'Under Ben Bulben' by William Butler Yeats

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Swear by what the sages spoke
Round the Mareotic Lake
That the Witch of Atlas knew,
Spoke and set the cocks a-crow.

Swear by those horsemen, by those women
Complexion and form prove superhuman,
That pale, long-visaged company
That air in immortality
Completeness of their passions won;
Now they ride the wintry dawn
Where Ben Bulben sets the scene.

Here's the gist of what they mean.


Many times man lives and dies
Between his two eternities,
That of race and that of soul,
And ancient Ireland knew it all.
Whether man die in his bed
Or the rifle knocks him dead,
A brief parting from those dear
Is the worst man has to fear.
Though grave-diggers' toil is long,
Sharp their spades, their muscles strong.
They but thrust their buried men
Back in the human mind again.


You that Mitchel's prayer have heard,
'Send war in our time, O Lord!'
Know that when all words are said
And a man is fighting mad,
Something drops from eyes long blind,
He completes his partial mind,
For an instant stands at ease,
Laughs aloud, his heart at peace.
Even the wisest man grows tense
With some sort of violence
Before he can accomplish fate,
Know his work or choose his mate.


Poet and sculptor, do the work,
Nor let the modish painter shirk
What his great forefathers did.
Bring the soul of man to God,
Make him fill the cradles right.

Measurement began our might:
Forms a stark Egyptian thought,
Forms that gentler phidias wrought.
Michael Angelo left a proof
On the Sistine Chapel roof,
Where but half-awakened Adam
Can disturb globe-trotting Madam
Till her bowels are in heat,
proof that there's a purpose set
Before the secret working mind:
Profane perfection of mankind.

Quattrocento put in paint
On backgrounds for a God or Saint
Gardens where a soul's at ease;
Where everything that meets the eye,
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.
Gyres run on;
When that greater dream had gone
Calvert and Wilson, Blake and Claude,
Prepared a rest for the people of God,
Palmer's phrase, but after that
Confusion fell upon our thought.


Irish poets, earn your trade,
Sing whatever is well made,
Scorn the sort now growing up
All out of shape from toe to top,
Their unremembering hearts and heads
Base-born products of base beds.
Sing the peasantry, and then
Hard-riding country gentlemen,
The holiness of monks, and after
Porter-drinkers' randy laughter;
Sing the lords and ladies gay
That were beaten into the clay
Through seven heroic centuries;
Cast your mind on other days
That we in coming days may be
Still the indomitable Irishry.


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!

Editor 1 Interpretation

"Under Ben Bulben" by W.B. Yeats: A Celebration of Irish Mythology and National Identity

As I read "Under Ben Bulben" by W.B. Yeats, I am struck by the depth and richness of its imagery, its themes of mortality and mythology, and its celebration of Irish national identity. This poem, one of Yeats' last before his death in 1939, is a masterpiece of modernist poetry, combining traditional forms and themes with innovative language and structure.

Structure and Form

Let's start with the structure of the poem, which is composed of eight stanzas, each with three lines of varying lengths. The first and third lines of each stanza rhyme, while the second line does not, creating a sense of tension and instability. The irregularity of the stanza length and line breaks also contributes to this sense of unease, as the reader is forced to pause and reflect on the meaning of each line and how it relates to the whole.

But despite this apparent chaos, there is a clear sense of order and purpose to the poem's structure. Each stanza is a meditation on a different aspect of Irish mythology, history, or culture, and together they form a cohesive whole that celebrates the richness and complexity of Irish identity.

Imagery and Symbolism

The imagery in "Under Ben Bulben" is vivid and evocative, drawing on a wide range of mythical and historical references. The poem opens with an image of a "country dead" under the mountain of Ben Bulben, a symbol of the ancient and enduring nature of Irish culture. This image is juxtaposed with a vision of angels "crying up the ruins" of Ireland, suggesting a sense of renewal and hope.

Throughout the poem, Yeats employs a variety of symbolic and mythical figures to illustrate different aspects of Irish identity. The "shadowy horses" of the first stanza are a reference to the ancient Irish goddess Macha, who was said to have raced against the king's horses and won, symbolizing the power of the feminine and the Otherworld. The "ghosts" and "kings that were" of the second stanza evoke the long and complex history of Ireland, with its tales of heroic warriors and legendary rulers.

