Thursday, 28 January 2021

The Death of Yeats

 On this day in 1939, William Butler Yeats – who, for all that can be said against him, was surely one of the great poets of the 20th century – died in a room in the modest Hotel Idéal Séjour at Menton. He had come there, with his wife 'George', in the hope that the mild weather would help his failing health, but that winter (his second in the South of France) was exceptionally severe. As he drifted towards death, helped by generous doses of morphine, he was nursed, turn and turn about, by his wife and his last mistress, Edith Shackleton Heald. His son Michael was also in attendance, and others of his adoring 'parish of rich women' were near at hand. 
   'If I die,' he told George, 'bury me up there [indicating the churchyard at Roquebrune]. And then, in a year's time when the newspapers have forgotten me, dig me up and plant me in Sligo.' This plan, however, was blown off course by the coming of war, and it was not until 1948 that the poet's body was disinterred and shipped to Ireland. The exhumation was not straightforward, as the bodies in Yeats's part of the churchyard had already been dug up and reburied in a mass grave. There was some dispute over whether the body was correctly identified,  as Yeats – who, unglamorously, wore a surgical truss – was buried in the same churchyard and at much the same time as an Englishman who wore a medical corset, which might quite easily have been mistaken for a truss.  Either way, Yeats (or the remains taken to be him) was at last buried where he wished to be, 'Under bare Ben Bulben's head, In Drumcliff churchyard' in County Sligo. 
   The death of Yeats on that cold winter day in 1939 inspired Auden to write one of his finest poems, 'In Memory of W.B. Yeats' .

In the last section of the poem, Auden writes in iambic tetrameter, a meter that lends itself naturally to light verse and can easily decline into doggerel – and he elevates it into something sublime. This section could stand alone as one of the greatest English-language elegies.
  Iambic tetrameter was Swift's preferred meter, and Yeats adopted it for his translation of the Dean's Latin epitaph (in St Patrick's cathedral in Dublin) –

'Swift has sailed into his rest;
Savage indignation there
Cannot lacerate his Breast.
Imitate him if you dare,
World-Besotted Traveller; he
Served human liberty.'

and Auden surely had that epitaph in mind when he wrote 'Earth, received an honoured guest'. 

Yeats's own epitaph, on his headstone in Drumcliff churchyard, is justly famous:

'Cast a cold Eye
On Life, on Death.
Horseman, pass by.'

1 comment:

  1. There is also the story claiming that the Irish sailors sent to Menton were generously entertained on arrival, and next morning were so hung over that they lost the coffin overboard; the story goes on to claim that a substitute coffin was found and rocks etc. added to make weight.