- Yeats and Zen and a Horseman Passing By:A Buddhist Source for Yeats’s Epitaph
The eleven words “Cast a cold Eye /On Life, on Death. / Horseman, pass by” are famously inscribed on W. B. Yeats’s tombstone. Pulsing fitfully along their three short lines, these words have come to be regarded in the popular imagination as among his most memorable and moving achievements.1 Readers with even a scant knowledge of his great body of work will immediately recognize the text and have the magnificent closing line by heart. Many more will associate the text with his tombstone in Drumcliff Churchyard, and with “Under Ben Bulben,” his valediction to “the indomitable Irishry.”2 He completed the poem on September 4, 1938, a brief six months before his death in Roquebrune-Cap-Martin.
Yeats had first revealed the lines that were to become his epitaph some three weeks earlier, on August 15.3 He claimed that his composition was spontaneous.4 Supposedly, it formed a cathartic riposte engendered by the rage he felt on reading an essay on the poet Rilke, which had caused him to feel “repelled by the brooding on death and the importance given to it.”5 One week later, he expressed [End Page 125] his desire to have the cryptic commands inscribed on his tombstone, and went on to use the epitaph to conclude “Under Ben Bulben.”6 Biographers and critics have offered a wide variety of interpretations of the epitaph. We know that Yeats greatly admired and would have wished to emulate what he deemed “the greatest epitaph in history,” that of Jonathan Swift.7 Moreover he had strong spiritual convictions on the divine and eternal nature of the self (otherwise the spirit or soul), which he outlined in A Vision (1937, though privately published in 1926), and he strove to impart these beliefs to his readers.
His epitaph has proved enigmatic and obscure, but the conclusion of some commentators that Yeats has provided us with a hieratic soliloquy excluding the greater portion of his readership fails to reflect adequately what we understand of his beliefs and ambitions in the late 1930s. It seems more reasonable to infer that he intended the lines to provide a moral lesson or injunction of direct relevance and consequence to posterity. Such a reading is also more consistent with the powerfully didactic elements throughout “Under Ben Bulben.” Yeats, of course, was as a rule reluctant to explain his meaning, stating on one occasion that “If an author interprets a poem of his own, he limits its suggestibility.”8 We cannot know for certain what inspired these haunting lines. But we can draw inferences from a close scrutiny of what he was reading and writing in the years leading up to the time of the epitaph’s composition.
The opening two lines appear to advocate a degree of asceticism or non-attachment in how we should live our lives, and an attitude of disdain or even defiance in confronting our own deaths. This inference provokes little contention across the commentaries, and is consistent with ideas expressed in many of Yeats’s own poems and essays. The words would seem to address a general audience, whether readers of “Under Ben Bulben” or visitors to the graveside.
The Horseman however, presents a difficulty. Attempts to identify the figure’s antecedents generally reference Yeats’s iconography, in which both horses and horsemen occupy a significant station. Most critics associate the image with any one of a number of figures: Yeats’s Anglo-Irish kin and ancestors; the faery riders of the Sidhe (who for Yeats included the living spirits of ancient Irish gods and heroes); horses and riders from either Gaelic folklore or from classical mythology; the Apocalyptic Horseman inaugurating a new polytheistic era of [End Page 126] heroic life; and the poet continuing on his personal quest, in control of his soul’s destiny.9
And how are we to interpret the command “pass by”? Some critics detect in the dismissive gesture an echo of the elitist (even misanthropic) tone of Yeats’s own description of his ideal audience “of a few cultivated people who understand the literary and...