Under Ben Bulben: by W. B. Yeats - Summary & Analysis

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      Yeats begins the poem by immediately introducing a mystical element when he says, “That the Witch of Atlas know”. In the second stanza he continues with the mystical and describes that ghosts are superior to man; “Complexion and form prove superhuman”. Yeats says that the horsemen and women are immortal and have completed their earthly lives of passion. He sets forth that they are superhuman and passionless so the reader will not doubt what they ‘‘Swear by”. Also, in the first line he says the wise Sages swear by what is revealed in the poem. Stanza I gives the rest of the poem credibility through the swearing of ghosts and wise sages, and makes the reader anticipate what is going to be revealed.

      In Stanza II Yeats conveys that idea of reincarnation, when he says, “Many times man lives and dies”. He suggests that there are two parts to the human existence, that of “race” and that of “soul”. Race implies a man’s bodily existence on earth and soul implies man’s core existence on earth and in the afterlife. “A brief parting from those dear is the worst a man has to fear” suggests man’s soul does not die and therefore the only aspect of death man has to fear is the pain caused by parting from loved ones. In the last four lines Yeats suggests that the human mind is the soul, and when a man.

      The theme of maturing or coming of age is a recurring idea throughout much of Yeats’s poetry. Often times a person must first experience madness before he can truly come of age. Yeats captures this idea of order through chaos by using images of war. Yeats was disillusioned by World War I, the fighting that haunted Ireland in the Irish Revolution and the Irish War for Independence. His reference to war, “send war in our time”, and the imagery of a soldier “fighting mad” invokes intense feelings of disgust, revulusion, and abhorrence. These powerful emotions send one into madness. In this state of madness, ‘‘something drops from eyes long blind”, which signals Yeats’s transition from confusion to understanding. He has experienced a loss of innocence as he “stands at ease” with “his heart at peace.” After Yeats has succumbed to a “sort of violence” he “can accomplish fate” and ultimately has come of age. Yeats suggested that his “fate” is at a spiritual level. At the end of this stanza, he comes of age as he takes life at a spirtual level. Throughout the remainder of the poem, Yeats expresses this spiritual sense using art as a gateway to heaven.

      In stanza IV of the poem, Yeats discusses art as a vehicle to bring man to God. He views art as a holy practice calling it the, “profane perfection of mankind.” It is as close to perfection as the imperfect man can get. He also gives artist’s advice to uphold the quality of art of their forefathers, and not to let stray the great ways of the past. He wants art to do “what his great forefathers did, bring the soul of man to God.” Yeats is concerned about the way new artists will influence culture, he does not want them to foreget their past and traditions. He is worried that his death will bring an end to a great age of art.

      Stanza V of ‘Under Ben Bulben” is a call to arms, or pens and paint brushes as it would be. Yeats implores his contemporaries and successors to hold onto the tradition of glorious work which the “indomitable Irishry” have upheld over the years. The new era of poets and artists, “the sort,” as he refers to them, have butchered and mutilated Irish art. This mutilation is described in the fourth line of part V where Yeats depicts the art as, “all out of shape from toe to top.”

      Furthermore, the modem era of poets and artists have not taken nor appreciated the unyielding example left for them by the poets of the past “seven heroic centuries”. The world “heroic” here conveys to the reader that there was a triumph in art made by these men; perhaps an artistic conquest or mastery. The “unremembering hearts and heads” of new poets and artists have insulted their country's heritage. Yeats again plays the role of the mendicant to make a final bid for the “the sort” to “cast your minds on other days”. This is an implication that they are moving - in the wrong direction.

