Saturday, 13 June 2015

‘Cast a cold Eye / On Life, on Death’
… no matter who is buried in my grave

The house at 10 Ashfield Terrace (now 418 Harold’s Cross Road), Dublin, where WB Yeats lived during some of his schooldays (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Today marks the 150th anniversary of the birth of the poet William Butler Yeats, who was born in Sandymount Avenue, Co Dublin, on 13 June 1865.

He was a driving force behind the Irish Literary Revival, one of the founders of the Abbey Theatre, and the first writer to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Much is being written, said and performed to mark this anniversary, and it is interesting to note how a Dublin-born poet is being presented as a son of Sligo. His mother was from Sligo, but the myth that he was from Sligo has been helped this year by the visit of Prince Charles to the grave of Yeats in Drumcliffe churchyard.

The myth was also recycled by Leonard Cohen at a concert in Lissadell House in July 2010. It was a night of poetry and music beneath the slops of Ben Bulben and Cohen was visiting the house where Yeats stayed when he visited the Gore-Booth sisters, the young Eva and the future Countess Constance Markievicz.

To applause, he quoted those lines from Yeats about the sisters:

The light of evening, Lissadell
Great windows open to the south
Two girls in silk kimonos, both
Beautiful, one a gazelle ...


In the grounds of Lissadell House at the Leonard Cohen concert five years ago (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Perhaps Yeats would have enjoyed this too as someone who worked and reworked Irish myths and legends in his poetry.

When the future poet was only a child of two, the Yeats family moved to England in 1867 and in 1877 he was sent to the Godolphin School in Hammersmith, where he spent almost four years.

Although family holidays were spent at his mother’s family home in Sligo, he was born in Dublin and spent most of his childhood years in London.

When the family returned to Dublin in 1880, and they lived in Howth, first at Balscadden Cottage and then at Island View Howth, before moving in 1883 to 10 Ashfield Terrace, now 418 Harold’s Cross Road.

Later my father grew up around the corner in Ashdale Pare. But Yeats was ashamed of his family’s home between Terenure and Harold’s Cross, describing it in 1914 as “a villa where the red bricks were made pretentious and vulgar with streaks of grey slate.” Perhaps this explains why he fostered the myth that he was from Sligo and not from Dublin – or from London.

In Dublin, Yeats was sent to the High School, then on Harcourt Street. Despite some misconceptions, he was never a student at Trinity College Dublin – from 1884 to 1886, he was a student at the Metropolitan School of Art, now the National College of Art and Design (NCAD).

No 5 Woburn Walk ... the Bloomsbury home of WB Yeats in London from 1895 to 1919 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

After seven years, the family returned to London in 1887. Two years later, in 1889, he met Maud Gonne, who was English-born without any Irish ancestry. In 1891, he visited Gonne in Ireland, where she rejected his proposal of marriage. He would propose to her three more times – in 1899, 1900 and 1901, but she rejected him each time in 1903 married Major John MacBride.

The rise of violent nationalism caused Yeats to reassess his own nationalism, and in Easter, 1916 he wrote:

All changed, changed utterly
A terrible beauty is born


John MacBride had been executed for his role in the Easter Rising, and Yeats made one last proposal to Maud Gonne in mid-1916. Then in 1917, he proposed to her 21-year-old daughter, Iseult Gonne. Later that year he proposed to 25-year-old Georgie Hyde-Lees, and they were married on 20 October 1917.

The world was so changed and transformed WB Yeats could open his poem The Second Coming with these lines about Europe in the aftermath of World War I:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.


At first, TS Eliot expressed distaste for Yeats, and even mocked Yeats’s membership of the Theosophical Society. Later, following his attendance at the first performance of Yeats’s one-act play, At the Hawk’s Well, and after the publication of ‘The Wild Swans at Coole’ in 1919, Eliot softened his opinion of Yeats’s poetry.

Yeats distanced himself from the passionate intensity of politics in Ireland until 1922, when he was appointed Senator in the new parliament of the Irish Free State, and was re-appointed for a second term in 1925.

Meanwhile, in December 1923, he received the Nobel Prize for Literature.

In one speech in the Senate, referring to the Church of Ireland, he said: “It is one of the glories of the Church in which I was born that we have put our Bishops in their place in discussions requiring legislation.”

