Essay: Yeats’ Easter 1916

The Second Coming
The enduring nature of Yeats poetry is in its ability to explore the ambivalence faced by humanity. Discuss.

In ‘Easter 1916,’ Yeats delves into his ambivalence towards the martyred rebels of the Easter Uprising. Yeats describes the commitment of the rebels as they came ‘with vivid faces’ from their mundane ‘counter or desk’ jobs. The poet contrastingly dismisses their eagerness deeming their ideals as foolish, shown by the allusion to Shakespeare’s fools ‘where motley is worn’. Yeats’ changing opinion on the rebels is illustrated by the repetitious oxymoron of ‘a terrible beauty is born’, expressing the good that resulted from the death of his friends. The second stanza adopts a eulogistic style, hinting at a woman who spent her ‘days in ignorant good-will’ and ‘nights in argument’ as she was changed by the planning of the rebellion. Yeats insinuates the Irish unity that arose after the execution of the rebels, the allusion of the ‘winged horse’ representing Pegasus who sprung from the blood of the slain Medusa. Yeats attempts an unbiased commendation of those who died in the revolt, descriptively immortalising even ‘a drunken, vainglorious lout’ who had ‘done most bitter wrong’. Yeats reinforces his view of the superfluous death, the comparison of the revolt to a ‘casual comedy’ with actors who ‘resigned his part’. The rebellion has resulted in the timelessness of those ‘hearts with one purpose alone’ who were fixed upon the Irish cause as though ‘enchanted to a stone’, the repeating image of immutability expressed to show the immortality of their cause. ‘Easter 1916′ expresses Yeats’ struggle to accept their deaths, the rhetorical question ‘was it needless death after all’ queries the necessity of this loss, especially if ‘England may keep faith’ leaving their deaths redundant. Yeats shows his understanding of the rebellion for ‘we know their dream’ but also understands that ‘they dreamed and are dead’, summarizing his grappling with the loss of life. Yeats’ view is altered to ‘wherever green is worn’ will memorialize their sacrifice, contrasting with his prior allusion to the folly of those who wear motley. Yeats concludes ‘Easter 1916’ with the acceptance that they ‘changed, changed utterly’ into martyrs who died for their country’s independence. The poet’s aim to immortalise the rebellion is written within the four stanzas and the switching number of lines from sixteen to twenty-four, which represent the 24th day of the fourth month in 1916. ‘Easter 1916’ immortalises the rebels, dually commending their achievement and questioning the necessity of the revolt and subsequent deaths.
Yeats discusses the dualities of society’s spiral into chaos and the conflicting idea of the resolution the Christian’s second coming will bring. Yeats uses the idea of the ‘second coming’ as an ironic appropriation of the future resolution Jesus’ return would achieve. Yeats considers the cyclical nature of history, comparing it to a ‘widening gyre’ that spirals out of control. This societal collapse is represented by the ‘falcon cannot hear the falconer’, corresponding with the congruent image of the falcon’s flight path ‘turning and turning’ as the falconer loses control. Yeats proposes that humanity is aware of the ‘mere anarchy’ that is impending, with the enjambment of ‘the worst are full of passionate intensity’ as an example. Humanity’s weakening morals are illustrated by the repetition of ‘loosed’, presenting a conscious action in the anarchic future. The poet’s belief that it was the beginning of a new cycle of history is symbolised through the ‘shape with lion body and the head of a man’ which marks the dawning of a new era. Yeats depicts this new era as terrifying, as exhibited by the sphinx’s ‘gaze blank and pitiless as the sun’ indicating indifference in this time period that ‘is moving its slow thighs’ to draw closer. The end of civilisation is represented by the harbingers of death, the ‘desert birds’ and by their flight they repeat the motif of the gyre as their ‘reel shadows’ circle the sphinx. The resolution Christ’s return was hoped to bring is displaced by the ‘twenty centuries of stony sleep’ that was ‘vexed to nightmare’ and appears to be the antichrist. The antichrists link to Christ is revealed through the biblical allusion of the ‘Bethlehem’ and rhetorically questions if the ‘rough beast’ waited for Christ’s return to ‘be born’. ‘The Second Coming’ is written in blank verse to illustrate the disarray of society and the end of Christ’s era. ‘The Second Coming’ demonstrates the dilemma faced by humanity and is thus immortalised.

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