By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘Under Ben Bulben’ was completed in 1938, just one year before W. B. Yeats’s death. This makes it one of his last great poems; indeed, he dictated the final revisions to the poems from his deathbed. Yeats dated ‘Under Ben Bulben’ to September 4th, 1938.
The poem is perhaps best-known for its final three lines, which actually helped to inspire Yeats to write ‘Under Ben Bulben’: the lines ‘Cast a cold eye / On life, on death. / Horseman, pass by!’ became Yeats’s epitaph, and can be found on his tomb. Anyway, the best way to offer an analysis of this poem is perhaps by going through it and summarising/analysing each section as we go.
Under Ben Bulben
Swear by what the Sages spoke
Round the Mareotic Lake
That the Witch of Atlas knew,
Spoke and set the cocks a-crow.
Swear by those horsemen, by those women,
Complexion and form prove superhuman,
That pale, long visaged company
That airs an immortality
Completeness of their passions won;
Now they ride the wintry dawn
Where Ben Bulben sets the scene.
Here’s the gist of what they mean.
Let’s start with the title: ‘Under Ben Bulben’. This wasn’t Yeats’s original choice of title, and initially he planned to call the poem ‘His Convictions’, since the poem is a distillation of his wisdom and beliefs. But the final title raises some questions. Where is Ben Bulben?
Ben Bulben is the name of a flat-topped mountain near Sligo, which Yeats had a particular attachment to. He’d already chosen it as his final resting-place when he died, so he is looking ahead to when he himself will lie ‘under Ben Bulben’.
In this first section of the poem, Yeats tells us to hold to the wisdom of the ancients, specifically those who spoke around the Mareotic Lake – the lake south of Alexandria in Egypt, associated with early Christian monasticism (as the very helpful notes to AMAZON tell us). The Witch of Atlas is a reference to the poem by the Romantic poet Percy Shelley, whose titular witch passes the Mareotic Lake; thus early Christianity is joined with pagan witchcraft, and the Mareotic Lake is a meeting-point of various traditions and beliefs – various routes to wisdom, we might say.
The horsemen and women who appear to be ‘superhuman’ are the Sidhe (pronounced ‘Shee’), the fairies and gods associated with ancient Ireland. Yeats concludes this first section of ‘Under Ben Bulben’ by claiming that the rest of the poem essentially constitutes the wisdom of these various ancients, Celtic and Egyptian, Christian and pagan.
Many times man lives and dies
Between his two eternities,
That of race and that of soul,
And ancient Ireland knew it all.
Whether man dies in his bed
Or the rifle knocks him dead,
A brief parting from those dear
Is the worst man has to fear.
Though grave-diggers’ toil is long,
Sharp their spades, their muscle strong,
They but thrust their buried men
Back in the human mind again.
Things get quite mystical in this second section: this passage is essentially a summary of Yeats’s view on the human soul. The life of the human body is fleeting, especially when compared with those ‘eternities’ of the soul and of the race (i.e. the human race, although Yeats may also be thinking of the particular ‘tribes’ or ethnic groups, especially given the Irish focus in the first section of the poem).
Death is only a ‘brief parting’ from those we hold dear, and the grave-diggers who bury people are but returning them to ‘the human mind’, the common ‘mind’ of the human race as a whole.
You that Mitchel’s prayer have heard
‘Send war in our time, O Lord!’
Know that when all words are said
And a man is fighting mad,
Something drops from eyes long blind
He completes his partial mind,
For an instant stands at ease,
Laughs aloud, his heart at peace,
Even the wisest man grows tense
With some sort of violence
Before he can accomplish fate
Know his work or choose his mate.
John Mitchel (1815-75) was an Irish nationalist who, in his Jail Journal of 1854 urged God, ‘Send war in our time, O Lord!’ Those men who are eager for war complete themselves, because they discover his fate – wisdom ant truth about who they really are – in that moment of violence, of extreme intensity. It’s as if the blinkers drop from his eyes and he can see clearly for once, and relaxes, having come into this special knowledge. A man needs to have this rite of passage before he can know what his calling is in life, or before he can fall in love and have children with someone.
Poet and sculptor do the work
Nor let the modish painter shirk
What his great forefathers did,
Bring the soul of man to God,
Make him fill the cradles right.
Measurement began our might:
Forms a stark Egyptian thought,
Forms that gentler Phidias wrought.
Michael Angelo left a proof
On the Sistine Chapel roof,
Where but half-awakened Adam
Can disturb globe-trotting Madam
Till her bowels are in heat,
Proof that there’s a purpose set
Before the secret working mind:
Profane perfection of mankind.
Phidias was a Greek sculptor of the fifth century BC; Michael Angelo (1475-1564) is the Renaissance sculptor and painter, of course, who painted the roof of the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican. Yeats’s point in this section is that ‘modish’ or faddish painters who paint according to the (fleeting) trends of their own time are not good role models for the artist, who should try for something timeless that transcends the artist’s own time, and speaks to all generations.
