Tag Archives: Easter

Analysis of “Easter 1916” by W. B. Yeats

Easter1916

Easter Uprising: Image Source – British Literature Wiki

Since today is Easter, I decided to reread Yeats’ great poem regarding the Irish uprising against England on Easter in 1916. It is fairly long, so I am not going to include the entire text, but here is a link to the poem online should you want to read it in its entirety.

Easter 1916

I will include the fourth and final stanza of the poem, since that is what I will focus my analysis upon.

Too long a sacrifice
Can make a stone of the heart.
O when may it suffice?
That is Heaven’s part, our part
To murmer name upon name,
As a mother names her child
When sleep at last has come
On limbs that had run wild.
What is it but nightfall?
No, no, not night but death;
Was it needless death after all?
For England may keep faith
For all that is done and said.
We know their dream; enough
To know they dreamed and are dead;
And what if excess of love
Bewildered them till they died?
I write it out in a verse–
MacDonagh and MacBride
And Connolly and Pearse
Now and in time to be,
Wherever green is worn,
Are changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.

The stanza begins with references to sacrifice and stone. The leaders of the uprising sacrificed themselves for Irish independence, and there is a symbolic connection to the sacrifice made by Jesus in leading his followers to spiritual freedom. I see the reference to “a stone of the heart” as having multiple meanings. On one hand, the English government has hardened its stance against the Irish rebels; additionally, the Irish have become hardened in their stance against English rule. But also, since Christ was buried in a cave blocked by a stone, the stone becomes a symbol for the heart of the Christian faith and the promise of resurrection. Hence, although the rebel leaders are executed (like Christ was executed), the cause will continue in spirit and their martyrdom will be the rock or foundation of the revolution.

Yeats then continues by emphasizing the importance of murmering “name upon name” in order to keep the memory of the executed leaders alive. One gets the sense that Yeats is implying the need for a national invocation, where by chanting the names of the fallen leaders, their ideals and their spirit will become part of the collective consciousness.

Next, Yeats expresses how the rebels died for a cause, or a dream, and he ponders whether it was a “needless death” or whether their sacrifice was worth it. “England may keep faith” implies that Parliament will not change its stance against Irish independence and that likely a longer and bloodier struggle will ensue. It is also worth noting that 1916 was the middle of World War I, so I cannot help but wonder if Yeats viewed the struggle for Irish independence as a microcosmic symbol of the larger conflict that was ravaging Europe at the time.

Yeats decides to commit the story of the uprising to verse, and names the leaders who were executed:

I write it out in a verse–
MacDonagh and MacBride
And Connolly and Pearse

This has strong symbolic significance. For Yeats, committing something to verse is instilling it with deep spiritual power, almost like making it immortal. So by immortalizing the martyred leaders, he is ensuring their rebirth and resurrection, guaranteeing that their cause will live on.

The last words are somber, though. He acknowledges that the revolution is important and right, but suspects that it is also symbolic of the end, in the same way that the resurrection of Christ, while glorious and beautiful, signals the beginning of the apocalypse. Compare the ending of this poem to the ending of “The Second Coming,” Yeats’ famous apocalyptic vision:

“Easter 1916”

Are changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.

“Second Coming”

And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

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“Sonnet 3: Look in thy glass and tell the face thou viewest” by William Shakespeare

Shakespeare

Look in thy glass and tell the face thou viewest
Now is the time that face should form another;
Whose fresh repair if now thou not renewest,
Thou dost beguile the world, unbless some mother.
For where is she so fair whose uneared womb
Disdains the tillage of thy husbandry?
Or who is he so fond will be the tomb
Of his self-love, to stop posterity?
Thou art thy mother’s glass and she in thee
Calls back the lovely April of her prime;
So thou through windows of thine age shalt see,
Despite of wrinkles, this thy golden time.
But if thou live, remembered not to be,
Die single and thine image dies with thee.

This is a sonnet that encourages procreation. The woman who is the object of this poem seems to be reluctant to give up her virginity. It is pointed out that procreation is part of a cycle, where she must create life just as her mother before her created life, and how her daughter will also procreate when the time comes.

In lines 5 and 6, Shakespeare incorporates images of planting. It seems that he is using the symbol of the divine feminine to represent the earth, which brings forth new life and growth after the seed is planted. And just like the earth, a fertile womb brings forth new life once the man’s seed is planted.

In lines 9 and 10, Shakespeare makes a reference to the month of April, which is spring and usually when Easter is celebrated. It is a time of rebirth and regeneration. It is also worth noting that at the end of April is the pagan celebration of Beltane (held on either April 30 or May 1), which is often associated with sexuality and fertility.

The final couplet reminds the woman that if she fails to fulfill her role as a mother, then her matriarchal lineage dies with her. Since Shakespeare lived in the time of Queen Elizabeth I, who remained unmarried, this couplet makes me wonder if Shakespeare may have had Elizabeth in mind as he composed this. Certainly there must have been concern about what would happen to the royal lineage.

Overall, I liked this sonnet. It is simple enough to enjoy without a lot of analysis, yet it leaves just enough open for interpretation to make it interesting.

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“Holy Thursday” by William Blake: From Songs of Experience

HolyThur-SOE

Blake wrote two versions of “Holy Thursday,” one for the Songs of Innocence and this one for the Songs of Experience. (Click here to read my thoughts on “Holy Thursday” from the Songs of Innocence.) Both poems deal with the issue of poverty and how it affects children, and while both provide social criticism, they do so from very different perspectives.

Is this a holy thing to see,
In a rich and fruitful land,
Babes reducd to misery,
Fed with cold and usurous hand?

Is that trembling cry a song?
Can it be a song of joy?
And so many children poor?
It is a land of poverty!

And their sun does never shine.
And their fields are bleak & bare.
And their ways are fill’d with thorns
It is eternal winter there.

For where-e’er the sun does shine,
And where-e’er the rain does fall:
Babe can never hunger there,
Nor poverty the mind appall.

In Catholic tradition, Holy Thursday is the Thursday before Easter when Jesus held the last supper. Since the last supper was Jesus’ observance of the Passover Seder, which recounts the Hebrews’ release from the bondage of slavery, there is a dark irony here as Blake incorporates imagery of hunger and subjugation. The church, an institution that is supposed to carry on the traditions and teachings of Christ, instead grudgingly offers meager charity to the poor and starving children with “cold and usurious hand,” all the while viewing themselves as holy and charitable.

For me, the stark difference between this poem and the one from Songs of Innocence is the tone. This is an angry poem, seething with indignation. The poet’s view, no longer tainted by innocence, only sees the bare suffering that poverty inflicts upon poor children. He questions why in a land of abundance we allow those who are less fortunate to suffer, and I personally feel that this question is relevant today. How can we, as a society, tolerate children going without food when we have the resources to alleviate their suffering? It is a question we need to ask ourselves, because there are a lot of children who go to sleep hungry every night.

Blake states strongly: “It is a land of poverty!” This is a powerful statement. It is not material or economic wealth that makes a society prosperous; It is how a society cares for its people that determines whether that society is prosperous or not. A society, just like a chain, is only as strong as its weakest link, and allowing poverty to exist only weakens the social fabric.

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