When the Irish Free State was poised to outlaw divorce in 1925, Yeats delivered his famous speech in the new Senate:

I think it is tragic that within three years of this country gaining its independence we should be discussing a measure which a minority of this nation considers to be grossly oppressive. I am proud to consider myself a typical man of that minority. We against whom you have done this thing, are no petty people. We are one of the great stocks of Europe. We are the people of Burke; we are the people of Grattan; we are the people of Swift, the people of Emmet, the people of Parnell. We have created the most of the modern literature of this country. We have created the best of its political intelligence. Yet I do not altogether regret what has happened. I shall be able to find out, if not I, my children will be able to find out whether we have lost our stamina or not. You have defined our position and have given us a popular following. If we have not lost our stamina then your victory will be brief, and your defeat final, and when it comes this nation may be transformed.

It was not until 1935, in the Criterion, that TS Eliot publicly praised Yeats, when he called him “the greatest poet of his time.” Eliot continued to praise Yeats, although in a lecture in Dublin in 1936 he regretted that Yeats “came to poetry from a Protestant background.”

But there was a nasty streak in Yeats too, and it should not be forgotten. His friendship with Ezra Pound introduced him to Benito Mussolini, whom he admired, and at one time he wrote three marching songs for Eoin O’Duffy’s fascist Blueshirts.

Yeats died in France at the Hôtel Idéal Séjour, in Menton, on 28 January 1939, and was buried in the hilltop cemetery at Roquebrune-Cap-Martin. After the death of Yeats, Eliot was invited to give the first annual Yeats lecture to the Friends of the Irish Academy in 1940.

Yeats had frequently spoken about his death with his wife George, who said he told her: “If I die bury me up there and then in a year’s time when the newspapers have forgotten me, dig me up and plant me in Sligo.”

In 1948, what was said to be the body of Yeats was moved in a coffin to Ireland on the naval corvette LÉ Macha. The operation was overseen by Maud Gonne’s son, Sean MacBride, who was then the Minister of External Affairs.

The coffin laid in state in Sligo Town Hall before it was given a full state funeral in Saint Columba’s Churchyard in Drumcliffe on 17 September 1948. The scene at Drumcliffe was set by Yeats himself. In his last poem, published in The Irish Times, he wrote:

Under bare Ben Bulben’s head
In Drumcliffe Churchyard Yeats is laid …


The Committal Service was taken by the Bishop of Kilmore, the Right Revd Albert Edward Hughes, who had been the chaplain to the last Lord Lieutenant of Ireland. As the words “ashes to ashes, dust to dust” were said a handful of soil was thrown on the coffin. The epitaph on the grave quotes the last lines of Under Ben Bulben:

Cast a cold Eye On Life, on Death. Horseman, pass by!

But the bones moved from Roquebrune were never identified with certainty – his body had been exhumed and transferred to a communal ossuary sometime between 1939 and 1948, before the 10-year-lease on the grave had expired, and bones from other graves were mixed together.

Some writers have identified the actual remains with those of a man Alfred George Hollis who died on the same day and was buried in the same graveyard at the same time.

But then, as Yeats himself once wrote:

Though grave-diggers’ toil is long,
Sharp their spades, their muscles strong,
They but thrust their buried men
Back in the human mind again.


WB Yeats born at No 5 Sandymount Avenue, Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Healy 2010/South Dublin County Libraries)

My favourite poem by Yeats is ‘Sailing to Byzantium’:

That is no country for old men. The young
In one another’s arms, birds in the trees
—Those dying generations—at their song,
The salmon-falls, the mackerel-crowded seas,
Fish, flesh, or fowl, commend all summer long
Whatever is begotten, born, and dies.
Caught in that sensual music all neglect
Monuments of unageing intellect.

An aged man is but a paltry thing,
A tattered coat upon a stick, unless
Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing
For every tatter in its mortal dress,
Nor is there singing school but studying
Monuments of its own magnificence;
And therefore I have sailed the seas and come
To the holy city of Byzantium.

O sages standing in God’s holy fire
As in the gold mosaic of a wall,
Come from the holy fire, perne in a gyre, And be the singing-masters of my soul.
Consume my heart away; sick with desire
And fastened to a dying animal
It knows not what it is; and gather me
Into the artifice of eternity.

Once out of nature I shall never take
My bodily form from any natural thing,
But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make
Of hammered gold and gold enamelling
To keep a drowsy Emperor awake;
Or set upon a golden bough to sing
To lords and ladies of Byzantium
Of what is past, or passing, or to come.

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