuster Canada

To relate this topic to the overall theme “Contested Representations,” Yeats poetry is a piece of public memory. I consider it to be a historical document that contains a narrative of the Easter Rising within it. Yeats illustrates a specific type of memory in this poem, but poetry, like all narratives, is subjective. There are many interpretations of the narrative argument within the  poem “Easter, 1916.” What I attempt to do in this evaluation the meaning of “Easter, 1916,” as well as the meaning of it within the context of Irish history and public memory.

Is Yeats a modernist? The mis-categorization of Yeats in Literature

Yeats is often categorized as a modernist.  but that title is not necessarily fitting to his poetry. When researching Yeats and the legacy of his poetry names like John Keats, T.S. Eliot, and W.H. Auden. It is true that Yeats’s style is similar of that to the modernists, and many modernist writers also searched explored the spiritual in nature, Yeats is not exactly like the rest of them. If Yeats is termed at a modernist as Keats or Auden is termed, that is inaccurate. Yeats explored spiritualism and romanticism much like Keats and Auden, but Yeats was searching for something different. Though he had Anglo-Irish origin, he longed to rediscover a culture that is purely Irish. A culture that is untouched by centuries of colonialism. 

Though his poetic style is similar to other european modernist, his themes are those specific to a colonized people. He wrote about suffering under the power of an offshore ruler. Historian Edward Said argues that Yeats belongs in the same group as Rabindranath Tagore of India,  Pablo Neruda of Chile, and other poets and writers who explored themes of colonial rule. Tagore and Neruda explored themes that are specific to people are colonized. These themes included cultural identity in a colonized land and cultural resistance against the colonial power. Yeats cannot be categorized with poets like Keats and Auden because his poetry primarily focused on themes of Irish culture in a colonized nation, and resistance against a colonial power. He, like Tagore and Neruda, is creating a sources of identity that belongs to the Irish and the Irish only. With all this in mind, Yeats should not be called a modernist writer, but anti-colonial writer.

Yeats, sourced from Chicago Daily News negatives collection, Chicago History Museum

Irish cultural thematic exploration began with Yeats early poetry, which he incorporates early Celtic themes and mythologies. He kept alive the spiritual questions that had been lost in the world of modernism. Yeats mysticism in his early poems exemplified that “Ireland should retain its culture by keeping awake its consciousness of metaphysical question.” These imaginative stories of the metaphysical world which Yeats explored in his poetry is specific to old Irish and celtic traditions. It was a part of Irish culture that was truly Irish, without the influence of colonial Great Britain. In a discussion regarding how Yeats and his poetry are remembered in the eye of public history, it is essential to consider this mis-categorization. By categorizing him as a modernist, it seems that western, european history is claiming Yeats as a poet of the west. Though Yeats is Irish, and Ireland is a european country, it should not negate its colonial victimization, and thus place Yeats in a category of his nation’s colonizers. Yeats is a poet of a colonized nation, and his poetry illustrated the struggle of the colonized, so he must be categorized as so.

“Easter, 1916”

Easter, 1916,” marked a significant point in Yeats’s poetry and his public life. It marks a transition in the thematic aspect of his poetry, for he transitions from exploration of the metaphysical world to discussion of the Irish political atmosphere in the early 20th century. Yeats did not completely abandon metaphysics, but his poetic tradition with “Easter, 1916,” coincides with a new birth of Irish national identity. It is true that Yeats wrote a number of political works during the struggle for independence, but I chose “Easter, 1916″ because it’s tie to the event, and the importance this event has gained since it occurred. I also think it marks a significant transition for Yeats in terms of his style, and his newfound purpose as a voice of Irish identity. What that new Irish identity is is not necessarily clear in this poem, for Yeats, as many argue, expresses ambiguity regarding the events of “Easter, 1916.”. It is said that Yeats would have been disappointed with the events of the Rising, for he hoped it would serve as a “cultural revival,” rather than a violent insurrection.

Yeats began writing this poem after the events in April 1916, but wrote multiple drafts over the course of three years. The first publication was issued in 1920 in the British magazine The New Statesman. During his three years of drafting, his prose changed as he reflected upon the events . Not only was it his changing views, but was the weight of Yeats responsibility to the memory of the rising (Mayhew).

Patrick Pearce, a martyr of the Easter Rising, Sources from South Dublin Libraries’ Digital Archive

With all these complexities in mind, what is said in this poem “Easter, 1916?” It is not so much as an ambiguous view on the rising, nor a criticism of the events of the rising, but a work of contemplation. Louis MacNeice remarked “Yeats did not write primarily in order to influence men’s actions, but he knew the art can alter a man’s outlook and so indirectly affect his action.” In a sense, Yeats saw his own work not as a strong against for one side, but encouraged readers to consider the poem’s subject in its entirety. In the case, the Rising. Yeats changing views may be interpreted as ambiguity, but perhaps it is also Yeats questioning the morality and sacrifice of these events. This poem is not black and white, for the fight for independence is too complex. Yeats main refrain in this poem is “a terrible beauty is born.” Since this line is repeated, it is logical to assume that it is the most important line in the poem. As discussed in the previous paragraph, “Easter 1916,” represented a shift in Yeats poetry, which is parallel with the birth of a new Irish identity. “A terrible beauty is born,” is a comment on that new identity. What is terrible is the means of violence and sacrifice by which that identity is born, but the beauty is the fact that a new identity was born at all. Without the events of the Rising, perhaps the Irish would not have separated from the British, or if they did, perhaps their identity would have remained British. Yeats also acknowledges this “terrible beauty,” by commemorating the martyrs of the Rising. In the final lines of the last section, he mentions MacDonagh, MacBride, Connolly, and Pearse, some whom were friends of Yeats himself. For these martyrs’, sacrifice for Ireland is beautiful, but it is terrible that they had to die before they saw the free Ireland they fought for.

