Yeats' "Easter 1916"

Essay by jeyy06 March 2010

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William Butler Yeats' "Easter 1916" is strong but not convincing to me. He is too harsh towards his county fellows. Doubtlessly, violence is awful. But before chide the Irish nationalists for using violence, one should put himself in their shoes and try to understand why they act so desperately. In the following I am going to examine the lines in Yeats' "Easter 1916" and see whether he does so, meanwhile I will compare it a bit with Seamus Heaney's "Requiem for the Croppies."In the poem, Yeats rebukes the violent Rebellion against Britain. He blames the oppressed colonized very much. He sighs repetitively that "a terrible beauty is born." He blames all the initials and all the actions, but he blames the British colonizer nothing. In fact, some of his lines are so hostile that I could not help suspecting he is firing personal attacks rather than talking about the Rebellion.

Yeats thinks "that woman's days were spent/ In ignorant good-will" and "He might have won fame in the end" and "This other man I had dreamed/ A drunken, vainglorious lout." What's more, "He had done most bitter wrong/ To some who are near my heart." To tell the truth, I totally lose the point in this stanza. If the Rebellion was nothing but a fame-searching game of some nationalists as Yeats defines, would there be so many people joining in and sacrificing their life for it? Of course one can argue that maybe the people were blinded. But was it not because they could not tolerate the colonization, exploitation and oppression any more so they were "blinded" and decided to take a great risk to rebel? A rebellion won't be a rebellion, whether it is successful, if there are no people joining in it; however, in Yeats' poem, the Rebellion seems only to be a game of some ambitious politicians whom he personally hated very much.

After accusing the rebels' motives, Yeats criticizes their mentalities. He says, "Hearts with one purpose alone… Enchanted to a stone" and "Too long a sacrifice/ Can make a stone of the heart." In other words, he thinks the Irish should be more gentle, merciful and open-minded. But isn't it too cruel to ask the oppressed to be kind, tolerant and forgiving to the oppressors? How about the English? Shouldn't they be gentle and compassionate towards the Irish and be aware what they were doing toward the latter? What's more, if the Irish hearts were hard, who maked them so? Who should take the blame? Didn't the Irish people want to live a happy and peaceful life as same as the English lived? Is a life without dignity a life? Can't people feel angry about being forced to live an undignified life? Reading his poem, I cannot convince myself that Yeats cares the life of the Irish at all!Yeats expresses his special viewpoint about life and death in the poem. He says, "Was it needless death after all? / For England may keep faith/ For all that is done and said." When I first see these lines, I cannot help but crying out "the enemy would not please is not a reason for not rebelling!" I simply fail to connect his question with his reason. There is no doubt that the English won't be pleased by any resistance of the Irish, but the colonized won't be happy about any control of the colonizer too! To be frank, I am very curious about why Yeats, as an Irish poet, always adopts the English's point of view. "Was it needless death after all?" For Yeats, it was. But actually it was not if we look into history. As Seamus Heaney says in his poem, "in August the barley grew up out of grave," something is born from those dead soldiers. It is the country called Republic of Ireland! Without the Rebellion, Irish would not have gained independence yet and may still have lived under colonization. Irish know it better than everyone in the world. However, by questioning the necessity of the action, Yeats showed no respect for those who sacrificed for his present life, and thus his words cannot convince me at all.

Now that he disagrees with the Rebellion, what would he do to show his resistance, if any, towards the colonizers? As far as the poem tells us, he would do "nothing" at all. He says, "That is heaven's part, our part/ To murmur name upon name." "We know their dream; enough/ To know they dreamed and are dead." He is very passive. He would prefer people cry for the Heaven, if there is any, than struggle for themselves. Apparently Yeats knows very well why the people rebelled. Yet, he thinks that to know they had dream is enough, for any action beyond dreaming and knowing is too much; people die once across the line. According to Yeats, they can only "murmur name upon name," which Yeats does do in this poem; and in the beginning of this journal, we have examine how Yeats "murmurs" these names! However, if the weak do not try to save themselves, who would help them? It is no doubt that to die or to kill is very terrible. Everyone wants to live. However, to live is not just to breathe. Yeats himself says there is "[t]oo long a sacrifice." Furthermore, as Seamus Heaney describes, "We move quick and sudden in our own country." Is this the lifestyle which Yeats prefers? Of course, war is terrible. Everyone loves peace. However, what is peace? Is no war peace? To live an oppressed life is not peace at all. In my opinion, the Irish can be peace-lovers and even peace-makers, but they do not have to be pacifists, for they are not allowed to be!In fact, after reading this poem, I keep thinking that if the Rebellion succeeded, would Yeats still blame it? For he seems to see the Rebellion was nothing but only brutality. Seamus Heaney's "Requiem for the Croppies" gives me a totally different viewpoint. His poem is sad and sympathetic, and he appreciates the rebels and he sees hope in the failed action. He says, "in August the barley grew up out of the grave." There's still hope; though the people die, they die for something new. The sacrifice is worthy. The martyrs are like seeds, and they fight for their descendants.

Is the Rebellion right? Opinions are different. I leave a lot of questions unanswered in this journal for I do not have a certain opinion myself. However, after examining them carefully, I find Yeats' arguments not convincing at all!Bibliography:William Butler Yeats' "Easter 1916"