William Butler Yeats – The role of the Easter Rising in/for his literature





William Butler Yeats – The role of the Easter Rising in/for his literature

The desire for a free state led the Irish nationalists to rebel against Britain, led by the Irish Republican Brotherhood, the Irish Volunteers, and the Irish Citizen Army (McGarry 3). This happened during Easter of 1916. The rebels were determined to fight even though they knew that they had lost the fight before it had even begun (McGarry 6). Britain and Ireland had agreed to deepen their relationship, and they signed an act of union in 1800, which led to the unification of both kingdoms. Both the British and the Irish had to get used to the changes, although some of them were against the union. The Irish saw this as a loss of their independence because the union meant that the Irish lost their parliament. The leaders had to go to Westminster in Britain, where they formed a minority in parliament (McNally 7). In addition, the union of the kingdoms led to many negative changes for the Irish, and they felt that these changes restricted their freedom.

The people showed their opposition of the union in different ways, such as the rebellion that happened in 1803. The rebels tried to fight against the British army but they were defeated, and they ended up surrendering to the army. Many people knew that the decision to rebel and fight against the British would be an exercise in futility. The British army outnumbered the Irish by far, and they were more experienced. However, this did not stop the nationalists from attempting to achieve their freedom. The fact that almost everyone knew that the rebellion was doomed to fail has led to divided opinions among many people. Some people feel that there was no need for the uprising and it only led to the death of innocent people. Others feel that the uprising was necessary to highlight the Irish cause for freedom.

Many people were killed, and the British army executed those who led the uprising. The rebellion marked a big change in people’s lives. On one hand, it served to bring the awareness that some people in Ireland yearned for their freedom, and despite the failure of the rebellion, they were willing to go to great measures to secure their freedom. On the other hand, the rebellion also highlighted the fact that some people were comfortable with their way of life, and they had learned to adjust to life under the British rule, and the uprising was a surprise to them. Others were waiting for the home rule, which the British government had promised. William Butler Yeats reflects both perspectives in his poem Easter 1916, where he writes his thoughts concerning the consequences of the rebellion, and the people who were involved in the uprising and this would affect his later works in different ways.

Yeats demonstrates the people’s thoughts towards the rebellion. Most of the people had not expected the rebellion to happen. Thus, although the rebels wanted the independence of Ireland, some of the people were not sure that they wanted it to happen by fighting with the British. The rebellion surprised Yeats. Ross that Easter 1916 “Came as a surprise to Yeats, a great shock: that did concern him, something new and unexpected, a revelation and a transformation to the world he knew (186).” He would show the unexpected nature of the events that happened by his indecisiveness on whether to support the rebels or condemn their actions. The events were a transformation to him because they would change the way he perceived the world. He would end up using literature and art to focus more on the rebellion and the war that followed, and he became more interested in national affairs. The events were a revelation to him because he came to realize and understand that many people were discontent with the British rule and they yearned for their freedom.

Yeats reflected and reacted to the rebellion through his poem “Easter 1916”. His poem enabled him to show people’s emotions about the rebellion. Yeats talks about the rebels who participated in the uprising. He had thought of the rebels as ordinary people living ordinary lives and he had not thought much about them. He reflects about this when he writes about the woman whose voice grew shrill because of arguing, the man who had a school, and the drunkard who seemed to have wronged several people. He had thought of these people in different ways, and he did not think that they would eventually become rebels. It is important to consider that none of the people that he mentions have any training in war. They were not experienced soldiers, and they did not seem to have participated in any war or fighting prior to the Easter rebellion. This shows that the uprising was both a call and cause for the ordinary citizens, as well as for the Irish soldiers who supported and participated in the rebellion (Ross 88).

Yeats notes that he knew some of the people, yet he did not know them in an intimate and personal way, since they acted like acquaintances when they met. He writes of how he exchanged “polite and meaningless words” with them, or “passed them with a nod on the head” (Yeats 179), as they went to their homes from work. This meant that he did not have a close relationship with them, and they were merely his acquaintances. He met some of them at the club, while others he met them on the road. Although these are the speaker’s personal thoughts, they could also be a representation of the society as a whole. He notes the changes that occurred after the rebellion. The things he had known and the people he had known had changed. For him, it was not just about the change that the rebels were yearning for, but it was a terrible change that ended up changing what he knew.

Yeats demonstrates his indecisiveness concerning the rebellion through the ambiguity reflected in the poem. He questions many things in the last stanza, such as the necessity of the rebellion and how long the people had to make sacrifices. Ross notes that “Yeats remained conflicted about the rising, finding it heroic and yet foolhardy, mythical and yet fanatical, romantic and yet blundering (460).” The failure of the rebellion, and the speed at which it had occurred might have had an impact on what Yeats thought about the rebellion. In the last verse, he seems to think that Britain would have in deed kept its promise of granting Ireland home rule as it had promised. He asks, “Was it needless death after all?/ For England may keep faith/ For all that is done and said (Yeats 181).” He does not seem sure of what he thinks of the rebels. He questions whether it was necessary for the rebels and others to die because of the rebellion.  Yeats is opposed to the war, and he blames it for the sudden change in the people he knew. He writes, “Hearts with one purpose alone…seem enchanted to a stone/ To trouble the living stream (Yeats 180).” He proceeds to note that people can become cold when they make sacrifices for a long time.

