“Terrible beauty” is the signature oxymoron in William Butler Yeats’s “Easter 1916.” I am not particularly a Yeats scholar, but it seems to me that this is also the signature oxymoron of Yeats’s poetic landscape in general.
All three have to do with rupture, paradigm shift, or, to wit, the moment in which some “terrible beauty is born.” In “Easter 1916,” numb Victorian complacency shatters with a revolutionary eruption, beautiful in its sudden move from deadening complacency toward freedom, passion, and authenticity, but terrible in its violence.
On a personal level, the rupture may recall for some the Romantic move from Innocence to Experience (explicit in Blake but implicit in all six canonical Romantic poets). For Yeats, this may be best marked by his sudden, disruptive passion upon meeting Maud Gonne, whom he loved unrequitedly for decades.
On the level of cultural history, the vision is one not of gradual evolution but of long ages punctuated by violent eruptions/paradigm shifts. Although the paradigm shift in “Easter 1916” is political, a spiritual world view infuses Yeats’s vision. Look at “Leda and the Swan” and “The Second Coming” and you see supernatural eruptions every 2000 years that determine the next historical cycle (Helen of Troy is conceived in “Leda and the Swan,” Christ is born about 2000 years later, and in “The Second Coming” Yeats sees forces gathering at the beginning of the 20th for another supernatural explosion). This sense of paradigm shift was shared by Yeats’s younger contemporaries like Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot. And indeed it was a cultural paradigm shift that cut across all disciplines. The modernist style of Joyce and Woolf and Eliot broke radically from the Victorian style of Dickens and Tennyson. Cp. Picasso in painting (sense of depth yields to colliding surfaces), Stravinsky and DeBussy and the sudden rise of atonal, impressionistic music that would have been utterly nonsensical a few years earlier (and indeed was still nonsensical to many contemporaries), Freud, Einstein, the rise of existentialism. Not to mention the drastic review of the “meaning” of life precipitated by the trench warfare of World War I and then the rise of Hitler.
You can see this stuff all over in our selection – “Leda” begins with a “sudden blow” and drives forward with a swirling mix of beauty and terror, a power both gigantic and indifferent, richly sensual but cosmic as well. This is not a rational, Newtonian universe. And it applies on all levels – personal growth, political/cultural history, cosmic/mythological history. (For an exquisitely personal sense of this alien omnipresence indifferently driving our fates, you might see Emily Dickinson, also a contemporary of Yeats though a cultural world away.)
“The Second Coming” starts with an almost pure physics approach to the same kind of break, “turning and turning” toward the rupture point when all hell will break loose. It’s a combination of the Book of Revelation, trench warfare, the premonition of Hitler, the obliteration of innocence, etc., etc., all delivered in richly concrete terms.
Much more could be said about particular word choices and image patterns, but I’d close by saying that, for me, the key things to look for in Yeats are suddenness, fracture, power, terrible beauty, and the three primary levels to frame them with are cosmic/mythic, historical/political, personal.