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Poetry made prose at Drumcliff.

By Michael Smith.

Sligo County Council and the National Roads Authority have ruined Yeats’ grave.
Irish poets, learn 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!

The most famous epitaph for a great literary Irishman is the last lines of Under Ben Bulben, for William Butler Yeats. In that poem, Yeats advocates “whatever is well made”, and disdains “the sort now growing up/All out of shape from toe to top”, while he imagines a future passer by, sometime in eternity, casting “a cold eye/On life, on death” near the poet’s imagined tomb in Drumcliff Cemetery. The poetry is tumultuously poignant; the importance of the place in time afforded Drumcliff momentous. It lends to Drumcliff churchyard universal and all-time significance.

So we can assume the Cemetery and the grave have been treated with reverence, not to say imagination?

The cemetery in 2010 is the child of Sligo County Council and the NRA. The half acre nearest the great man’s grave is now a tarmac car-park. It ends within a metre of the grave itself. You could put your foot on the grave and leave the other one rooted in the car-park. A hundred metres away, the new Sligo-Bundoran road channels the juggernauts of the North West on their noisy way. A constant drone of disharmony. The plaque commemorating Yeats at the entrance to the graveyard is sponsored by the National Roads Authority. Even the limestone is cut somewhat crassly and the capitalisation of “Life, Death and Eye just wrong. If ever a man is spinning in his grave (pern in gyre) it is the beloved bard Yeats, reinterred in 1948 nine years after burial in the far more favoured hilltop Roquebrune church yard in France where he died; now circumvolving within spitting distance of the tour buses and not a horseman in sight. Yeats Country beaten down.

Inside the still-pleasant church beside the graveyard is a visitors’ book for comments on the Drumcliff experience. The gushing almost drowns out the traffic: “a peaceful place”, “an oasis in a world gone mad”, “I could feel the presence of the great poet” and so on. It is not, it is not and you cannot. Ne’er a fool like a pre-disposed tourist.

I attended one of the, admittedly charming, Leonard Cohen weekend concerts In Lissadell over the summer. Cohen is allegedly a poet, the lyrics to his gravel-plated songs demanding, according to the comfortable demi-intellectuals who comprise his Irish audiences, reflection. I found his performances a little stage-urbane. Twice during his set that Saturday he introduced his band, stopping to praise each member in turn but somewhat disappointingly using precisely the same adjective for each member on both occasions. The “inspirational Bob Metzger”. The “irrepressible” Neil Larsen. Or whatever. The attractive, backing Webb Sisters he described as “sublime”. Twice.

During his concert Cohen made clear his veneration of Yeats and quoted from his work. According to the Irish Times, “earlier on Saturday he had visited Drumcliff churchyard and paid his respects at the grave of Yeats, a poet whose work he had first read, as Cohen told his audience, ‘at home in Montreal, about 50 years ago’. He smiled his wry, rueful smile. In the visitors’ book at Drumcliff church he wrote ‘Leonard Cohen, Montreal’, and next to it a simple comment. “Sublime”. How unpoetic.

2010

(photo: James Eccles, courtesy Benedict Schlepper-Connolly)