Last Updated September 5, 2023.
W.B. Yeats's "Under Ben Bulben" is one of the last poems he ever produced, in the final year of his life. There is a lot about the poem's focus which betrays the poet's state of mind at this time: as if knowing he was going to die soon, he writes this poem as a means of commanding those still living to focus upon the spiritual power of art, specifically poetry, and use it to ensure the great figures of artistic (and Irish) history would continue through the output of their descendants.
I remember when I was teaching this poem, one misconception that occurred again and again was that students thought "Ben Bulben" was a person. In fact, "Ben Bulben" is the name of a mountain in Yeats's ancestral hometown (compare the better known Ben Nevis, the highest mountain in Britain). In calling his poem "Under Ben Bulben," Yeats is foreshadowing the final stanza, in which he explains what it is that will be under the mountain in the end: Yeats's own body. At the end of the poem, Yeats imagines himself lying beneath the mountain in the town his ancestors lived in. It is because he is seeing this in the not-too-distant future that Yeats takes the opportunity to exhort his readers to "swear by what the sages spoke" and achieve a kind of immortality born of complete expression of one's passions.
Over the course of the poem, Yeats gives a number of examples of those who felt caught between "race and soul," particularly in Ireland. He makes a specific plea to those who have heard and understood the commands of the Irish patriot Mitchel, warning against straightforward warfare and identifying the element of peace which must come before our passions can truly be realized.
Yeats expresses the connection between true artistic output, the pouring of souls onto paper or walls or into music, and the existence of God. He alludes to Michelangelo, Quattrocento and Blake, suggesting that all created something which endures today and which indicates that God is real and moves through great artists. It falls to "Irish poets" in particular, Yeats suggests, to ensure the history of Ireland, from the peasantry to the nobility, is kept alive through what they produce, and Yeats calls upon these poets to continue producing their output.
In the final stanza, the poem comes full circle again as Yeats reveals why the work of these poets will soon be so pivotal. His own days of poetry will soon be behind him, as he will lie under Ben Bulben himself. On his gravestone will be cut these words:
Cast a cold eyeOn life, on death.Horseman, pass by!