Trans Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften 15. Nr. Mai

5.10. Mountain and Cultural Aesthetic
Herausgeber | Editors | Éditeurs: Charles I. Armstrong (University of Bergen, Norway) / Juri Mosidze (Tbilissi)

Buch: Das Verbindende der Kulturen | Book: The Unifying Aspects of Cultures | Livre: Les points communs des cultures

"Under Ben Bulben". The Mountain of Myth over Yeats' Dead Body

Charles I. Armstrong (University of Bergen, Norway)


It is perhaps self-evident than any account of the effect or history of mountains will be more of a reconstruction of imaginative projections than any precise rendering of objective facts. This point has certainly been made clear in Robert McFarlane's recent study of this history, which fittingly bears the title Mountains of the Mind.(1) In the case of the Irish poet William Butler Yeats, the self-reflective nature of the human encounter with mountains can be said to be underlined and intensified. In this paper I would like to draw an outline of Yeats' idealism with regard to mountains, and then contest that very same idealism. This will be done through an interpretation mainly focused on his famous poem "Under Ben Bulben." The poem's attempt to use a mountain as an instrument for the commemorative establishing of a harmonised and idealised self-image will be shown to be embroiled in contingencies and conflicting memories.

Evidence of Yeats' idealism can be gleaned from one of the prefaces to A Vision, where he takes time to appreciate his current physical surroundings in the small Italian town of Rapallo. The effect the mountains of Rapallo have on him is especially noted: "these mountains under their brilliant light fill one with an emotion that is like gratitude," Yeats writes, "the mountain road from Rappalo to Zoagli seems like something in my own mind, something that I have discovered."(2) There is something very characteristic about this response. For Yeats, a mountain-and more generally any natural landscape-is easily elided into something transcendental and inner. Like an individualised Platonic memory, or anamnesis, the mountain gives back what was already the property of the mind and is a mirroring monument of human thought's own magnificence.

When Yeats writes these words in Rapallo, in 1927, his gratitude to the mountains is no doubt linked to the restorative effects the mild climate of this resort town has had on his recent illness. Eleven years later, in an important poetical testament, he will declare his desire to be buried below the solid mass of another protecting mountain. "Under Ben Bulben" is the poem that famously spells out Yeats' wish for his body to be placed in the Drumcliff churchyard by the flank of a Sligo mountain. It was published, significantly enough, just five days after his death. The mountain Ben Bulben has long been associated both with protection and revelation for the local population of the Sligo region on the West Coast of Ireland. In an early prose text, Yeats mentions a folk rhyme celebrating the two big mountains that frame the town: "But for Ben Bulben and Knocknarea," the rhyme goes, "Many a poor sailor'd be cast away."(3) This is from the early volume The Celtic Twilight, in which Yeats documents the local customs and beliefs linked with the supernatural. In several other texts of the same volume, Ben Bulben is described as being a place redolent with faeries and mythological significance. In an important anticipation of the poetical will of the later poem, The Celtic Twilight also links the mountain with superhuman horsemen, who every night ride forth from an opening in the mountain. Here is one of Yeats' descriptions: "When the aged countrywoman stands at her door in the evening and, in her own words, 'looks at the mountains and thinks of the goodness of God,' God is all the nearer, because the pagan powers are not far: because northward in Ben Bulben, famous for hawks, the white square door swings open at sundown, and those wild unchristian riders rush forth upon the fields."(4)

These supernatural horsemen-identified with the Irish faeries called Sidhe-return at the beginning of "Under Ben Bulben," where they "ride the wintry dawn / Where Ben Bulben sets the scene" (10-11). They also recur in the finale of the poem, with the famous inscription to Yeats' grave: "Cast a cold eye / On life, on death, / Horseman, pass by!" (VI, 9-11). By virtue of an act of cold passion, Yeats thus implicitly links his own limestone grave with the perspective of the mythical riders passing through the limestone "door of Faeryland" on the side of Ben Bulben.(5) Granted this transcendental perspective, Yeats can aspire to a prophetic vision unifying the Irish people. In the process, the poet also practically stages his own beatification-or what one biographer has called his "self-iconization."(6)

Yeats' persona thus speaks to us, as it were, from a mountaintop. In the process, he draws upon the general mythical authority of mountains, which he discusses more explicitly in an essay entitled "The Holy Mountain." In that essay he states: "To Indians, Chinese, and Mongols, mountains from the earliest times have been the dwelling-place of the Gods. Their kings before any great decision have climbed some mountain." There is a universal link between such elevated sites and human revelation, characteristic not only of the East, but also of the West. "We too," Yeats writes, "have learnt from Dante to imagine our Eden, or Earthly Paradise, upon a mountain, penitential rings upon the slope."(7) The summoning of the more local and personal reference of the Irish mountain of Ben Bulben can be seen as a typically symbolist manoeuvre on the poet's part, whereby a universal exigency-shared by the classics of both the Occident and the Orient-is embodied in a local habitat.

