We think of a person in extremis as being in a dire state of physical dissolution, all faculties expiring, on the threshold of imminent death, ready for a priest's sacramental anointing, or a similar rite of sad departure. For W. B. Yeats, however, being in extremis was not a bodily state of expiration but a joyous state of mind that he nourished for the last thirty-five years of his life, all in preparation for a single ecstatic moment when his final union with death occurred—a union that required a tremendous store of energy. After serious premonitions occurred during the autumn of 1937, he actively began to stage the approaching personal drama in his poetry and plays, summoning his chosen death-companions—the mythological Cuchulain and his band of fierce horsemen, the heroic Pearse and his Cuchulain cult of 1916–and creating out of dreams and ghostly shades a phantasmagoria through which he could dramatize his death-vision, one worthy of a poet's life, worthy of being received into an ancestral night by his oath-bound companions. “Begin the preparation for your death,” he had written in “Vacillation” in 1931, meditating on the self-command that he had exercised since the time of his fortieth year in 1905.
And from the fortieth winter by that thought
Test every work of intellect or faith,
And everything that your own hands have wrought,
And call those works extravagance of breath
That are not suited for such men as come
Proud, open-eyed and laughing to the tomb. (VP 500–01)
And so on Yeats's directive I return to the period when he first began to think about being in extremis and placing his life's work in judgment before “such men,” working my way back to the weeks and days before his death in the Hôtel Idéal Séjour in southern France and his final interment in Drumcliff churchyard.
In the early poems through In the Seven Woods (1903), there is very little thematic interest in death; the visionary poet in search of eternal beauty is preoccupied in the temporal world mainly with “man's fate” under “the boughs of love and hate,” with the pity and sorrow of unrequited love, with mutability and the transfiguring touch of time (VP 101).
To save this book to your Kindle, first ensure email@example.com is added to your Approved Personal Document E-mail List under your Personal Document Settings on the Manage Your Content and Devices page of your Amazon account. Then enter the ‘name’ part of your Kindle email address below. Find out more about saving to your Kindle.
Note you can select to save to either the @free.kindle.com or @kindle.com variations. ‘@free.kindle.com’ emails are free but can only be saved to your device when it is connected to wi-fi. ‘@kindle.com’ emails can be delivered even when you are not connected to wi-fi, but note that service fees apply.
Find out more about the Kindle Personal Document Service.
To save content items to your account, please confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you use this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your account. Find out more about saving content to Dropbox.
To save content items to your account, please confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you use this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your account. Find out more about saving content to Google Drive.