My first encounter with Yeats was when I was eight years old. I was on one of the two holidays my family took when I was a child. We were on Achill Island, the seven of us squished in a Father Ted like caravan planted in the dunes near Doogert, while the heavens stayed open pretty much for the whole two weeks. It was still a magical holiday for us kids, if not the Mammy. In Keel, we all got to choose something to buy from Achill pottery. I bought a sleek blue seal in the style of Henry Moore. I kept him for years even after I broke off his tail. My older sister chose a ceramic pendant embossed with the words…
Cast a cold eye
on life, on death,
horseman pass by.
For years this was lying around our house, losing the cord that could fasten it around some childs gloomy neck, becoming more chipped with the passing of time. I was fascinated by these words. What did they mean?I asked my Dad once and he said that they described the fleetingness of life, how small we were in the face of the universe, how little it mattered.
Somehow, even though I was quite a pedantic child, I understood. These lines explained the language of poetry to me, a language that uses words to convey that which is beyond words. I was intrigued. (The fact that, like many young girls, I liked horses may have been a contributing factor 🙂 )
I know little of poetry and I suspect Yeats poetry could be seen as over emotional or romantic by a hardened, modern soul, but I am not that and he, of the few I know to any extent, is my favourite. It helps that many of his poems are short enough for my flea-like attention span to encompass.
The Second Coming was the first to capture me as an adult. So menacing. I did a painting once whose colours remind me now of the lines..
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert..
That particular poem was introduced to me by a friend, who, on imbibing more than a few pints of Guinness, often flings back his beardy head, sweeps his arm up and declaims “The centre cannot hold!” I found out the poem and learned it off by heart for no reason except it is so wonderful.
September 1913 which, as a grown up I also learned off by heart for the power of it for the “fumbling in the greasy till.” It could as easily have been written in 2012 as in 1913.
He Wishes For the Cloths of Heaven, so rich in colour it flashes the gorgeous colours of Odilon Redon and the glitter of Gustav Klimt to my inner eye.
When You Are Old, in two stanzas bringing our mortality into focus, the passing of our days.
All the big emotions are there, Love, Fear, Regret, woven through with the great inexplicable paradox of life:death and eternity, hand in hand. So, I was struck at an early age by a vague ambition(all my ambitions are vague in truth) to see Yeats’ words carved on his gravestone, as if seeing them would go some way to solving the mystery of life. It helped that he was buried beneath an odd-shaped mountain:Ben Bulben. Ben Bulben had featured on a jigsaw map of Ireland we had in our house when I was little and it was a bit of a stretch for me to believe any mountain was that shape. It, like the grave, had to be seen.
I was first at Drumcliffe 17 years ago on the way back from an escapade in Donegal with my partner in crime Mary(previously mentioned as Mags in The Galway Incident). Ben Bulben had his head in the clouds that time which was a disappointment. Alas it seemed I was to be disappointed again as, 17 years on, I arrived at Drumcliffe church in the rain.
The grave stands near the door of the church and, though there were many visitors, most seem to pass by this simple grey slab, (as a racing horseman might), in their hurry to get to the cafe and book shop which was ‘jammers’ as they say in my part of the world.
I stood a while at the grave, but nothing was revealed. I then ambled over to the wall of the graveyard and stared at where Ben Bulben should be willing it to appear yet it didn’t.
The next day was different. I was driving back through after a night in Rossnowlagh in Donegal and the morning was crystal clear and blue. It wasn’t until I saw Ben Bulben that I realise what it meant. I could see Ben Bulben! What a compelling shape for a mountain! I could see how Yeats wanted to be buried here. Even more, it would have been great to have been born here. If that had been my lot I would have announced it to everyone I came in contact with.
“I was born”, I would intone with great gravity and drama,”under the shadow of Ben Bulben!”
I would, I am sure, acquire the nickname Shadow from doing this and my life I feel would have been much more exciting. It was exciting enough just to see it, this mountain come alive from a printed jigsaw over three decades old.
I pulled into Drumcliffe churchyard again, to see Yeats as he meant to be seen, with Ben in the background.
After an amble around the church, a walk down to the swollen river and a couple of snaps of the decapitated round tower, I picked up a book of his poetry in the bookshop. I was surprised to find that one of the last poems he wrote described his grave and it’s inscription, as if already in existence.
I shouldn’t have been surprised of course, people leave their last wishes and this was Yeats’ wish but to see him writing of his own resting place sends a shiver up and down. It also makes one feel, somehow, as if he cheated death, as if he kept his hands on the reins, as if he and the Horseman were, in fact, one.
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!