Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“Under Ben Bulben” is about humanity’s need for an artistically integrated vision of spiritual reality and is a call for artists to serve humanity by communicating this vision through works of great art. Although the poem embodies arcane ideas of Yeats’s esoteric philosophy, described in A Vision (1925, 1937), the reader can nevertheless obtain a clear glimpse of the poem’s meaning through a careful study of the text and the movement of its motifs.

The poem is Yeats’s last will and testament. Speaking as a patriotic prophet-poet about to abandon his career to the young, he exhorts all humanity to follow his faith and all poets to serve humanity by practicing his faith in their art and by providing the necessary images of an integrated heroic spirituality in which humankind can believe.

The poem is organized around a cumulative series of commands for an increasingly narrower audience—for all humanity first, for all artists next, for all Irish poets next, and for Yeats’s tombstone engraver last. Each audience, from the masses to the graveyard artificer, is exhorted to be an artist in pursuit of an undying spiritual wholeness of heroic action in imitation of the mythic women and horsemen of beloved Ben Bulben. The epitaph’s terse final command to the passer-by epitomizes the poem’s entire theme and is an exorcism of mortality for the buried poet and his readers through the art of poetry.

Finally, in...

(The entire section is 414 words.)