There’s something about my recent trip to Ireland which has haunted me, namely the importance of marking one’s ancestors as part of one’s heritage, something about the continuity of time that I found reflected in the gravesite of William Butler Yeats. I had never been much of a grave site enthusiast, had never really made a point of visiting the graves of famous authors or personages, and I sometimes find some’s morbid fascination with the dead to be a bit bizarre, but in this case, I felt like I was visiting my literary heritage and literary legacy. I cannot possibly hope to accomplish as much with prose as Yeats did with poetry, but I nevertheless struggle on to leave my own little mark in the world.
Rosie and I arrived in Sligo coincidentally on Yeats birthday, June 13th, and the whole town was up to its nipples in Guinness in celebration of the big day. The sky was azure blue and nearly cloudless, yet his statue in town wore an impertinent rain slicker and held aloft an umbrella, I suppose as a way of recognizing that the weather in Ireland fairly often fails to cooperate.
We met a true Irish lass, Kerry Cunningham, who oversaw the Yeats museum and who took us on a tour before inviting us to go out back to the patio courtyard for refreshments. A more perfect day there has never been. After listening to youthful Irish bands sing out their plaintive tunes, we headed to Drumcliffe Church, the proper burial site for W.B. Yeats.
His tombstone is emblazoned with one of his most famous poems”
“Cast a cold eye
On life, on death
Horseman, pass by”
To me, the gravestone wasn’t the most remarkable thing about Yeats, though it was certainly memorable. To me, what stood out was the lifelong passion Yeats maintained for the Irish Nationalist Revolutionary Maud Gonne. He proposed to her four times before her marriage to someone else, and proposed yet once again, a final time, after her divorce. She must certainly have been one of the most independent-minded women of all time to turn down the man who had immortalized her in his poetry, but she lives on as an example of yearning and passion and unrequited love (though there are many rumors that Maud Gonne and Yeats did finally, one time, consummate their relationship).
To me, it serves as an example that we don’t always know what in life is best for us, and is a study in missed opportunities. Yeats, near the end of his life, married a woman named Georgie Hyde-Lees, and it is Georgie who rests at the foot of his grave, with a small marker of her own.
Yeats died at age 74, but he couldn’t have had a fuller life if he had lived to 100, and I myself was grateful to come away with a greater appreciation of the man beyond the legend.