Last Updated September 5, 2023.
"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.
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.