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, seven of us squished in a tiny caravan planted in the dunes near Doogert while the heavens stayed open for the whole two weeks. It was a magical holiday
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 becoming more chipped with the passing of time and eventually losing the cord that could fasten it around some childs gloomy neck. I was fascinated by these words. What did they mean?I asked my Dad 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 I understood. These lines explained the language of poetry to me, a language that uses words to convey that which is beyond words.
I know little of poetry and I suspect Yeats poetry could be seen as over emotional or romantic by a hardened, modern soul but he is my favourite.
All the big emotions are there woven through with the great inexplicable paradox of life:death and eternity and so I was struck at an early age by an ambition 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. I also like odd-shaped things. Just look at my ex-boyfriends. The mountain had to be seen.
I was first at Drumcliffe 17 years ago on the way back from an escapade in Donegal. 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 in their hurry to get to the cafe and book shop which was packed with people.
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 I was driving past again after a night in Donegal. The morning was crystal clear and blue and suddenly I could see Ben Bulben. What a compelling shape for a mountain. I could see how Yeats wanted to be buried here. It was exciting 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.
Afterwards 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.
To read his 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!