Symbolism in Yeats’ Easter 1916

Symbolism in Yeats’ Easter 1916

William Butler Yeats, in his essay, ‘The Symbolism of Poetry’ wrote “All sounds, all colours, all forms, either because of their preordained energies or because of long association, evoke indefinable and yet precise emotions, or, as I prefer to think, call down among us certain disembodied powers.” W.B.Yeats wrote many of his works by the use of rich symbolism through either color, forms or sounds. One of Yeats’ major work, ‘Easter 1916’ also uses the references to certain symbols and brings forth associations with significant events in the history of Ireland. It is a poem which evokes one to remember the incidences of the ‘Easter Uprising’ of 1916 in Dublin through the means of rich symbolism. The poem ‘Easter 1916’ holds true to Yeats’ quote found in his essay ‘Symbolism of Poetry’ that certain colors and forms evokes precise emotions through either their long associations or their preordained energies. The symbol of ‘terrible beauty’, ‘the stone’, and the color ‘green’ through preordained energies and long associations respectively, evokes certain emotions related to the historical context of the ‘Easter Uprising’ of 1916.

Yeats mentions the phrase ‘a terrible beauty is born’ three times in the poem. What actually is this ‘terrible beauty’? Yeats actually is referring to the ‘Easter Uprising’ that happened in Dublin in 1916. It is history and as history is thought to be preordained, so does this association become preordained. These lines remind of the brutal execution of the leaders of Irish Republican Brotherhood (the ones who rebelled against the British for independence) and so evokes emotions of sadness, which is terrible, but also of pride and patriotism which is beautiful. In the first stanza, lines 15-16, Yeats mentions that all things are changed and even though people seem unchanged, the truth is that lives were changed after a terrible history that was born in Ireland. Again in line 39, he mentions of the terrible beauty. He talks about Countess Markieviez (lines 17-23), who Yeats describes as a woman ‘in ignorant goodwill’ and ‘her nights in argument’ (lines 18-19). This can also mean that she represents rebellion because of the word ‘argument’. It signifies and evokes emotions of the Irish rebellion towards England for independence. ‘Ignorant goodwill’ may apply to being ignorant of the goodness of everyday life and thus choose to be more aggressive to come out independent.

Yeats also talk of Patrick Pearse(lines 24-30) who could have won fame but could not as he was executed in the end. Pearse is portrayed as having a ‘sensitive nature’ (line 29). Yeats may as well be implying that ordinary people can bring about changes in the society. John MacBride is also mentioned in lines 31-38. MacBride was not one of the favorites of Yeats as he seemed to have done wrong to those near Yeats’ heart (lines 33-34), but he still regards MacBride as a hero for he fought for the good of Ireland. These people were the members of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, who did their part and gave birth to a ‘terrible beauty’, that is, freedom to Ireland. Yeats argued that symbols whether color, forms or sounds evokes emotions due to their preordained energies. It is true in case of the association of the ‘terrible beauty’ in ‘Easter 1916’ because it evokes emotions of pride, sadness and patriotism (as discussed above) as it is associated with the history of Ireland. Furthermore, in lines 75-80, Yeats mentions MacDonagh, MacBride, Connolly and Pearse, who were responsible for Ireland becoming a free state, which also evokes emotions of patriotism and respect for those dead. The historical context of ‘Easter Uprising’ helps understand the symbolism better as the symbol of ‘terrible beauty’ has its ground on the events that are related to history.

The ‘stone’ mentioned in lines 43, 56 and 58 has its echoes from long associations. A stone is often times associated with immovability, rigidity and unchanging nature. Here in the poem as well, the ‘stone’ is at first portrayed as ‘a trouble to the living stream’ (line 43). The leaders of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, may be associated with the stone here. As rigid and unchanging the stone is, the deceased of the ‘Easter Uprising’ also remain unchanged, in their pursuit to gain freedom and thereafter because they are dead, they will remain unchanged for all times to come.

Yeats gives many examples of changing phenomenon such as the shadows of the clouds which changes every minute, the horse, the birds, the winter and the summer, which is bound to be changed each time. Then he talks of the ‘stone in the midst of all’ (line 56) which is amongst changes but still remains the same itself however. In line 58, the ‘stone’, however is associated with a heart. This may be because too much of wars and dark history, (the uprising which led to the execution of many Irish) makes the human heart cold and emotionless like that of a stone. These images of the stone evoke emotions of stillness in one. That is it makes one realize that everything is bound to change, that change is inevitable and yet there are some things that can never be changed like the stone. The historical context of the Irish freedom makes it easier to understand this because then it shows that the things and events done in the history cannot be changed. No matter how everything may change minute by minute, no one can re-write history.

The color ‘green’ in Yeats poem symbolizes Ireland through long association. Green is mentioned in the last stanza where Yeats talk about those who were killed during the event of the ‘Easter Uprising’ of 1916. And Yeats mentions that ‘whenever green is worn’ (line 78), the things that has been changed will be remembered, the heroes will be remembered and thus the ‘terrible beauty born’ will be cherished. After the heroes were executed, ‘green’ has been associated with the representation of the nation of Ireland. So whenever green be worn, it would symbolize Ireland’s victory over the British in the fight for independence. Green as such is normally related to nature but the historical context of the poem helps in gaining a full understanding of its association with the names of the dead people mentioned in the last stanza. This evokes the feeling of patriotism because it reminds that now ‘green’ is the color of Ireland where ‘motley was worn’ (line 14), and that liberty was now endowed to those living by those who sacrificed themselves in the quest of freedom.

Through all the above paragraphs, it can be justified that Yeats stands true to his quote which he gave in his essay ‘Symbolism of Poetry’. The images, sounds and associations such as the ‘terrible beauty’, the ‘stone’ and the color ‘green’ all have either preordained energies or long associations which evokes emotions that are precise. ‘Easter 1916’, through its strong echoes of the historical period of the ‘Easter Uprising’ of 1916, manages to justify Yeats’ proposition of images being able to evoke emotions of certain precision and magnitude as discussed above.


Yeats, W.B. (1916). Easter, 1916. Retrieved from e –