Yeats – Under Ben Bulben (1938)

One of Yeats’ last poems, it confronts his death directly by infamously describing his resting place using his own name. Though that happens in the final stanza, one can imagine beyond-death as the perspective adopted by Yeats in the poem as a whole. Aging has always been an issue for Yeats, and here we see an almost anxious rush to get to that place from which full meaning can be finally articulated. The first stanza therefore opens with an invocation of Sages, Witches, “immortality,” who gather at Ben Bulben: “Here’s the gist of what they mean.” The frankness with which Yeats invokes the reading of the symbol (as he had in Lapis Lazuli when looking a the sculpture of the men and the bird) indicates a “completeness” that has been won in time. In the second stanza, the complete cycle of life is drawn:

Many times man lives and dies
Between his two eternities,
That of race and that of soul,
And ancient Ireland knew it all.

The return to national myth is striking after it’s been absent since about 1910. The aesthetic return therefore mirrors the cycles of mankind itself. But this isn;t so much reincarnation as the production of memory by way “monuments of unageing intellect”: “They but thrust their buried men . Back in the human mind again. Poetry, which very similar to the process of burial and memorial, is that which accomplishes “the profane perfection of mankind.” In the fifth stanza, Yeats excoriates the poetry of the day–“All out of shape from toe to top”–the image connects with Yeats’ earlier “Coat” which reached from toe to throat. Perhaps this worry over form is the reason much of this poem (barring the beginning and end) is heroic couplets. We see a repositioning, a reversion, to older concept of “heroism that excises Crazy Jane from the process of development. The final stanze sees Yeats dead. There are no rhymes until the reading of the gravestone, written by Yeats: which rhymes ABA, a perfect circle, or triad that manges to convey the sort of resignation to cycles (gyres) that yeats poems have been leading to.


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