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).