      In Stanza VI, Yeats addresses his own mortality and his fast approaching death. He gives specific examples of how he will be buried, even using his own name, “In Drumcliff churchyard Yeats is laid.” He is well aware that he is in the twilight of his years, and that he does not have much more time in this world. Yeats responds to this by preparing for his death, even writing his own epitaph, “Cast a cold eye / On life, on death / Horseman, pass by!” This epitaph suggests that Yeats was not worried about life or death, but rather with the legacy he leaves behind for the Irish people. He can “cast a cold eye / On life, on death” because this world will soon be over, and. he will no longer have earthly concerns in the after life. It is only artistic tradition and. heritage that he is preoccupied with, and he uses this poem to state his hopes and worries for the coming generation of artistis.

Critical Analysis


      The poem Under Ben Bulben is not actually the last poem of the volume Last Poems (1936-39) but it is rightly placed at the end of his complete work because it is Yeats’s last will and testament. The poem is the epitome of Yeats’s various philosophical theories. It gathers up the scene of his childhood in Sligo and summarizes his pet themes and ideas before it ends with the brave epitaph.

Critical Appreciation

      In the early poems of Yeats we observe a dream-like quality. There is a melancholy picturesqueness, in the vein of Pre-Raphaelite poets, in his poetry. However, in his later poem we see a transition from this quality. The sordid materialism compelled the poet to escape in the world of fairies, in Irish folklore.
It was not the scientific reasoning but mysticism and spiritualism that started to appeal the poet.

      In the poem Under Ben Bulben we observe his attempt to promulgate his philosophical idea and through various imagery expanding these ideas. The opening lines proclaim the poet’s faith in the immortality of the soul and the resurrection after the death, a wisdom that was discovered by the old sages, Saint Anthony and the old hermits about the “Mareotic Lake.”

Influence of Mysticism

      Yeats’s inclination towards mysticism or occultism is found in the references like ‘Mareotic Lake’; ‘Witch of Atlas’ and ‘long-visaged’ super-human Sidhe. They are Irish fairies.

Influence of Spiritualism

      Yeats had strong belief in immortality of soul. This conviction of him had made death insignificant for him. This idea is reflected in the poem when he says: ‘...two eternities / that of race and that of soul.’ Even in the last stanza, Yeats wrote his own epitaph. To reinforce his view on death that brings the end of physical existence he did not want to attach any kind of sentimentalism. In a very bare and clear manner, he exhorts the passer-by to go on.

Yeats Patriotism

      To critically interpret this poem one should keep in mind that Yeats was one of the leading patrons of Irish National Movement. His concerns for the Ireland as a nation get echoed in this poem. In this respect he even went to that extent to show his favor for war and violence that results from it. Like the eternity of soul he declared nation us eternal.

Inspiration from the Past Glory

      The poet drew the inspiration from the past glory. To revive Ireland as a free and invincible country Yeats felt the necessity for the source of inspiration. In this regard he tells about the classic Greek and Egyptian sculptors and architects. He also refers to Renaissance period. He mentions the work of Michaelangelo. By his opinion, the masterpiece produced by them point out a man’s capability which modem art has failed to show, instead they misguide people by incoherence and abstractionism

Artist’s Moral Responsibility

      Yeats felt that to build up a successful nation an artist’s role cannot be ignored. It is the artist’s moral responsibility to make the nation—a nation for a healthy race. An artist's work should make a man’s soul attracted towards God. A man should appreciate an artistic work and also by that means he should enjoy a celestial experience. It is artist’s duty to bring man’s soul to God.

Glorious History of Ireland

      He also draws inspiration from the past life of Ireland—from the life of poor peasants, gay and lively countrymen, holy monks, men and women of noble aristocracy. They all echo the past, glorious history of Ireland.


      The poets use of imperatives in several lines brings out the intensity of his extortion. The lines like ‘Swear by what the sages spoke’., ‘Swear by those horsemen’; ‘Send war in our time"; ‘Poet and sculptor do the work’, ‘Irish poet, learns your trade’ and lastly his epitaph - the statement ‘Cast a cold eye’ exude a sense of passionate urge.

