“Under Ben Bulben” was first published in three of Ireland’s national daily newspapers within a week of Yeats’s death and first appeared in book form in Last Poems and Two Plays (1939). Its newspaper publication was a mark of respect to the dead poet and a call for public recognition of his contribution to Irish life and literature. A similar, less self-centered call is what “Under Ben Bulben” itself communicates. As a result, the poem was long considered to be Yeats’s last will and poetic testament.
The poem’s title refers to the table mountain that overlooks the town of Sligo. If “Under Ben Bulben” may be read as the poet’s will, part of his bequest is that he be interred in the landscape of his childhood. Doing so would achieve a long-sought unity, not only with his ancestors but also with much that inspired his poetry. The location and character of the poet’s final resting place are given a privileged position at the end of the poem. Here, Yeats argues for the significance of being at one with the enduring presences of place and family. It is by its concluding lines, therefore, that “Under Ben Bulben” most resembles a will, since these arrange the terms and conditions of both the poet’s death and his legacy.
Yet these lines constitute a relatively small part of what Yeats wants to hand down. The emphasis on landscape and lineage must be seen as the end product of the poem’s various other significant...
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