Analysis

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Last Reviewed on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 311

"Under Ben Bulben" is a poem by Irish poet William Butler Yeats. The poem was published in 1938, one year before the celebrated poet died. When Yeats wrote the poem, close friends and family members believed that he knew he was close to death. Yeats was known for writing elegies for famous people, and it was fitting that Yeats would write an elegy poem for himself. The poem itself has a clear dark atmosphere, which reflected Yeats's awareness of his health and the legacy he wanted to leave behind as one of the world's most celebrated poet.

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One of the fascinating anecdotes in the making of the poem is the fact that Yeats worked on revisions of the piece up until his final departure from Ireland. In fact, colleagues say that he worked on the final revisions of the poem until late at night, as if Yeats viewed the poem as a sort of final statement. In Japan, there was a tradition that became popular with samurais for a brief period called "death poems," which entailed writing a haiku before death. "Under Ben Bulben" could be considered a similar undertaking, whether knowingly or subconsciously by W. B. Yeats.

The poem itself contains symbols of death and departures. In particular, Yeats articulates his view of the afterlife in a poetic manner and his view of how the soul lives between two eternities. In this light, Yeats frames the literal "minor" act of death within the larger, cosmic meaning of death as a philosophical and spiritual concept. In fact, there is a duality that is evident in the poem: the mundane affairs of the living and the cosmic journeys of the dead. It could be interpreted that Yeats was trying to prepare himself for his demise and, through the poem, articulated what he thought he would experience once he crosses to the other side.

The Poem

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 952

“Under Ben Bulben” is a long poem of ninety-four lines divided into six movements celebrating William Butler Yeats’s vision of an artistically integrated spiritual reality. He exhorts readers and artists to share this vision for the fulfillment of the human race through art.

The poem’s title refers to a mountain north of the village of Sligo, County Sligo, in the west of Ireland, where Yeats’s maternal ancestors (the Pollexfens) had settled. The area afforded Yeats a principal contact with Irish folklore and with the peasantry, both of which figure greatly in his works, including the masterpiece of his extreme old age, “Under Ben Bulben.” When he was a boy, Yeats had often climbed Ben Bulben; nine years after his death in the south of France, his body was brought home to Ireland to be reinterred in Drumcliff churchyard on September 17, 1948, at the foot of the mountain and in the parish where his great-grandfather, the Reverend John Yeats, had been rector of Drumcliff from 1805. By W. B. Yeats’s direction, the last three lines of this poem are inscribed on his burial stone. Such was Ben Bulben’s importance to his life and his art.

Yeats was also fascinated by the supernatural associations of the mountain with legendary Irish figures such as the Fianna, who were horsemen of Finn, the warrior hero. A second-sighted female servant of his uncle, describing some supernatural women to young Yeats, had compared them to the mythical Fianna horsemen still haunting Ben Bulben: “They are fine and dashing-looking, like the men one sees riding their horses in twos and threes on the slope of the mountains with their swords swinging.” In the poem, these mythical women and horsemen become a key symbol of integrated heroic action on a spiritual plane for individuals and artists to imitate in the quest for optimum realization of the self.

“Under Ben Bulben” opens dramatically by exhorting all readers to dedicate themselves to a vision of an artistically integrated spiritual reality apprehended through harmonious heroic action. To this end, Yeats begins, let readers swear allegiance to two symbols. Let them swear a pledge of fealty to Percy Bysshe Shelley’s Witch of Atlas, a symbol of timeless wisdom and absolute beauty by Lake Mareotis, near Alexandria, Egypt (geographically associated with Christian monasticism and Neoplatonism), and a pledge to the mythical Irish heroes and heroines of Ben Bulben who ride the air in an ideal immortal state of heroically integrated wholeness (lines 1-11). The rest of the poem is Yeats’s interpretation of the significance of those two symbols for humanity.

The second movement affirms an eternal cycle of reincarnation, carrying individual souls from incarnations in this life (“That of race”) to spiritual existence (“and that of soul”) in the Anima Mundi (Yeats’s all-encompassing Soul of the World, designated as the “human mind” here), and back again, endlessly. Therefore, death is an illusion, and spiritual immortality is the only reality and destiny of the human race (lines 13-24).

The third movement repeats the wish of the Irish patriot John Mitchel (1815-1875) for cataclysmic times that offer individuals opportunities for heroic actions. Such actions integrate the human personality, generate a vision of ultimate spiritual truth (in the way an actor of tragedy earns his tragic recognition of life’s meaning in the artistry of heroic endeavor), and fulfill humanity’s spiritual destiny in the harmonizing of life’s dualities. The wisest “accomplish fate” and become integrated (“choose his mate”) through “violence”—that is, through intense, purposeful action (lines 25-56).

