Swear by what the sages spoke Round the Mareotic Lake That the Witch of Atlas knew, Spoke and set the cocks a-crow.
Swear by those horsemen, by those women Complexion and form prove superhuman, That pale, long-visaged company That air in immortality Completeness of their passions won; Now they ride the wintry dawn Where Ben Bulben sets the scene.
Here's the gist of what they mean.
Many times man lives and dies Between his two eternities, That of race and that of soul, And ancient Ireland knew it all. Whether man die in his bed Or the rifle knocks him dead, A brief parting from those dear Is the worst man has to fear. Though grave-diggers' toil is long, Sharp their spades, their muscles strong. They but thrust their buried men Back in the human mind again.
You that Mitchel's prayer have heard, 'Send war in our time, O Lord!' Know that when all words are said And a man is fighting mad, Something drops from eyes long blind, He completes his partial mind, For an instant stands at ease, Laughs aloud, his heart at peace. Even the wisest man grows tense With some sort of violence Before he can accomplish fate, Know his work or choose his mate.
Poet and sculptor, do the work, Nor let the modish painter shirk What his great forefathers did. Bring the soul of man to God, Make him fill the cradles right.
Measurement began our might: Forms a stark Egyptian thought, Forms that gentler phidias wrought. Michael Angelo left a proof On the Sistine Chapel roof, Where but half-awakened Adam Can disturb globe-trotting Madam Till her bowels are in heat, proof that there's a purpose set Before the secret working mind: Profane perfection of mankind.
Quattrocento put in paint On backgrounds for a God or Saint Gardens where a soul's at ease; Where everything that meets the eye, Flowers and grass and cloudless sky, Resemble forms that are or seem When sleepers wake and yet still dream. And when it's vanished still declare, With only bed and bedstead there, That heavens had opened. Gyres run on; When that greater dream had gone Calvert and Wilson, Blake and Claude, Prepared a rest for the people of God, Palmer's phrase, but after that Confusion fell upon our thought.
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.
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!