‘September 1913’ & ‘Easter 1916’ – W.B Yeats compared and contrasted

Throughout many of his poems, W.B Yeats portrayed important aspects of Ireland’s history especially around the 1900’s when Ireland was fighting for independence. The poems ‘September 1913’ and ‘Easter 1916’ both reflect the political, cultural, and societal atmospheres that were found in Ireland at this time. 

‘September 1913′ focuses on displaying Yeats’ new stance of belief exploring his new political mind during the time where the Irish Independence was also at it’s highest. This poem is about what Yeats sees as a lack of compassion in his countrymen and a reaction to their apathy

In ‘Easter 1916′, however, the focus is mainly on working through Yeats’ personal feelings about the revolutionary movement and is almost used as an elegy to the leaders executed whilst trying to prevent Great Britain from ruling Ireland. 

The way in which Yeats names many political leaders in both of these two poems makes them similar. In ‘September’, he mentions “O’Leary” at the end of each stanza, John O’Leary was an Irish separatist who focused on getting the greatest good for Ireland. He uses him in this poem as a symbol of national integrity. The repetition of O’Leary makes it clear Yeats looked up and admired him and that he wishes for a return to the less egotistical and self-driven politics of a bygone era. The line “It’s with O’Leary in the grave” projects Yeats’ idea of O’Leary’s death linking to the ‘death’ of Ireland as he no longer is able to guide it. Yeats also mentions Edward Fitzgerald, Robert Emmet and Wolfe Tone in the third stanza, all Irish revolutionists and leaders (whom Yeats idolised), so that they stand out from the rest of the nation.

‘Easter’ similarly includes the key figures (this time involved in the Easter uprising), but contrasting to ‘September’ by alluding to them without actually listing names. “That woman’s days were spent” refers to Constance Markiewicz, an Irish revolutionist and politician. Yeats expresses a negative opinion of Markiewicz calling her “ignorant”. “Until her voice grew shrill”, I think Yeats is trying to put across here the idea of Markiewicz being almost ‘spoilt’ by politics with the use of this negative language, as he was a long-time friend to her before. The reference to “harriers” also backs up this idea as it can be seen as a symbol of attacking innocence (meaning politics attacking innocent Markiewicz). The man who “kept a school / And rode our winged horse” is a reference to Patrick Pearse, and the lines about Pearse’s “helper and friend” allude to Thomas MacDonagh, again both Easter rising leaders. In Yeats’s description of the three, his torn feelings about the Easter uprising are most keenly communicated. He contrasts the “shrill” voice of Countess Markievicz as a revolutionary, with his remembrance of her incomparably “sweet” voice when she was a young woman; and he contrasts the haughty public personae of Pearse against his impression of his “sensitive” nature, describing how “daring and sweet” his ideals were even though he and MacDonagh had to resort to “force”.

‘Easter 1916’ has a noticeable pattern in it’s form, stanza 1 and 3 both having 16 lines to represent 1916, and stanza 2 and 4 having 24 lines representing the date in which the uprising began April 24th (4 stanzas being the 4th month, April). This to me is a clever way of Yeats expressing the deep, meaningful thoughts he has over the rising. ‘September 1913’, however is simply written in a 4 stanza 8 line poem with an alternating rhyme rhythm throughout. This to me, suggests the stability and regularity that Yeats wanted to return to Ireland at that time, as well as setting an accusatory and conversational tone.

Yeats uses irony in both of these poems, in ‘September’ by the use of religious language, “prayer” and “born to pray”, this language is used as a mockery to the Catholics as they ‘took from Ireland’ -being responsible for apathy. “Fumble in a greasy till”, Yeats accuses the Catholics of being the reason of the workers having little money taking from them, and the life out of Ireland. This gives a very clear idea of these people killing Ireland. In ‘Easter’, “fire at the club” is an English saying, this irony is also used to mock the English, also the line “where motley is worn”, motley being the clothes of a jester suggests Yeats’ disrespect towards the revolutionists almost calling them clown-like.

‘September’ begins with Yeats immediately directing to the reader being the middle class workers, in first person, “What need you”, this instantly projects a sense of anger. ‘Easter’ is written in first person narrative, “I have met them”, this instantly distances Yeats from the rest of the people. 

Both poems also use rhetorical questions, which could mean this is a technique Yeats is a big user of. “Could they save?” and “She rode to harriers?” the constant use of rhetorical questions in these poems could be to convey a sense of confusion, or the idea that the questions can never be truly answered.

I hope this has been some use to you in either your notes on ‘Easter 1916’ or ‘September 1913’, looking at these comparisons has helped me to understand Yeats further and his writing techniques and feelings. In my opinion, I think it is most interesting in reading ‘September’ before looking at ‘Easter’ as (apart from being written earlier) shows us the change in Yeats’ feelings about the changes that were occurring in Ireland at that time.

 

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