Themes

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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 435

W.B. Yeats wrote this poem towards the end of his life, and this is clear in its focus, particularly the final stanza, which makes clear the fact that the poet does not expect to live much longer. He imagines himself buried beneath Ben Bulben, the hill which rises up over the town in which his ancestors lived.

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Death and Immortality

One of the key themes of the poem is death and immortality. Specifically, Yeats is interested in life cycles, what death is and is not, and how we can achieve a form of immortality even if we have physically died.

At the end of the poem, Yeats asks that his gravestone include the inscription, "Horseman, pass by!" There is a sense here that the poet will have somehow cheated death, although he is lying in the ground: death will not claim him entirely, because he has committed something of himself to the world. Partially there is an understanding that returning to the lands of our ancestors, as Yeats has done, and replacing them as living beings, represents a form of immortality born of strict continuity. There is also a call to the "Irish poets" to keep history alive by writing new poetic output which touches on all the sorts of people who have existed throughout time, from peasants to noblemen, thus ensuring the immortality of Ireland and the Irish, making them "indomitable." Yeats reiterates here the oft-used poetic idea that by committing our passions and thoughts to verse, we are keeping ourselves alive in some sense—or keeping others alive.

The Spirituality of Art

Another, related, theme in the poem is that of the spirituality of art. Yeats alludes deliberately to a number of artists whose output externalized their Christian passions, such as Michelangelo, who painted the Sistine Chapel, and William Blake, whose work was continuously shot through with spirituality and Christian philosophy. Yeats suggests that through externalizing our passions in this way, we are able to make it clear to those around us that God exists. This sort of passion can connect with other passions, such as the call of "race" rather than that of "soul," but Yeats warns that those who have heard the call of the Irish patriot Mitchel, for example, should know that a yearning for war is not the only way to feel the sort of peace we feel when our passions are expressed. Strictly speaking, although we should listen to our ancestors and to all the calls to arms we feel within ourselves, we should strive to express a constructive passion which will help keep our ancestors alive.

Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 414

“Under Ben Bulben” is about humanity’s need for an artistically integrated vision of spiritual reality and is a call for artists to serve humanity by communicating this vision through works of great art. Although the poem embodies arcane ideas of Yeats’s esoteric philosophy, described in A Vision (1925, 1937), the reader can nevertheless obtain a clear glimpse of the poem’s meaning through a careful study of the text and the movement of its motifs.

The poem is Yeats’s last will and testament. Speaking as a patriotic prophet-poet about to abandon his career to the young, he exhorts all humanity to follow his faith and all poets to serve humanity by practicing his faith in their art and by providing the necessary images of an integrated heroic spirituality in which humankind can believe.

The poem is organized around a cumulative series of commands for an increasingly narrower audience—for all humanity first, for all artists next, for all Irish poets next, and for Yeats’s tombstone engraver last. Each audience, from the masses to the graveyard artificer, is exhorted to be an artist in pursuit of an undying spiritual wholeness of heroic action in imitation of the mythic women and horsemen of beloved Ben Bulben. The epitaph’s terse final command to the passer-by epitomizes the poem’s entire theme and is an exorcism of mortality for the buried poet and his readers through the art of poetry.

Finally, in keeping with the theme of heroic spiritual integration through art, line after line of the poem embodies dualities and oppositions (Yeats’s antinomies) in the process of being harmonized. If, for example, “Many times man lives and dies” between two eternities “of race” and “of soul,” then “ancient Ireland knew it all,” and its heroes harmonized them both (“A brief parting from those dear/ Is the worst man has to fear”).

Yeats exhorted humanity to pursue the life of heroic action and spiritual insight because he had pursued the same path and created thereby his century’s greatest poetic art. As Seamus Heaney eloquently noted in a lecture given at the University of Surrey (1978), “What is finally admirable is the way his life and his work are not separate but make a continuum, the way the courage of his vision did not confine itself to rhetorics but issued in actions”; his poetry was “the fine flower of his efforts to live as forthrightly as he could in the world of illiterates and politicians.”

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