Monday, March 13, 2006

Under Ben Bulben

William Butler Yeats has always been one of my favorite poets. One of his last poems was "Under Ben Bulben," a poem meant as his own elegy. Its tone and form is quite different from some of his other works, especially the gripping "Easter 1916," which described the Easter Rising, when Irish nationalists sought to pull off the yoke of the British, with disastrous results. In "Under Ben Bulben," Yeats, arguably the greatest Irish poet, offers the following advice:

V
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.

VI
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!

I've always believed that Yeats was on to something important here - while he faced death, his gaze was straight ahead. He understood that the challenges for those he left behind would still be there, long after he took his final resting place in Drumcliff churchyard. Yeats would be amazed at the modern Ireland, now at the vanguard of Europe, prosperous and cosmopolitan. Ireland has progressed further in the past seven decades than it had in the "seven heroic centuries" that Yeats recounts.

Kirby Puckett's death last week has brought on a lot of singing of praises for the heroic decade he spent as the center of the Twins. But it was fitting and proper that one of the Puckett Scholars played a prominent role in the memorial service held yesterday at the Metrodome. The Puckett Scholars program provides scholarship monies to minority students attending the University of Minnesota. Programs of this sort are forward thinking, looking straight ahead at the future.

Yeats's command is that we understand the resonance of the past, while keeping our gaze fixed toward the future. While we should enjoy the romance of a wonderful, thrilling baseball career, still fresh in so many minds, we need to cast a cold eye on both life and death. While Kirby's life will forever be part of local legends, his enduring legacy will stem from the performance of the Puckett Scholars. The future awaits - Horseman, pass by!

1 comment:

Execu-bot said...

Baseball and Yeats. That is some fine blogging indeed.