The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“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...

(The entire section is 952 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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...

(The entire section is 528 words.)