“Easter 1916” is not ambiguous because this line represents great power in the complexity of the Rising. It represent Yeats non-dualistic view, and perhaps that his event should be viewed in a non-dualistic manner. It shows that the events of the Rising are important in the fight for independence, but it is perhaps not the part of independence history that represents Irish pride. As a form of public memory, this poem shows the complexity of historical events. It shows that the Rising should be remembered for its martyrs, and for the love of Ireland, and perhaps not for its violence. What is important to take from this poem is the “terrible beauty,” of the Easter Rising, which represents the uncertainty in the manner which Ireland will once again belong to the Irish.  

Above is Liam Neeson’s reading of “Easter 1916.” Sources from RTE-Ireland’s Nation Public Service Media

Commemorations of Easter 1916

Commemorations of Yeats are ubiquitous throughout many museums and libraries, especially in Ireland. A rare publication of “Easter 1916,” is, as of 2016, in possession of Special Collections at University College Dublin. This is not the first public print of “Easter 1916,” but an early print published by Clement Shorter in August 1917. Only 25 of these copies were printed of this early version before the mass publication in The New Statesman in 1920. This rare publication was donated by american Joseph M. Hassett (UCD Special Collections). UCD librarian, on the library’s page regarding this displays, says “Coming to us at the very time we commemorate the Easter Rising of 1916, this donation causes us to reflect on the events of one hundred years ago and the extraordinary impact they had upon all dimensions of Irish culture,” (UDC Special Collections). The librarian is saying that this poem in particular allows for reflection, contemplation, and search on meaning within Irish history. Yeats shaped this complicated Irish narrative with this poetry, and the memory that is displayed is his memory as one of the voices of Irish culture and history. This public display of this historical document, which I argue is one that calls for contemplative views on history, is also encouraging the same manner of considering history. Additionally, this document is in possession of a university. Though it is a “western” institution, universities are a public setting for thinkers. It is not like a memorial on a street, or in a museum, where a plaque is written to explain the history, but a university encourages alternative consideration of historical documents. These setting allows for Yeats poetry to be have fluidity in its commemorative truth. It is also important to consider that this poem is finally in possession of an Irish university. In a sense, this rare document was returned to Ireland, where not only it belongs, but where the historical influence of Yeats should be claimed.

Copy of Achieved Book, sourced from University College Dublin Special Collections 

At the National Library of Ireland, there is a permanent exhibition dedicated to Yeats, his poetry, and his life. This exhibit explores his early work and his political involvement in the movement for Irish independence. I had visited this exhibition when I travelled to Ireland a few years ago. The exhibition has extensive artifacts, like notes, journals, his personal items, and his brother’s paintings of he and his family. It is also advertised in Irish tourism websites as a site to see at the National Library and Dublin. This public display of the history of Yeats remembers him as an essential figure for Irish history. From his metaphysical explorations in his early work, to his political poems in the 20th century, it is clear that he is a central figure in Irish history.



“Easter, 1916.” UCD Special Collections, University College Dublin, 2016, www.ucd.ie/specialcollections/exhibitions/easter1916/.

Malins, Edward. “Yeats and the Easter Rising.” The Massachusetts Review , vol. 7, no. 2, 1966, pp. 271–284. Jstor, www.jstor.org/stable/25087424?&seq=13#page_scan_tab_contents.

Mayhew, George. “A Corrected Typescript of Yeats’s “Easter 1916”.” Huntington Library Quarterly, vol. 27, no. 1, 1963, pp. 53–71. Jstor, doi:10.2307/3816737.

McCarthy, Mark. Ireland’s 1916 Rising: Explorations of History-Making, Commemoration and Heritage in Modern Times. Ashgate , 2012.

Said, Edward W., et al. “Yeats and Decolonization.” Nationalism, Colonialism, and Literature, University of Minnesota Press, 1990, pp. 69–95. Jstor, www.jstor.org/stable.10.5749/j.cttttx7m.6.

Smith, Bethany J. “”Changed Utterly”: Narrative Transformations in William Morris and W.B. Yeats’s “Easter 1916”.” ANQ: A Quarterly Journal of Short Articles, Notes, and Reviews, vol. 23, no. 4, pp. 231–237. OneSearch.

Yeats , William Butler. “Easter 1916.” New Statesman, 18 Mar. 2016, pp. 44–45. OneSearch , eds.b.ebscohost.com/eds/detail/detail?vid=2&sid=aa6e6977-6e32-41f3-9268-315f6c77e6d4%40sessionmgr103&bdata=JnNpdGU9ZWRzLWxpdmUmc2NvcGU9c2l0ZQ%3d%3d#AN=113824776&db=bth.

“Yeats: The Life and Works of William Butler Yeats.” National Library of Ireland, www.nli.ie/en/udlist/current-exhibitions.aspx?article=adb6ce52-1f52-4a33-882c-685dedd0fb9d.