Another great top Irish poem! This week it is from the great W.B Yeats. It comes in at number 79 in the list of top 100 Irish poems. This poem was one of Yeats last poems before he died.
And he dictated his final revisions on his deathbed. A timeless, longer poem that has a lot of depth. He completed the poem in 1938 just one year before he passed(he died in January 1939).
You might be saying where is Ben Bulben?
Benbulbin, sometimes spelt Ben Bulben or Benbulben is a large flat-topped rock formation in County Sligo, Ireland. I like to think of it as a grassy version of Table mountain in South Africa.
Yeats is buried in the churchyard of Drumcliffe church in Sligo, which stands at the foot of Ben Bulben. The last three lines of the poem are used as the epitaph on Yeats’ gravestone, and they were composed with that intention:
Cast a cold eye
On life, on death
Horseman, pass by!
Who would have thought that I would be writing about this incredible poem all these years later?
So let’s get to this incredible Irish poem. Which in my opinion should be ranked a bit higher.
Under Ben Bulben
ISwear by what the Sages spokeRound the Mareotic LakeThat 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 companyThat airs an immortalityCompleteness of their passions won;Now they ride the wintry dawnWhere Ben Bulben sets the scene.Here’s the gist of what they mean.IIMany times man lives and diesBetween his two eternities,That of race and that of soul,And ancient Ireland knew it all.Whether man dies in his bedOr the rifle knocks him dead,A brief parting from those dearIs the worst man has to fear.Though grave-diggers’ toil is long,Sharp their spades, their muscle strong,They but thrust their buried menBack in the human mind again.IIIYou that Mitchel’s prayer have heard`Send war in our time, O Lord!’Know that when all words are saidAnd a man is fighting mad,Something drops from eyes long blindHe completes his partial mind,For an instant stands at ease,Laughs aloud, his heart at peace,Even the wisest man grows tenseWith some sort of violenceBefore he can accomplish fateKnow his work or choose his mate.IVPoet and sculptor do the workNor let the modish painter shirkWhat 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 proofOn the Sistine Chapel roof,Where but half-awakened AdamCan disturb globe-trotting MadamTill her bowels are in heat,Proof that there’s a purpose setBefore 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 eyeFlowers and grass and cloudless skyResemble forms that are, or seemWhen 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 goneCalvert and Wilson, Blake and ClaudePrepared a rest for the people of God,Palmer’s phrase, but after thatConfusion fell upon our thought.VIrish poets learn your tradeSing whatever is well made,Scorn the sort now growing upAll out of shape from toe to top,Their unremembering hearts and headsBase-born products of base beds.Sing the peasantry, and thenHard-riding country gentlemen,The holiness of monks, and afterPorter-drinkers’ randy laughter;Sing the lords and ladies gayThat were beaten into the clayThrough seven heroic centuries;Cast your mind on other daysThat we in coming days may beStill the indomitable Irishry.VIUnder bare Ben Bulben’s headIn Drumcliff churchyard Yeats is laid,An ancestor was rector thereLong years ago; a church stands near,By the road an ancient Cross.No marble, no conventional phrase,On limestone quarried near the spotBy his command these words are cut:Cast a cold eyeOn life, on death.Horseman, pass by!