Ben Bulben

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, learn 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.


These lines from Yeats’ final poem, “Under Ben Bulben“, remind me of the scene in Homer’s “Odyssey” where Odysseus returns to find the young men camped out in his house attempting to woo Penelope. These young men regard themselves as entitled heirs of Odysseus’s estate, strong and fit to take over from the old man. Disguised as a beggar, Odysseus challenges them to draw Odysseus’s bow, with Penelope agreeing to marry the man who can shoot an arrow accurately from Odysseus’s bow.

These young men, full of strength and pride, soon find that they are unfit to even draw the bow. Odysseus finally draws the bow, shoots the arrow accurately, and then the old man proceeds to slaughter all of the prideful young pretenders.

Yeats himself experienced something vaguely reminiscent of this when he was forced to evict a young and proud Aliester Crowley from the Golden Dawn. And in this poem, Yeats’ praise of Blake is right on. Who today is fit to draw the bow of William Blake, or even Yeats? Every generation has plenty of Antinouses and Eurymachuses, but ever fewer true giants.

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