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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