1 Jim Beggs English 864 Prof.

Jim Cahalan The Cipher of Sligo: The Role of the Artist in William Butler Yeats's “Under Ben Bulben” William Butler Yeats presented nature in the Romantic mode in his poem “Under Ben Bulben. Romantic literature in its earliest forms was closely concerned with the physical environment in a particular way. Yeats perhaps more properly belongs to the modernist tradition, but the influence of Romantic literature on his conceptualization of nature and how that influences his idea of “Irishness” deserves critical attention. An ecocritical approach lends itself quite handily to the poem, as it contains descriptions of County Sligo, what would come to be known as “Yeats Country.” Yeats's accomplishments as a poet have helped him to dominate the literary landscape of Ireland, and in a way, the actual landscape. The poem also functions as literary criticism and a kind of manifesto on art and nature. The meanings encoded within nature played an important role in providing Yeats with an artistic and theological vision that began in Irish antiquity and extended discontinuously through history and art. Yeats worried that he would be the last poet to practice the perfected tradition that artists developed since antiquity and included explicit exhortations for subsequent artists to produce in the same way. The scenery of Sligo, such as the formidable presence of Ben Bulben provided Yeats with the inspiration that would allow him to produce an art that would “bring the soul of man to God.” Yeats sought to draw together the physical and metaphysical in his poetry. In “Under Ben Bulben,” Yeats explicitly linked himself to an artistic tradition that included “Calvert and Wilson, Blake and Claude.” As a Romanticist, the religious ideas contained with early Romantics such as Blake seem to have appealed to Yeats the most, but the

2 political, the religious, and the artistic were intimately linked in the work of the early Romantics. On the surface, Yeats's poetry appeared quite apolitical, until I considered the relationships between his country and his art. For Yeats, Ireland was a political entity to be sure, but in his poetry it primarily played the role as a place through which he could form an art to elevate the consciousness of mankind. I read a tension in Yeats's poetry between the universaland his description of a particular “Irishness.” I doubt that Yeats saw any contradiction between the two because to the Romantics the art of poetry had a method of universalizing the particulars of subjective experience. The allusions to the “sage” “round the Mareotic Lake” and “the Witch of Atlas” make the universalizing gesture early in the poem, linking Yeats' poetry with classical antiquity. The early reference also revealed another poet Yeats would apparently include in his own canon but neglected to list, Percy Bysshe Shelley, who also knew what the Witch of Atlas knew. Yeats himself articulated the knowledge of the Witch of Atlas, that death was not something that people ought to fear. Shelley wrote that the witch had vials of medicine, which lulled “the sick soul to happy sleep / And change eternal death into a night.” For Yeats, difficulties which pushed people to the point of death had the ability to help them mature. The only part of death that Yeats feared was the possibility of separation from loved ones, being cut off from one's “race.” For a man such as Yeats who “lives and dies / Between two eternities,” death was not an issue as long as future Irish poets paid attention to their tradition. In Yeats' mind, he was the apex of the Irish poetic tradition. In the image of the grave digger, Yeats proposed that the motion of digging was the same manner in which the dead were reborn or “thrust . . . back in the human mind again.” Without any oral or written tradition to preserve the dead poet within the memory

3 of his race, then he ran the risk of the “brief parting from those dear.” After the physical parting from his race, which he has been a part of since before his birth (the first eternity), the poet would then reunite with it as he entered the second eternity of the soul. The nature and tasks of the poet within Yeats' poetry also had distinctly Romantic marks. Against the traditions of the classical poet who wrote strictly to transmit knowledge about everyday life, such as Herodotus' Works and Days, and courtly poetry commissioned by and tailored for an aristocratic audience, Yeats sought to first celebrate the common people of Ireland. His advice to poets was to “Sing the peasantry, and then / Hard-riding country gentlemen.” Here Yeats restated one of the fundamental principles of poetry that William Wordsworth put froth in his “Preface to Lyrical Ballads.” Wordsworth sought to capture the language and life of the “rustic,” the simple country person. Accordingly, such a language, arising out of repeated experience and regular feelings, is a more permanent, and a far more philosophical language, than that which is frequently substituted for it by Poets, who think that they are conferring honour upon themselves and their art, in proportion as they separate themselves from the sympathies of men, and indulge in arbitrary and capricious habits of expression, in order to furnish food for fickle tastes, and fickle appetites, of their own creation. Wordsworth privileged the language and life of the rustic as superior to the lofty abstractions of his precursors and some of his contemporaries. The apparently simpler language actually had the ability to communicate more about the true nature of life and art than many of the established traditions, which were formed by and for fickle tastes and appetites. One criticism leveled against Wordsworth was the extent to which he really wrote in the idiom of the rustics, and I

4 wonder the same thing about Yeats. How many peasants would know about the Mareotic Lake or the Witch of Atlas? About ancient Irish traditions, even the commonest Irish person could discourse at length, according to Sydney Owenson's The Wild Irish Girl. By the time of J. M. Synge's The Aran Islands, the truth of particular iterations of that Irish tradition were met with increasing skepticism. Yeats, however, avoided any skepticism and treated Irish folklore with full reverence in “Under Ben Bulben.” Ben Bulben and the other features of County Sligo provided the means through which Yeats connected with the lost traditions of his own race. He saw the “horsemen” and women who “ride the wintry dawn” at Ben Bulben. In addition to the great poets, ancient Ireland had the same knowledge that death was only a transition from the temporary state of life between two distinct eternities. While Yeats listed many people who had access to the knowledge, it was hardly a given or universal quality of the human experience. People who failed to have the experience of becoming “fighting mad” failed to win the “completeness of their passions,” as the horsemen and women of Ben Bulben succeeded. Using the biblical metaphor of blindness and sight, the experience caused something to drop “from the eyes long blind.” The biblical metaphor used scales, while Yeats substituted the more general “something.” He took the physical nature of the blindness away and indicated a more abstract metaphysical blindness while maintaining the physical nature through the use of “eyes.” Yeats linked the physical and metaphysical in his poetry and made that connection visible for all people. Yeats grappled with the major artistic and philosophical problem of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Nietzsche pointed out that man's will to truth had essentially laid waste to morality and ethics, and Yeats attempted to affirmatively build something from the ruins (Nietzsche 450).