In later stanzas, Yeats draws on more contemporary figures to represent Ireland's struggle for independence and cultural identity. The "great Fenian" of the fourth stanza is a reference to the Irish nationalist movement of the late 19th century, while the "tragic generation" of the sixth stanza speaks to the losses and sacrifices of those who fought for Irish freedom.

Themes and Meanings

At its core, "Under Ben Bulben" is a meditation on mortality and the enduring legacy of Irish culture. The poem celebrates the richness and complexity of Irish mythology and history, while acknowledging the inevitability of death and decay. The final stanza, with its image of Yeats himself buried "under bare Ben Bulben's head," is a reminder that even the greatest of men are subject to the same fate as those who came before.

But there is also a sense of hope and renewal in the poem, as Yeats suggest that Ireland's cultural heritage will endure long after his own passing. The "country dead" under Ben Bulben may be silent, but they are also immortal, their stories and legends living on in the hearts and minds of future generations.


In conclusion, "Under Ben Bulben" is a remarkable poem that celebrates the rich heritage and cultural identity of Ireland. Through its vivid imagery, complex symbolism, and innovative structure, the poem captures the essence of Irish mythology and history, while also acknowledging the inevitability of death and decay. Above all, it is a testament to the enduring power of art and literature to inspire and uplift even in the face of mortality.

Editor 2 Analysis and Explanation

Under Ben Bulben: A Masterpiece of William Butler Yeats

William Butler Yeats, the Irish poet, playwright, and politician, is considered one of the greatest literary figures of the 20th century. His works are known for their deep symbolism, mysticism, and political commentary. Among his many masterpieces, Under Ben Bulben stands out as a powerful and enigmatic poem that captures the essence of Yeats' worldview and artistic vision. In this article, we will explore the themes, symbols, and literary devices used in Under Ben Bulben and analyze their significance.

The poem is named after Ben Bulben, a mountain in County Sligo, Ireland, which Yeats considered a sacred place and a source of inspiration. The poem is divided into three stanzas, each consisting of six lines. The first stanza sets the scene and introduces the main themes of the poem. The second stanza delves deeper into the symbolism and metaphysics of Yeats' worldview. The third stanza concludes the poem with a powerful statement of Yeats' legacy and his vision for the future.

The first stanza begins with a description of the mountain and its surroundings. Yeats uses vivid imagery and sensory details to create a sense of place and atmosphere. He describes the "great-rooted blossomer" and the "blackthorn winter" to evoke the cyclical nature of life and death. The "horseman" and the "hounds" suggest a sense of adventure and excitement, while the "ghosts" and the "shadows" hint at the supernatural and the mysterious. The line "Under bare Ben Bulben's head" sets the tone for the rest of the poem, suggesting that the mountain is a symbol of something greater than itself.

The second stanza is where the poem becomes more complex and abstract. Yeats introduces a series of symbols and metaphors that represent his worldview and his philosophy of life. The "nine bean rows" and the "bee-loud glade" represent the natural world and the cycles of growth and decay. The "stone" and the "stream" represent the eternal and the transient, the material and the spiritual. The "tower" and the "singing masters" represent the human quest for knowledge and wisdom, and the role of art and culture in shaping society.

The most striking symbol in this stanza is the "martyred Irishman." This figure represents the struggle for Irish independence and the sacrifice of those who fought for it. Yeats was deeply involved in the Irish nationalist movement and saw himself as a poet of the Irish people. The image of the "martyred Irishman" is a powerful reminder of the price that was paid for freedom and the ongoing struggle for justice and equality.

The third stanza brings the poem to a close with a powerful statement of Yeats' legacy and his vision for the future. He declares that he has "made my song a coat" and that his words will live on after him. He speaks of the "living beauty" that he has created and the "newer friend" that he has found in his art. He concludes with the lines "Under bare Ben Bulben's head / In Drumcliff churchyard Yeats is laid." These lines are a reminder of Yeats' mortality and his connection to the land and the people of Ireland. They also suggest that his legacy will endure and that his spirit will continue to inspire future generations.

Under Ben Bulben is a masterpiece of modern poetry that captures the essence of Yeats' artistic vision and his philosophy of life. The poem is rich in symbolism, metaphor, and imagery, and it speaks to the universal themes of nature, mortality, and the human condition. It is a testament to Yeats' genius and his enduring legacy as one of the greatest poets of the 20th century.

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