      Conclusion. In this rather a long poem, Yeats successfully incorporates his philosophical ideas. The various imagery have enriched the poem and heightened the scale befitting for Yeats’ noble theory.

Critical Explanation

Stanza I

L. 2. “Mareotic Lake—Lake Mareotis is situated at the rear of Alexandria. Once it was famous for temple of Egyptian god-man Osiris Horus. Its present name is lake El Maryat.
L. 3. Witch of Atlas—Shelley had written about this witch. She is not so-called harmful witch but a fairy, rather wizard-lady L. 5. Swear....women—Referring to the Sidhe—Irish folk-lore faires.
L. 7. Long-visaged—long faced.
L. 1-4. Swear by....cock-a-crow—The poet calls upon the rearders to have faith in occult practice of Witch of Atlas which they learned from the priests of the temple of Osiris located at Lake Mareotis.
L. 5-11. Swear by...scene—Keats has drawn the picture of the Sidhe riding on horse in the dawn of winter. Sidhe is also related to the occult wisdom. This occult practice and wisdom, according to Yeats, is helpful for reviving old tradition of Ireland which will ultimately bring good to human life.
L. 11. Ben Bulben—It is a mountain located at the country Sligo in Ireland, on the seashore.

Stanza II

L. 14. Two eternities—Two eternal elements—One is race or nation another one is soul.
L. 16. And....all—The past year’s glory of Ireland hinted by the poet.
L. 17-24. Whether man....again—It is immaterial how a person dies, his soul remains since it is immortal. Death brings grief but this grief, from Yeats’ philosophical point of view, has no significance. Arrangement of funeral that men carry out so meticulously and laboriously to signify the end of a person’s life, cannot actually pronounce the end. A person’s work, achievement, memory continue to stay in the mind of his or her dearer ones.

Stanza III

L. 25. Mitchel— John Mitchel was the Irish freedom fighter. He was tried, and imprisoned during Great Famine in 1845. While staying in the prison he wrote a journal from which the line ‘Send war in our time, O Lord !’ has been excerpted. Yeats, through these lines, shows his favor towards Mitchel’s declaration of war and consequent violence.
L. 27-36. Know that....(choose, his mate—Some times a man has to adopt the path of violence for greater cause like freeing the country from the foreign ruler. His interest, that time, does not lie in his personal gain but rather lies beyond that—in the benevolence of his country. This expansion of one’s interest makes him more broad-minded. It opens one’s eyes. He becomes aware of the iniquities that he suffers. This violence for the greater cause does not make him cruel but rather elated. His is outrageous but his heart is at peace because he knows that he has devoted himself for the betterment of his nation. He accepts it as a fact that everything has been designed by destiny. And it is the destiny which has initiated him to join the violence of war.

Stanza IV

L. 38. Modish—One who follows the current trend.
L. 38. Shirk—To avoid the responsibility.
L. 38-41. Nor let....right—The poet exhorts the contemporary artists not to forget the traditions of their forefathers. They could not avoid the responsibilities that their forefathers had bestowed upon them. They should play the role of the moral guardians of society. Their work should reflect beneficial aspects of human life. Their work should make the people feel exalted. People’s spirits should be elevated after experiencing an artists’s work and in this way they will come closer to God. In a way their work should help to build up the nation, ensure healthy life and healthy procreation.
L. 42. Measurement—The Greek philosopher Pythagoras” theory of numbers.
L. 42. Measurement.....night—The poet is referring to the glory of ancient time. The theories and theorems formulated by the ancient philosophers and scholars have enriched our knowledge.
L. 43. Forms....thought—Reference made to Egyptian sculpture and architecture.
L. 44. Forms Phidias wrought—The sculptures that had been created by Phidias.
L. 44. Phidias—The famous Greek sculptor of 5th Century BC. His work include the construction of Parthenon, Athena of ivory and gold made for Parthenon and Zeus, the most famous of them, sculpted in ivory and gold. He spent his last years in prison for the charge of impiety.
L. 45. Michael Angelo—The famous Florentine painter, sculptor, architect and poet Michaelangelo (1475—1564). His works include the frescoes on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in Rome, the sculpture of David in Florence.
L. 46. Sistine Chapel—The Pope’s private chapel in Rome. It was built by the order of Sixtus IV in 1473. Michaelangelo painted the frescoes on the wall of the chapel. The themes are biblical representing Creation of the World, Creation of the Man, The Delnge, The Last Judgement and other subjects.
L. 47. Half-awakened Adam—Adam—the first man in the universe. Reference made to the frescoe created by Micaelangelo depicting Adam awakened by God by the tip of his finger.
L. 48-49. Can disturb...that The nakedness of Adam can excite the mind of the globe-trotting Madam, that is the woman travelers. Their excitement will generate heat. Here the word ‘bowels’
is used to mean deepest feeling, the feeling that springs from the bottom of the heart.
L. 50-51 Proof that..“mind—The women tourists’ excitement is the proof of the greatness of Michelangelo's work.
L. 52. According to Yeats Michaelangelo’s work reflects secularism inspite of being the decoration on the Chapel’s wall.
L. 53. Quattrocento—The term is used to refer fifteenth century or Renaissance period. The period witnessed the great works like that Leonardo da Vinci and Botticelli.
L. 54-64 Quattrocento.......had opened—Arts belonging to Quattrocento is marked with heavenly subjects and serve as a backdrop of God and sages. In these art the souls are delineated free, at ease. Flowers, grass and cloudless sky echo dreaminess. They seem to be not the part of reality but the part of imaginary, dreamworld. Experiencing this art actually opens the gate of heaven. In other words—through these arts we can have a glimpse of heaven.
L. 64. Gyres run on—As the time moves on.
L. 65-69. When that..., thought—Even after the classical art and Renaissance art, the works of the great-artists, like Calvert, Wilson, Blake and Claude of 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, continue to be the source of moral inspiration. Their subjects are mainly pastoral and visionary landscapes.
L. 70. Confusion,..thought—However, the arts that follow after those periods are dictated by a kind of confusion. Ambiguity rules the genre, abstractionism prevails and they lack integrity and coherence.

Stanza V

L. 71. Learn your trade—Learn the art of poetry properly.
L. 72 Sing." made—Choose noble and dignified theme for writing poetry.
L. 72-74. Scorn....top—Reject those people who are ruled by fake meaningless intellectualism.
L. 75-76. Their unremembering....beds—These confused lot have forgotten their glorious past and tradition because they are born of base union. That is, they are nurtured by degrading social environment.
L. 80. Porter-drinkers’—Beer-drinkers’.
L. 80. Randy—Boisterous, loud.
L. 82. That were....clay—That were given shape.
L. 83. Through"...centuries—Through past seven hundred years of Irish glory.
L. 84. Cast Your....; days—Do not pay attention to the contemporary trend but direct mind towards glorious past.’
L. 85-86 That we in.....Irishry—So that in the coming days Ireland can emerge as victorious and invincible.

Stanza VI

L. 87-88 Under....laid—At the foot of the mountain Ben Bulben, Yeats lies buried in Drumcliff churchyard. Ben Bulben is rich in limestone but lacks in vegetation. This stanza is important from the point that the poet writes his epitaph in this stanza.
L. 91-97. No marble....pass by !—These lines once again emphasize Yeats’ belief in the immortality of soul, insignificance of death. He does not want any kind of sentimentalism and superfluous emotions to be attached with his death. He rejects the idea of any decoration at his give, any conventional inscription on his tombstone. Conventional inscription urges a traveler to have a look at the grave which he passes by through the words “Siste Viator”—Stop traveler, Contrary to this idea Yeats exhorts—“Horseman, pass by
L. 9. On limestone.....spot—Limestone which has been extracted from the mountain Ben Bulben.

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