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W. B. Yeats - "Easter 1916"

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Ed Madden

on 25 January 2018

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Transcript of W. B. Yeats - "Easter 1916"

W. B. Yeats - "Easter 1916"
A terrible beauty is born.
O Paddy dear, and did you hear the news that's going round?
The shamrock is by law forbid to grow on Irish ground;
St. Patrick's Day no more we'll keep, his colors can't be seen,
For there's a cruel law against the wearing of the green.

I met with Napper Tandy, and he took me by the hand,
And he said, "How's poor old Ireland, and how does she stand?"
She's the most distressful country that you have ever seen,
For they're hanging men and women for the wearing of the green.

O the wearing of the green, the wearing of the green.
They're hanging men and women for the wearing of the green.

And if the color we must wear is England's cruel red,
Sure Ireland's sons will ne'er forget the blood that she has shed.
They'll take the shamrock from our hats and cast it on the sod,
But 'twill take root and flourish there though underfoot it's trod.

When laws can stop the blades of grass from growing as they grow,
And when the leaves in summer-time their colors dare not show,
Then I will change the color that I wear in my caubeen.
But till that day, please God, I'll stick to the wearing of the green.

O the wearing of the green, the wearing of the green.
But till that day, please God, I'll stick to the wearing of the green.
The Wearing of the Green
19th century street ballad,
adapted by Dion Boucault (1864)
review: how to read a poem
may not be necessary to know the
of the author or the

but knowing these things may enrich our understanding
and setting
and structure (stanzas)
examine central
and tone
identify critical tensions or
establish central ideas
In this case, the title of the poem tells us that historical context is important: time and place.
Easter 1916
19th century had seen increasing agitation for "Home Rule," as well as proposals for Home Rule in Parliament and reactions by "Orange" orders in the North to such proposals.
Irish nationalists were impatient. Germany supported armed rebellion.
A bill for Home Rule passed Parliament, but was shelved with the beginning of World War 1 in 1914.
EASTER rising
Easter Monday 1916, April 24
Irish volunteers take over the General Post Office (GPO) and other government buildings in Dublin.
Proclamation called for nation to rise up.
Among the leaders were labor union organizers, schoolteachers, poets, and members of the Irish Republican Brotherhood.
British brought gunboat up Liffey River to shell occupied buildings.
Siege lasted till Friday, April 29.
Was the rising doomed from the start?
"profoundly important and profoundly unnecessary"? (Tim Pat Coogan)
Shipment of arms from Germany was intercepted by the British.
Eoin McNeill put an order in Sunday paper forbidding military maneuvers, but Pearse and others committed to sacrifice.
People of Ireland did not respond as leaders had hoped (the country didn't rise up, there were no military mutinies).
There was looting in the streets and little public support.
It was seen as a blow to the Home Rule movement (mainstream political movement), and also seen as a blow against those who had gone to war for Britain.
May 3-12 - 15 leaders executed (Roger Casement executed in August)
Eamon DeValera not executed because American citizen (born in U.S.) and Constance Markiewicz not executed because she was a woman
Women in the Rising
Constance Markiewicz
Cumann na mBan
Yeats and Easter 1916
Yeats had been a leading figure in the Celtic Renaissance-- focus on cultural nationalism (identity out of folklore, culture) rather than politics (violence).
He wrote "Easter 1916" in September of 1916.
The poem was published in 1920 in The New Statesman (23 Oct 1920), a left-wing British magazine. (Anglo-Irish War 1919-1921)
11 May 1916 (in the midst of the executions, May 3-12) - Yeats wrote a letter to his friend and patron Lady Gregory:
Sense of public voice? Began poem during executions, published during the war in British periodical?
"I am trying to write a poem on the men executed--'terrible beauty has been born again.' ... I had no idea that any public event could so deeply move me."
Languages of Nationalism
three traditions from 19th century that inform the poem
The dead
Proclamation: "In the name of God and of the dead..., Ireland... summons her children."
The dead as witnesses, the dead as still present, the dead urging the living to fight.
nationalism as religious sentiment
Ireland as a Woman
(nationalism as romance)
"Easter 1916": the poem
the title
Expect a commemoration of the event or of the dead?
event effectively erased
dead commemorated in ambiguous way
poem of deep ambivalence
real point seems to be not the event but how we respond to the event
central tension of the poem:
bardic / lyric voice
lyric voice: personal, emotional response, allegiance to the poetic
POETRY / POLITICS (aesthetic/political): compare to Wilde (poetry/propaganda) and Harrison (public poetry)-- and to Seamus Heaney
other tensions
at work in the poem:
heroic / ordinary
singleness of purpose /
broad perspective
daily time / historical time
historic time / mythic time
bardic voice: cultural, historical (voice of the people), allegiance to the political
"no idea that any public event could so deeply move me"
public event / private response -- yet public voice?
Ireland personified as woman
maiden in need of rescue, protection, love
aisling or 'vision' poetry of 18th century
19th century visual imagery (British & Irish cartoons-propaganda)
old woman, Mother Ireland, Cathleen ni Houlihan
religious language and symbolism adapted to nationalist rhetoric
especially language of blood sacrifice and resurrection
Patrick Pearse
Speaking at the grave of Wolfe Tone (patriot of the 1798 Rebellion)

"He has spoken for all time, and his voice resounds throughout Ireland, calling to us from this grave when we wander astray"
"This man's soul was a burning flame, a flame so ardent, so generous, so pure, that to come into communion with it is to come unto a new baptism, unto a new regeneration and cleansing. If we who stand by this graveside could make ourselves at one with the heroic spirit that once inbreathed this clay, could in some way come into loving contact with it, possessing ourselves of something of its ardour, its valour, its purity, its tenderness, its gaiety, how good a thing it would be for Ireland; with what joyousness and strength should we set our faces toward the path that lies before us, bringing with us fresh life from this place of death, a new resurrection of patriotic grace in our souls!"

