Horseman, Pass By

One of the nicest things about teaching: returning to texts and authors I haven’t read for years. This week, some of my students have been studying Yeats.

Reading ‘Under Ben Bulben‘, I was newly struck by the way Yeats curates his own epitaph.

Yeats' gravestone
Yeats’s gravestone, engraved with the last three lines of ‘Under Ben Bulben’

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!

Nowadays I prick up my ears when someone mentions epitaphs. I’ve written about this before, in relation to Stevie Smith: how an epitaph only has full meaning when it is in situ, and how the only possible response to an engraved epitaph is to pass it by. As indeed we are told to, in ‘Under Ben Bulben’. Horseman, pass by.

Secret alt-text confession: whenever I read 'Under Ben Bulben' I am reminded irresistibly of Leigh Hunt's 'Abou Ben Adhem', a much less respectable poem of the sort we had to study in my postcolonial childhood. 'And lo! Ben Adhem's name led all the rest.'
Ben Bulben in Ireland.

Jon Stallworthy has a nice essay on drafts of this poem. An early version positions the last three lines as a separate text:

Horse man
Draw rein; draw breath.
Cast a cold eye
On life, on death.
Horse man pass by.

I like ‘Draw rein; draw breath’, which Yeats dropped from the final draft. To draw rein suggests pausing one’s horse, of course. Drawing breath, meanwhile, implies a sharp intake, perhaps in surprise or distress. It seems at odds with the idea of ‘casting a cold eye’ – or, in some other drafts, an indifferent eye – on the grave which has made you pause. A gasping horseman is having an emotional reaction to what he sees, not viewing it in cold detachment.

But one also draws breath to hold it. Drawing breath can be an act of restraint: when mothers in labour are instructed to ‘breathe through the pain’ to help them bear it, for instance. Or when one breathes sharply inwards to hold back a cruel word. I am reminded, very importantly, of Stevie Smith’s poem ‘Never Again‘: a masterpiece of protest rendered as self-discipline.

When I read these lines, I think of the horseman ‘drawing breath’ to enable him to ‘cast a cold eye’ on the grave. It is an act of stiffening: a donning of stoicism. The pausing of the horse, and the drawing of breath, are a performance of self-control. They create a gap which allows an agonising moment to pass – and then the horseman can pass by too, safe from a threatening grief. If you were watching, you wouldn’t have noticed anything but the cold, indifferent eye.

Dropping it from the final version strips the poem of this important small moment. We lose the drama involved in an act of ‘passing by’ – the shock, the restraint, the stiffening, followed immediately by the shoring-up of an unmoved exterior.

Instead, the section becomes entirely indifferent. Death loses all inflection. We pass by without even noticing that we are doing so.

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