October 23, 2017
Yeats At Rest
On this day in 1939, just a week before his death, W. B. Yeats wrote his last poem, "The Black Tower." Two decades earlier he had purchased a Norman tower near Coole, in Galway -- Thoor Ballylee, since 1965 a Yeats museum and a popular tourist spot. Yeats was fifty-two years old when he bought it in 1917; it was a summer home, a place where his new wife would do a lot of 'automatic' writing, where his new children could holiday, where he would compose many of his most famous poems. In "The Tower," written a decade before "The Black Tower," Yeats already has an eye on death, though begrudgingly:
What shall I do with this absurdity --
In the final poem, written just a week before his death, man and tower are besieged and resigned, but standing firm:
O heart, O troubled heart -- this caricature,
Decrepit age that has been tied to me
As to a dog's tail?...
Say that the men of the old black tower
At this point Yeats had already written "Under Ben Bulben," the "poetical last will and testament" which gives his famous epitaph and burial instructions:
Though they but feed as the goatherd feeds,
Their money spent, their wine gone sour,
Lack nothing that a soldier needs,
That all are oath-bound men:
Those banners come not in....
. . . No marble, no conventional phrase;
He died in France, at the age of seventy-four. His wish was to be buried there for a year; when the fuss over him had died down, he was to be returned home to his chosen spot in the Drumcliff churchyard of his ancestors, in the shadow of Ben Bulben mountain. Because of WWII, Yeats's remains were not brought back to Ireland until 1948 -- and it seems at least possible that the remains interred at that time are not those of Yeats. He had originally been buried in a temporary site, and because of some family confusion or inattention, or some French mix-up beyond the family's control -- there are different claims and blames in all this -- his site had been cleared in the mid-40s, the skeleton broken up and tumbled with others in an ossuary. There is evidence that those in charge did not piece together the right one, and no one today seems willing to disturb one of the most popular tourist spots in Ireland with DNA testing. All of which brings not "The Black Tower" or "Under Ben Bulben" but the "The Circus Animal's Desertion," also written in Yeats's last year, into the foreground:
On limestone quarried near the spot
By his command these words are cut:
Cast a cold eye
On life, on death.
Horseman, pass by!
. . . Those masterful images because complete
Grew in pure mind, but out of what began?
A mound of refuse or the sweepings of a street,
Old kettles, old bottles, and a broken can,
Old iron, old bones, old rags, that raving slut
Who keeps the till. Now that my ladder's gone,
I must lie down where all the ladders start,
In the foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart.