Friday, 28 January 2011

Yeats's Parting Shot

Today marks the anniversary of the death of Irish poet and playwright, William Butler Yeats. He died in 1939 in the small town of Roquebrune on the French Rivera, aged 73.

Prior to his death, Yeats left specific instructions regarding his burial. According to his wife Georgie, the poet, in his own inimitable style, said:
"If I die, bury me up there [at Roquebrune] and then in a year's time, when the newspapers have forgotten me, dig me up and plant me in Sligo."
And this is exactly what happened. WB Yeats was buried quietly in France a few days after his death, and his body was eventually repatriated to Ireland and interred in his native and beloved Sligo. (This is in stark contrast to the fate of Yeats’s compatriot James Joyce, who languishes in a cemetery in Switzerland to this day – see previous post.)

Given the fact that death is a pervading theme in Yeats’s poetry, it is hardly surprising to learn that he had given a lot of thought to his own death. Aside from the burial instructions, he also left specific directions regarding his tombstone: “no marble, no conventional phrase”.

And so, it seems rather fitting that the epitaph engraved on his simple granite headstone in Sligo was taken from one of his more elegiac poems Under Ben Bulben:
Cast a cold eye
On life, on death.
Horseman, pass by!

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