27 May 2013

Under bare Ben Bulben's head: in Drumcliffe, Co. Sligo

...lies the final resting place of William Butler Yeats, one of the great poets of the twentieth century. Four months before he died he wrote the famous poem 'Under Ben Bulben', describing the graveyard at Drumcliffe as his chosen burial place. That's where he wanted to return to: the place of childhood memories.


Drumcliffe graveyard

(runterscrollen für die deutsche Version!)

Growing up in Dublin and London, W. B. Yeats spent his childhood summers in Sligo where both his parents were from. The family had very strong ties with Sligo - on his mother's side, the Pollexfen and Middleton families owned milling and shipping businesses here and on his father's side his grandfather and great-grandfather were Protestant churchmen. The Reverend John Yeats, his great-grandfather, was the Rector of the Parish at Drumcliffe, the small village a few miles north of Sligo town, on the road to Donegal and at the foot of the impressive Ben Bulben mountain.

Ben Bulben
Some places in Sligo have become so identified with W. B. Yeats and his poetry as well as his brother Jack B. Yeats' paintings that they have become known as 'Yeats country'. This is the landscape he drew his imagination from: The Lake Isle of Innisfree in Lough Gill, the Gore-Booth residence Lissadell House, Ben Bulben mountain, Rosses Point and the waterfalls at Glencar in neighbouring County Leitrim - an enchanted landscape that inspired some of the most beautiful poetry and paintings of the twentieth century.

Drumcliffe church
Apart from its connection with the Yeats family, Drumcliffe (Irish: Droim Chliabh, meaning "ridge of the baskets") has quite a diverse history:  In 574 St. Columba (or St. Colmcille) founded a monastery here. Today, all that remains of the monastic site are the High Cross, parts of the Round Tower and the Plain Cross Shaft. The original Monastery Church is said to be located under the public road and the smaller car park next to the graveyard, and even though it is believed to be intact, excavations in the near future are unlikely. 

Drumcliffe Church interior

The highly ornamented High Cross next to the graveyard wall is one of the finest examples left in Ireland. It has ornate beaded moulding around scriptural panels showing scenes from the old and the new testament, as well as mythical beasts and a camel in the middle of the west face.
The ornamented High Cross
The Round Tower across the road was built in the 10th century and partly collapsed when it was struck by lightning in 1396. Most of the stones were then used to built a nearby bridge. Local legend has it, that the remains of the tower will fall on top of the wisest person who passes under it, so beware! 

Drumcliffe Round Tower

W.B. Yeats died in France in January 1939 and was buried there at first. According to his wife George Hyde-Lees, Yeats gave specific instructions regarding his burial: His actual words were 'If I die bury me up there [at Roquebrune in France] and then in a year's time when the newspapers have forgotten me, dig me up and plant me in Sligo.' 
It didn't take one year, but nine years until his last wish was granted and his remains were transferred to Sligo and interred at the graveyard in Drumcliffe. In 1968 his wife George also found her final resting place there next to him. 

W.B. Yeats grave with the remains of the Round Tower in the background

The grave can be found just a few steps away from the church door, on the north side of the graveyard, where the presence of 'bare Ben Bulben's head' seems to be strongest. (It's easy to find, just look out for other visitors standing there, taking pictures!)
The epitaph on the plain headstone are the last lines of the last verse of one of his last poems 'Under Ben Bulben':

Cast a cold eye
On life, on death.
Horseman, pass by!

Last Words
Many a scholar has been puzzled by these last words. Interpretations range from not taking life and death too seriously to forsaking christian symbolism and heaven itself altogether.

If you want to find out more about W.B. Yeats and his life here's a few interesting websites for you:
The Yeats Memorial building in Sligo town is the headquarters of the Yeats Society. It houses a permanent Yeats Exhibition, a special Library and Reading Room, a Café and the Sligo Art Gallery.

The Yeats Society

The National Library of Ireland holds the largest collection of Yeats manuscripts in the world. The exhibition 'Yeats: The life and works of William Butler Yeats' gives great insights into the poet's life, as well as the social, cultural and political life in Ireland from the late 1800 to the 1930s.
You can take a virtual tour of the W.B. Yeats exhibition here:

Yeats 'wrapt in his own words' -statue by artist Rowan Gillespie in Sligo town

Here are all six parts of the 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 air in 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 die 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 muscles 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, earn 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!

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