William Butler Yeats (1865-1939) was one of Ireland’s best known and best-loved poets. One of the great advantages to living here in the mid-west of Ireland is that on the 255 mile, 6 hour-long trips back home to Donegal, the county of my childhood, I have to pass through Drumcliffe, in County Sligo. Drumcliffe is the burial place of W.B .Yeats, and a mandatory coffee stop here down the years has now become a family tradition and marks our ‘arrival’ in the north-west.
Yeats was born in Dublin in 1865 but spent much of his childhood in Sligo. He loved the old celtic stories of Ireland and even though born into a Protestant family of Anglo Irish origin he became something of nationalist,advocating the use of the Irish language. In 1899 he co-founded the Abbey Theatre in Dublin. His love for Maud Gonne, an English-born Irish revolutionary, is legendary, having proposed to her and been refused 5 times in all. In 1917, he married an English girl, half his age. Her name was Georgie Hyde-Lees, whom he called George. They had a good marriage in spite of the age difference. In 1922 he became a Senator serving two terms and in 1923 he became the first Irish winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature. He died in 1939 in Roquebrune-Cap-Martin, France . In 1948, his remains were brought home to Ireland by the Irish Naval Service and re-interred in Drumcliffe.
Yeats was a prolific writer, and has left us short stories,essays, collections of folk tales and myths as well as poetry. In the carpark at Drumcliffe there is a wonderful interpretation of the Yeats poem, and one of my favourites, ‘He wishes for the Cloths of Heaven’
Had I the heavens’ embroidered cloths,
Enwrought with golden and silver light,
The blue and the dim and the dark cloths
Of night and light and the half-light,
I would spread the cloths under your feet:
But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.
Yeats grave is very simple and is located near the door of the church, where his grandfather was once rector
Yeats had clearly expressed his wish to be buried here and dictated the inscription on his headstone in the last stanza of his poem ‘Under Bare Ben Bulben’s Head’:
Under bare Ben Bulben’s head
In Drumcliff churchyard Yeats is laid.
An ancestor was rector there
Long years ago, a church stands near,
By the road an ancient cross.
No marble, no conventional phrase;
On limestone quarried near the spot
By his command these words are cut:
Cast a cold eye
On life, on death.
Horseman, pass by!
Ben Bulben is a magnificent mountain that dominates the landscape in this area for miles around. The beautiful St Columba’s Church in Drumcliffe lies beneath it, as can be seen in this photo taken from his grave with Ben Bulbin in the background.
Among my personal favourites are those poems inspired by the great beauty of the countryside such as The Wild Swans at Coole ( which is in Co. Galway)
The trees are in their autumn beauty,
The woodland paths are dry,
Under the October twilight the water
Mirrors a still sky;
Upon the brimming water among the stones
Are nine-and-fifty Swans.
The nineteenth autumn has come upon me
Since I first made my count;
I saw, before I had well finished,
All suddenly mount
And scatter wheeling in great broken rings
Upon their clamorous wings.
I have looked upon those brilliant creatures,
And now my heart is sore.
All’s changed since I, hearing at twilight,
The first time on this shore,
The bell-beat of their wings above my head,
Trod with a lighter tread.
Unwearied still, lover by lover,
They paddle in the cold
Companionable streams or climb the air;
Their hearts have not grown old;
Passion or conquest, wander where they will,
Attend upon them still.
But now they drift on the still water,
Among what rushes will they build,
By what lake’s edge or pool
Delight men’s eyes when I awake some day
To find they have flown away?
Yeats love of swans is reflected in the beautiful door of the church
Swans on the doors of the church – I pulled them closed for a moment just to get a picture! I know that somewhere I have more details on these doors, but cannot find it at the moment.
Drumcliffe is a lovely place – great coffee shop, a wonderful high cross and remains of an ancient round tower. If you drop by here, I can guarantee that it will instil at the very least a curiosity about our most wonderful poet.
W.B. Yeats – a magnificent part of our Heritage!
Running to Paradise Poems by W.B Yeats An Introductory selection by Kevin Crossley-Holland