An Introduction: Why I chose this poem[1]

One of the first poems I’ve read by W.B. Yeats was “Easter 1916”.  I was 18, and I didn’t know much about the world then[2].  I was a music major.  I knew music.  That was about the extent of my worldly knowledge.  I was upset by my limited view of the world, so every once in a while I would walk into the NJCU bookstore and read[3].  I would go into the Political Science section and learn about the three pillars of American government, in the Philosophy section and learn about Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching, but in the English section I picked up a book on poetry.  I arbitrarily opened to a page, like I did with every other book, and found Yeats’ “Easter 1916.”

At first, it wasn’t the topic that mesmerized me.  It was the flow of his words that drew me in.  I had no idea what Yeats was talking about, but I felt this calm over me, a focus that I experienced only when I played music.  The only way I can explain what this feels like is by being in the present moment.  Your mind isn’t jumping from thoughts about the past or the future, about whether you remembered to shut off the iron, if you paid those parking meter tickets, hoping you didn’t have a parking boot on your car[4], about the score on your history midterm, if you were ready for the algebra exam at 7pm.  When I was reading “Easter 1916”, all that mattered where the words on the page and the images they created in my mind.

I came across this poem several times throughout my college career, and I learned a little more about it each time.  When I discovered that we would study Yeats in Modern Poetry, I was ecstatic.  When we were asked to write a response about a Yeats’ poem, I chose “Easter 1916.”

About the poem:

“Easter 1916” is poem written for the Irish rebels that rose against oppressive British rule.  The resulting punishment for the 16 rebels that were captured was a horror that no one had anticipated from the British government.  The British army executed the Irish leaders.  Though Yeats disagreed with rebels’ tactics, and the beginning of the first stanza shows this, “Or have lingered awhile and said Polite meaningless words, And thought before I had done Of a mocking tale or a gibe To please a companion Around the fire at the club,” by the end of this stanza Yeats’ attitude changes—“All changed, changed utterly: A terrible beauty is born.”

In the second stanza, Yeats makes references to some of the political activist without using their names.  Lines 17-20 reference Countess Markievicz, lines 24-25 reference Patrick Pearse, lines  26-27 reference Thomas MacDonagh.  The last lines of the second stanza—starting at line 31—reference John Macbride, the man who married Yeats’ beloved Maud Gonne.  Despite his dislike for me, he still honors him in this poem.

The third stanza differs from the other stanzas in the poem.  Rather than referencing political figures involved in the Easter Raising of 1916, Yeats dwells into the symbolism of nature.  He writes of the changing of nature, yet the one item that remains is the stone “in the midst of it all.”

In the last stanza, Yeats talks about the long sacrifice the rebels had made.  He writes that our part to pay respect for these fallen leaders is to “To murmur name upon name As a mother names her child When sleep at last has come On limbs that had run wild”.  At the end of the poem, Yeats writes “out in verse” the names of those he referenced in previous stanzas.

This poem is filled with history and poetic prowess.  There is something that clings to me whenever I read this poem.  I can only describe it as a terrible beauty.


[1] Some advice on reading this post:  I use footnotes here because these little side notes are not important to this assignment. But I wanted to add them anyway.  To be honest, the whole introduction is not important to the assignment.

You can skip the intro.

[2] I still don’t, but I know more then I did when I was 18.

[3] I chose the bookstore rather than the library because the texts in the bookstore were being used for class.  If I can learn from the texts alone, then I thought, I would know about as much as those students in the class and not have to pay for the class.  Have you ever watched “Good Will Hunting”?  There’s a scene where Matt Damon’s character, Will Hunting, gets into an argument with a Harvard Graduate student, and despite not having a Harvard education, Will knew more then he did.  My favorite line is when Will tells the Harvard student, “You dropped $150,000 on a fucking education you could have got for $1.50 on late charges at the public library.”

[4] Hopefully this one time the parking authority will be humanistic.

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