5 Yeats viewed historical progress as discontinuous due to the possibility of people forgetting their forebears, but it was ultimately a teleological view of history. Artists such as Michelangelo and Yeats would aid people in reconnecting with their artistic traditions and race in order to elevate themselves spiritually. Yeats linked the labor of the poet, painter, and sculptor as directed to “bring the soul of man to God” as well as ensuring the procreation of the race. The creation of the artist and man and woman were the same in “Under Ben Bulben,” with poets and parents both ensuring that the cradles were filled “right.” He contrasted his work and the art from the Quattrocentro (the period roughly from the late Middle Ages to the early Renaissance) with the misshapen progeny that was popular in his own time, much to his own dismay. The obsession over misshapen children, and the use of “race” smacks of fascism. Yeats's exact political orientation, while a worthy topic of investigation, is beyond the scope of this essay. On the whole, Yeats appeared more Nietzschean than Nazi to me—two distinct labels. An examination of the form of Yeats's own “hideous progeny” provided some useful analysis in uncovering the connections between his theory of human development and his own art. The poem strictly followed an iambic tetrameter meter for the majority of the poem with a few notable exceptions. The first section consisted of twelve lines. Only four of those lines have complete final feet. The second section contained three complete final feet, and the third only two. A notable change took place in the fourth stanza, where the number of complete feet jumped to fifteen out of 31 lines. Yeats used end rhyme in a fairly limited way, making much more pronounced use of slant or near rhymes. Additionally, the rhymes were closer if read with an Irish accent rather than my American one. The attention to the details of poetic composition revealed an additional aspect of Yeat's prosody: the importance of form. He only signaled its

6 importance in the poem in a abstract way: Flowers and grass and cloudless sky, Resemble forms that are or seem When sleepers wake and yet still dream, And when it's vanished still declare, With only bed and bedstead there, That heavens had opened. Poetry has the ability to take on the ideal forms that communicate the divine, or allow one to declare that from the beauty of a poem, that indeed, the heavens had opened on the day that it was composed. The symbols of nature, flowers and grass only “resemble” or “seem” the imperceptible forms. It was the artistic consciousness, which operated in secret, like a person dreaming, that allowed for the recollection of the encounter with the ideal after it had vanished and only “bed and bedstead” remained. In “Under Ben Bulben,” Yeats practiced what he preached and strictly adhered to a meter and rhyme scheme. The use of incomplete feet at the opening with more complete as the poem progressed reflected the human progress that Yeats laid out in the poem. The immature person was initially incomplete due to the lack of encounter with passion and warfare. The poem simultaneously became more complete as Yeats made the connections between earlier superior artists and laid the course for men to follow in life. The final three lines were the most incongruous with the rest of the poem, deviating from the iambic tetrameter, mostly-paired-nearrhyme scheme. In these lines he composed his own epitaph, and “by his command,” these words were inscribed on his tombstone. The three lines were dimeter, with the first and third lines being

7 trochaic and the second iambic. Yeats separated the lines as his own epitaph and also for their terse summary of the philosophy of life he sketched in “Under Ben Bulben.” Life and death were mere temporary states on which people should look with a “cold eye” of dispassionate observation. Artistically, Yeats had achieved his goals in life, lived it in its fullness, and he could pass onto the second eternity after death. Nature, form, and the divine played integral roles in the William Butler Yeats's “Under Ben Bulben.” Through the observation of the physical environment of Ireland and the recovery of an artistic tradition, Yeats hoped to restore the full potential of an art like poetry. Ben Bulben and County Sligo provided the codes through which Yeats himself could connect artistically with the hidden traditions of Irish antiquity as well as the traditions of classical antiquity. He slightly modified the Romantic tradition of Wordsworth, Blake, and Shelley to more fully encompass the human experience in order to deal with the occult religious side of life. While Blake and Shelley were forthrightly political, Yeats politics were more understated until one examined what Yeats said about the nature of the living human beings and their relations with their race and their souls. The artistic process provided the means for the elevation of human consciousness and its ability to connect the physical with the metaphysical, or “bring the soul of man to God.” Poetry that decoded and employed the forms of nature enabled people to realize the fullness of human experience and approach truth. Yeats sought to draw together the physical and metaphysical aspects of human existence, as the form of “Under Ben Bulben” exemplified. The strict form of the poem reflected the divine truth encoded within the physical environment of Ireland.

8 Works Cited Herodotus. “Works and Days.” Web. 6 March 2010. Nietzsche, Friedrich. The Portable Nietzsche. Ed. Walter Kaufmann. New York: Penguin, 1982. Owenson, Sydney. The Wild Irish Girl. 1806. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1999. Shelley, Percy Bysshe. “The Witch of Atlas.” Web. 2 March 2010. Synge, J. M. The Aran Islands. 1907. New York: Penguin, 1992. Wordsworth, William. “Preface to Lyrical Ballads.” Web. 2 March 2010.