The Rear-View Mirror: W.B. Yeats, “Easter, 1916” (1916)

Each Friday we travel back in time, one year at a time, for a look at some of the cultural goodies that may appear closer than they really are in The Rear-View Mirror. Join us on our weekly journey into the past!

We know their dream; enough
To know they dreamed and are dead…

A few weeks ago, I wrote about W.B. Yeats and his poem “The Second Coming”, noting that Yeats wasn’t really for me. I also wrote that “The Second Coming” is one of those poems filled with lines that resonate throughout time. It seems to apply to the now as much as to the then, at least when you pick individual lines, a few words here and there – but you don’t need to do much in the way of mental gymnastics, seeing how Yeats’ 1919 poem works on a largely symbolic level.

“Easter, 1916” is much more specific in its poetic meditations. The title already indicates this: Yeats is writing about the Easter Rising (also known as the Easter Rebellion), an armed uprising during the Easter week of 1916, its purpose to end British rule in Ireland and establish an independent Republic while the United Kingdom was distracted by the war in Europe. Nonetheless, the British suppressed the Rising, with greater numbers, heavier weaponry and ruthless brutality. Hundreds died, thousands were taken prisoner, and most of the leaders of the Rising were condemned to death and executed. The British won the battle – but they lost the war, as popular support for Irish independence skyrocketed following the Easter Rising.

Yeats was a nationalist, but he rejected violence as a means of achieving independence. He respected some of the leaders of the independence movement, disliked others. After the Easter Rising, though, his feelings changed. He found these figures changed, “Transformed utterly”, from flawed human beings into something different. He found that the killings by the British gave rise to something new, something frightening but also something appealing: “A terrible beauty is born.”

Yeats’ poem is very specifically about the Easter Rising. It is effective in capturing that time and place. But even beyond this, it resonates with the present day. The leaders of the Easter Rising had chosen their roles, but many of those who died didn’t. More than half of those who “dreamed and are dead” civilians, not volunteers in a fight against oppression, and the same is true today. People die because they are on the wrong side of the guns wielded by those claiming to fight for law and order. It seems that they were born the enemy, in the eyes of those who killed them. How they looked was all the reason it took for them to be marked as the enemy.

Is a terrible beauty currently in the process of being born? Will it live?

The Rear-View Mirror will return every Friday, looking further and further into the past. Fasten your seatbelts: it may just be a bumpy ride.

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