19 pages 38 minutes read

William Butler Yeats

Easter, 1916

Fiction | Poem | Adult | Published in 1921

A modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, SuperSummary offers high-quality Study Guides with detailed chapter summaries and analysis of major themes, characters, and more.

Summary and Study Guide


“Easter, 1916,” an 80-line, four stanza metrical poem by William Butler Yeats responds directly to the historical uprising of the Easter Rising of 1916, in which Irish republicans attempted, and failed, to establish Ireland as a country independent of Britain. The Rising lasted six days; the Irish were significantly outmatched in terms of weaponry and fighters, and the British army suppressed them and executed 16 of the rebellion’s leaders, a ruthless, harsh reaction that shocked many Irish, including Yeats. All told, 485 people died in the Rising, including 260 civilians.

Yeats was deeply moved by the events; in subsequent months, he grappled with his emotional response and how to lay it down on the page. The poem expresses Yeats’ ambivalence about the Uprising’s violent methods, as well as his empathy and admiration for the victims; in the final stanza, he names four Republican leaders who suffered death at the hands of the British.

While Yeats published a run of 25 copies when he finished the poem in the fall of 1916, it did not widely circulate until 1920, when he published it in The New Statesman in London and The Dial in New York. He later collected it as part of his book Michael Robartes and the Dancer (1921). “Easter, 1916,” one of Yeats’ most famous and most anthologized poems, is a key piece of the Irish literary canon.

Poet Biography

One of the English language’s most famous writers, William Butler Yeats was born in 1865 in Sandymount, Ireland, into a Protestant Ascendancy family, an exclusionary, elite minority group with Anglo connections that ruled Ireland at the time. The rise of Charles Stewart Parnell in the 1880s had an impact on young Yeats, and the developing Irish nationalism, particularly among Irish Catholics, in subsequent years would profoundly influence his thinking and writing. As a child, Yeats attended school in England before returning to Dublin to attend Erasmus Smith High School.

Yeats began writing as a teenager, often verses heavily influenced by English Romantic era writers like Percy Bysshe Shelley and William Blake. In 1885, the Dublin University Review published his first poems. During this time, Yeats also became more involved in Irish culture, literature, and music, often at the encouragement of John O’Leary, an Irish revolutionary he met who fomented his interest in Irish folklore and legend, and further exposed him to Irish republicanism. At this time, Yeats also began to explore an interest in the occult, something that would follow him throughout the decades.

In 1890, after Yeats’ family moved to London, Yeats joined the secret magic society the Golden Dawn and co-founded the Rhymers’ Club, a writing group for poets, and eventually collected several anthologies of their combined work for publication. Much of the writing Yeats produced at this time, which ran the gamut from plays to poems to essays to novels, centered on Irish characters, themes, legends, and stories. During this time, he became romantically involved with Irish nationalist Maude Gonne, who would remain a fixture of his life over the next several decades. The two bonded over Irish heritage, politics, and an interest in the occult, and Yeats dedicated his nationalist plays, The Countess Cathleen and Cathleen ni Houlihan to Gonne. The two were active in the Golden Dawn, with Yeats eventually achieving the sixth-grade level of membership. In 1899, Yeats published The Wind Among the Reeds, a collection of poetry influenced by his peers in the Rhymers’ Club and full of lush lyricism that he would later abandon.

Yeats’ artistic sensibility shifted after the turn of the century; he became more involved with theater projects and began to take a simpler, more refined approach to his poetry. His nationalistic interest subsided when Gonne moved to Paris with a different man, but in 1916, when Irish Republicans suffered failure after a six-day armed attempt at rebellion against the British, Yeats reinvested in the Irish nationalist cause and moved back to Ireland. “Easter, 1916” embodies his reaction to the uprising and expresses his complicated emotional response to the violence.

In 1917, Yeats married Irish woman Georgiana Hyde-Lees. Together they began to practice what they called “automatic writing” to access the unconscious. Yeats spent untold hours examining and studying the pages they produced in these sessions, forming complicated spiritual and historical theories.

Civil war once again erupted in Ireland in 1922, and Yeats agreed to serve as a member of the Irish Free State Senate at that time. The following year, Yeats received the Nobel Prize in Literature. His continued work during this chaotic period resulted in some of his most famous works, including The Tower (1928) and Words for Music Perhaps and Other Poems (1932).

Over the next decades, Yeats grew disillusioned with the development of Irish society and expressed often unpopular opinions in his creative work and poems. Although contemporaries like Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot unabashedly embraced modern sensibilities, Yeats’ had a more complicated relationship with many of the movements’ trends; his later work was distinct and free of the flat affect and allusions he saw peppering these other poets’ works. Later poets like W. H. Auden, Theodore Roethke, and Philip Larkin would find significant influence in Yeats’ work and praise his attention to rhythm and language.