The universality of the symbolic mountain is made even clearer in an earlier text. In a key anticipation of "Under Ben Bulben," Yeats' autobiographical text "Four Years" (included in The Trembling of the Veil) celebrates how public spaces can function as unifying emblems for both individuals and communities: "a nation or an individual" will thus be endowed with some form of "symbolical" or "mythological coherence" with which to organise the data of their experience. This coherence must have some form of localised particularity:

I would not endure, however, an international art, picking up stories and symbols where it pleased. Might I not, with health and good luck to aid me, create some new Prometheus Unbound; Patrick or Columbkil, or Oisin or Fion, in Prometheus' stead; and instead of Caucasus, Cro-Patrick or Ben Bulben? Have not all races had their first unity from a mythology, that marries them to rock and hill?(8)

Significantly, Yeats contrasts his own desire of creating such a cultural fulcrum with the endeavour of the English romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. Ben Bulben and Cro-Patrick are specifically Irish alternatives to the Caucasus landscape evoked by the author of Prometheus Unbound. Yet for Yeats the essential workings of poetry are constant: the localised symbol is the only kind of symbol, a necessary embodiment of universality in the individual instant.

There is reason, however, to be wary of the way in which this familiar symbolist strategy is enacted in "Under Ben Bulben." A poem is not a heavenly edict, however skilfully some writers create such an illusion, and-more specifically-however impressive and forcceful Yeats' poetical "command" (VI, 8) may be. I would therefore like to suggest a couple of ways in which Yeats' text can be brought back to earth. Firstly, I'd just like to make a brief point of something recently stressed in Brenda Maddox's biography on Yeats. Maddox has showed that, for all the poet's staging of his own commemoration, there was a considerable amount of confusion around the actual process of his burial. Yeats died in France just before the outbreak of World War II, and in order to fulfil his wish of a Sligo burial his body had to be exhumed over nine years later. By then the French authorities had moved his remains to an ossuary, and there seems to be a good chance that his bones were mixed up with-or even wholly mistaken for-those of some other corpse. In light of the poem "Ben Bulben," this possibility of dismemberment strikes an ironic note, since the poem is itself in part devoted to a celebration of bodily harmony and integrity. Irish poets are admonished to follow the example of Michelangelo's elevated bodies, and "Scorn the shape now growing up / All out of shape from toe to top" (V, 3-4). An organic and idealised body is thus linked closely to the poet's remains, even if those remains in practice were submitted to a haphazard and ignoble process of dismemberment and tentative reassembly.

Secondly, and more suggestively perhaps, there is a lack of identity between the poem "Under Ben Bulben" and Yeats' actual gravestone. Text and paratext uneasily straddle each other here, effectively undermining the possibility of constructing any single, integrally constituted work. For the Irish poet's testament is effectively broken apart, as the visitor to the Drumcliff churchyard only encounters its famous last three lines rather than whole poem of "Under Ben Bulben." Those last words also acquire a different inflection on their own: "Cast a cold eye / On life, on death / Horseman, pass by!" The horseman in question becomes partially identified with the visitor or poetic pilgrim reading these lines, and as a result the adjuration also acquires a subtly different reference. The horseman is no longer implicitly identified with supernatural beings, nor is he linked with the "hard-riding country gentlemen" (V, 8) mentioned in passing in the fifth section of the poem. The reader encountering the epitaph is cut off from such contexts, and is tempted to identify with the horseman, embracing a stoicism that can distance itself from all such mortal matters. The horseman, one could say, is set loose, and is saddled upon a more unruly nag than the stately marching Pegasus of the poet.

