Saturday, June 13, 2015

William Butler Yeats -- 150 Years and Counting


Today is the 150th anniversary of the birth of William Butler Yeats, arguably the greatest poet of the Twentieth Century. (Nobody's ever found a way to quantify such things. Yeats was one of the chief forces behind the Irish Literary Revival, co-founded the Abbey Theater, coined the term "Celtic Twilight," was a member of the Golden Dawn, loved and lost, won a Nobel Prize, rehabbed a Norman keep for a house, wrote stories and plays and essays, and helped to shape the self-image of modern Ireland.

But it's his poems that made him great. He had early success with his poems, a long and productive career, and then later in life a second flowering of greatness. Most poets only get the one.

I visited Yeats' grave in Drumcliffe the first time I visited Ireland in 1982.  His stone has the single beset epitaph of any poet's grave I've seen:

               CAST A COLD EYE 
               ON LIFE, ON DEATH.
               HORSEMAN PASS BY

He wrote it himself, of course. It comes from the following poem:

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.   


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.


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.


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.

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.


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.


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!

It was a cool, wet, overcast April day when I stopped by to pay my respects. Church, mountain, graves -- all were as described. The grave was almost ostentatiously modest: the engraved stone and a rectangle of gravel. I defy anyone who loves "Under Ben Bulben" not to be moved by it.

There were no flowers on Yeats's grave, so before I left I stole one from a neighboring grave and left it there.


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