‘Under Ben Bulben’ is one of the last poems W. B. Yeats wrote. Published after Yeats died, this poem can be read as an elegy Yeats wrote for himself. Divided into six movements, this thirteen-stanza-long poem contains many of the ideas that preoccupied Yeats throughout his career as a poet, and as a cultural icon in general who tried to shape the Irish identity.
A brief discussion about Yeats’s life and works would be useful before delving into the poem. W. B. Yeats was a prominent figure in the Irish struggle for independence. His fierce patriotism, and quest to carve out an independent Irish identity in the face of English suppression reflected not only in his activism but also in how he turned to Irish myths and legends, and the occult and the mystic to invoke a sense of a distinctly Irish history and tradition. This is highlighted prominently in this poem too. Also reflected in this poem is his spiritual outlook of the world: Yeats believed in reincarnations and the circular movement of history. Yeats had strong notions about the role of art in achieving an optimal state of human existence, and how the Irish poets must strive to fulfil both their roles as artists, and more importantly, as Irish artists. These notions also find articulation in the poem. This poem, indeed, can be variously read as a self-elegy, as a poem written by a poet who is looking back at his life and ideas and wondering what kind of a legacy he would leave behind, and of course, as a manual for artists in general and poets in particular about how they can fulfil their creative roles.
‘Under Ben Bulben’ | Overview
The poem is mostly written in iambic tetrameter couplets with prominent variations. The poem starts with the poet-speaker invoking several ancient and mystical entities that represent various schools of intellectual and esoteric traditions. Then the setting of the poem is revealed: the mountain Ben Bulben. The poet-speaker states that the remainder of the poem would be a ‘gist’ of what these entities know and have passed on. In the second movement, the poet-speaker expresses his belief in reincarnations. He says that man is locked between his ‘two eternities’ and that death is but a brief, albeit fearful, parting.
The third movement sees the poet-speaker suggesting that conflict is a necessary purging-ritual that enables man to truly attain self-actualization, whereby he ‘completes his partial mind’. In the fourth movement, the poet-speaker lists some of the ‘great forefathers’ and their pieces of art that tried to bring ‘the soul of man to God’. This part of the poem is both a chastisement of the lesser artists and also a prescription on how to reach the heights of the models. In the fifth movement, the poet-speaker, who can now undoubtedly be identified with Yeats the poet, entreats his fellow Irish poets to be mindful of Irish history and traditions, and ordinary Irish subjects when they compose their verses. The sixth and the last movement of the poem is a direction to posterity in general: in this the poet-speaker states where he would like to be buried and what his epitaph would be.
‘Under Ben Bulben’ ANALYSIS: MOVEMENT 1
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.
The Mareotic Lake in Alexandria is widely proclaimed to have been a seat of early Christian monasticism. The Witch of Atlas is a reference to Shelley’s poem by the same name where the titular witch is a fairy-like entity. So, in the first stanza itself, the pagan joins the Christian. In the second stanza, specifically Irish legends and mysticism enter: the ‘horsemen’ and the ‘women’ are none but the Sidhe, mythical creatures associated with ancient Ireland. And then of course there is the titular mountain itself. Ben Bulben is a much-known Irish landmark. Thus, in the first movement, the poet-speaker invokes pagan, Christian, and Irish legends and places in order to establish an air of authority about what the rest of the poem says. After all, the collective wisdom of these varied traditions is surely precious.
‘Under Ben Bulben’ ANALYSIS: MOVEMENT 2
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.
This movement is a clear expression of Yeats’s philosophical outlook on life and death. Death is but a ‘brief parting from those dead’. Man, essentially, is placed between his ‘two eternities’ of the ‘race’ meaning the ethnicity or community he belongs to, and the ‘soul’ which is the Soul of humanity in general, an abstract entity signifying the way one man is linked to another very differently-positioned man by virtue of their common humanity. The gravediggers’ mention bears a Hamletian touch. Through it, the poet-speaker suggests that men die and take birth in a perpetually circular manner and that the gravediggers’ efforts only push the men back ‘in the human mind again’, meaning that he is, after all, reborn. The literary device of paradox is used in the last two lines of the movement whereby a self-contradictory idea is put forward.
‘Under Ben Bulben’ ANALYSIS: MOVEMENT 3
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, an Irish nationalist, urged God in his Jail Journal (1854), ‘Send war in our time, O Lord!’ The poet-speaker too posits conflict here as an agent that helps man complete ‘his partial mind’. It is in fighting that valour is proven, and man must do this and prove his worth in order to become a complete human being. Fighting could either lead to accomplishing one’s fate, meaning death or it could lead to one settling down with a partner and a job.
‘Under Ben Bulben’ ANALYSIS: MOVEMENT 4
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.
This movement is a lengthy celebration of some of the most renowned Classical and Early Modern and Romantic artists, as well as a complaint against the state of the arts and the artists ever since. This movement is directed towards artists in general (‘Poets and sculptors’) and reminds the same what their ‘great forefathers’ achieved in the past. These paragons of supreme artistry brought the ‘soul of man to God’, and they include Phidias, Michael Angelo, Edward Calvert, Richard Wilson, William Blake, and Claude Lorrain. The poet-speaker states how the art created by these masters display the ‘profane perfection of mankind’. These works ‘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’.
The poet-speaker expresses his displeasure at how the sublimity has gone from the works of the later artists: a ‘confusion’ has clouded the thoughts. The literary device of circumlocution is used to mean Eve alongside Adam in the third stanza of the movement. In the same stanza, alliteration is used in the phrase ‘profane perfection’. Also, the mention of the ‘gyre’ occurs in many Yeats’ poems, most notably in ‘The Second Coming’. Yeats used the gyre imagery to explain his idea of the circular motion of history.
‘Under Ben Bulben’ ANALYSIS: MOVEMENT 5
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.
The poet-speaker now takes on a role here that finds multiple resonances in the long Western literary tradition: that of the poet as an instructor. Starting from Horace to Sidney to Pope, poets have often performed the didactic duty of imparting education. The poet-speaker here does the same. He instructs the Irish poets as to how they can write verses that are noteworthy artistic achievements and at the same time, representative of their own cultures and traditions. He advises the poets, in a rather Wordsworthian or Whitman-esque fashion, to pay attention to the ordinary Irish subjects, and Irish legends and history, and make them the subject matter of poetry. At the same time, there is also the call to talk of the ‘lords and ladies gay’. The purpose of these instructions is to encourage the young artists of Ireland to try and carve out a distinct Irish identity so that they can approximate the essence of ‘indomitable Irishry’ in the ‘coming days’. Alliteration is again used in the poem through the phrase ‘Base-born products of base beds’ from this movement.
‘Under Ben Bulben’ ANALYSIS: MOVEMENT 6
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!
The last movement is a general direction issued by Yeats the poet to posterity. This part of the poem insightfully indicates the legacy Yeats wanted to leave behind. He was an Irish through and through. To him, Irish traditions were of paramount artistic and ideological importance. In keeping with this, the poet, now sensing his imminent death, wishes that he be buried in Drumcliff churchyard where one of his forefathers was a rector years ago. This return is very much a symbolic return; this is the return of a man who wants to stay close to his roots. The poet wants no ‘conventional phrase’ as his epitaph. Rather, he records one for himself: ‘Cast a cold eye / On life, on death. / Horseman, pass by!’ These words very succinctly paraphrase Yeats’s spiritual outlook: life and death are both ephemeral and hence, the ‘horseman’ is to pass by, without pausing, just how Yeats believed history moved on in a circular fashion without pausing.