A good parallel to the resulting open-endedness of the epitaph's interpellation can be found in the epitaph of one of Yeats' contemporaries, Rainer Maria Rilke. It has long been well known that Yeats wrote "Under Ben Bulben" under the influence of Rilke, moved by a desire to escape the Austrian poet's supposedly quietist acceptance of mortality in his self-penned epitaph. But there has been little interest among Yeats scholars in the actual wording of Rilke's text. In many ways a more gnomic poem than Yeats' one, it nevertheless shares a certain sense of open-ended address:

Rose, oh reiner Widerspruch, Lust,
Niemandes Schlaf zu sein unter soviel

[Rose, o pure contradiction,
desire to be no one's sleep
under so many eyelids.](9)

The cryptic combination of the words "Niemandes" (meaning "no one's") and "soviel Lidern" (meaning "so many eyelids" - but also evocative of "Lieder" (songs) and the petals of a rose) has been at the centre of a large number of differing interpretations. The most relevant aspect in this context is the way in which it can be said to stage an allegory of reading. Both this poem and poetry in general (in Rilke's symbolist conception of it) can be said to direct itself towards an ideal reader, and this ideal reader is to be born as a form of absence (a "no one"), a virtual and ungraspable entity, through the dispersed perceptions (the many eyes) of its actual readers. In short, Rilke's epitaph not only dramatises the arbitrariness of its own reception-it actually embraces it.

In the case of Yeats' epitaph, matters are-despite the simpler tone of his text-less clear-cut. Suffice to say, that where "Under Ben Bulben" would seem to insist upon a mythological backdrop for its own reception, the epitaph has to fend its way without such a specification. The horseman's identity becomes open for various interpretations., although we do perhaps have recourse to at least one way of limiting the field somewhat. In a reading of the various drafts of this poem, Jon Stallworthy has noted the general importance of horses for Yeats' writings:

the horse for Yeats was a symbol of spirited and courageous nobility, and time and again in his poems he refers to the good horsemanship of those whom he admires-such as Robert Gregory, Con Markiewicz, and George Pollexfen.(10)

All of the figures mentioned by Stallworthy, and no doubt many more, can be said to lurk in the environs, or associative force field, of the poem. Yet the second of these three names is particularly relevant. For there is one other instance, in Yeats' poetry, of a human rider passing through the same area close to Sligo. It is the only other occasion where the poet uses the very same words: "Under Ben Bulben." This occurs in the poem titled "On a Political Prisoner," published in 1920, which is one of a handful of poems by Yeats that celebrates the memory of Countess Markiewicz, born Constance Gore-Booth. Markiewicz was a member of the Protestant Ascendancy of Sligo but would later become a revolutionary icon, fighting against the very class in which she grew up. Yeats' vision of her riding by the mountain is a nostalgic one, evoking an early promise and poise that he contrasts to her later revolutionary stridency: "When long ago I saw her ride / Under Ben Bulben to the meet, / The beauty of her country-side / With all youth's lonely wildness stirred" (13-16).

The presence of this young rider under Ben Bulben is no accident. Like her sister, the radical mystic Eva Gore-Booth, Countess Markiewicz grew up in the Protestant Big House called Lissadell, only a few miles away from the mountain and even closer to Drumcliff churchyard. As Yeats' poem "In Memory of Eva Gore-Booth and Con Markiewicz" makes clear, Markiewicz is understood by the poet to be a treasonous figure. Whereas Lady Gregory's Coole Park was threatened by an outside enemy-the new Catholic rule of Ireland-Markiewicz was an internal threat. She challenged the values of her family home in Lissadell by denying her own birthright and the values of her Protestant Ascendancy family. It is perhaps suggestive to note that while Yeats chose to link his own survival with the paternal Ben Bulben, the countess opted to link her own legacy with a more maternal mountain. She gave her daughter the name Maeve, in a gesture of homage and with respect to the mythical queen Maeve. Queen Maeve's legendary grave is on Knocknarea-the mountain facing Sligo from the south-western side rather than the north of Ben Bulben.(11)

It is said that Countess Markiewicz used to quote poetry when she climbed Knocknarea-more specifically, the line "Does the road wind up-hill all the way?" from Christina Rossetti's poem "Up-Hill." In Yeats' poetry, Markiewicz will always be riding "Under Ben Bulben," rather than struggling up-hill at Knocknarea. Nevertheless her commemoration in his poetry has something vulnerable and depleted about it. For scholars have claimed that Markiewicz is in fact only a poetical substitute or stand-in for Yeats' true love, the famous Irish revolutionary Maud Gonne. As was the case with Markiewicz, Yeats saw Gonne as a beautiful woman who had lost her grace due to a fanatical nationalist fervour. The poet also once indeed told a friend that he wrote poems about Markiewicz in order to work out arguments he had had with Gonne.(12)

Thus the memory of Countess Markiewicz has been placed under erasure. This has perhaps been done a little too hastily. With regard to Yeats' actual poetry, it is significant that he himself first raises the theme of covert expressions of his love for Maud Gonne in a poem called "The Old Age of Queen Maeve." "O unquiet heart," the speaker of the poem asks himself, "Why do you praise another praising her, / As if there were no tale but your own tale / Worth knitting to a measure of sweet sound?" Yet Yeats was a notorious myth-maker with regard to his own biography, and there is no more reason to fully endorse the unifying simplifications inherent in his amatory constructions than there is to accept Dante's similar argument in Vita Nuova. Where the Italian poet would explain away every relation that did not involve Beatrice, Yeats does something similar with regard to his beloved Maud Gonne. Both simplify the complexities of their own love life, surrendering all ambivalence and diversity to a fairly straightforward tale of thwarted (yet idealised and inspiring) desire.

