Tuesday, June 8, 2010
In our class This Spring we read a number of poems and poets, from the turn of the 18th century through the turn of the 21st century. I found no poem stopped me as much as the W.B. Yeats poem “Easter, 1916.” I found its subject and tone to have very different flavors. The subject is an uprising of a few Irishmen and women against the British Empire. These souls stood up against a giant, risking the respect of their fellow countrymen and women, their lives and their reputations. Yeats writes this poem as an outsider, impressed by the sacrifice but not necessarily sharing the views of these acquaintances of his.
Yeats, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature early in life is best known for his later poetry. His poems often dealt with the themes of the contrast of art and life, masks (a theme his plays often shared,) and the ideal of beauty and ceremony contrasting with the noise and interruption of modern life (-Biography).
Yeats was a lifelong patriot to his home country, even serving in the senate of a young and free Ireland in the 1920s, but deplored the violence of his more nationalistic acquaintances. Of these acquaintances he mentions four in particular in his poem. While he doesn’t name any of the four Major John Macbride, Patrick Pearse, Thomas MacDonagh, and Constance Georgine Markiewicz are commonly believed to be the four.
Major John MacBride, not believed to have been involved in the initial planning of the uprising nonetheless joined out of a sense of duty and honor. Not a favorite of Yeats he was rumored (possibly by Yeats) to have been abusive to his former wife and his son Sean. Yeats however was strongly influenced in his opinion by his feelings for the ex Mrs. J. MacBride Maude Gonne.
Patrick Pearse and Thomas Macdonagh are mentioned in the same passage as starting a school. Pearse started and ran the St. Edna’s School for Boys where the children were taught in their home Gaelic language. In the prospectus for the school the school’s goals were to “Instruct pupils in a love of the Irish language, Educate pupils in a love of chivalry and self-sacrifice, and to
Teach pupils to have "charity towards all"; a "sense of civic social duty". However the Gaelic language version of this same prospectus said that youths "should spend their lives working hard and zealously for their fatherland and, if it should ever be necessary, to die for it” (Trueman). The children were taught to read and write in their own language and were taught how to shoot as well.
Thomas MacDonagh an Irish nationalist loved his country and the language that made his country home for him. He was intrinsic in the starting of the St. Edna’s School for boys that he helped his friend Pearse start but left their to become a professor of English at the National University. Macdonagh was a poet and an idealist and wrote his wife from prison “
I am ready to die, and I thank God that I am to die in so a holy a cause. My country will reward my deed richly. I counted the cost of this, and I am ready to pay it." His son went on to follow in his footsteps in a way to become a predominent poet, playwright, songwriter and judge.
The last of the four is by no means the least important. She is the first of the four to appear in the poem. Constance Georgine Markiewicz both designed the uniforms of the uprisings militia and composed its anthem. Sentenced to death for her part her sentence was commuted to life in prison. In 1917 London decreed an amnesty for all imprisoned that had taken a part in the uprising and she was released from prison. She would return to prison twice more in life as well as be the first woman elected to the British House of Commons. She abstained from serving her term on the House of Commons in line with her political beliefs.
The insurrection of Easter, 1916 only lasted a few days. It angered the residents of Dublin who were often clubbed and beaten by the members of the rebellion while trying to defend their buildings, and ended with 14 people being put to death. The participants in the uprising counted on weapons that never came and surprise that was not really to be had. The lasting effect of the rebellion was to create and “awful beauty” and solidify in most of Ireland a desire for self rule. One year later the participants that were not ruled to be at the head of the uprising and who only received jail time were granted amnesty and released and five years later most of Ireland was granted self rule.
Ireland is still divided and the army that was born of that moment in history is still fighting today. Thanks to a long lasting cease fire the war is being faught with words rather than bullets today. What would Yeats write about today?
I think he’d write about a united Ireland, one that fosters literature and thought rather than bluster and argument.
Trueman, Chris. “Patrick Pearse.” History Learning Site UK. 2010. Web. June
"William Butler Yeats - Biography". Nobelprize.org. 8 Jun 2010