Yeats is of the opinion that the people he once knew have changed their character and personality because of their participation in the war. Yeats notes that although the cause of the Easter Rising was worth dying for, the rebels did not necessarily do it for the sake of Ireland, but it was rather for the dreams they had that Ireland would get the freedom it so desired. He notes that the people had a dream. They hoped to see the realization of freedom in their land. Such sentiments continue to portray the ambiguous nature of Easter Rising. Allison notes that “Easter 1916” mesmerizes its readers, bewildered about whether they are witnessing a celebration, an immolation, or both (16). Yeats fails to name some of the people who participated in the rebellion, but he describes their characters in the first stanzas of the poem. He gives a clear description of them and anyone familiar with his friends and acquaintances is more likely to know who he is talking about in the poem. \

The failure to name his references in the first stanzas shows that he does not think much about them. He does not approve of their actions to result to violent means of solving their problems but instead opts to believe that England will honor its promise. By using the rebels’ names in the last verse, Yeats seems to have a change of mind concerning them. He seems to consider them brave heroes with a love for their country. However, the fact that he already seems to condemn their violent actions, prevents him from doing so (Vendler 17) Yeats is forced to admire the heroes of the rebellion, even though he had dismissed them and downplayed their efforts initially (Vendler 192). He notes that the rebels’ lives changed. No longer will he and other people remember the rebels by what they used to be before the rebellion, but people’s memories of them will reflect who the rebels were during the rebellion and the sacrifices they made.

The events that happened during the Easter Rising would lead to other similar uprisings. More people had become aware of the importance of acquiring independence, and this increased the number of people who were willing to revolt against the British, thus, the development of the Anglo-Irish war in 1919. The Easter Rising had caused people to have bitter feelings. This was further worsened by the British use of marital law and arrests (Morton 46). Yeats seemed to have gained a greater awareness of the political activities that were happening in his country, after the events of the Easter Rising. No longer was Yeats only interested in the representation of Irish mythology and mysticism, but he became more involved in national affairs. Childs notes that Yeats poetry “became more engaged with the modern world, if negatively, more characterized by dialectic and division (102).” Although some people considered the civil war as the only way to resolve their problems, Yeats does not agree with this.

 In his poem “Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen”, Yeats highlights the effects of the war. He is against the brutality and violence that is prevalent during war time. He speaks strongly against the conduct of the soldiers who would engage in acts of crime without fear of being reprimanded. They knew that they would not be punished for their actions, and this only increased the suffering of the people. He notes, “A drunken soldiery can leave the mother, murdered at her door, to crawl in her own blood, and go scot-free (Yeats 208).” In this poem, Yeats seems to have awakened his thoughts concerning the politics of his country. He does not show his unawareness of the actions of the rebels or the government. He observes how the British army in Ireland during the time of the civil war abused their power as they used violence excessively. Through the poem he encourages the people to evaluate the law more carefully, and to question whether it can protect them from violence (Morton 47). This shows the level of awareness and the knowledge that Yeats had gained concerning the affairs that affected his country. This is in contrast to the approach he had used in Easter 1916, where he did not seem to know what was going on in the country.

The events of the rebellion on that Easter Monday and the days that followed continued to influence Yeats in different ways. He mentioned different events that happened during this time in his later works. In his descriptive title, “Sixteen Dead Men”, Yeats refers to the sixteen leader rebels executed by the British army for their role in the rebellion. The British used the executions as a form of punishment towards the rebels, even though the rebels had already surrendered. England’s reaction towards the rebellion changed people’s perception towards it. The decision to execute sixteen people and to imprison many others angered many people. The rebellion had taken place in Dublin, and whereas it might have seemed as a failure in the end, it marked the beginning of rising people’s awareness towards the cause of the rebels. Many of the people who had seemed indifferent towards the rebellion, or who had not yet made their minds to support the cause of the rebellion began changing their minds about it. Yeats was no exception to this. In “Easter 1916”, he was not sure of the stand to take, and he seemed to trust the British to deliver their promise. However, his poem, “Sixteen Dead Men” presents a different picture, in which he no longer seems to have any patience for the British. In the poem Rose Tree, Pearce and Connolly conclude that the only way to make the “green come out again (Yeats 182)” is if they water the roses, but they can only do so with their own blood. Through the speakers of the poem, Yeats notes that, “There’s nothing but our own red blood/Can make a right Rose Tree (Yeats 182).” This poem shows that there has to be violence and sacrifice to make Ireland rise again,

Yeats poems “A Prayer for my Daughter” and “The Second Coming”, express the fears he had because of the turmoil in Ireland. Although he means to dedicate the poem “A Prayer to my Daughter”, to her then young daughter, he cannot help but note his concerns and fears for her life. He writes, “Once more the storm is howling…And for an hour I have walked and prayed/ Because of the great gloom that is in my mind (187).” The poem is a form of premonition of his daughter’s views. Had Ireland been a peaceful place, perhaps Yeats would not have had some of the fears and concerns that he had. He has experienced much violence in his country since the Easter Rising, and this has made him, change his perspective concerning life. He has developed a deeper and clearer understanding about life, and he has come to realize that his daughter will have to face the storms of life. The storm that is raging outside as he speaks to his daughter symbolizes the impending chaos he sees in the world (Glancy 86). He expresses his concerns and fears because of the impending violence and chaos he sees. 