The fourth movement narrows the focus of Yeats’s appeal for spiritual insight from individuals generally to artists specifically. Integral to humanity’s achievement of spiritual vision is the work of all serious artists who adhere to the great traditions of art, beginning with the mathematical magnificence of Egyptian pyramids and the graceful Grecian statues of Phidias, through Michelangelo’s monumentally alive Adam and Eve (“globe-trotting Madam”), to Renaissance and declining post-Renaissance masters. They capture, or at least glimpse, the Anima Mundi (the all-encompassing Soul of the World, designated here as “the secret working mind”) in its earthly incarnation in great art (lines 37-67). It was, after all, the Anima Mundi that governed the “cradles” or “gyres” (Yeats’s whirling cone symbols explaining human history and personality) that determined history’s cyclical course and recurrent renaissances of high art. Therefore, let modern artists dedicate themselves to reawakening humanity’s spiritual vision by producing works that imitate the spirit-inspired creations of past renaissances.

The fifth movement narrows the focus of Yeats’s appeal for spiritual vision even further by singling out Irish poets for undertaking the calling of great art by which the modern Irish could be reborn heroically. This program would be a continuation of his own lifelong mission as a patriot, poet, and Abbey Theater playwright of Irish heroic themes to refashion the Celtic populace through art. Unlike voguish modern versifiers, true Irish poets must be polished craftsmen, respect their ancient national myths, and yet be so inclusive in subject matter as to integrate opposite topics into an artistic wholeness (“Sing the peasantry, and then/ Hard-driving country gentlemen”), whereby the reader “completes his partial mind” (lines 68-83).

The sixth and final movement has the narrowest focus of all—on a buried William Butler Yeats. He must depend upon some lowly tombstone engraver to carve a poetry of artistically integrated spiritual reality on limestone for a three-line epitaph that transcends earthly mortality through integration of opposites (“Cast a cold eye/ On life, on death”) with a final command for the living to pursue an undying spiritual wholeness of heroic action in imitation of the legendary horsemen of Ben Bulben (“Horseman, pass by!”).

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 528

The stylistic characteristics of “Under Ben Bulben” are typical of Yeats’s mature canon and modernist literary conventions that helped to make him what T. S. Eliot claimed was the greatest twentieth century poet in English—or perhaps in any language. Published only months before his death and (until recently) considered to be his personal choice for the final selection in any posthumous collection of his poetry, “Under Ben Bulben” is a magnificent summation of a career fashioned by Ireland and dedicated to art. As John Unterecker commented in A Reader’s Guide to William Butler Yeats (1959), “It is almost as if Yeats—conscious of his impending death—were calling up characters, ideas, and poetic subjects for a last farewell, a sort of final benediction to his art itself.”

What kind of a poet was Yeats? For that question there is no simple answer and no simple label to describe him. He is certainly one of the last major poets in the European Romantic movement. He has been termed “a realist-symbolist-metaphysical poet with an uncanny power over words.” Through his Pre-Raphaelite father, he claimed literary descent from early English Romantics such as William Blake, Shelley, and John Keats and from European aesthetes of the late nineteenth century. The French “l’art pour l’art” impulse under Théophile Gautier (1811-1872) aspired to a poetry of highly wrought artifice and impersonality, devoted to artistic beauty for its own sake and devoid of bourgeois utilitarian didacticism. All these traits can be found in “Under Ben Bulben.”

Coming slightly later, the French Symbolists cultivated an aristocratic impersonality, intense craftsmanship, an escapism through art, and a preoccupation with the suggestiveness of words as they rub together in a line to give off new sensations and meanings not communicated by the individual words themselves. All these traits also surface in “Under Ben Bulben.”

The poem is very much a highly crafted artifice encouraging a sort of escapism through art and celebrating the immortal spirit of art and an artistically integrated life of art with a concentrated suggestiveness of meaning that comes from a repeated juxtaposition of images. Although this modernist technique makes for difficult reading, the concentrated juxtaposition of images lends a mythic richness and range of allusion embracing a broad cross-section of Western cultural experience through the ages. If this compressed suggestiveness is “metaphysical” and epigrammatic in tendency, Yeats’s realism is present in “Under Ben Bulben” in his Irish sense of place and national purpose directed at reforming the race through art.

The poem’s diction integrates the extremes of usage in language, from the colloquial to the elegant, from the crude to the visionary. The prevailing meter is a chiseled iambic tetrameter with variations (the usual line has seven beats, with one stressed sound and then three iambs—“Swéar by whát the ságes spóke”—until the final stanza of octosyllabic verse). The rhymes are almost thumping. Together, the meter and rhyme impose an artistic order on the chaotic subject matter of human experience and lend an incantatory effect in keeping with the poet’s call for spiritual vision in his audience of both laypersons and artists.

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