Monday, April 6, 2020

What did Yeats mean by "Horseman, pass by"?

In one of the most popular articles on my blog I speculated about the meaning of the epitaph on W B Yeats tombstone:
“Cast a cold Eye
On Life, on Death
Horseman, pass by”.

The article was posted in October 2013 and has attracted many comments since then.
A few hours ago, Beth Prescott sent me a comment by email, which I am reproducing below, with her permission.

However, before reading Beth’s comment, it would be helpful for you to read an anonymous comment that she refers to:
“In ancient China, there is a phrase said "Human life is just like a white horse pass by a tiny crevice, it's only a blink of time." This phrase comes from the philosopher Zhuangzi's book, "Zhuangzi: Knowledge travel to the North". And the story in the book is that, when Confucius asking Laozi what is "Zhi Dao(至道,the basic reason of everything)", and Laozi answered with this phrase, and told Confucius that either life or death is inevitable and common in life, it is just a change of matter, there's no need to happy or mourn. But "Dao" is the only eternity through a man's spirit. If Yeats did take this story in his mind, then perhaps he agreed Laozi by writing these lines.
This is just my thought, and sorry for my grammar mistakes, I'm not an English speaker.”  

I think the ancient saying referred to by my correspondent can be sourced to Chuangtse. I found something very similar in The Wisdom of Laotse, and have reproduced it above.

Beth Prescott writes: 
"Horseman, pass by”
I've been hearing this phrase in my head for several days - entirely without knowing where it came from or whom it came from. So, of course, I Googled it and quickly came upon your blog post about it from several years ago. I don't know Yeats well. I've always been intrigued and curious, but life has so far never permitted a long perusal of him and his life.

In fact, I am so distracted by current events I couldn't even make myself read the entire poem. Usually I can settle to a task better than this, but not now.

I did read through all the comments to your blog and was arrested by the anonymous comment from, presumably, a Chinese person. His (or her) use of English was very familiar to me, since I have worked with and for Chinese American researchers here at the University of Oregon.

It was the image he evoked of a white horse striding past a crevice in a rock and that that tiny crevice was the whole of a human life, even perhaps, the whole of human history. It reminded me of something an older brother told me 60+ years ago: ‘maybe the entire universe and all of its seeming eternity of time is really nothing more than the air in somebody's tire, and someday the tire may have a flat’. I think my brother added in that last bit.

This image has stuck with me all of my life: that we are necessarily constrained by our worldview and cannot easily - or at all - look outside of it. The idea that even our vast universe is really part of something else, something unknowable, something much vaster and more sweeping, something with a different purpose, possibly utterly different.

That what we think is important is, yes, important to us and we must live our lives as if these things are important. They are important. To us. Workmen must continue to work. Cradles must continue to be filled.

But we should also live our lives with the understanding that there is ‘something else going on’ and that the forces that gave rise to us and to our universe are probably beyond our understanding. Our entire universe, our entire history of life is perhaps no more than the instant in time it takes for a white horse to stride past a small crack in a wall.

If Yeats absorbed the philosophies of other cultures and times, as it appears that he did, then I think in this poem he was striving to arrive at a different perspective, a different view of himself, of his own place in the grand scheme of things, of his entire life.

I think he is saying in those final lines, that he realizes that all of the Sturm und Drang of his own life is in reality nothing more than a sliver of an insignificant moment in some much larger scheme. I think he is affirming that teaching of Lao Tze. That when he says ‘Horseman, pass by’ I think he is affirming - in a very positive way - this view of life.  He is even content with it. A quite remarkable final thing to say to the world."

Thanks Beth!


Lisa O said...

Thank you for maintaining this blog, so we can read all the comments on the epitaph posted over the years. There is also an excellent related comment, by an Irish poet on Quora, that speaks in detail to the context of the entire poem. I recommend it.
I did a Yeats pilgrimage a year ago, feeling a great but exciting urgency. I thought the urgency came because of increasing problems with my eyesight (I’m 72), and kept thinking, “if I don’t go now, maybe I’ll never get to go.” Now I wonder if I was feeling something in the collective unconscious.
I have given up trying to understand the epitaph. I just let it resonate. I cried at the stone, unexpectedly, but I think that was more because the whole place was overrun by disrespectful German tourists. (I was lucky enough to find myself alone at the lakeshore by Innisfree, but there was no wind, so i heard no lapping.) Never mind that the bones there probably aren’t his: his are more likely scattered in an ossuary in Menton, where he died. And maybe i cried because I was thinking about the Circus Animals—the poem he actually wrote last (or next to last). That poem breaks my heart.
Yeats was a difficult and complicated person, and he loved words, so it may be that the epitaph is more about beauty than about meaning (that’s how I comfort myself regarding his last poem). Or it could be a truly esoteric reference: Yeats never gave up his love of magic. Maybe we aren’t supposed to understand it.
His instructions to Georgie, regarding his burial, were to wait a year, and not “plant” his body in Sligo until he’d been forgotten. So maybe he was talking to all of us who pass by: Forget about me! Maybe he would believe that his bones never made it back to Sligo because we won’t forget.
Nevertheless, I find myself coming back, over and over, to his use of the word “cast.” In another poem, he wrote, “When such as I cast out remorse/ So great a sweetness flows into the breast...” In that poem, I believe he was referring to casting a Purification Spell, in the tradition of the Golden Dawn. I wonder who was meant to cast a spell for a cold eye—something he himself was unable to maintain for very long.
Or maybe that epitaph wasn’t written for those who love him, but for all the tourists. (Pass by! Please!) Maybe this was the epitaph meant for us:
My fiftieth year had come and gone,
I sat, a solitary man,
In a crowded London shop,
An open book and empty cup
On the marble table-top.
While on the shop and street I gazed
My body of a sudden blazed;
And twenty minutes more or less
It seemed, so great my happiness,
That I was blessed and could bless.

So I am casting a spell now, for all of us: that we may, once again, sit safely in crowded shops, and be able to bless. So mote it be.

Winton Bates said...

Thanks Lisa.

Anonymous said...

With great respect for the previous commentators, I believe it is important to take the perspective that Yeats did not borrow from the ancient and venerable Oriental idea of "a white horse passing behind a crevice", connoting but a blink of an eye, but that he derived his view of existence from within his own existence, as have I and so many others, irrespective of philosophies in the distant past.
"To cast" is like "to broadcast", in so far as it means to spread your experience or your view over all the ground that you have covered. In effect, "Cast a cold eye over life, over death, Horseman, Pass by", tells of nothing beyond that blink of an eye in "time" that compasses our singular lives.
The horseman is not grounded on earth, but is instead removed from it by virtue of his riding above the earth, namely, from a height of the saddle, distant from the world, and therefore cold, unemotional, and abstract. And from this abstract view, the horseman has no choice but to be detached.
Yeats' epitaph, therefore, is a statement that he can know nothing about the universal or spiritual meaning of that flash of life which he experienced from birth to death; rather, his meaning is more akin to Browning in Paracelsus, who said that he expects that his existence will ultimately be forgotten by everyone and even God. Indeed, if one takes a perspective of a time after the human race ceases to exist, no sentient being will ever know of the existence of the human race, which will have passed into oblivion...
So it could be posited, as I posit, that from that cold eye, we never existed.
I submit that the ultimate meaning of Yeats is that the miracle of existence is not in the past or in the future, but rather it is in the process of "becoming" at the present time, and that is all we can say. Nothing else.

JohnA said...

Hmmm.. I wonder.... given Yeats' fascination with the spirals of time I have always been drawn to Revelations: "And i looked and beheld a pale horse...