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!

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