"How Does She Stand" (1913)
Easter imagery?
Stanza 1
Stanza 3
SETTING: portrait of time, place, people
[was actually staying with friends in England]
grey 18th century houses
Dublin cityscape
but also historical context (1798 and aftermath)
"polite meaningless words" - repeated to suggest meaninglessness
mocking tale, "motley"
"terrible beauty"
Christian context
Stanza 2
Stanza 4
THE ACTORS: "that woman" & "this man"
resisting naming, resisting bardic impulse
instead a kind of pointing (deictic, demonstrative)
also, they are ordinary, not heroic
"that woman": Constance Markiewicz
attack on political women
"shrill" where once "beautiful" (rhyme accentuates what she has become)
REFRAIN: Yet all are "transformed utterly" - ordinary people transformed by this public
and historic drama, lifted out of daily time into historic time
(or even national myth).
"this man had kept a school": Patrick Pearse
founded an Irish language school
"winged horse" - Pegasus - symbol of poetry
"this other his helper and friend": Thomas MacDonagh
"might have won fame in the end" - emphasis on unrealized promise as artist (more important than political martyrdom?)
"drunken, vain-glorious lout": Major John MacBride
married Maud Gonne 1903 (separated after 2 years)
drunken lout - not heroic language
part in casual comedy -- all acting out assigned parts, comedy not tragedy?
seems an interruption of the poem
moves from history to image (metaphor-stone), from city to country
lyric voice? (pastoral)
outside time? or emphasis on human lives outside history?
"hearts with one purpose" - "enchanted to stone"
politics as a kind of enchantment (and heart hardened to stone)
troubles the living stream: single-minded vision versus larger human perspective (natural world, world of change, love and human relations)
We have little care of prison fare,
For what chills and kills outright
Is that every stone one lifts by day
Becomes one's heart by night.
And some men curse, and some men weep,
And some men make no moan:
But God's eternal Laws are kind
And break the heart of stone.
moor-hens calling to moor-cocks:
world of love and reproduction
"they live" - stone in the midst - already dead?
from "The Ballad of Reading Gaol"
questioning the means, affirming the ends
ambiguous affirmation of the martyrs
heart of stone reimagined as result of long sacrifice
absence of refrain
(outside time and place of poem?)
poem asks 3 rhetorical questions:
1. "O when may it suffice?"
(When will it be enough?)
answer: that is heaven's part (only God knows)
our job to name the names (bardic voice)
"as a mother names her child"
domestic simile humanizes
but also defuses horror (not night but DEATH)
lyric simile (like a mother- personal) for bardic task (naming the martyrs)?
recall Michael Collins - use of personal and familial to understand historical
version of political discourse: MOTHER Ireland?
2. "Was it needless death after all?"
(Was it necessary?)
England had promised Home Rule, only delayed.
again, we can't answer, don't have an answer
(what if? what might have been?)
we can't know
what we do know: they had a dream and they were willing to die for it
3. "What if excess of love bewildered them till they died?"
(Can you love your country too much?)
"excess of love"
nationalism as excessive love
"bewildered" - confused (echo of "enchanted")
love of nation? - "touched" by fairies? (Cathleen)
again, cannot (or will not) answer -- turns to BARDIC VOICE:
"I write it out in a verse" (finally names the martyrs)
naming the martyrs
poet turns to language of the people: BALLAD
"wearing of the green" - popular song, ballads (both folk and popular) as important language of nationalist movement
repeats refrain (another feature of ballads?) - gains meaning as go through poem: ordinary people transformed into martrys, and the world of the first stanza changed utterly as well (time of war)
substitutes James Connolly for Constance Markiewicz
replaces woman with man, upper class with working class, living with dead (executed -- and one of the most famous of the executed)
labor union organizer, champion of common man
with Pearse was leader of the insurrection
based in Liberty Hall ("We serve neither King nor Kaiser")
"Too long a sacrifice can make a stone of the heart."
"same old theme since 1916": ZOMBIE
Cranberries, from No Need to Argue (1994)
"It's the same old theme since 1916" (historical event invoked as precedent for contemporary violence)
not resurrected martyrs but LIVING DEAD (zombies)
focus on violence
image of mother and dead child (echo of Yeats?)
Another mother's breakin’
heart is taking over
when the violence
causes silence
We must be mistaken
It's the same old theme since 1916
In your head,. . .
In your head, in your head
What's in your head, in your head
includes images of British troops in Northern Ireland
juxtaposed with children (playing war) and
lead singer Dolores O'Riordan as a goddess figure (Mother Ireland?)
in front of a cross (Easter reference, blood sacrifice?)
TEXT (lyrics)
VIDEO (images)
Liberty Hall
(Helen Vendler)
speaker- someone
who knew them
form: 4 parts
houses, motley
tone? -
ignorant, shrill,
image: stone in stream
shift in form:
no refrain
mother & child
stone of heart
Full transcript