Colm Tóibín has described the use Yeats' friend, Lady Gregory, made of Irish myths as an "invention" of an "uncomplicated tradition."(13) Certainly Yeats' own literary investment in myth often betrays a similar tendency. Yet close attention to the details of his texts and their context quickly reveals more ambivalent and multifaceted structures. As I've already pointed out, Queen Maeve is a mythical figure intrinsically linked with Yeats' own Sligo background-specifically with her legendary burial site on Knocknarea. So in writing "The Old Age of Queen Maeve" Yeats is drawing-as a semi-covert screen of his love for Maud Gonne-upon a mythical backdrop linked with even earlier memories of the mountainous landscape of Sligo. In his Memoirs, Yeats recollected that "all through my boyhood" Countess Markiewicz had been a significant part of that landscape. She "had been romantic to me [...]. I heard now and then [of] some tom-boyish feat or of her reckless riding, but the general impression was always that she was respected and admired."(14)

This reckless rider will always be linked to the mountain called Ben Bulben. We may wish to forget or ignore her, and leave the Yeatsian symbols of Ben Bulben and Maud Gonne in restful peace. Yet an attentive, truly remembering reading cannot do so. Constance Markiewicz remains a disturbing presence on the margins of Yeats' poetical universe-being no legendary figure of love, like Maude Gonne, nor quite fitting in with the sanitised self-presentation of the poet's self-canonising monument. Instead she points towards unresolved complexities of both an erotic and a political nature. While Yeats meant to embrace Ben Bulben in a symbolic force field signifying an elevated and unified conception of the Irish nation, the mountain is thus also a reminder of the divisions and differences of Irish culture. Mountains can bring peoples together, giving them a common iconic point of focus and coign of vantage, but they are also-despite acts of idealisation and sublimation-sites where memories of contention and division remain inscribed.

© Charles I. Armstrong (University of Bergen, Norway)


(1) Robert McFarlane, Mountains of the Mind: A History of a Fascination. London: Granta, 2003.

(2) William Butler Yeats, A Vision. London: Papermac, 1981, 7. On page 54 of the same book, in a different context, Yeats states that "I recall what Plato said of memory."

(3) William Butler Yeats, Mythologies. London: Macmillan, 1989 (1959), 89.

(4) Ibid., 90.

(5) Ibid., 70.

(6) Brenda Maddox, George's Ghosts: A New Life of W. B. Yeats. London: Picador, 1999, 364.

(7) William Butler Yeats, Essays and Introductions. London: Macmillan, 1961, 455.

(8) William Butler Yeats, The Autobiography of William Butler Yeats. Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1958, 131.

(9) For interpretations of the original, see Joachim Wolff's Rilke's Grabschrift. Heidelberg: Lothar Stiem Verlag, 1983. The translation is taken from the following edition: R. M. Rilke, Selected Poems. Translated by A. E. Fleming, New York: Methuen, 1986, 225.

(10) Jon Stallworthy, Vision and Revision in Yeats' 'Last Poems'. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1969, 162.

(11) Anne Marecco, The Rebel Countess: The Life and Times of Countess Markiewicz. London: Phoenix Press, 2000 (1967), 75.

(12) On this pronouncement, and for a typical critical acceptance of it, see R. F. Foster, W. B. Yeats: A Life. II: The Arch-Poet, 1915-1939. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003, 138-139.

(13) Colm Tóibín, Lady Gregory's Toothbrush. London: Picador, 2003 (2002), 38 and 73.

(14) William Butler Yeats, Memoirs: Autobiography - First Draft, Journal. Edited by Denis Donoghue, New York: Macmillan, 1972, 78.

5.10. Mountain and Cultural Aesthetic

Sektionsgruppen | Section Groups | Groupes de sections

TRANS       Inhalt | Table of Contents | Contenu  15 Nr.

For quotation purposes:
Charles I. Armstrong (University of Bergen, Norway): "Under Ben Bulben". The Mountain of Myth over Yeats' Dead Body. In: TRANS. Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften. No. 15/2003. WWW:

Webmeister: Peter R. Horn     last change: 4.5.2004     INST