Yeats perceives that violence in his land will continue, and he shows this in “The Second Coming.” Ireland had gone through changes since the uprising of 1916, and had experienced varying degrees of violence since then. Yeats did not seem to have any hopes that the violence would eventually end, and that there would be no more chaos in Ireland. According to him, the center can no longer hold, and things have fallen apart. By this, he means that there is no longer anything left in Ireland or England, or in the world, which will act as a pedestal to ensure that everything remains as it was. There is no longer hope that people will continue being the way they were and that the society will ever see any peace. He notes, “The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere/ The ceremony of innocence is drowned (186).” In the poem, “On A Political Prisoner” Yeats continues to talk about the war. The subject of the poem is Constance Markiewicz who had been incarcerated in 1918. Constance had been one of the rebels that had participated in the Easter Rising, and although she had been sentenced to death, she was exempted from death because of her gender. Instead she was to serve a life sentence. This did not happen, and she ended up being released from prison in 1919, following a general amnesty (Ross 184).

The fact that Yeats kept on remembering the events that happened during the Easter Rising, shows how it affected him. He did not see it merely as something minor that had happened to Ireland and belonging to the history books only. He mentioned the people and the events constantly in other works that followed the events. The events seemed to have changed his perspective in life considerably as he seemed to become more political. He embraced nationalism, and he became keen in the affairs of his country, to the extent that he was elected to the senate, where he served the people. Previously, he had been more interested in art, and is considered as the main pioneer of the Irish literal movement, especially because of his role in the representation of mysticism and mythology. Although he never abandoned mythology, he placed more focus on the political affairs of his country; hence there was a great change in the literature he presented prior to the rising in 1916, to the one that he would later work on after the rising.

The rising had an effect on Yeats. At first, he did not know what to think about the rising, and he shows this in the ambiguity presented in his poem, Easter 1916. He does not seem sure on whether to condemn the actions of the rebels for not waiting for the British promise, or whether to praise their bravery for the desire and resilience to fight even if they knew that they had little chance of success. This indecisiveness is clear in other works that follow, some of which seem to capture the heroic deeds of the rebels and the failure of the British to keep the promise and to uphold the law, and others which seem to condemn the violence that happened because of the various rebellions and the civil war that took place in Ireland. However, he seems to lean more towards condemning rebellions because of all the atrocities and violence that he experienced. What is certain is the fact that the rebellion changed his perspective in life and he became more interested in his country’s affairs. 

Works Cited:

Allison, Jonathan. Yeats’s Political Identities: Selected Essays. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1996. Print

Balinisteanu, Tudor. Violence, Narrative and Myth in Joyce and Yeats: Subjective Identity and Anarcho-Syndicalist Traditions. Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012. Print

BBC. Wars & Conflicts: Easter 1916: From Home Rule to Independence. n. d. Web. July 2013

Chapma, K. Wayne. “Joyce and Yeats: Easter 1916 and the Great War.” New Hibernia Review 10.4 (2006): 137-151

Childs, Peter. Modernism. New York: Routledge, 2008. Print

Doggnett, Rob. Deep Rooted Things: Empire and Nation in the Poetry and Drama of William Butler Yeats. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2006. Print

Ferrall, Charles. Modernist Writing and Reactionary Politics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001. Print

Glancy, F. Ruth. Thematic Guide to British Poetry. Westport: Greenwood Publishing Group, 2002. Print

McGarry, Fearghal. Irish History Live: The Easter Rising. 2008. Web. July 2013

McNally, A. Michael. Easter Rising 1916: Birth of the Irish Republic. Oxford: Osprey Publishing, 2007. Print

Morton, Stephen. States of Emergency: Colonialism, Literature and Law. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2012. Print

Moses, V. Michael. “The Rebirth of Tragedy: Yeats, Nietzsche, the Irish National Theatre, and the Anti-Modern Cult of Cuchulain.” Modernism/modernity 11.3 (2004): 561-579

Regan, Stephen. Irish Writing: An Anthology of Irish Literature in English 1789-1939. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004. Print

Ross, A. David. Critical Companion to William Butler Yeats: A Literary Reference to His Life and Work. New York: Infobase Publishing, 2009. Print

Vendler, Helen. Our Secret Discipline: Yeats and Lyric Form. Harvard: Harvard University Press, 2007. Print

Waters, L. John. William Butler Yeats’ Poem “The Second Coming Analyzed. 2001. Web. 2001

Wood, Michael. Yeats and Violence. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010. Print

Yeats, W. Butler. The Collected Poems of W.B. Yeats. Gutenberg. n. d. Web. July 2013

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