Last Updated September 5, 2023.
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.
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.