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Yeats’ “easter 1916” : An Insight to Symbol and Symbolism

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                                Irish Literary Revival was a unfolding of Irish literary talent in late nineteenth and early twentieth century which was closely allied with a strong political nationalism and a revival of interest in Ireland’s Gaelic literary heritage.The movement developed into a vigorous literary force centered on the  poet and playwright William Butler Yeats,one of the foremost figures of Irish and British literary establishment.

                                   Regarded as a great modernist poet along with contemporaries like Thomas Stearns Eliot and Ezra Pound,Yeats’ early compositions are characterized  by an  abundance  of  romantic features.Writing in a slow-paced lyrical form,he used cultured and genteel language,more properly called poetic language.In his earlier poems there was an echo of Shelley,Spenser and Pre-Raphaelites.This is perceptible in poems likeThe Lake Isle of Innisfree”.Much Like the Romantic poets he voiced forth his personal emotions,sentiments,feelings through the medium of poetry and was called “the last of the great Romantics” by Graham Hough.As a poet of Celtic Twilight  Yeats in the early period of his poetic career reworked ancient Irish folk-tales,myths and legends about which he came to know from rustic songs and ballads in childhood days spent in County Sligo.He became fascinated by Celtic legends and occult studies and decided to reinvent these myths to create a specifically Irish Literature.Yeats’  use of Irish mythology and folk-lore took all Europe by storm. His use of ancient myths in literature and effort to produce a sense of nationalism among the people of the country  was similar to Norwegian writer Henrik Ibsen’s use of Norse mythology to produce the same effect.In the poems of  The Roses,he made use of Gaelic legends,the Cuchulian Saga and the Tales of the Fianna.He wanted to explore ancient roots of Ireland in order to inspire and remind Irish people about their proud origin.

                          But with the advent of twentieth century Yeats became disillusioned  with  Romanticism and came to distrust it more and more as he aged.His frustrated romantic relationship with his beloved Maud Gonne caused the starry-eyed romantic idealism of his early work to become more knowing and cynical.His concern with Irish subjects evolved as he became more closely connected to nationalist political causes.As a result,Yeats shifted his focus from myth and folklore to contemporary Irish scene.Yeats’ connection with the changing face of literary culture in the early twentieth century led him to pick up some of the styles and conventions of the Modernist poets.Modernists experimented with the verse forms,aggressively engaged with the contemporary politics,challenged poetic conventions and literary traditions at large.These influences caused Yeats’ poetry to become darker,edgier and more concise.There was a noticeable shift in style and tone over the course of his career and he gradually evolved into a modernist poet. Easter 1916 is one of the finest public poems by Yeats during this stage.

              Easter1916 was written on September 25th,1916  when Yeats was             staying with Maud Gonne Macbride at Les Mouettes,Calvados,Normandy.The poem records Yeats’ reaction to the Easter Rising in Dublin.While Britain was busy with the First World War,the volunteers of the Irish Republican Brotherhood(IRB) proclaimed the establishment of the Irish Republic and attacked the British Army at Dublin on Easter Monday,April 24th,1916.They occupied Dublin and staged a rebellion against the British Government by a force of seven hundred members of Irish Republican Brotherhood,led by Patrick Pearse,and members of the Citizen Army led by James Connolly.The rebels seized GPO and other prominent buildings in Dublin.British Army brought in thousands of reinforcements as well as artillery and a gunboat,and suppressed the insurrection within a week.More than 500 people were killed,almost 2600 people were injured and about 3500 people were taken prisoner by the British.Remaining rebels surrendered on 29th April.From 3-12th May the British Government court-martialled and executed fifteen of rebel leaders.New heroes were born for Irish legend.Initially,there was little support from the Irish people for the Rising,however public opinion later shifted and the executed leaders were hailed as martyrs.In 1921,a treaty was signed that in 1922 established the Irish Free State,which eventually became the modern day Republic of Ireland.

                     The violent and gruesome outcome of the rebellion moved Yeats deeply and as a result he started to compose a verse on 24th April 1916 which was ultimately published in Michael Robartes and the Dancer in 1921,almost five years after the composition of the poem.Writing to Lady Gregory on 11th May Yeats said “The Dublin tragedy has been a great sorrow and anxiety...I am trying to write a poem on the men executed –a terrible beauty has been born again.” In order to depict the struggle and the sacrifice  of Irish revolutionaries Yeats has used various symbols which are remarkable for their depth and intensity.

                   In order to get a hold of Yeats’ use of symbols in this poem a primary concept of symbol is necessary.The word ‘symbol’ is derived from  the   Greek  verb symballein  (to throw together) and its noun ‘symbolon’(‘mark’,’emblem’,’token’ or ‘sign’).In its broadest sense,symbol is anything which signifies something other.From literary perspective the term ‘symbol’ is used while representing something abstract.Again,the practice of referring things by means of symbols or attributing symbolic meanings or significance to objects is called symbolism.Symbolism may be defined as “the representation of reality on the level of reference by a corresponding reality on another”.Symbolism is needed  for a poet who wants to say more than that meets the ear,wants to suggest something beyond the expressed meaning. There are two kinds of symbols that we commonly use –conventional and private.Conventional or public symbols are used to share association between an object and a particular concept.Like,a peacock is conventionally associated to pride –an eagle to heroic spirits –a setting sun to death and so on.To give an example  of personal or private symbols we can go through William Blake’s The Sick Rose :



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