Cast a cold Eye On Life, on Death but Be Sure to KEEP an Eye on it!
70 years ago today, Irish poet William Butler Yeats died on the Côte d’Azur. To mark this anniversary, I was going to note his life and works but I found an interesting tidbit surrounding his death.
Apparently, Yeats had very conscientiously planned his epitaph and location of his grave site but in his last days he reportedly told his wife, “If I die, bury me up there [on the cliff-side cemetery of Roquebrune] and then in a year’s time when the newspapers have forgotten me, dig me up and plant me in Sligo.”
If you do the math, you’ll note that 70 years ago was 1939 and by autumn, World War II broke out. Moving a body to a new grave wasn’t really possible and it took 10 years before Yeats remains we exhumed.
Before the coffin left France, a local lawyer paying tribute to the poet jokingly said that Yeats had decided to spend his last days in Roquebrune to preview “heaven on earth”. But rumour had it that Yeats “residence” was a permanent one.
So begins the snowball…
In 1988 a book came out that claimed that the grave near Ben Bulben, County Sligo most likely contained not Yeats remains but that of one or more Frenchmen since Yeats had accidentally ended up in a pauper’s grave in Roquebrune.
Not to be outdone, along comes a rumour that the Sligo grave was the final resting place of Englishman, Alfred Hollis who coincidentally died in Roquebrune and was buried next to Yeats and whose remains had somehow disappeared. This rumour was purportedly backed up at the exhumation when the certifying doctor identified a corset among the remains – a corset Mr. Hollis was known to wear.
By this time, the Yeats family had had enough and through a letter to The Irish Times, stated their certainly that these rumours were false and unfounded. They confirmed the body had been moved from the original grave and that the remains had been carefully identified – the poet’s abnormally large bone structure and a truss worn due to a hernia helped with this.
I’m sure the Yeats family hoped that this would be the final word on the matter but the rumours apparently do still persist and pop up to this day — like here, I guess!
See W.B. Yeats’ 1939 obituary from The New York Times.
Death by W.B. Yeats
Nor dread nor hope attend
A dying animal;
A man awaits his end
Dreading and hoping all;
Many times he died,
Many times rose again.
A great man in his pride
Confronting murderous men
Casts derision upon
Supersession of breath;
He knows death to the bone —
Man has created death.