Yeats died in 1939 at the age of 73.

Poem Text

I have met them at close of day  

Coming with vivid faces

From counter or desk among grey  

Eighteenth-century houses.

I have passed with a nod of the head  

Or polite meaningless words,  

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,  

Being certain that they and I  

But lived where motley is worn:  

All changed, changed utterly:  

A terrible beauty is born.

That woman's days were spent  

In ignorant good-will,

Her nights in argument

Until her voice grew shrill.

What voice more sweet than hers  

When, young and beautiful,  

She rode to harriers?

This man had kept a school  

And rode our wingèd horse;  

This other his helper and friend  

Was coming into his force;

He might have won fame in the end,  

So sensitive his nature seemed,  

So daring and sweet his thought.

This other man I had dreamed

A drunken, vainglorious lout.

He had done most bitter wrong

To some who are near my heart,  

Yet I number him in the song;

He, too, has resigned his part

In the casual comedy;

He, too, has been changed in his turn,  

Transformed utterly:

A terrible beauty is born.

Hearts with one purpose alone  

Through summer and winter seem  

Enchanted to a stone

To trouble the living stream.

The horse that comes from the road,  

The rider, the birds that range  

From cloud to tumbling cloud,  

Minute by minute they change;  

A shadow of cloud on the stream  

Changes minute by minute;  

A horse-hoof slides on the brim,  

And a horse plashes within it;  

The long-legged moor-hens dive,  

And hens to moor-cocks call;  

Minute by minute they live:  

The stone's in the midst of all.

Too long a sacrifice

Can make a stone of the heart.  

O when may it suffice?

That is Heaven's part, our part  

To murmur 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.

Yeats, William Butler. “Easter, 1916.” 1921. Poetry Foundation.


“Easter, 1916” begins with the speaker’s acknowledgment of knowing “them” (Line 1), the victims of the Easter Rising. He notes that he has encountered them in the city as everyone goes about their business, leaving their workplaces or writing desks. He notes that he has nodded at them when passing or offered “polite meaningless words” (Line 6) as conversation. Despite these polite interactions, the speaker admits that he has nevertheless gossiped about them with friends, offering “a mocking tale or a gibe / To please a companion” (Lines 10-11). The Easter Rising provides a turning point, and by the end of the first stanza, the speaker notes that “All changed, changed utterly: / A terrible beauty is born” (Lines 15-16).

Yeats’ second stanza describes four specific people who perished at the hands of the British, but he does not give any specific names until the poem’s final stanza. He begins with “That woman” (Line 17), likely Constance Gore-Booth Markievicz, a nationalist Irish politician, presenting her ambivalently as both a shrill woman who spent days “In ignorant good-will” (Line 18) and someone with a sweet voice. He then mentions two poets, likely Patrick Pearse and Thomas MacDonagh, suggesting that had they not died in the Rising, they might have done well and earned fame for their work. The final man Yeats’ mentions is “A drunken, vainglorious lout” (Line 32), and likely John MacBride, the former husband of Yeats’ longtime lover Maud Gonne. Despite Yeats’ bitterness toward the man, he still “number[s] him in the song” (Line 35), noting that “He, too, has resigned his part / In the casual comedy; / He, too, has been changed in this turn, / Transformed utterly” (Lines 36-39). Yeats ends the second stanza with a repetition of the refrain “A terrible beauty is born” (Line 40).

Yeats shifts to more natural, mythic imagery in the third stanza, describing “Hearts with one purpose alone / Through summer and winter seem / Enchanted to a stone / To trouble the living stream” (Lines 41-44). He contrasts this stone-like energy with the rest of the natural world, moving horses and riders, birds that “range / From cloud to tumbling cloud” (Lines 46-47) who change “minute by minute” (Lines 48, 50, 55).

In the final stanza, Yeats notes, “Too long a sacrifice / Can make a stone of the heart” (Lines 57-58), and he launches into questions like, “when may it suffice?” (Line 59) and “Was it needless death after all?” (Line 67). He calls on a higher power, pointing out that it is “Heaven’s part, our part / To murmur name upon name / As a mother names her child” (Lines 60-62). The stanza vacillates between the speaker’s questioning of the nature of the martyr’s deaths and whether their actions were useful and worthy. He decides that despite his ambivalence, he believes it is important to name them, to “write it out in a verse” (Line 74) and commemorate their actions for their country. He ends the poem with another repetition of the refrain, “A terrible beauty is born” (Line 80).