We can see such an artistic ideal in the work of both Phidias and Michelangelo, who sought to show the vigour of the human form in his ‘half-awakened Adam’, which is enough to make a woman touring the world and visiting the Sistine Chapel get turned on (‘in heat’) by the sight of the naked Adam. Such ‘perfection of mankind’ is ‘Profane’ because it goes against the ‘safer’, prissier work of the fifteenth century artists and sculptors known as the ‘Quattrocento’, whom Yeats now mentions:
Quattrocento put in paint,
On backgrounds for a God or Saint,
Gardens where a soul’s at ease;
Where everything that meets the eye
Flowers and grass and cloudless sky
Resemble forms that are, or seem
When sleepers wake and yet still dream,
And when it’s vanished still declare,
With only bed and bedstead there,
That Heavens had opened.
Gyres run on;
When that greater dream had gone
Calvert and Wilson, Blake and Claude
Prepared a rest for the people of God,
Palmer’s phrase, but after that
Confusion fell upon our thought.
A few visionaries and great artists down the ages (‘gyres’ was Yeats’s belief that history worked in cycles, and repeated itself) hung onto this vision of ‘profane perfection’, such as Edward Calvert (1799-1883), Richard Wilson (1714-82), William Blake (1757-1827), and Claude Lorrain (c. 1605-82). But for the most part, artists have been too narrow-minded.
Irish poets learn your trade
Sing whatever is well made,
Scorn the sort now growing up
All out of shape from toe to top,
Their unremembering hearts and heads
Base-born products of base beds.
Sing the peasantry, and then
Hard-riding country gentlemen,
The holiness of monks, and after
Porter-drinkers’ randy laughter;
Sing the lords and ladies gay
That were beaten into the clay
Through seven heroic centuries;
Cast your mind on other days
That we in coming days may be
Still the indomitable Irishry.
Yeats now entreats his contemporaries and fellow poets to look to the best models for their art, rather than those ‘unremembering’ artists who have no knowledge of the past or of previous great poets and artists. He implores them to pay tribute to ordinary people from centuries past (‘the peasantry’) before ‘country gentlemen’ of today (who might commission artists to paint for them in return for patronage), and to convey the ‘holiness’ of celibate monks of the Middle Ages, men who have no interest in sex, before turning to the ‘randy’ sex-based humour and songs of ordinary beer-swilling men of today.
Yeats wants Irish poets to have a knowledge of their own country’s history and heritage, of all of the people who were killed over the centuries. It is only by knowing these ‘other days’ or previous times that Ireland ‘in coming days’, the Ireland of the future, can be strong as a nation.
Under bare Ben Bulben’s head
In Drumcliff churchyard Yeats is laid,
An ancestor was rector there
Long years ago; a church stands near,
By the road an ancient Cross.
No marble, no conventional phrase,
On limestone quarried near the spot
By his command these words are cut:
Cast a cold eye
On life, on death.
Horseman, pass by!
‘Under Ben Bulben’ concludes with Yeats writing about himself as already dead, declaring that his final resting-place is ‘under bare Ben Bulben’s head’. This seems appropriate since one of his ancestors was rector of the churchyard at Drumcliff, where Yeats is interred. This personal return to one’s ancestry is also in keeping with the broader national, cultural return to the past which Yeats calls for throughout ‘Under Ben Bulben’.
A comparison of Yeats’s ‘Under Ben Bulben’ with T. S. Eliot’s own poem about the personal and national links between the past and the present, the past and the future, one’s ancestry and one’s final resting-place, would make for an interesting analysis: ‘In my end is my beginning’ and ‘In my beginning is my end’, Eliot declares in his poem ‘East Coker’.
About W. B. Yeats
William Butler Yeats (1865-1939) is one of the greatest of all Irish poets. His first collection, Crossways, appeared in 1889 when he was still in his mid-twenties, and his early poetry bore the clear influence of Romanticism. As his career developed and literary innovations came with modernism in the early decades of the twentieth century, Yeats’s work retained its focus on traditional verse forms and rhyme schemes, but he became more political, more allusive, and more elliptical.
His late work, such as his 1927 poem ‘Sailing to Byzantium’, about growing old, show a thoughtful and contemplative poet whose imagery and references defy easy exegesis (what exactly does the ancient city of Byzantium represent in this poem?). And yet, at the same time, there is a directness to his work which makes readers feel personally addressed, and situates his work always at one remove from more famous modernist poets (such as T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound).
Yeats died in 1939. Throughout much of his life, a woman named Maud Gonne was his muse. Yeats asked her to marry him several times, but she always refused. She knew she could be of more use to him as a muse than as a wife or lover. Yeats was in favour of Irish independence but, in poems such as ‘Easter 1916’ which respond to the Easter Rising, he reveals himself to be uneasy with the violent and drastic political and military methods adopted by many of his compatriots. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1923.